As many jokes as there may be about male superheroes being designed for the visual pleasure of heterosexual women, the Venn Diagram between the aesthetics of superheroes and vintage gay erotica is more or less a big ol’ circle — minus a few more obviously bulging details, perhaps. Although superhero comics of the past few decades have become a hilariously delightful hivemind of heavily-defined rippling muscles drawn in (absolutely, unequivocally, totally no-homo) skintight costumes, it’s more likely than you think that your faves of the modern comics generation — whether they are conscious of it or not — were influenced by the hypersexual, hyper-masculine, and flagrantly homosexual pop culture phenomenon of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Tom of Finland.
Known most famously as Tom of Finland, Touko Laaksonen was born in Finland in the 1920s — a period where the country was not only going through its own growing pains, but also learning to cope with Soviet Russia as its rather touchy new neighbors. With tensions growing to new heights, the militarization of Finland was something of an inevitability, and every able-bodied young man was required by law to join and serve. In a way, for all of its faults concerning the legality of homosexuality back in the day, Finland inspired some of the gayest art the world had ever seen, including Laaksonen — who had served as a second lieutenant and anti-aircraft officer — fetishizing Nazi uniforms, a symbol of absolute hate whose philosophy and racism he deplored, found the design sexy and authoritative.. With Finland having taken the side of Nazi Germany during the Second World War (despite never officially becoming an axis power), the exposure to uniformed figures of power and hyper-sexuality proved to be a simply erotic environment to which a young Laaksonen was exposed.
By his 30s, Laaksonen had been working as a graphic artist in advertising, using his spare time to draw his own sexual desires just for fun, relying on imagery of authority figures, rural farmhands and lumberjacks from his childhood, and his own former military experience to fuel his pen. Soon enough, however, Laaksonen began to submit his art to beefcake magazines — ashcan-style magazines packed with images of American bodybuilders, muscled hunks in thongs, and an “appreciation” for everything…er…hardened about the male form. Even sold as “physique magazines” under the counter and on the down-low, the aesthetics of Laaksonen — now having officially adopted “Tom”, as a pen name as well as a moniker among friends — matched perfectly with the desires of gay men around the world. By the 1960s, as American pornography laws became more lax, Tom’s art became increasingly explicit, full of even wilder fantasy, and more than a little exaggerated in the ways of proportioning.
Having quit his day job, Tom and Durk Dehner established Tom of Finland Company in Los Angeles in 1979, and in 1984 they started the non-profit Tom of Finland Foundation. Because of this, the name “Tom of Finland” — a name that he had begun signing just a few decades earlier — had become a brand to be recognized by people of any sexuality as “queer culture” became something out the closet and gradually more accepted in the mainstream.
Perhaps one of the most notable parts of Tom’s artwork that differentiate him from what we’re used to, however, is the lusciousness and softness afforded to such strong men. While his porn and pictures were often fun ways to get a glimpse of cock in your spare time, the pictures are not without their sensuality. In fact, it’s often noted that while consent (or, probably more accurately, consensual non-consent) is a tricky subject among some of Tom’s works, each character is one that looks happy, bright, and like he’s enjoying himself. Instead of the usual narrative found in many gay comics or pulp novels at the time in which gay men felt shame and enjoyed their pleasure as a secret taboo, Tom’s characters clearly, visibly relished in it — the hunger for pleasure, stripped inhibition, and being seen at their most sexual machismo. While many publications made being a gay man a sin, or something to exist only in the shadows or under the counter of a magazine store, Tom and his characters were willing to be out, horny, and happy enough for everybody.
It’s not difficult to draw a through-line from Tom’s art, regardless of how silly it may seem to some, through to the design and aesthetics of the modern day superhero. Tom of Finland was nothing if not noted for portraying square-jawed, smiling, dominating men whose physique — massive penis aside — was easily highlighted through nearly-painted-on leather, boots, and generally a massive spotlight on uniforms. This trend, while not inherently sexual in its nature, is one that can also be seen in comics of the 1990s, where many creators found the new norm in deeply-muscled male characters with chiseled jaws and rounded bums. It’s not hard to pick up a title featuring Alex Ross, Greg Land, Frank Quitely, or Dale Eaglesham and see that to many, the “focus on physique” was the major draw for readers banking on the masculinity of their heroes. (Such a crossover is only fair, though. While many of these artists were getting their beginnings in the 1980s, the rise of queer art and identity made way for a massive appreciation of queer aesthetics in then-contemporary culture.)
Despite its faults and failures for standing the test of time, however, Tom of Finland remains a staple of queer history and an even bigger monument to gay erotic art. For while queerness has not always been allowed the forefront of the erotic art (nee pornographic) world, Tom of Finland stands tall as one of the founding fathers of allowing sexuality for the male gaze, by the male gaze.