Lately I’ve been dipping into my collection of weird Italian comics (fumetti, for those in the know). Specifically, I’m reading Belzeba, a series from the 1970s. It’s set during the itme of the Spanish Inquisition, and sees Satan trying to get his revenge by impregnating a cow with his offspring. The spawn of Satan is born fully-formed as a shapely young woman who happens to have a knob, and proceeds to cause mayhem throughout medieval Spain in her mission to hunt down and kill the dirty old man Torquemada.
It’s utterly bonkers, but it’s also completely par for the course as far as 1970s erotic-horror fumetti is concerned. Defending these things on any sort of formalistic ground is a tall order: the plots are basically stock scenarios from Universal and Hammer films mashed in with hardcore porn, the cartoonish artwork is often weirdly discordant with the horrific subject matter (Belzeba, with its cutely Disneyish character designs, is a particularly good example) and as for any sense of taste or decency, well, look elsewhere.
And this is why I find them so fascinating. I’m a firm believer that both horror and cartoons (a category in which I’m including comics) need a space for the carnivalesque, where the only rule is misrule.
There’s a distinction between this and the practice of taboo-breaking for the sake of taboo-breaking. The latter tends to have a reactionary slant, as it’s intended specifically as a response to an aspect of society. For example, at one point the BBFC’s censorship list included portrayals of erect male members, and depictions of chainsaws being used as murder implements. So, along came underground horror films that made a point out of showing men getting their knobs hacked off with chainsaws. The trouble with this list-ticking approach is that it’s inherently limited: paradoxically enough, the result is still going to have been shaped by a censorship code.
Now, possibly something similar is happening in the erotic-horror fumetti, but not being familiar with censorship issues in 1970s Italy I can’t say for sure. These comics look to me more like the full carnivalesque: aside from the (admittedly somewhat limiting) premise of “let’s have a Gothic horror nymphomaniac”, all bets are off. Men and women, gay and straight, all get their turns as both predator and prey. In Belzeba, we even get the rare sight of an intersex protagonist. Admittedly, she’s a devil — but hey, aren’t we all, deep down?
I started a series of articles on the weird world of erotic-horror fumetti back in 2015, but alas, I had to curtail it because the contents were simply too steamy for me to find an appropriate host for. But I’m happy to say that I’ve sorted out that problem, and I’m looking forward to delving once more into this remarkable area of horror comic history…