Because it focuses on a private and frequently eroticized part of a woman’s body, spanking has the potential to be quite a sexy spectacle. Last week we explored some of the ways in which illustrators for mainstream publications handled the delicate area of representing… well, the spanked woman’s delicate area, and we saw that many an artist found ways of toning down or muting the overt physical eroticism, some by using tricks of composition and visual genre to mask her bottom from direct view, and others by just drawing it in as unalluring a way as possible. But we also saw that this was only half the story.
One of the tricks we looked at was of using the comic strip visual shorthand for ‘explosive impact’ to cover the part that’s receiving the impact. Here, for example, is Lily Field in a 1943 Superman newspaper strip, jealously sowing discord between an American GI and his girl back home:
She tells Lois Lane that she’d ‘just love to meet’ Superman. She changes her mind about that when she does meet him:
And my point is that the clearly inked line defining the back of her skirt disappears into the ‘impact’ of the spanking, even though in some other respects this is an overtly if mildly erotic image, with her skirt riding up to show a few inches of bare thigh. It’s just that, like the ‘see-though’ effect of her negligee in the first picture, it doesn’t go all the way up.
But impact doesn’t always conceal. In a 1942 installment of the newspaper strip Doctor Bobbs, wealthy socialite Diana Royale schemes to ruin a play’s premiere, only to find that her even wealthier father has stepped in to counteract her mischief, and then to ensure that she pays the price:
But here, far from masking her bottom, the ‘impact explosion’ only serves to draw attention to it as a focal point. And what’s more, it’s drawn with anatomical precision as two distinct buttocks.
That’s another aspect which enhances the sensuality of a spanking scene, and so proves either a challenge or an opportunity, depending on the preferences and inhibitions of the artists and their editors. At one end of the scale, here’s a 1941 drawing by Australian newspaper illustrator F. Harry Campbell (1907-?), which adorned a syndicated Dorothy Dix advice column advocating wife-spanking:
It’s an excellent spanking picture, with the wife’s skirted bottom rendered pretty much as a single graceful curve. But look at how other illustrators from the mid-20th century introduce a little more physical detail in these examples ranging from 1937 to 1965:
Sometimes it’s explicitly well defined:
And because, ultimately, spanking is centered on the girl’s bottom, some illustrations go out of their way to emphasize it: no matter how loose her clothing, everything seems to tighten around her rear – the very opposite of what Lily Field’s negligee was doing in Superman.
And since there is the potential for this kind of physical display in a spanking scene, some illustrators seized the opportunity. Here’s a remarkable sequence from a 1960 story in the newspaper strip Mary Worth, featuring not just tight slacks but a check pattern that shows off the contours and must have been a real technical challenge for artist Ken Ernst (1918-85):
Then there’s Will Eisner’s famous splash page from a 1940 adventure for the Spirit:
Some illustrators put their spanked girls into shorts, to show off their legs as well as the target on top:
Some go further, and feature swimming costumes, both one-piece…
Roy Crane (1901-77), who drew tough guy Captain Easy for many years and often included spanking scenes, was under no misapprehension about where part of their appeal lay. Here’s a 1937 strip (with coloring from a 1938 reprint) in which Easy tries to tame swimsuited hellcat Helga:
The aftermath shows her nursing her freshly spanked bottom at the dead center of the frame:
And the panel was considered important enough for Crane to draw on a photographic source, not hitherto identified:
(It’s the dancer Maxine Jerome in a publicity shot for the 1936 movie King of Burlesque.)
But with anatomical precision, there sometimes comes editorial anxiety, something Crane encountered five years earlier in another encounter between Easy and a naughty girl in a swimsuit, this time Latina Lola Fedora:
That’s what Crane drew. But look at how the spanking panel appeared in many newspapers across America:
Someone has intervened, very subtly, to turn Lola’s bottom into the ‘single curve’ model we saw in the Harry Campbell illustration earlier.
And that’s why there was always an issue of how physically erotic an illustrator could be in depicting a spanking scene, and why some of them played safe with the kind of tricks we saw last time.
But, perhaps surprisingly, we haven’t yet defined the limit of how far you can go. And to begin to get there, we return to Will Eisner and the Spirit, to see a picture which is playing it simultaneously safe and unsafe:
This is the same story that featured the spanking splash page we saw earlier, albeit with different positioning, and once again Eisner’s depiction of Ellen Dolan’s bottom is uncompromisingly curvaceous. But what’s most interesting about the picture is the way the chosen angle, together with other aspects of the composition, invite a different way of reading, or rather misreading the scene.
We see mainly the top half of Ellen, together with a garment that has been folded back to expose her bottom for spanking. Of her legs, all we see are a stocking seam on her calf, a couple of encircling lines just beneath her bottom, and possibly another roughly at the mid-thigh stocking-top level. The splash page, with its four-square angle, tells us what’s actually going on here; but the panel in the story is drawn in such a way that it offers the optical illusion that it might be her skirt, rather than her jacket, that has been raised, and that she’s being spanked right on the shapely seat of her panties!
Now, obviously that’s not something you’d see in a family publication from the middle of the last century, is it? Throughout this article, I’ve not been talking about the kind of magazine that a man might prefer to read furtively, where raised-skirt spankings were commonplace, at least from the 1950s onwards:
On the contrary, I mean publications that he’d happily read in front of his mother or children – always assuming mom or the kids weren’t reading it themselves.
I don’t know whether mom would necessarily have wanted to read another of those 1940s news articles about a husband’s wife to spank his wife, but another Australian newspaper of 1941 offered this stylized illustration by an artist who signed herself ‘Joan’ and might possibly have been Joan Dent (1916-2002):
On her panties, and in a family paper too!
But stylization is key, right? It’s not a particularly sexy depiction, and so it’s able to acknowledge and represent the way a lot of spankings were actually being done in life – a bit like the unflatteringly drawn bottoms we saw in some comics last time. You’d never see a really sexy panties spanking in a mainstream family publication.
In the early months of the hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner, which ran from 1934 to 1977, there was a story in which the socialite Mimi Van Pett inveigles the dim-witted hick hero Abner Yokum into an engagement, but changes her mind after Abner’s mother tells her about the realities of life with the Yokum family, orders her to wash off her rouge (in case it scares the pigs) and finally spanks her for being disrespectful, in another of those illustrations where a loose dress is nevertheless drawn tight around the girl’s bottom:
By 1957, Li’l Abner had become an American institution and was the subject of a new Broadway musical. Life, the archetypal American general interest magazine, ran a feature on Abner’s life story and commissioned creator and artist Al Capp (1909-79) to illustrate it with selected incidents from the strip’s long history. One that he chose was Abner’s near-marriage and the way Mammy rescued him from it, reimagined with contemporary fashion and a new level of indignity for Mimi:
And with a willing artist and editor, that is how far you can go!
But let’s not forget: in the mainstream, a spanking scene is never merely a pleasing sexy spectacle. The girl’s bottom is always indispensable to the spanking, something without which it couldn’t happen, and that creates opportunities for voyeuristic pleasure; but that pleasure is itself incidental, a bonus rather than the core purpose of the scene. Or as one modern cartoonist expressed it, in retro style:
And that’s why the boundaries of tasteful exposure will always be a vexed and controversial issue for anyone mounting a spanking scene in the mainstream.