This is a review of Alex Chun’s “Pin Up Art of Dan DeCarlo.” I think it may have run on the Bridge Magazine website at some point in a rather different form…but that website’s gone, and nobody read it anyway, so that’s okay.

dan decarlo pin-up

It’s hard to believe that one book could be so thoroughly dated in so many different ways. The cover sums it up — a man who looks disturbingly like Riverdale’s Mr. Lodge gazes lasciviously at a lingerie-clad young woman who looks disturbingly like a (very) bosomy Veronica. That is just so wrong.

Nonetheless, Dan DeCarlo’s later, more famous work on Archie Comics is only a small part of why these illustrations, drawn for men’s magazines in the ‘50s, are hopelessly time-bound. Today, according to all the polls, the hipless, androgynous Angelina Jolie is the sexiest woman in the world. Beyonce and J. Lo are considered full-figured because you can find their rear-ends with military-issue radar.

Be assured that no such technology is needed in studying DeCarlo’s women. Breasts swell and sag with the weight of flesh, not silicone; thighs press firmly and meatily together, hips and butts strain against fabric, threatening plentiful wardrobe malfunctions. And the wardrobes! Today, many of these women would be considered fat, and would dress accordingly, in loose clothes, solid colors — anything to make them look thinner. DeCarlo on the other hand, lovingly shoehorns his women into skin tight dresses, and then — to show that more really is *more*– adds horizontal patterns to emphasize the curves. The overall effect is — well, I can’t describe the overall effect. Let’s just say that in trying to take it all in I may have stretched my eyes permanently out of shape.

dan decarlo pin-up

DeCarlo’s men don’t meet the standards of present-day smut either. In these days, when herds of free-range pretty boys roam unchecked through reality television, even porn actors aren’t allowed to be repulsive. Or at least, they aren’t allowed to be as repulsive as DeCarlo’s males, who are, in general, old, bald, pear-shaped, or all of the above. DeCarlo does occasionally draw young studs, but there’s no effort to eroticize them. The perfunctory washboard abs of one Archie Andrews look-alike, for example, are more than offset by a pose which suggests that a snapping turtle has crawled into his gratuitously unflattering swim trunks.

Even DeCarlo’s sexual situations are passé. Of course, the hoary gags — mostly based on the idea that people having sex is ipso facto funny — aren’t that far removed from current sit-com fare. And sure, feminine professions — secretaries, nurses, artist models, strippers, and so forth — continue to be fetishized. But can you imagine a book of smut produced today that made no reference to those twin pillars of modern advertising: lesbianism and oral sex? Or one which made no reference to prostitution (as opposed to more respectable gold-digging)? For DeCarlo, deviance begins and ends with light spanking — a practice so tame that it has pretty much completely disappeared from erotic iconography.

Finally, though, DeCarlo’s book seems out of place in today’s marketplace simply because kinky illustration has lost its footing in the mainstream American marketplace. FHM, Maxim, and the other lad-mags use celebrity pics, not cartoons. Playboy did still have drawings, the last time I checked, but they seemed merely one more sign of that magazine’s chronic irrelevance. It’s possible that the growing popularity of manga may change all this in the near future, but, for now, cartoon sex still seems like some other cultures’ hang-up. If you want to make it yours, however, this volume is a great place to start.

dan decarlo pin-up

Update: More on pin up art, by both DeCarlo and Jack Cole.

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