Aug 12, 2015

Tom of Finland

When I was in grad school in Bloomington, Indiana in the early 1980s, I used to buy a gay porn magazine at College Avenue Books:  In Touch for Men, which featured not only pictures of naked men, but articles on gay history and culture, dating tips, movie reviews, and even comics.

I was particularly drawn to a series of non-verbal, single-panel comics featuring macho icons like bikers, cops, lumberjacks, and cowboys, impossibly muscular and impossibly well endowed, interacting with each other.  Aggressive, athletic, and masculine, they were a sharp contrast to the contemporary mass media depictions of gay men as soft, willowy sissies.

They all had the same "look": they had wavy hair, Castro Clone moustaches, long faces, and square jaws.  They were always smiling, enjoying every moment of their lives.



There were occasional romantic or humorous moments, but mostly the comics were about sex.  Not the furtive, guilty sex of the 1960s tea rooms -- this was bold, aggressive, joyful, in public, in full view of passersby, who, more often than not, would ask to join in.

There was no homophobia in this world, but not much gay culture, either. Not many gay rights marches or meetings of the Gay Activists Alliance, not a lot of scenes set on Christopher Street.  Impossibly muscular, impossibly well endowed men interacted in police stations, gas stations, army barracks, tattoo parlors, in the woods.  It was a raw, primal world of same-sex desire.  I had never seen anything like it.


The artist was Tom of Finland, aka Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), who began publishing drawings in the early Physique Pictorial in the 1950s.  By 1973, he had become so famous that he was able to quit his job in advertising and devoted himself full-time to his art.  He published in In Touch, Mandate, the Meatmen series of gay comic anthologies, and eventually in comic-book length (but wordless) tales of Kake, a gay man on the prowl.

By the time I discovered him, in the 1980s, Tom was falling out of favor.  His work was not political enough, ignored homophobia and AIDS, and portrayed gay men as obsessed with sex.  Besides, it set the bar for male beauty impossibly high, ruining the self-esteem of those who didn't fit his rigid standards of age, size, and body type.  

Ok, but sometimes you just want to look at hot guys.



Today Tom has been rediscovered.  There are retrospectives of his work in museums in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berlin, and Helsinki.   You can buy Tom of Finland books, dolls, and a cologne.  In September 2014, Finland released a series of postage stamps featuring iconic Tom's men.

See also: Sean and the World of Gay Leathermen; The Mystery of Cavelo; and Gay Comics of the 1980s.