Soon after comics found mainstream American success during World War II, when the country took solace in starred and striped superheroes and thinly veiled political manifestos, the Comics Code Authority was formed. The organization allowed comic book publishers to regulate their content in an alternative to government control, and what is commonly called "the Comics Code" took a clear line: "Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable." The mere mention of homosexuality in mainstream American comics was forbidden by the code until 1989.
Such restrictions lead to the birth of the underground and alternative comix movement — comics published by independent presses or, quite often, by artists xeroxing, stapling, and distributing their work themselves. Thus began an underground revolution, wherein artists could create and share work that represented lifestyles truer to their own. What started as a small-scale movement gained such momentum that larger publishers began taking notice, and many underground artists later gained critical success in mainstream comics publishing.
From awkward adolescent encounters to positive portrayals of LGBTQ relationships, these 17 contemporary sex scenes in graphic novels continue in the bold underground tradition that started more than 60 years ago.
"Writing and drawing sex scenes in my early autobiographical comics was easier — it was about depicting the mundane awkwardness of everyday intimacy in relationships. ... Now that I have kids it's a bit trickier, because I don't want them to be too scarred if they read my adult books someday." —Jeffrey Brown
"Sex is beautiful, but sex ain't cute. Depicting it in comics is a balancing act; we want to engage and arouse the reader, we don't want to merely exploit our characters. The world we created in Concrete Park is hot and rough, and in that spirit, we celebrate our characters' youth and sexuality (even if they're ghosts). It's part of the job of making them human." —Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander
"Comics — since the days of underground comics — are oozing with sex. That was part of the illicit fun of underground comics, was that they could be as filthy as they wanted to be ... When I portrayed my own sexual experiences as a waitress in Oakland in the late '70s, I wanted to get across the point that, even though the '70s was still a very sexist time, the raging sexual revolution demanded that we all storm the Bastille of our own 'hang-ups' and get out there and fight the good fight." —Mimi Pond
"I prefer to draw the subtle gestures surrounding sex rather than explicit acts — when we see a finger in the mouth, a hand tangled in hair, or the lover's naked back as he looks out the window after sex, the rest can be imagined between the panels." —Danica Novgordoff
"Mainstream porn can be dehumanizing and alienating for a lot of women. I've always tried to do the opposite of that. I want characters who feel real, who have desires outside of just desiring sex. It's sexier when you know who someone is! I want to show that sex can be explicit and fun and a natural part of any story." —Jess Fink
"If I drew a scene where my character was having enjoyable sex I would want the scene to appear 'sexy' because that was how my character felt in the moment. Of course because the books take place in high school, most of the sex scenes are more about anxiety and awkwardness and hopefulness, so that's what they aim to express." —Ariel Schrag
"I like romance and comedies, but rarely get any media where the women are a tenth as awesome as the ones I know in real life. And if the characters are OK, nobody ever bones. So I write what I want to see." —M.K. Reed
"When representing sex, in writing and especially in visual media, it's much sexier to leave much to the imagination. The only explicit aspect of my drawings is the honest, realistic representation of the lovers' human bodies. I'm most interested in the emotions of sex, and in the relationships." —Anya Ulinich
"If a reader finds [my work] titillating, I'm not gonna scold them, but arousal isn't usually my goal either. I'm generally trying to convey humanness and relatability." —Erika Moen
"Like a lot of women, I'm a rape survivor, and for the first decade of my sex-having life, that colored a lot of my experiences. It took me such a long time to reclaim my body, and I feel like I'm constantly in the process. Most days, I still inhabit the stories I tell myself about how fat I am, and broken, and ugly. But what is art for, if not to chronicle our processes?" —Sophie Lucido Johnson
Kristen Radtke's first book, a graphic memoir, is forthcoming from Pantheon Books. Find her on Twitter @kristenradtke.