There isn’t a lot of room for erotica in superhero comics. It’s a genre tailored for mass market appeal, and while there are plenty of sexualized characters, explicit sexual content has a ceiling at publishers like Marvel and DC. Chip Zdarsky and Kris Anka are two creators with a passion for erotic art; Zdarsky is the co-creator of Image Comics’ Sex Criminals and Anka has a reputation for drawing sultry pin-up commissions and heightening the beefcake factor of Marvel heroes. They’ve teamed up for The White Trees, a two-part fantasy story following a group of former war buddies reunited when their children disappear together. Zdarsky and Anka don’t have any content restrictions at Image, and they take advantage of this freedom to explore how eroticism can heighten dramatic stakes while titillating readers.
Featuring colors by Matthew Wilson and letters by Aditya Bidikar, The White Trees #1 (Image) leads with crisp, evocative storytelling rather than doubling down on the sex right away. That comes toward the end, when the trio of heroes are seduced by forest spirits that prey on their desires and try to distract them from their mission with a rainbow-colored orgy. Zdarsky’s dialogue-centric scripting is refreshing in a genre that favors narration for world building, revealing important pieces of information through character interactions so that the exposition is tied to emotional development. There’s a larger history here, but the reader doesn’t need to know all of it to engage with this smaller-scale narrative.
The White Trees benefits by keeping the focus tight on three former soldiers whose emotional baggage has piled up over the years. The kidnapping of their kids brings them together, but it’s the children’s coupling that really brings out the drama, forcing them all to deal with the possibility that this reunion might end up being long-term if the young romance endures. Anka’s work on Runaways with Rainbow Rowell and Matthew Wilson was a significant level up in terms of character acting and laying out scenes so that the nuances of the interaction come through. Wilson’s work on Runaways helped him earn his second Eisner Award for Best Colorist this year, and The White Trees is a gorgeous showcase of how he reinforces tone with his palettes, shapes linework with light and shade, and adds speed and force to action sequences with bright pops of color.
The silent first page sets up an atmosphere of sadness and loss in an environment of growth and beauty as Sir Krylos’ farming is interrupted by a royal party, contrasting Krylos’ somber expression with his lush surroundings. That somberness plays a big part in this issue’s massive sex scene, and while his mates succumb to the temptation, Krylos’ joyless soul gives the spirits no desire to exploit. The sexual content isn’t just here to show off how well Anka draws different kinds of naked bodies engaging in various sex acts. The sex is a tool for dissecting character. What makes Anka’s erotic art so empowering is the strength, confidence, and delight that exudes from his characters, and like the environment in the first scene, the debaucherous setting for the orgy sets a point of contrast that intensifies Krylos’ sadness.