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Tuesday 29 April 2008

Mitchell's A to Z of Fetish Art - A.Jay (Ajay) (revised 2018)

Ajay (Al Shapiro) is best known for his 1960's & 70's Harry Chess* Comic Strips, in which the eponymous hero together with his FUGG* sidekicks, Mickey Muscle and Rancid Agnew, investigate mysteries, erotic happenings and strange disappearances.
*There's a good round-up of acronyms and characters in the wiki article on Harry Chess

Harry Chess and The Python

They invariably end up in improbable, sexy situations, get captured by the bad guys and are subjected to sexual abuse, highly inventive tortures and near-death experiences. Harry Chess himself often bears the brunt of these imaginings. In the true B-movie tradition, his demise in the frame above is intended to be the result of his friends arriving and opening the door, but he manages to eject the gun barrel (unaided !) just in time. According to the Leather Archives Blog the Harry Chess (Hairy Chest) persona was originally inspired by Ajay's own hairy torso.

from Bang Kock Wong

Being a cool, gay hero, Harry finds time to appreciate the manly side of his opponents. His regular catch phrase involves variations on the theme 'Be still my beating heart'. It's an expression with classical origins (not surprisingly), but was more recently transformed into unforgettable, high camp by Gilbert and Sullivan in 'HMS Pinafore'

Ralph:   Josephine, I am a British sailor, and I love you!
Josephine: Sir, this audacity! 
(Aside.) Oh, my heart, my beating heart!

 There are plenty of humorous allusions to Ajay's Jewish background running through these adventures too (recheck that catch phrase if you didn't notice the connection first time). The frames are also littered (literally) with irrelevant, comical one-liners written on notices and scraps of paper.

from Bang Kock Wong

In dealing with these tricky situations Harry reveals qualities not usually associated with being gay, certainly not in the 60's. Thus he does not allow sexual attraction to distract him from his mission and is man enough to put a bigger bully in his place - and with his arms tied behind his back too! He also manages to look sexy doing it and underlies his cool-ness and gay-ness with camp quips. It's all nonsense of course and very James Bond, but nevertheless it projects an amazingly positive image of gayness and of what gays can be in a period which is just a few years on from the homosexual witch-hunts of the 1950's. In the UK at this time Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams (of 'Carry On' fame) were still seen  as typical representatives of the homosexual community and 'Are You Being Served?' was still seven years in the future.
from Bang Kock Wong

Equally gratifyingly, those villains who fail to defeat Chess and his friends suffer terrible retribution from their master. This isn't totally surprising, 'Goldfinger' and 'Thunderball' were released at the same time and displayed similar morality - and I might add a comparable degree of political incorrectness. Despite the humour, Ajay's brand of sexual sadism surprises, even today.

from Bang Kock Wong
At times, the strips are surprisingly explicit for their time, not just in terms of showing male anatomy but sexual practices too. Fisting is cunningly disguised here as an imaginary technique for racking a victim or tearing him limb from limb. Open expression and sharing of such forbidden, dark things (fisting that is!) and celebration of all things anal (of which we've already seen other examples) contributed to make the flowering of gay sexual liberation in the 60's more complete and real.
This is us and we're not ashamed, Ajay is saying.

Harry's dramatic spread-eagle in this scene distracts attention from his two friends Mickey and Rancid, who are tied up and watching helplessly (but appreciatively) from the bottom corner.
It's an easily missed but rather sexy detail.

from The Curse of Kalua Blewa
This sexy detail is rather more obvious! While Harry here is being 'milked' along with with Rancid  his laid-back sidekick, Mickey Muscle takes one for the team in the background. It's a fate that often befalls him due to his muscular, gymnastics-honed body and appealing boyish looks which villains find irresistable.

from 'The Daredevil Doll' (click to expand)
Mickey's character is as well developed as Harry's in the series. He's not just cute on the outside, he's also a lot cuter inside than his usual monosyllabic dialogue (Gee!) suggests. In this example Mickey attracts the attentions of a fellow gym user while casing the joint under the pretext of working out. At first his verbal resistance is readily quelled by a forceful approach and an intimate touch, it seems.....
(Do you recognise a current issue here? Twas ever Weinstein). 

from 'The Daredevil Doll' (click to expand)

However, like Harry, Mickey shows he is focused enough
and strong enough to put the would-be seducer in his place.

He then comes up with an inspired method of saving his friends from the notorious 'Cincinnati Ball Torture', (an ingenious, slow-roasting combination of tethering chains and red hot coals).
"I'll give them a dusting of salt, later on" the villain had promised. Well I'm not going there!

from Villy Vatson (click to expand)
Mickey comes to the rescue again in Villy Vatson, 
drawing on his gymnastic training this time to rescue Harry from the drop into the man grinder, 
one of Ajay's less subtle termination procedures. 
For some reason I find these naked buddy escapes and rescues far more erotic that naked wrestling!

from Bang Kock Wong

The third member of the band, Rancid Agnew, features less prominently in the adventures, though he does get his share of danger, torture and abuse, as illustrated here when he joins his friends adrift in the sea and tethered to a live mine (whose phallic qualities suddenly become apparent).

Rancid's contribution is usually limited to pithy comments such as Cool!, Right On! suggesting an excessive interest in plant products. His name (and possibly the passive persona too) is probably a swipe at Spiro Agnew , a highly conservative politician who was Vice President under Richard Nixon. He was highly critical of anti-Vietnam War and civil right protesters in the 60's. Like Nixon he was brought down by the Watergate scandal in 1973.

The Harry Chess comic strips are full of allusions to events and personalities of their era, which of course is part of their raison d'etre, appealing to the interests and values of it's audience. In doing so it succeeds (possibly unintentionally) in asserting a gay, cultural identity which is much more than it's sexual practices and has a political dimension prepared to push back against oppressive ideas. We can scarcely imagine how heart-warming this was for gay men outside the big cities who still felt isolated and alone. Inevitably this aspect of Ajay's work is becoming more impenetrable as time goes by. For now at least you can usually find the names mentioned in them via the Internet.

from Villy Vatson
This scene (and the preceding one) gives some idea of Ajay's wider artistic capability for conjuring up atmosphere and drama without using words. The watery tunnel with it's bats and lurking sea creature is full of Freudian symbolism and the friends wade into the darkness totally naked and defenceless.
This would make a great film!

In Part 2 I will explore the sensual qualities of Ajay's work.

for other A-Z articles click on the label below or search using the artist index page or the search facilities in bloggers navigation bar or top right sidebar

This article was completely rewritten in Jan 2018
(ref 860)


Anonymous said...

Is the Ajay humour New York or San Francisco?A fab artist. I thk we lost him the usual way?

Mitchell said...

Thanks for your comment, I'm not qualified to assess US regional humour types I'm afraid! Yes he died of AIDS.

Anonymous said...

The combination of political and Jewish humor is largely an East Coast [i.e. New York] phenomenon. California is too diverse to spawn such ethnic humor. However, since people do travel and change residences they will naturally take their perspective and since of humor with them.

P.S. I'm a great fan of A. Jay's work, and "Harry Chess" in particular.