Tom Cho is the author of Look Who’s Morphing, a collection of fictions published this month by Arsenal Pulp Press. Look Who’s Morphing launches on April 29 at Story Planet in Toronto. Cho will be guest editing The Afterword all this week. In part one of this two-part piece, Cho discusses the work of renowned gay artist Tom of Finland, and his own work.
His birthday was May 8, but his birth name was not “Tom.” “Tom” was the name that he acquired in his 30s and under which he became best known for his art. He took selected figures that had been reserved for the heterosexual imagination and he recast them in his own works, where they were re-imagined in scenes of irrepressible fantasy. He also had a size fetish – or at least, that’s what the depictions of gigantism in his work seemed to suggest.
I speak here of the artist Tom of Finland (1920-1991), but also of me. I guess it’s a presumptuous parallel, this admittedly fanboy-fuelled correlation that I’ve already begun to draw between Tom of Finland, whose self-described “dirty drawings” had a pioneering influence on post-war gay male culture (and gay male leather culture especially), and Tom Cho, a fiction writer with just one book-length work to his name so far. But then, like Tom of Finland, I enjoy bringing embellishment to the page.
Tom of Finland was renowned for his homoerotic depictions of beefcake men, whom he often portrayed having enthusiastic sex with each other. Tom’s impulse to embellish his subjects was, I suspect, very much in keeping with his background as an illustrator in the advertising industry – but, more importantly, it was spurred by his sexual desires (he once declared: “If I don’t have an erection when I’m doing a drawing, I know it’s no good.”). Although Tom’s early renderings of the male form depicted more modest bodily proportions, his men progressively developed the exaggeratedly bulging muscles and gigantic c**ks that became signature to his work.[*]
That said, in the logic of the fantasy world of Tom’s art, the c**ks weren’t over-sized – functionally-speaking, at least. Despite their ludicrous bigness, the c**ks in Tom’s art invariably formed perfect fits with the needy orifices that were there to receive them. Instead, the more telling excess in Tom’s work stemmed from the disparities between the fantasy world of male-to-male sex in his art and the heterosexist world he lived in that had already claimed for itself the masculine archetypes – policemen, leather-clad bikers, lumberjacks, sailors and others – that Tom desired as a child and that came to populate the scenes in his work.
Reading against the heteronormative grain that assumed such men must be straight, Tom spied in these figures some excess of meaning beyond what was readily available. The permissible meanings associated with such masculine figures had come up short for Tom and he saw a “surplus” that lay beyond it. He sensed that these figures of masculinity need not mean the same thing every time, but might mean otherwise (which borrows, as I’ve already started to do here, from scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ideas of what “queer” can refer to). It was this surplus of meaning, this promise of overflow, that spilled into Tom’s fantasy-driven work and became the excess from which the other, more commonly noted super-abundances in his work emerged. So, although we sometimes conceive of fantasy as being naïve and guileless, the fantasies in Tom’s art were acutely knowing. They spoke of the keenly-felt distance between Tom’s desires and the limited set of meanings allowed to him.
Like fantasy, fiction can ask probing questions of us. Fiction dares us to draw parallels between our lives as lived in our world, and the lives of characters unfolding in the worlds of the books that we read. In my collection of fictions, Look Who’s Morphing, the main character shape-shifts into figures drawn from film, TV, music, books, porn flicks and comics. In the course of the book, this narrator morphs into Suzi Quatro, Liberace, a robot, a Muppet and many others.
If there are traces of Tom of Finland in my book, do they reside in certain morphings that take place in these stories? (Admittedly, my main character does morph into a queer, leather-wearing man on more than one occasion.) Do traces of Tom of Finland reside in certain depictions of bodily and sexual embellishment? (Admittedly, my main character does morph into a giant figure who then has an all-night session of the hottest sex you can imagine – again, on more than one occasion.)
In incorporating sailors, cowboys and other masculine archetypes into his art, Tom showed that the fantasy that such men are inevitably heterosexual was just that – a fantasy, and not a natural, pre-ordained truth. Tom’s fantasies thus exposed another fantasy as being a fantasy.
Many of the fanciful stories of Look Who’s Morphing are set in the universes of existing pop cultural texts. For example, in my story “Dirty Dancing,” the protagonist is staying at a holiday resort and soon comes to be involved with a dance instructor named Johnny Castle. Thereafter, however, the story soon departs from the script for the famed film of the same name. Similarly, my story “The Bodyguard” – in which the protagonist is hired to be Whitney Houston’s bodyguard – comes to be decidedly loose in its loyalty to The Bodyguard film script.
But, importantly, film scripts are not the only scripts that are the focus of my book’s attention. More broadly, our lives are full of “scripts” because life bears the weight of being heavily pre-scripted. Many of the scripts that impinge on our lives are sheer fantasy: fantasies of how our bodies are meant to look and function, what our relationships are meant to be like, what sex is meant to be like, what a successful life trajectory looks like, and so on. In one light, Look Who’s Morphing can be read as a little book that has a big scope of concern: the sheer scripted-ness of life. A book like Look Who’s Morphing can dare us to ask ourselves: what fantasies are more outlandish and groundless – those imagined into preposterous fictional tales or those we live our lives by that we’ve forgotten (or never known) to be fantasies?
He wanted the fantasies that he depicted in his work to be of service in unmasking certain fantasies as fantasies. I speak here of the artist Tom of Finland and I also speak of me.
Author’s note: My thanks to Tom of Finland Foundation for their support and to Jackie Wykes for her editorial feedback.
[*] Tom later said that he drew these giant c**ks for the benefit of his audiences, rather than himself.