Back in the times when spanking was considered a regular part of life, rather than a niche type of sexual activity, it still raised some tricky issues. We can start to bring the matter into focus if we consider a pair of candid snapshots from between the wars, both apparently taken on the same day out. Here’s a girl:
And here she is being spanked by her boyfriend:
The physical act of spanking is all about one specific part of a girl’s anatomy, and it often, quite routinely, involves making some adjustment of clothing to bring the spanking hand into more immediate contact with that area – the result of which is the exposure of garments that are not ordinarily shown to the world at large. In a nutshell, spanking may have been considered normal, but it was also inherently, unavoidably indecorous.
Obviously that’s no problem when it’s happening behind the closed doors of the woodshed, nor in the kind of pictures that, we may fairly assume, record a playful personal relationship and were destined for inclusion in a private photo album, coming to public view only generations later when the original context and participants have been long forgotten. But depicting spanking in the public media, for a general audience, raised delicate issues.
Here’s an illustration from a 1929 newspaper account of the career of the English actress Lillian Manton, entitled ‘From Papa’s Spanking to Movie Star – in 6 Jumps’. This particular step of the way shows how much her father disapproved of her theatrical ambitions and what he did in an effort to discourage them:
According to the caption, he is administering ‘a rebuke to daughter Lillian in the old-fashioned way and on the customary part of her anatomy’. The circumlocution is to the point, because it does in words what the illustrator, Lee Connell, is likewise doing visually: it’s a direct depiction of the spanking that avoids a correspondingly direct depiction of its object, Miss Manton’s bottom. What’s more, close scrutiny of the picture makes it obvious that her skirt has been raised and she is being spanked on her unmentionables. Connell has composed the picture in such a way that preserves the normality of the event but eliminates its indecorum: it’s a picture that lets the paper have its cake and eat it.
I hope I’m not merely imagining something enjoyable when I suspect that, in the middle decades of the last century, it was much more commonplace for a real-life spanking to be administered to the seat of a girl’s panties than you might infer from the way spankings are presented in the media of the time. Panties have always been the most sexualized of garments, and therefore the most taboo, so depicting a raised-skirt spanking would necessarily have moved an image into the risqué end of the field, no matter what was happening to bad girls in woodsheds across America. So the real issue for most illustrators, from the Twenties to the Sixties, was how to represent ‘the customary part of the anatomy’.
Let’s try to define the range of possibilities. Here are two spanking illustrations done seven years apart, both from comics broadly in the adventure genre. From March 1953, the unconventional Korean War sergeant Combat Casey has Torchy Finnegan foisted on his patrol, and eventually loses patience with her, resulting in the following reprisals:
On the plus side, this is a vigorous depiction by artist Robert Sale, with Casey’s oversized right forearm and the jagged impact waves showing how hard a spanking it is, and the kicked-off shoe adding its own particular touch of chaos to the scene. But has there ever been a less shapely bottom in the history of human figure-drawing?
For an instructive contrast, we turn to a long-running strip that featured a lot of spankings over the years, Zack Mosley’s Smilin’ Jack; we’ll see some more of them later on. In the September 1960 story we’re looking at now, an aviator has been charged to look after a rich girl named Sulky, and finds himself stranded with her on the wrong side of the South American jungle and only a small plane that will more likely crash than fly them to safety. She wants to take the risk, and the dialog takes a predictable turn: ‘You’ve always done as you pleased, you spoiled brat!’ he tells her. ‘You oughta be spanked!’ To which she gives what naughty girls never seem to realize is the worst possible reply: ‘You wouldn’t dare!’ And so:
That’s the color Sunday strip, and for the benefit of those who may have missed it, Mosley then offers a simplified and slightly less stylized variant of that fine, climactic panel in the next monochrome daily episode:
And the emphasis on the customary part of Sulky’s anatomy continues into the Tuesday episode:
All of which is not only more visually pleasing but more anatomically accurate than the boxy bottom Robert Sale bestowed on Torchy Finnegan seven years before.
Now let’s reinforce the contrast in approaches with a look at two spanking panels from 1950s romance comics: Western Life Romances from March 1950, and below it, My Own Romance from September 1952:
You may have noticed that they are actually two versions of the very same script (written by comics legend Stan Lee and entitled ‘I Met My Master’ in 1950 and ‘A Man for Amy’ in 1952), in which a spitfire of a ranch owner has an argument with a passing cowboy and winds up in the predicament illustrated (and then marries the guy). But what very different approaches to spanking illustration! In 1950, her leather chaps subtly call attention to the vulnerable part they don’t cover, her shapely though underemphasized rear end; whereas in 1952, it’s effectively a sack of potatoes in blue jeans.
Of course, the 1952 artist didn’t have to choose that particular angle. Some others opt to avoid making too much of the target area by depicting the spanking from the other end on, such as in Popular Teen-Agers from January 1952:
For a more extreme example of what we might call ‘compositional reticence’, let’s take a look at a 1958 issue of the Wyatt Earp Western comic book, a spin-off from the 1955-61 Hugh O’Brian television series. Earp’s antagonist is Miss Bonnie West, a local magnate’s selfish daughter with a mania for illegally firing guns in Dodge City. She ends up in court and Earp declares that ‘she needs a hand – applied to the right spot’. The judge takes the hint and sentences her to be spanked by her father – who is more than willing to comply.
But the spanking panel itself is remarkable in its refusal to make anything of the event which is the story’s natural climax:
We are shown just enough to establish what is happening, and nothing more: it might almost be an off-page spanking.
Another option is to ‘cheat’ the positioning so that the girl isn’t flat across the man’s knee, but turned slightly to face the viewer. Here’s an example from a 1940 episode of Smilin’ Jack (with modern colorization), in which another spoiled rich girl, Joy Beaverduck, pays the penalty for reckless flying:
(The outcome is that Joy’s father is told and Jack, far from being fired as everyone expects, is put in complete charge of all Joy’s flying – which leads to several more narrow escapes for Joy, but not another actual spanking.)
This compositional approach is more common than you might expect, bearing in mind that it defies the ordinary laws of physics:
Its advantage, in terms of the problem we are considering, is that it turns the target area into a simple graceful curve, with no need to give it any more precise anatomical definition: the most sensitive element of the act of spanking, which also happens to be the most sensitive part of the girl, becomes just a delicate hint.
Another frequent option involves making inventive use of one standard feature of comic book stylization. The most comprehensive example comes from Modern Love in October 1949, in which yet another spoiled rich girl, this time named Toy Bassett, is speeding through town and nearly knocks down a pedestrian, who understandably remonstrates, ‘Crazy dame! You ought to be turned over and spanked!’ And when she insists the accident was his fault and threatens to have him arrested, he retorts, ‘wealthy, spoiled brat! You’re going to get what’s coming to you!’ Which is, of course:
A spanking so sound that the signs of impact completely obscure the customary part that’s receiving the impact! Again, this is a common and familiar approach:
What these artists really want to happen is what Sue Storm is able to do in this panel from a 1965 issue of The Fantastic Four:
(And even that wasn’t enough for Marvel Comics, for the word ‘SPANK’ has been famously censored from the panel and ‘CATCH’ inexpertly written in its place.)
All of these are just clever ways of trying to make the elephant in the room disappear. But the awkward truth is that spanking a girl is always, inevitably, about her bottom, and not everyone felt obliged to pussy-foot around that. Even some romance comics, aimed at a young female readership, were content not only to put their heroines in an undignified position, but to show it from the most undignified of angles:
And that raises a question that will be the focus of the second part of this article.