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Pulp Porn

The long-awaited sequel to a sexy sci-fi comic.

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Tranceptor: Book Two: Iron Gauge, Part One Patrick Conlon and Michael Manning (Amerotica)

When we think of genre fiction, we tend to think of sci-fi, detective, horror, western, romance, and the like. Porn doesn't make the list—it's set off in a box by itself for special censure or, less often, praise. But why? Like other genre forms, porn is broadly popular, has its own predictable tropes, and appeals primarily (though not exclusively) to one gender. Porn isn't an absolute evil ruining our children, nor is it a liberating force releasing repressed sexuality—it's just another marketing niche.

This isn't meant as a sneer. On the contrary, once you stop thinking about porn as a moral outrage or anthropological curiosity and start thinking of it as just another pulp genre, it's easier to see its virtues and put its vices in context. Like other great genre narratives—Agatha Christie's novels, say, or John Carpenter's movies—good porn fulfills obvious expectations in surprising ways while veering vertiginously between extreme technical competence and grungy amateurism. But most important, porn, like pulp, doesn't care about good taste, so the best examples have an energy and imagination that are hard to find in more sedate forms.

There's nothing sedate about Patrick Conlon and Michael Manning's Tranceptor comic book series, the second, long-delayed volume of which was finally released last month, a full nine years after the first. Despite the hiatus, Tranceptor: Book Two: Iron Gauge, Part One picks up right where the original left off, following the adventures of the titular (in various ways) Tranceptors, a kind of priesthood of dominatrices who ride through a postapocalyptic landscape in chariots pulled by buxom leather-clad horse-girls and/or well-hung leather-clad horse-boys. Our heroine, called simply the Tranceptor, has inventively intimate encounters with her horse-girls (involving chains, water, lather, and various attachments), with another Tranceptor named Ravanna, and with Hyu, a cute subgroom at a way station who looks decidedly underage. Most spectacularly, the Tranceptor is raped by Ravanna's pal, a disgusting mutant lizard called Sslthsss. (She sustains no apparent physical or psychological damage—the Tranceptors are a tough bunch.)

This is all good, trashy, stylish fun: Conlon is a tattoo artist, and he and Manning have that testosterone swagger down cold. The first volume, Tranceptor: The Way Station, opens with a tour de force of faux noir: stark white light and sensual black shadows wash over piles of fetish gear and a voluptuously writhing sleeping female form complete with obligatory ass shots and nipple eruptions. The cynically exploitive surface flash is certainly part of the charm—but it isn't the only thing going on either.

Manning and Conlon's series is in many ways heir to the tradition in which porn (like all pulp) cross-pollinates with other genres. The sci-fi fertilization has been particularly intense. The magazine Heavy Metal is an obvious touchstone, but much of the avant-garde SF movement from the 70s on has involved explicit erotica. Writers like Samuel R. Delaney and John Varley lovingly fetishize gender transformation and interspecies intercourse. One paradigmatic example, Piers Anthony's "In the Barn," features an alternate universe where some human beings are deliberately brain-damaged and kept in barns to be bred and milked like cattle. Our dimension-hopping hero gets to offer stud services as the story boldly explores the realm where "controversial and brave" slides right into "surreptitious stroke material."

Tranceptor is much more comfortable with its pulp qualities than its highbrow predecessors. Delaney uses his forays into porn in a contradictory but hardly unique effort to cement his bona fides as an artiste. Anthony is a bit more confused—but it's clear that he's conflicted about being a pornographer. That's not all to the bad: the intense anxiety inherent in "In the Barn" contributes to its squicky charge. There's also something to be said for being on top of your shit, though: Conlon and Manning's perversion isn't so much fraught as enthusiastically delectable. Probably the best image in the book is a panel of Sslthsss, lying on a beam, head resting on his hands, watching his mistress below suck off one of her horse-boys. The lizard looks like a happy cat, thoroughly entertained. To complete the picture, he's got one of the station men, Raika, tied up and dangling from his tail, and his outsize scaly member is dripping cum on the poor guy's head.

In highbrow SF—or for that matter in Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's historical/porn/literary hybrid Lost Girls—such perversity often serves as a labored allegory of freedom, mutability, or desire. It's the pulpy goodness about which the highbrow wax literary; Moore, for example, laboriously leads his characters into a roomful of costumes to drive home the joys of role-playing. But in Tranceptor the perversion is amplified not by exegesis but by pulp tropes. The Tranceptors, for example, are treated like a typical mysterious sci-fi matriarchy reminiscent of the Bene Gesserit in Dune. So when Ravanna casually reaches into Raika's pants and pulls out his penis, it comes across as both funny and weirdly transgressive—especially since Sslthsss is holding his arms so he can't escape. Depicting the following hand job over two pages, Conlon and Manning use a range of hysterically intricate motion lines to show Ravanna's finger motions while she natters on, the typical scheming villainess. The sequence's last panel, looking down at Ravanna from Raika's viewpoint as she looks up at him, is a blend of dominant and submissive fantasies bound up with genre cliches into one supremely sexy package.

In Manning's Spider Garden series, moments like this are woven together seamlessly to create a world in which gender, sexuality, and identity flow and break down in a humid orgy of paranoia and soap opera romance. Tranceptor hasn't yet reached those heights, though there are hints it might. Most promising is the series' obsessive doubling. The second volume is split between scenes with the Tranceptor, all bright whites and light grays, and scenes with Ravanna, very dark, with halftones against solid black backgrounds and the shadowy Sslthsss lurking nearby. The dark/light mirroring is extended by other parallels: there are two identical horse-girls, two identical horse-boys, two young men taken from the station (Raika by Ravanna, Hyu by the Tranceptor). Where all this is leading isn't clear. But good versus evil and dueling doppelgangers are tried-and-true genre devices—and a genre device is really just another name for a particular cathexis of possibility and desire. In this sense porn isn't just pulp; it's Platonic pulp. Or at least it can seem that way when you're reading Tranceptor.v

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