Challenging Taboos

Challenging Taboos

Eros Graphic Album No 1. Mark Sobels Essay part 2

Birdland Section One
Throughout the first section (which is comprised of the first 69 pages in the collected edition), there are several clues that reveal Hernandez’s intention to satire Wilhelm Reich’s philosophies. 

“Orgiastic Potency”
The most notable are the book’s many sexual scenes themselves. In Hernandez’s parody, all of the main characters (Fritz and Petra, Mark and Simon, Bang and Inez) have achieved maximum “orgiastic potency” and live ideal lives of free and open sexuality. There are no social, political or religious barriers to sexual relations in the “alternate dimension” of Birdland. Rather, the characters engage in one tryst after another, in a variety of positions and locations, often with different or multiple partners, fulfilling every sexual urge without any fear of moral, legal, social or health-related repercussions.
The pervasiveness of the pornography in Birdland may seem gratuitous, but the images are also skillfully used in service of the parody. The depiction of sex is cartoonish and hyper-exaggerated; there are cumshots on nearly every page; characters have incredible stamina; men require virtually no recovery time; the size and appearance of breasts and genitals are enhanced. In every way, the sex is garish and comical, yet conspicuously devoid of any semblance of realism.

Fritz, the lisping psychotherapist who would later become one of Hernandez’s favorite characters, also shares some telling professional habits with Wilhelm Reich. Her use of hypnotherapy during counseling sessions to lull her patients into a trance, before taking advantage of them sexually, is directly based on Reich’s similarly infamous and highly controversial violations. According to his Wikipedia entry (which cites Myron Sharaf’s 1994 book, Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich as source for this information), “from 1930 onwards, Reich became more interested in his patients’ physical responses during therapy sessions, and toward the late 1930s, he began to violate several of psychoanalysis’ great taboos. He began to sit next to his patients, rather than behind them, and started touching them. He would ask his male patients to undress down to their shorts, and sometimes to undress entirely, and his female patients down to their bra and panties” (in order to break through their “armor” and release their blocked flow of orgone energy). Of course, as with everything in Birdland, Gilbert takes this notion and exaggerates it to a ridiculous extreme. Rather than the awkward groping implied in Reich’s case, Fritz’s “sexual healing” includes oral sex, intercourse and group sex, in all sorts of bizarre positions and scenarios.


“The Secret of Why”

 At their most fundamental level, the characters in Birdland are all searching for answers to some of life’s most profound questions. Who are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? It may sound preposterous to imply that a smut-filled comic book has such lofty intellectual aspirations, but the evidence is riddled throughout the book.
For example, right off the bat, on the second page, in the midst of the first of many orgasms, Mark Herrera claims to have glimpsed “the answer…the secret of why,” only to have it disappear like a wisp of smoke as soon as his climax recedes. This reference to “a secret” is a direct jab at Reich’s belief that “orgone energy” is “life energy,” god-like in its power. In the throes of his orgasm, Mark thinks that he is glimpsing God and, recognizing the magnitude of the moment, asks Bang to get him pen and paper so he can write down what he sees but, of course, the vision fades too quickly. Thus he is compelled to try over and over again, each time pushing sexual boundaries further until he finds the meaning he is searching for. This misguided search is the crux of the parody throughout the book as one character after another seeks fulfillment and understanding through compulsive fornication.
But the truth they seek proves elusive. Rather than bringing them closer to God, their sexual explorations become increasingly desperate until, by the end of the first section, the characters are so completely out of control, they have become slaves to their own libidos.

The Aliens

It wasn’t until A Book of Dreams was released that people realized the extent of Wilhelm Reich’s paranoid delusions in his later years.  Among his many outrageous theories, Reich believed that aliens were depleting the orgone energy in the atmosphere which was causing famines, droughts and strange weather patterns, as well as all kinds of psychological and health problems for people on earth, and that he had to fight them off to protect humanity.  In his memoir, Peter, who was only 12 years old when his father died, described how his father made him “a sergeant in the Corps of cosmic engineers” that protected the earth from UFO attacks.
We are really engaged in a cosmic war.  Peeps, you must be very brave and very proud, for we are the first human beings to engage in a battle to the death with spaceships.  We know now that they are destroying our atmosphere, perhaps by drawing off orgone energy as fuel or by emitting DaR as exhaust.
(In a couple of scenes, Inez refers to Bang using the nickname “Weeps,” another subtle example of Gilbert’s satirical intentions.) Although Hernandez doesn’t go into much depth regarding the “cosmic war” which Peter Reich described, the notion of aliens siphoning off orgone energy is central to the plot of Birdland.  In the beginning of the book, the aliens seem harmless and relatively benign, silently observing the spectacular feats of sexuality like cosmic voyeurs, remaining out of sight and uninvolved.  But by the end of the first section, it’s clear that they are interested in these particular characters because they’ve achieved the highest degrees of “orgiastic potency” and therefore, according to Reich’s theories, release the most orgone energy.

The full extent of the aliens’ plan is finally revealed near the end of the first section, when all the main characters are taken into “the belly of the ship.”  While everyone is caught up in the sexual frenzy on the UFO, two subtle captions meant to represent the aliens’ thoughts hover over the scene: “no secrets” and “no material possessions.”  These two simple phrases imply that a full break from human civilization is needed in order to maximize their sexual potency.

But there is one small problem — Fritz.  While all the other characters surrender completely to the orgy, Fritz’s emotional resistance poses a threat to the aliens’ plans.  On page 63, the aliens’ thoughts reveal their dilemma.  “One still resists … Her will is strong; she enjoys the physical pleasure, but her mind, her soul holds fast …”  These thoughts reinforce the notion that the aliens need their human captives to surrender completely to the cycle of endless sexuality so they can purify the resultant orgone energy.

All of these over-the-top situations — the intergalactic orgy, the plan to use human sexual energy as fuel, the aliens’ need for humans to relinquish all emotions — are ridiculous scenarios established to illustrate the ideal world according to Reich, while at the same time, making a mockery of his theories.  But as the book progresses, Gilbert delves deeper into his own metaphor.  After realizing the risk Fritz’s resistance poses to their master plan, the aliens try to force her to succumb by bringing her and Mark together (again their thoughts echo this plan: “She must let go…and only one may convince her”) while simultaneously attempting to destroy her golden heart pendant.

The Golden Heart Pendant

Fritz’s pendant is an important symbol in the book.  The heart-shaped necklace is a symbol of love in both a general, emotional sense, and in particular, it refers to the love between Fritz and Mark.  Even when she threatens to divorce him, or when Mark sleeps with other women, it is Fritz who, in both a literal and metaphoric sense, holds his heart in her hands.
In the beginning of the book, Fritz uses this pendant to hypnotize her patients during therapy sessions.  Later, her sister, Petra, steals the pendant and uses it to seduce Mark for herself, a plan which backfires when Petra discovers that Mark’s heart — his true feelings — are still focused on Fritz.  But in the scene aboard the UFO, when one of the aliens steals the pendant and tries to destroy it by casting it back to earth, Fritz suddenly wakes up and realizes what the locket really means, not just to her individually, but as a symbol of love in the world.  Defying her alien captors, she snaps out of her sexual stupor and leaps from the ship, risking her life to save it, claiming that “if the pendant ith dethtroyed upon impact…” (or, in other words, if love is eradicated from human society, leaving only emotionless sexuality), “it can have theriouth thocio/political ramificathionth.”
Just as the pendant is about to crash onto the surface, Gilbert spins readers off into a bizarre alternate reality in which the locket has been destroyed.  In this alternate world, all of the characters have
“The Answer”

The first character to discover what’s really going on is Bang.  Having been observed by the aliens since she was 8 years old (as shown on the very first page of the book), Bang realizes it is the aliens who have been pulling the strings all along.  Since she is the only one who retains any memory of the aliens and their plan, Bang has taken over for Fritz and is working as a psychotherapist.  On page 69, after a sexual encounter with Dr. Bang frees her mind, Fritz finally understands “the answer.”
According to Fritz, it is “tho thimple; the anthwer ith in everything, in everyday object, but it ith tho hard for the average citithen to recognithe the thignth, let alone remember them.”  This single line of dialogue is as close to a statement of personal philosophy as readers get in Birdland, but it is more than enough. Through Fritz, Hernandez is arguing that the presence of God is all around us; that the beauty of everyday objects and people are evidence of this, and that love is much more important in a person’s overall sense of happiness than their sexual activity.  Unfortunately, as Fritz points out, most people are blinded to this simple truth, and don’t want to take anything on faith.  Rather, they need proof, tangible scientific evidence of a higher power, thus they foolishly find comfort and solace in things like Reich’s concept of orgone energy.  To Gilbert, this is a delusion, a fantasy and a philosophical cop-out.
Once Fritz realizes this truth, she returns to normal, transforming back to a woman.  But while she has reached enlightenment, she realizes that her work is far from finished.  All of the other characters (with the exception of Bang) as well the readers, have yet to come to this same realization.  Addressing the readers, she says that “We all have tho much work ahead of uth, my dear, but we can’t get thtarted until you’re set free ath well …”

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