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You young ‘uns with your gussied-up webcomics, New York Times bestseller lists and oversized, obscure comic strip collections. Let me tell you, you don’t know how lucky you’ve got it today. Time was, back in the black-and-white boom of the 1980s, once you got past Raw, Weirdo, Love and Rockets and, oh, let’s say Cerebus, finding a decent comic that showed a modicum of sophistication and style could be challenge. More so if you wanted to wave it under the nose of a friend or family member that scoffed at your interest in sequential art so you could say, “See? Comics are too a legitimate art form” before stomping off to your room to be alone with your copies of Cherry Poptart.
As a result, any funnybook that dared to offer something beyond the usual Spandex fisticuffs or animals that perform martial arts had a strong shot at garnering a cult following (and maybe a living wage, though let’s not get crazy here). Poison Elves. Works for me. Boris the Bear? Sure, why not. Fish Police? Damn straight. Omaha the Cat Dancer? You betcha.
(NSFW image below)
You remember Omaha the Cat Dancer, right? Created by Reed Waller in the late ’70s as a sexed-up funny animal comic, Omaha became something of a fan favorite and cause célèbre in the ’80s, in part because it was one of several comics seized by police in 1987 during a raid on Friendly Frank’s comic store in Chicago. The ensuing controversy (the store ended up being fined $750 for obscenity) led to the formation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, so for many, Omaha was nothing less than a First Amendment darling.
But it was also a pretty good comic. Overall, Omaha deserved most of the attention and strong sales it acquired in its heyday (according to the official website, it was Kitchen Sink’s bestselling comic during the ’80s). A large part of that was due to the work of writer Kate Worley, who joined Waller on the book with the second issue (and became Waller’s romantic partner as well). Together the pair worked hard to create something that had a little more depth to it than your average X-rated comic. Sure, the characters still copulated in full hardcore, nothing-left-to-the-imagination fashion, but Worley and Waller spent time to make said couplings grounded in reality, despite the constant presence of fur, horns and tails (I’d pay good money to see someone write an essay pegging Omaha as the ur-furry comic, and drawing a line to stuff like WikiFur). Relationships mattered as often as orgasms in Omaha, and the creators weren’t afraid to linger on the morning after, and see what the characters might have to say to each other once the hangover subsided.
Nor did they cater strictly to the hetero-normative crowd, and in an age where something like Gay Comics still seemed a bit transgressive, they depicted all manner of sexual liaisons – gay, lesbian, bi, disabled, etc. – without making any attempts to pander.
But illness and the end of Worley and Waller’s relationship put Omaha on an abrupt and unfinished hiatus. Talk was made of finishing the story, but with the death of Worley in 2004 it seemed as though that hiatus would be permanent. But Worley’s husband James Vance, working from his late wife’s notes, collaborated with Waller to bring the comic to a close with Collected Omaha, Vol. 8. But in the ensuing years, comics culture – not to mention the sexual mores of the American public in general – has changed drastically, and what at the time seemed like a daring and thoughtful sex comic that – gasp, choke – had funny animals fucking, could easily now come across as just another furry title. If Lost Girls could barely raise an eyebrow among the Anthony Comstocks of the world, what chance does poor Omaha have of getting noticed?
It’s hard to say how much of the text/plot in Vol. 8 is Worley and how much is Vance. But the tone is thankfully consistent. Vance is able to (pardon the pun) nail the character’s voices rather well and even though it’s been decades since I read Omaha, I found myself instantly familiarizing myself with Omaha, Chuck and their cadre of friends and acquaintances as though it had only been a few weeks since I read the last issue and not years.
Unfortunately, while the writing here is strong, the art is less so. I wish I could say that Waller’s art has gotten better in the ensuing years, but it simply hasn’t. In fact, the elegant, tightly controlled ink line that dominated Omaha in the ’80s and ’90s has given way to a much rougher, at times even sloppy style. Then there’s the weird, splotchy graytone washes that Waller employs throughout the book, that work more as a distraction than an enhancement.
Even more than a sex comic, however, Omaha is, was and will always be at its heart a big, sudsy soap opera, filled with murder mysteries, sleazy, Bible-thumping politicians, nefarious back-room dealings, improbably coincidences and all the various romantic intermingling of the cast. That both helped and hurt the comic. Helped in the sense that the multiple cliffhangers and high melodrama gave readers enough hooks to want to pick up subsequent issues (this was back in pre-trade days of serialized comics after all). Hurt in the sense that Omaha’s cast was frequently hemmed in and and suffocated by the various plot machinations that, for all the realistic depictions of sex and romance, felt artificial. The series never broke free of its melodramatic nature in the way that, say, Locas, did, and the final volume is no exception. Indeed, the big finale features a lengthy, confusing denouement regarding a certain murder. The revelation doesn’t make much sense in terms of time, place or motivation, except to provide readers with a sense of closure, though not before – in the best soap opera tradition – tying everything up with a big wedding.
So given all that, perhaps it’s not too surprising that Omaha’s cultural cache has dimmed. Much of what made Omaha seem transgressive or original in its hey day has been adopted or deemed passé by modern readers. How upset can people about a comic where cat people get it on in a world full of bronies and slash fiction? Still, I’d argue that despite it’s problems, Omaha is a comic worth revisiting. It’s both exactly what you thought and better than you think.
Omaha the Cat Dancer, Vol. 8 by Reed Waller, Kate Worley and James Vance, NBM $15.99.