There’s a stereotype among people who buy or collect “dirty magazines,” where the excuse is that they were bought solely for the articles, offering a tongue-in-cheek reason why anyone would spend their hard-earned money on a wank magazine: that, clearly, you’re there for the intellectual content, and the boobs are perhaps just a side bonus. (Credit where credit is due: despite their raunchy origins and famously lecherous owners, publications like Playboy spent years making a name for themselves among respected pop culture journalism outlets by publishing some of the most exciting new writers around.)
There was one magazine that managed to stand out, however, simply based on a combination of hilarious parody-style social commentary and beautifully rendered nude women that may have been enough to make the excuse of “I read it for the comics” a very real and very valid excuse to have anything Penthouse-related floating around in one’s bedside table: the short-lived but glorious Penthouse Comix.
Penthouse Comix began in late spring of 1994 as a segment within the (then soft-core) erotic Penthouse magazine. After a mere three installments, however, the strip proved to be so popular among it’s audiences that Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione insisted that it become its own entity or — more specifically — a raunchy laugh magazine that he hoped would compete internationally.
Of course, with great budget comes great responsibility, and Guccione set that responsibility pretty high, offering a budget that allowed not only for the first issues to feature a curated list of high-profile talent, but for the artists featured to receive what it still recognized as the highest rate ever paid to freelance artists, at $800 USD per page.
The first issue hit the newsstands like a glossy bombshell (pun intended) with a whopping line-up of artists, boasting on the first page an entire list of powerhouse creators promised and yet to come, including Adam Hughes, Garry Leach, Kevin Maguire, Simon Bisley, Moebius, Arthur Suydem, Gray Marrow, Richard Corben, and nearly countless others.
Not everything was boobs and rainbows throughout the magazine’s history. Censorship laws and raised questions were brought against the magazine on more than one occasion, including the refusal by Canadian authorities to print the second issue of the series, telling publisher General Media International that it was “six panels of comics dealing with the subjugation of women and other sexual themes” that were the reason for the refusal — referring to sexy heroine Hericane of Caragonne, Thornton, and Hughes’ much-beloved campy strip Young Captain Adventure. Such northern politeness paled, of course, in comparison to the backlash of some rather racy strips involving Nazi villains; the presence of swastikas on bad guys’ erotic costumes — a cheeky nod to the more racy midcentury pulp magazines — were strictly prohibited by the European market and were quickly replaced before going to print overseas.
The constant pushback was understandable, really. When people look at porn comics, it’s often hard to look past the slew of cartoon genitalia, bums, and breasts in your face — let alone when so many of the figures are women whose sexuality is put directly on display in a way that feels taboo or even exploitative to some. Looking at the artists who inhabited the pages of Penthouse Comix, it’s undeniable that with such a lurid gaze nonetheless came an appreciation for the female figure and a love of detail.
The painted pages of artists like Arthur Sudyam for instance — later made more famous for most mainstream readers with his work on Marvel Zombies — on his strip “Libby in the Lost World” offers so much more than a sexy look at a woman lost in time and a few good laughs, but also a rich tapestry of landscapes, beautiful figures, and a deft understanding of color. Even the more kink-friends pages of Mark Beachum’s “Backlash” offer a titillating view into a once-forbidden world of dark sexuality and fear through manic brush strokes and velveteen colors. The series also featured Milo Manara, of course, whose renderings of the female figure — while sometimes controversial — are regarded as some of the finest and most beautiful art on an international scale even today.
The series also featured the work of Adam Hughes — an artist whose terminally delightful cheesecake style crossed over from his work on Justice League America with Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis — who was welcomed into the world of Penthouse Comix with open arms. With big eyes, expressive faces, and the gift of a well-established art style among mainstream audiences, Hughes brought a brand and style to the recurring pages of the magazine through “Young Captain Adventure” that not only was able to appeal to the perverts looking for nudie stories, but for the superhero fans who had known his previous work among the pages of Marvel and DC Comics. Needless to say, for much of the crowd that remembers Penthouse Comix as it ran, Adam Hughes remains to this day the endearing and enduringly American artist among the bunch.
Despite the tragic suicide of Penthouse Comix’s editor and primary writer George Caragonne midway through the series’ run — in his wake, the title was taken under the wing of respected and eclectic editor Dave Elliot — the comic carried on for just over four years, sending out its last issue in July 1998 under the guise of lack of interest. At the time, the comic was selling over 50,000 copies per issue — a number nearly unheard of even for mainstream comics in the current day. These days, Penthouse Comix is considered by most little more than a half-forgotten curiosity or, more often than not, brushed away as just another bizarre, over-sexed porn comics magazine that the 1990s produced alongside the slew of wacko comics. (The less said about Hustler’s attempts to break into the comic industry, the better.) There are few things that are more of a shame than this unfortunate fate, because — when you take a moment to really look — few magazines, anthologies, or omnibi of the era showcase the sheer international talent of fine artists and humor extraordinaires in the way that this silly, seemingly throw-away dirty magazine did.