Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 82: "The Original Tom of Finland's Circus" (1977)

Well, hello there, fine sir! And aren't you looking sharp in your uniform!

Worthy of study.
Between them, Blood Splatters Quickly (O/R Books, 2014) and Angora Fever (BearManor Bare, 2019) contain 93 short stories by Edward D. Wood, Jr., originally published between 1969 and 1975. These highly eccentric, sex-and-violence-drenched tales appeared in the pages of pornographic magazines, nearly all of them from Bernie Bloom's Pendulum Publishing in Los Angeles. While rightly categorized as pornography, Ed's stories manage to evoke a number of other genres, including horror, science-fiction, crime drama, and even Westerns. Ed Wood's fans owe it to themselves to study these pieces of short fiction, both for their entertainment value and for the insight they offer into Ed Wood as a creative artist.

In the Ed-scripted film Orgy of the Dead (1965), William Bates plays a writer named Bob who specializes in horror stories. When his girlfriend, Shirley (Pat Barringer) reminds him that "there are so many wonderful things to write about," Bob claims that he's "tried them all -- plays, love stories, Westerns, dog stories..." That was Ed Wood for sure. He'd try anything, as Blood Splatters Quickly and Angora Fever readily attest.

Even after two extremely generous collections, there are still Wood stories out there to be rediscovered by fans. The one I'm covering this week was purposely omitted from Angora Fever because it was too sexually graphic, even by Ed Wood standards, and was based on preexisting illustrations rather than being wholly original. But I think this one deserves attention, not only because Ed Wood used his own name on it (many of his other stories were written under pen names) but also because it involves one of the best-known gay artists of all time.

The story: "Circus" (aka "Pekka at the Circus"), originally published in The Original Tom of Finland's Circus (1977). Credited to Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Synopsis: A naive young man named Pekka comes to a traveling carnival, looking for work. After being eyeballed and groped by two muscular male employees, Pekka visits with the boss, a burly, bearded fellow called Kake. During the job interview, Kake takes his penis out and demands that Pekka do the same. After the two men engage in anal and oral sex, Kake says he'll try to find a job for Pekka. The acts at this particular carnival are all of a homoerotic nature, and Pekka is obliged to service a super-strong "cock-man" named Mogi. Kake then takes Pekka to a tent where he meets and has sex with more of the carnival's employees, including the Ringmaster. The men are soon summoned to the main arena, where they grease themselves up and perform a sexually explicit trapeze act under the name The Flying Fuckers.

Wood trademarks: Circus setting (cf. Ed's own purported stint in the circus, plus Killer in Drag, Side Show Siren, etc.); ellipses (Ed's favorite punctuation); drinking (cf. "Never Fall Backwards"); nipples (cf. "Gore in the Alley," "The Hazards of the Game"); whiskey (cf. "A Taste for Blood"); tongue (cf. "The Responsibility Game"); feeling exhaustion during a gang bang (cf. Love Feast).

Excerpt: "Pekka felt that strange stirring at his crotch again… and he suddenly knew what caused it this time. The big, bearded man's eyes were fastened on the front of his pants, just as the men outside the trailer had done. But there was more to the glare this man affixed; he was licking his lips with the end of his tongue."

Manly men on the back cover.
Reflections: Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), aka Tom of Finland, is one of the most renowned gay illustrators of the 20th century -- lauded in some circles, loathed in others. Laaksonen's lovingly rendered images of healthy, muscular, and enormously well-endowed studs helped to change the popular conception of gay men. His powerful, hyper-masculine figures replaced the fey, effeminate "sissy" stereotypes of the past. The artist's defenders say he was rehabilitating the image of the gay community. His detractors claim that he was simply replacing one set of cliches with another.

Either way, Laaksonen's unmistakable artwork caught on in both Europe and America. By the late 1970s, Tom of Finland's signature style was a clear influence on such pop icons as The Village People and Freddie Mercury. Laaksonen was so focused on projecting strength and power in his images that he even rendered some of his characters in Nazi uniforms, a creative decision that remains controversial to this day. The artist claimed that, while he found the Nazis' racist philosophy to be utterly repugnant, he found their uniforms to be very sexy. He's hardly alone in being inexplicably drawn to Nazi iconography in this way. Jack White has said that the red/white/black color scheme of his band The White Stripes was influenced by the Nazi flag, and Mötley Crüe borrowed their umlauts from the Third Reich, according to bassist Nikki Sixx.

Laaksonen's work originally appeared in muscle and "beefcake" magazines in the 1950s and then in glossy booklets whose combination of words and pictures made them similar to comics. "Circus" seems to have been one such booklet, and its success inspired an American publisher to import it and translate it into English. Interestingly, this publication ends with an ad for further Tom of Finland works featuring Pekka, including "Sex in the Shed" and "The Loggers," but the prices are given in deutschmarks and Swedish kronas instead of dollars, and the scant text is given in English, German, and Swedish.

On the face of it, Edward D. Wood, Jr. was an odd choice to write the text for a volume of Tom of Finland's homoerotic illustrations, some of which are presented as ink outlines, not unlike the comics of R. Crumb, and some of which are fully shaded and detailed. After all, Ed was eternally obsessed with femininity, not masculinity. His characters, both male and female, tend to adore anything lacy, soft, and frilly, the very opposite of the Tom of Finland aesthetic.

A Pendulum Pictorial
But Eddie manages to imprint his own style on this material anyhow, and he does it by making Pekka a veritable babe in the woods, a wide-eyed sheep surrounded by hungry wolves. The debasing of an innocent character is a recurrent theme through Eddie's work. See stories like "The Hooker," "Kiss the Pain Away," and "That Damned Faceless Fog" as examples, not to mention movies like The Sinister Urge (1960) and Fugitive Girls (1974). Pekka is yet another lamb being led to the sexual slaughter. And, in true Eddie style, "Circus" ends with an outrageous, highly implausible twist.

One oddity of the text is that Ed retained the characters' Finnish names, including Pekka, Kake, and Mogi, yet they all seem to be American, judging by the way they talk. There are numerous jokes here about Pekka's name sounding like "pecker," for instance. Pekka -- forever the naif -- does not understand these leering remarks. I'll confess to being unfamiliar with most of Tom of Finland's work. I know, however, that Kake was a recurring character in his booklets, and you can buy an official replica of Pekka's member should you so desire.

The magazine itself is quite an artifact. It originally retailed for $8.50. That's over thirty bucks in today's money, so this was not a cheap item. The cover bills itself as "the American version of the international best-seller" and proudly proclaims, "All pictures suitable for framing plus a fantastic centerfold!" No publishing information is given, but the triple-dot insignia in the upper left hand corner suggests this was a Pendulum publication.

Inside, along with many typical Tom of Finland illustrations and Ed Wood's story (printed in pink letters on a tan background) is an introduction undoubtedly penned by Ed as well. As in Glen or Glenda (1953), Ed presents this material as a miniature civics lesson.
The Gay community . . . after many long and arduous years . . . has finally emerged from the closet. Now, homosexual men and women are standing up and admitting to their sexual preferences. With this emergence, they are also seeking equal rights in their communities and in their professions. Their long fight has finally started to bear fruit and the public is beginning to accept them as equals and they are losing the stigma that has long been associated with them. 
This publication is dedicated to those who feel that the "Gay World" is the true world for their personal life and who do not feel that their way of life should be forced upon others in their public or business pursuits. 
Tom of Finland has long been an exponent of the beauties of the male form. His work is presented here as an exemplary expression of the male body in its truest art form. He is one of the finest delineators of the exotic male and is the counterpart of the world-renowned Vargas and Petty who made the American woman's body famous throughout the world.
In other words, give these men leather jackets, muscle shirts, mustaches, skin-tight pants, nipple rings or even the assless leotards they have on, and they're the happiest individuals in the world. They can work better, think better. They can play better, and they can be more of a credit to their community and their government because they are happy.

Still easily available today, The Original Tom of Finland's Circus is quite a find for Ed Wood fans. While it's true that this booklet exists more as a showcase for Tom of Finland's art than Ed's writing, Eddie's words are all over this publication. In addition to the introduction and the story itself, quotations from the text are used as captions on most of the pictures. It's very similar, in that sense, to the Pendulum Pictorials, Raped in the Grass and Bye Bye Broadie, that Ed did back in 1968. But in this case, instead of writing text to go with a set of photos, Ed was writing a story to accompany a set of illustrations by one of the most famous gay artists of the era.

While it's true that "Circus" has little to no plot and is mostly just one graphic sex scene after another, the story nevertheless displays Eddie's authorial quirks. Take this sentence: "The fire began to surge up immediately in Pekka’s sex region, both in the front and in the rear." Once again, Eddie is describing a character's body temperature, and "sex region" is just the kind of clunky neologism Eddie liked to use in his writing. (Compare it to "sex dumb" and "pubic region" from Angora Fever.) While "Circus" is based on preexisting illustrations, it's really no less original than, say, "The Rue Morgue Revisited," which hews very faithfully to the Poe story or to "Exotic Loves of the Vampire," which is clearly inspired by Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Overall, The Original Tom of Finland's Circus is a relic from a time before the AIDS epidemic. Its gay characters are happy and uncomplicated, screwing each other with carefree abandon and never thinking about tomorrow. Moreover, unlike gay men of earlier eras, they're out and proud. No more hiding in the shadows for them! For those reasons, "Circus" is more joyous and healthy than a lot of Ed Wood's heterosexual stories.