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.