The Story of O (NBM/Eurotica)

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Heavy Metal artist Guido Crepax adapts the classic tale of sadism that nearly ripped apart 1950s France in this recently reissued classic of 1970s erotica.

 

176 pgs. B&W; $24.95 hardcover
(W: Pauline Reage; A: Guido Crepax)
 
It’s hard to forget the time one of my college professors passed around a book of bondage photography by Robert Mapplethorpe. In a small class of about a dozen, we passed the book from student to student across the desks, each of us trying not to blanch as we examined photos of various bound penises and asses impaled on inanimate objects.
 
The professor was trying to illustrate something of the overlap of pleasure and pain, a concept we’d been asked to explore through the fiction of Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki. I was mystified by the graduate-level literature class, and completely clueless as to what my classmates and I were intended to feel about the bound penises.
 
A couple decades later, I (mostly) get what writers like the Marquis de Sade and Pauline Reage, the nom de plume attached to The Story of O, were driving at. Everyone likes a little submission and a bit of dominance, somewhere on the pain and pleasure continuum, in the course of, um, things.
 
The Story of O, with its dream-like narrative of sexual slavery, threesomes, kink, bisexuality, bestiality, etc., caused a sensation when published in France in the ‘50s. But what has made the book a significant chapter in erotic history is that it was written by a woman – a woman who put the female rape fantasy front and center. It was a lightning rod that made women burn the book a full 25 years after publication during the “second wave” of feminism and, later, to do a 180 and embrace it for its brutal erotic honesty. In 2004, the French government, which had banned the book upon publication, included it in a list of “national triumphs.” To coin a phrase, “you’ve come a long way, sex slave.”
 
Guido Crepax was one of those beloved Euro-perverts who made Heavy Metal magazine so much fun in its heyday. While Milo Manara’s nudes were feather-light sylphs and Paolo Serpieri’s were wide-hipped bombshells, Crepax’s nubiles were elongated, feminine, somewhat distorted women, with soft, half-lidded, rapturous eyes, and strangely enough, the hairstyles of 1920’s flappers. Crepax took up the black flag of bondage and illustrated works by de Sade, and in 1975, an unsparing, 176-page graphic version of The Story of O.
 
The tale famously begins with a woman being whisked away to a castle where a masked cult of sadistic men forces a group of servant women, including the newbie, to submit to their various penetrations and whippings. The action gets more perverse as it goes, with blindfolds, enemas, bestiality, chaining the gals to the walls, spectacularly tight corsets, big ol’ butt plugs, lesbian rubdowns, nipple rouge, sodomy, rape, orgy scenes, irrumation (look it up, it’s a great word), and the home edition of Family Feud. Just kidding about that last one. (Now, that would be sick.)
 
“O,” the gal in question, has a normal job and everything, as a fashion photographer, and an ostensibly normal life. She moves back and forth from the vanilla world to her secret life of sexual slavery in a series of dreamy transitions, enhanced by Crepax’s skills with art, panel choices, and pacing.
 
This is really the key to what makes the book dark and interesting – O submits to a series of humiliations, but she does so by choice. Is she really being raped, or engaging in “rape play”? The line is blurred, just as is the line between pleasure and pain, and the barrier between what we pretend is normal in the bedroom and the darker shades of carnal desire that we cannot control.
 
O offers up a helpless “I love you” at the close of many of her violent whippings and rapes – it’s indicative of her total surrender, and if she didn’t say it so often, it would be compelling. More interesting are the scenes in which men casually play chess, smoke, and read the newspaper while their comrades rape away in another part of the room. There’s a real sense of decadence and a kind of cold erotic power there. Also of note, the members of this little fuck club prey on one another along class lines – the master lords over the servants of the manor, in more ways than one.
 
As stylistically lovely as Crepax’s adaptation is, it suffers from the same thing the source material is said to suffer from – a tiresome attempt to make porn scene after porn scene somehow escalate into something grander. Oh, whipping? Seen that. Another close-up of a blowjob? Nice, but we’ve covered that territory three or four times already. The tale’s famous ending involves a wicked branding on the butt cheeks followed by a public shaming. O revels in it, showing her humiliation to the world like she’s just earned the rank of Eagle Scout. The graphic version left me wondering just how it played out in the original – the ending seemed a bit cursory to me. All that private humiliation suddenly made public should glow like an ass whipped to a deep, hot red. Instead it felt like 170 pages of more or less random degradation that ended randomly, too.
 
Crepax’s 35-year-old art is as powerful as ever. He’s a lover of the female form – O’s body is lissome, and her expression is often a sort of dead-eyed glaze that connotes her helpless seduction. His many silent panels are perfect for this kind of intensity, and his panel configurations are a revelation. You never know what size the panels are going to be, or how they’ll float on the page. He likes to give the reader a “keyhole” effect with, for instance, just a pair of lips in the panel, as a tease – his appreciation for voyeurism is just perfect. The women are slim-hipped and unshaven, and the men look like the desiccated subjects of Egon Schiele portraits. The slate-black binding of this 35th anniversary re-issue hardback is just right.
 
You can bet that each time a taboo is broken to predictable shock and outrage, a few years later it’s become quaint and often campy, even. The Story of O is a rehash of the Marquis de Sade’s prison boner journals, only related by a female author. It shocked the easily shocked in the ‘50s, and dripped down, culturally, into imitations like 9 ½ Weeks and Eyes Wide Shut in the modern era. A re-issue of a 35-year-old graphic novel based on a 55-year-old novel that takes place 90 years ago can’t help but be more cute than it is transgressive, after so much time has passed.
 
Still, the sadists and masochists are forever eager to remind the bedroom conservatives that pain is there, waiting to be acknowledged, and women are allowed to enjoy even the submission they have been schooled to abhor. Crepax’s ever-seductive art helps that pill slide down reluctant throats – or, I guess I should say, provides a fresh supply of lube for a butt plug that will always seem formidable in a hypocritical world. | Byron Kerman
 
Click here for a very not-safe-for-work preview of The Story of O, courtesy of NBM/Eurotica

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