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Shapes / Superman

Shapes / Superman

Author: Aaron Tilford

July 8, 2013

“I can get caught up in details and miss the big picture. A face without a body, a body without a face; a perfect body with an imperfect personality—the picture is never quite complete.”

As a kid, my drawings usually began with an eye or a pair of lips. The eye would lead into a nose, then the other eye—the lips into a pronounced philtrum, then up to the nostrils, the length of the nose. From there the eyes would bud out and blossom. They were over-sized and dreamy, with sculpted lids and long lashes. The lips formed a pout, the lower lip especially full, pinched down by an exaggerated middle lobe.

I usually stayed within the face, but sometimes my drawings had more follow-through. A strong brow would frame the eyes. Cheekbones appeared, a detailed ear, and earlobe, a sharp jaw, necklines dropped down to cradle an Adam’s apple, the jugular notch in place. I would rarely get farther down than the shoulders. Proceeding up I had trouble, too. A few curls of hair around the ears were an easy effect. But a full head of hair was a challenge, so my subjects would usually end up smooth and bald. Strange portraits of staid androgynes.

Who were they? I was producing quite a collection of them. It was as though I had been kidnapped by aliens and was subconsciously sketching these androgynous creatures from repressed memory. They looked a little like the de-wigged Helmut Berger on the VHS cover of Visconti’s The Damned. I used to pass by it in the video rental shop. I hadn’t seen the movie, and was years away from comprehending anything it may have been about, but the image resonated. The eyes seemed to follow me.

My father encouraged me to draw. He compared my style to Peter Max’s (a comparison that seemed cool at the time), introduced me to the amorphous figures in Salvador Dalí’s paintings, and the mathematical progressions and tricks of M.C. Escher’s work. He recognized my talent. If he ever caught me tracing he would chide me—it was sometimes a terrific temptation.

I began collecting comics. Maybe “collecting” isn’t the right word. I wasn’t concerned with their monetary value, and I wasn’t really following the story lines. Acquiring or amassing was more like it. They were usually salvaged from the discount boxes at the back of a local used bookstore—contemporary classics like Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, old obscure science fiction series, and random things like Battle of the Planets, Star Wars, and Tarzan.

Sometimes I would take notebook paper, lay it over one of the male figures, and trace his brawny physique. In some way I was educating myself in figure drawing, following my shaky beginnings. Or maybe that is how I would have rationalized it, had I been self-aware and defensive. Lurking between the ads for Sea-Monkeys and how-to-draw correspondence classes was the image of Charles Atlas, gatekeeper to a world of muscle-bound glory, making promises….

When accompanying my mother shopping I would sometimes wait for her in the magazine aisle. Lingering over the bodybuilding magazines my temperature rose and my heart pounded. (I would later associate these sensations with impending sex. At the time they were mysterious to me, but still somehow shameful.) When the coast was clear I would “casually” pick one up and flip through. At this time Muscle & Fitness was staple bound. It had a glossy color cover, the inside pages were black and white.

At some point I worked up the courage to buy or steal an issue, I can’t remember which. Or I got my mother to buy one for me…which sounds crazy, but is probably what happened. I remember she caught me once in a bookstore looking through some kind of bodybuilding book. I was ashamed. She was accusatory without really saying anything. She asked me why I was looking at it, and I replied, looking down: “I don’t know, I just like it.”

That one magazine became my “secret porn stash” before I even had my first orgasm. In private moments, I would take it out from its hiding place and look through the images of strongmen: their broad shoulders, bulging chests and arms, square jaws, and tousled hair—on the beach, in the weight room, posing on stage. That world bore no resemblance to mine. (These guys were probably somewhere out in California.) No one I knew looked anything like that. Well…no one real. They looked something like my comic book heroes.

My favorite shot was of a Pumping Iron-era Arnold Schwarzenegger standing on a beach in posing briefs, his arms raised about a quarter of the way up, flexing his huge biceps and pectorals. It was my physical ideal, and the image would send me into countless (if vague) sexual fantasies. I reached for my tracing paper….

The act of tracing became a specifically erotic experience. Slowly moving my pencil along the outline of the physique was, in my mind, like touching. It was also an act of creation. Like Frankenstein and his monster, I watched the figure come to life. There was a bit of embellishing, but not much. If this was a fantasy, why not aim for perfection? Or an exaggerated form of perfection, as the case may have been.

Toward the end of high school I made fast friends with John, a classmate of mine. We shared a past with comics, and a similar sense of humor. Our local comic store carried packs of trading cards by the register. Our comic collecting was not terribly serious—maybe it was just something to do since we weren’t watching basketball or getting laid. And our trading card collecting was casual at best. There were card series of superheroes and villains, of current science fiction movies, and some spotlighting the work of comic-related artists.

One day a series appeared dedicated to the work of the fantasy painter Boris Vallejo. Not being a sci-fi junkie, I was familiar with his oil paintings mostly from T-shirt iron-ons. Dragons and otherworldly beasts battling muscular warriors and curvaceous beauties—not really battling, more like posing-next-to—in scenarios somewhere between the distant past and the far-reaching future. Call it trash, call it kitsch—his rendering of tense, veiny flesh was remarkable. This is what porn should look like: glowing red (Alone, ’80; Enchantment, ’84) and on the verge of erupting—like intergalactic volcanoes. It was secret soft-core porn. We chuckled at the campy imagery, making jokes, while John may have been daydreaming on the sly about spacey beauties (Siren Song, ’79; First Love, ’81; Queen of the Amazons, ’86), and I looked longingly at Tattoo (’81), Torso (’82), the astrological studs (Capricorn, ’87; Aries, the Ram, ’87), and a flexing Hercules in Hercules and Cerberus (’88).

At some point my Muscle & Fitness magazine disappeared. (I probably threw it out in a temporary state of repentance.) The underwear section of the Sears catalog and tiny ads for Chippendales workout videos in Harriet Carter weren’t cutting it. International Male had been something of a revelation, but it was really too shameful to keep around. And Playgirl was unthinkable at this point. I needed something that turned me on, but that I wouldn’t have to hide. Something passable.

I found a book called The Art of George Quaintance—black and white reproductions of oil paintings by the Physique Pictorial featured artist. “I’m an artist. This is an art book. I should have art books. Besides, this will help me with my figure drawing.” Well, kind of.

A 50s sense of repression was informing my actions. I felt, if cornered, that could explain away my possession of the volume. And if that failed I could flip to page 50 (“Mom, Dad…look!”) that reproduced his painting Gilda, a rather forced female nude.

The vast majority of the pages reproduced paintings depicting barely-clothed to nude men in top physical condition, in a variety of “innocent” scenarios: horseback riding, deep-sea diving, bullfighting. There were cowboys in repose, sailors on shore leave, Romans at the baths—their nether regions carefully obscured by a shadow, a cowboy boot, or soap bubbles. Many of the images tend to now fall flat: stiff looking, stony figures in clumsy poses, all with that same broad, smiling gay face. But several manage to break through into something genuinely erotic (Noise in the Night, ’52; Sunrise, ’53). The suggestiveness and slow-burn mood of Night in the Desert (’51) still affects.



In college I began figure drawing in earnest and realized I wasn’t half bad. Around the same time I was having my first sexual experiences. They were pretty tame. And I was often so caught up in the emotions and psychology of the connections that the sexual pleasure I took became secondary. One of the classes required us to attend a weekly evening figure drawing session. There was a man who modeled occasionally who, clothed, appeared not unattractive but ordinary. Out of his clothes a slightly rugged, manly handsomeness was revealed. Drawing him on those evenings was a quietly sensual experience—looking so carefully at his body, my eyes mapping out lines, my hand rendering what I saw. The pencil marks were like caresses. Sometimes between poses he would put on a robe and walk around the room looking at our drawings. When he approached me and my drawing I would always feel exposed, as though my intimate experience was in danger of being found out.

Previously I had trouble drawing the rest of the body, after finishing the face—I would get bogged down, the lines would taper off. In my figure drawing classes I had the opposite experience: after focusing so intently on reproducing the body I would find myself paralyzed when it came to the face. I felt incapable of reproducing them. I ended up with stacks of rather realistic figure drawings—all missing faces. Modigliani had his blank eyes, but my figures had no expression whatsoever—having no face, only physical gesture.

I got a Taschen paperback dedicated to the art of Tom of Finland. The imagery was already very familiar to me, it being so pervasive. A throwback to a time that never really was. Sailors, men in suits, leather- and denim-clad manly men—square jaws, hairy and smooth, ridiculously muscled and hung (why make something merely big when you can make it huge?)—having carefree sex, in nature, locker rooms, bars, on motorcycles. It was a fantasy—no…the fantasy.

[“I work very hard to make sure that the men I draw having sex are proud men having happy sex.” – Tom of Finland]

Reproduced in one spread of the book was the entirety of his Kake comic, #10: Raunchy Truckers. For me, at that time, it delivered in a way superior to actual porn. It was the wish fulfillment of my comic book and muscle mag consumption as a kid, and all of that tracing and embellishing. Tom’s sophisticated drawings with their soft gradations reduced to simple black lines, the porno action broken up into frames, like a flip book. Imagining the transitions between frames was a powerful turn on—and there were no fast forward, rewind, or pause buttons to contend with.

I moved to New York and ended up at a party in Jersey City—there was a shagreen coffee table, and little silver bowls filled with joints around the apartment. Axel, a sexy stranger, took a drag, smiled, and offered one to me. I took the bait. He looked like a Tom of Finland character. We got a little high, talked, and exchanged numbers. Later in the week we had dinner, then went back to his place. He had actual Tom of Finland drawings on the wall. Not reproductions. He told me about a weekly drawing class he went to: guys would pose for the group, some were well known and not in need of the money. Maybe modeling was an outlet for their exhibitionist tendencies, or they were seeking immortality through art. Others were hustler types, in it for the cash. Regardless of who they were the routine was the same: they would pose in suggestive costumes, progressively strip, and eventually jerk off for the group…for art.

We dated for a while. It took me a few weeks to figure out he was the purest aesthete I had ever met. He said: “He was great in that movie,” talking about Ryan Phillippe in some film. And I thought to myself: “Wait a minute, Ryan Phillippe is not a good actor. What is he talking about?” Then the light went on: “Oh! He looked great in that movie….” This is not to say he was superficial; it was a perspective he came to honestly, and there was real depth and beauty in its purity. At first it seemed wrong. Then, slowly, I realized that I had been subscribing to it myself in some way all along. Axel looked like a Tom of Finland character but, except on occasion, he didn’t act like one. He was an artist, professional, cultivated. The shared appreciation of an aesthetic was our connecting point. And it was a significant one.

The idealized men from the fantasies of my youth began appearing in my life, in the flesh. Superheroes were attainable after all.

Guys have specific “things” they zero in on when cruising. For one friend of mine it’s body hair. A tuft of thick hair poking out the top of a guy’s shirt, or under the cuff of his sleeve, sends him reeling. He refers to this thick covering of hair he seeks as “pelt.” Some are attracted to youth, others to age. For many it’s dick size—their gaze forever assessing a guy’s package through his jeans, or clues to his endowment from other physical attributes: “He has big hands, so….” There are ass-chasers, who have much less guesswork to do. Then there are the romantics: “He has beautiful eyes. He’s so cute….” And, on the flipside: “He looks dirty. He looks sneaky. He looks mean…hot!”

I’m not exclusive, but to be honest, my default is: broad shoulders, big arms, an overdeveloped chest. I want a guy that’s built like Superman. Someone with a great shape.

It has been, at times, to my detriment. Like anything else, superheroes aren’t what you expect (or hope) them to be. The size of their biceps is usually comparable to the size of their insecurities.

I met a guy in a bar who looked like Fabio from the covers of those romance novels I would see in the supermarket as a kid. He moved like a lion, his flowing peasant shirt open in front revealing his massive man tits. I was defenseless. He was sweet, but did not end up as heroic as Fabio seemed in all those paintings. I later met a guy built like the Hulk, but with similar anger management issues, and not as strong on the inside as he looked on the outside. Every Superman has his kryptonite.

I can get caught up in details and miss the big picture. A face without a body, a body without a face; a perfect body with an imperfect personality—the picture is never quite complete.

Now my absent-minded doodles take the form of squares, circles, and other geometric shapes. Squares stack up like shaky boxes, forming an abstract expressionist grid. Squares border triangles border squares, point-to-point the lines connect and gradually a three-dimensional pattern unwinds. I see squares everywhere: in sidewalks and brick walls, rooms and doorways, windows form grids on the side of buildings reaching up to the sky. Circles gather in clusters like grapes, and I see them in pebbles, and bubbles in carbonated drinks. I find myself inexplicably moved, staring at the abstracted shapes in paintings by Stuart Davis, Ellsworth Kelly, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Sol LeWitt, Robert Motherwell, Gerhard Richter, Bridget Riley, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly. The shapes connect and morph and amount to something powerfully emotional. In the right mood, standing in a museum or a gallery in front one of these works, the feelings well up in me and I find myself fighting back a tear.

The perfect circle of an eye, or a nipple—the beauty can be too much for me to take.


A version of this essay originally appeared in Spunk [arts] Magazine #7
Video Still:  Superman via Fleischer & Famous
Aaron Tilford photo

About: Aaron Tilford

AARON TILFORD is a Los Angeles-based DJ, designer, writer, and publisher of the independent literary art journal Spunk(@spunkartandperspectives). He has curated shows in New York City at envoy enterprises, the Leslie-Lohman Project Space, The LGBT Center, and online for Visual AIDS. He is a 2017 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Fellow in Non-Fiction. IG: @aarontilford.creative

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