They that write as a trade to please the whim of the day, they are like sailors that work at the rafts only to warm their hands and to distract their thoughts from their certain doom; their rafts go all to pieces before the ship breaks up.
—Lord Dunsany, “The Raft-Builders” (1915)
Popular fiction, whether it be for pulp magazines, comic books, or pornography, is ephemeral. Precious few authors have the kind of posthumous renaissance that H. P. Lovecraft has experienced. Even those who build up a considerable body of work, or a dedicated follow, often sink out of sight once they die. Their works aren’t reprinted. Work goes uncollected, unread, forgotten.
John Blackburn died in 2006. His raft is breaking up.
In 1989, Blackburn self-published his own comic, Coley on Voodoo Island, acting as writer, artist, and letterer. While normally categorized among gay comics, Coley is bisexual, or maybe pansexual; a living sex icon, his very presence tends to attract everyone, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. Some folks might characterize Coley—the ageless, immortal, six-pack-abs voodoo sex god with a large penis, a bottomless libido, and a constant parade of sexual partners—as a form of wish fulfillment. Yet it’s wish fulfillment in the same way that Conan the Cimmerian, or Captain America, or the Vampire Lestat are; Coley embodies a pure fantasy, a larger-than-life figure who moves through the world, and in so doing changes it.
The first four issues of Coley’s adventures were self-published by Blackburn; in 1992 Fantagraphics which was publishing a great number of alternative, independent, and erotic comics picked up Coley, reprinting the first adventures and then new ones. While a supernatural fantasy element was present from the beginning, the Cthulhu Mythos slid into the mix in 1993 with the two-issue series Idol of Flesh, where Coley runs up against a cult of Shub-Niggurath.
Idol of Flesh #2 (1993)
As an artist, Blackburn puts a lot of work into his hatching; you can see some influence from superhero comics in the often skin-tight clothes and Coley’s heroic proportions, and this sometimes goes for other characters as well. Compositions tend to be focused: the reader’s eye is usually drawn to the center of each panel, each pane, and backgrounds usually fade out to dark hatching during the frequent erotic scenes or conversational back-and-forth. Stylistically very different from Le Pornomicon (2005) by Logan Kowalsky or Insania Tenebris (2020) by Raúlo Cáceres, and many readers might fairly judge it to be almost crude by comparison, it might be better to compare Blackburn’s work with underground cartoonists of the ’70s in terms of style and technique.
The plot of the series revolves around Coley, even when he isn’t on the page. The other characters are almost invariably attracted to him, but have to figure out for themselves what that means, what their relationship is about, particularly as Coley—while a loyal friend, and falling in love easily—has basically zero interest in monogamous relationships, and doesn’t cater to anyone else’s efforts to constrain or define his behavior. This tends to put him at odds with local authority figures, such as the police, religious types, and general bigots—and in a few cases, attracts supernatural forces.
The Cthulhu Mythos intrudes on Coley and his gaggle of associates in the three-issue Dagger of Blood series in 1997. This was the final standalone comic produced featuring Coley, although Fantagraphics would publish three additional omnibus albums Coley Running Wild from 1997-2003. Coley’s earlier encounter with the cult of Shub-Niggurath put him on the cultist radar, and he now has to deal with another descendant of the Old Ones.
Dagger of Blood #2
While the story takes many X-rated breaks, the plot takes a turn strongly reminiscent of the post-war Men’s Adventure Pulps of the late 1940s and 50s—though not one that would probably ever have passed the editors of those magazines.
Dagger of Blood #2
Old Nazi mad scientist in a temple of the Old Ones deep inside a jungle probably sounds like an exploitation script treatment even before you add the pornstars, voodoo sex god, flagellation scenes, interracial relationships, body modification, sex changes, and bloody violence…but there is something more interesting at work here.
One of the things that sets Coley apart from the other characters in this series is that he is completely accepting of both his body and his sexuality; it helps that by the standards of the characters in the comic, he’s basically perfect: young, slim, muscled, big genitalia, etc. and he maintains it with seemingly zero effort. By contrast, many of the other characters are not all happy with their body or their sexuality. The main antagonist Joquatoth is dealing with the effects of his inhuman heritage—and wants to stay human. If he wasn’t deliberately set up as evil, he could be seen as an almost tragic figure, facing parallel issues of body image issues that affect many transgender folk as they deal with issues like puberty, or strive to achieve a body closer to their gender identity via hormones and surgery.
Blackburn doesn’t explore these issues in anything like depth; the castration scene is a setup for a sub-plot where the genitalia of two characters are swapped: Coley’s lover Lonny gets a vagina, and the the mostly lesbian Kit gets his penis. Lonny and Kit’s introspection at these drastic and fantastical changes to their bodies is less than profound…but it’s there.
Dagger of Blood #3
The idea of transsexual or intersex characters that don’t conform strictly to a sex or gender binary are nothing new, not even in Lovecraft’s time. His friend Samuel Loveman wrote “The Hermaphrodite” in 1926, some pulp stories like Seabury Quinn’s “Strange Interval” (Weird Tales May 1936) and Lovecraft’s own “The Thing on the Doorstep” (Weird Tales Jan 1937) play with gender-changes, albeit in very non-explicit and largely sexless ways. It takes a certain amount of artistic freedom to actually depict and address some of these issues, and that just wasn’t possible under the editorial and mail censorship of the 1930s, even if there had been writers among Lovecraft’s correspondents and devotees who had desired to address such issues.
Which is one of the things that makes Dagger of Blood stand out. Yes, it’s very blatantly pornography, with a rare page that goes by without nudity or some sexual act; it’s a comic book and not a novel, which places it in that weird intersection of being doubly disposable for being taboo in subject matter and a medium often derided at the time as childish or trash (though that was slowly changing). The Mythos material is slight, being two storylines involving cultists with semi-human leaders. There is a tentacle erotic scene, which might owe something to the popularity of Japanese manga and anime like Toshio Maeda’s La Blue Girl (manga 1989-1992, original video animation 1992-1993).
Dagger of Blood #3
Yet it’s for that exact reason that Dagger of Blood has its charms, and can even address some of these issues of gender, sexuality, relationships, and body image when contemporary Mythos works largely didn’t…because Blackburn didn’t have to subscribe to the same editorial taboos, the social norms and mores that he would if he had been working for Marvel Comics or even Playboy. Working on his own he had more creative freedom to get really weird—and that kind of growth can be important. Even if Blackburn’s Coley opus isn’t destined to stand the test of time, it is one of Dunsany’s rafts set adrift…and who knows what it might inspire, if it does survive a little while longer?
Our ships were all unseaworthy from the first.
There goes the raft that Homer made for Helen.
—Lord Dunsany, “The Raft-Builders” (1915)
John Blackburn’s Dagger of Blood #1-3 were published by Eros Comix in 1997; they were collected in Coley Running Wild, Book Three: Hardthrob (2003).