In her unabashed exploration of the body, Hayes stands within a tradition of women animators in the USA that began in the 1970s. Susan Pill’s film Asparagus, with its clear reference to the smells of piss and the shapes of shit, the dancing penises in Mary Beams’ short film Seed reel, and Ruth Hayes’ own languid journey around a female and male nude in Body Sketches challenged and changed the permissible content of “cartoons.” Leash Law, like many classics of feminist animation, gets light images to carry weighty implications. In July 1990 Hayes told Minnesota Public Radio that the idea for the book came from her reading of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, a psychoanalytical study of the Freikorps officers during the Weimar Republic. The throttling society Theweleit describes with its fear of following one’s desires and of doing what feels good reminded her, she said, of a dog’s choke-chain. In this book, as in Birthrite, Paranoia, and her 1990 Flip Book of the Dead (which quotes The Tibetan Book of the Dead on the first page), Hayes doesn’t illustrate a text but employs it as a jumping-off point. In short, these are not artsy Classic Comics. The major dialogue in Hayes’ works is between the body and those who would like to repress it. And unusually, unexpectedly, her bad guys are the less interesting half of this opposition. The child-killing television in T.V. Dinner, the enraged male sharp-shooter in Paranoia, and a money-hungry, jingoistic and militaristic preacher in The Flip book of Revelations (1987) are familiar enemies. But when Hayes enters the realm of the flesh she’s generally on less conventional territory. The “horny” frog in Frogs in Heat (1983) is a visual pun, but Hayes isn’t a dirty jokester: again, she’s fascinated with the way a tongue tickles, as an excited amphibian licks his/her mate. In Animal Husbandry (1986), she represents the lower half of the body a part we have so much trouble controlling as a blissful dog or a snarling wolf. Is it a wild beast or a domesticated pet? That question she never answers. In Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, My Cat’s in Heat and I’m Thinking of You (1990), a drawn cat turns over sensuously, as a woman, photographed in close-up, pulls up her fishnet stockings. The pages are printed on both sides, so you see both the left and right leg from painted toenails to thigh. Although I find black fishnets and painted toenails stereotypical and all-too easy signs of female sexuality, I like the way a cat rubbing a high-healed shoe represents and heightens the erotic in this flip book.
Perhaps it’s because of her directness that Hayes’ eroticism has an effect – on me at least. I’m partly surprised: I don’t expect a “child’s toy” to be so adult. And I’m pleased at my own surprise, for the avant-garde usually tries to jolt more than it succeeds. When I compare her flip books to those that come out of the conceptual art tradition like She herezade (1988) and This Book is Extremely Receptive (1989), both by artist Janet Zweig in collaboration with writer Holly Anderson – I’m struck by the emotionality, the heat of Hayes’ work. Zweig and Anderson also made books with text that should be read as well as flipped. And they share themes with Hayes: the media (This Book is Extremely Receptive contains dialogue from television shows) and gender (as Hayes noted in her 1990 lecture, Zweig enlarges and crops the word “Sheherezade” until it becomes “Sheher,” “heher” and “he”). But once I got the concept behind those two books – infinite repetition in Sheherezade and the communication of miscommunication in This Book is Extremely Receptive – I felt no great need to go back to them; the writing and artwork were not very rich or moving. (This is my reaction to much conceptual art. A clever and original concept is often more engaging than its realisation.) But despite Hayes’ recourse to over-used symbols, I find my hand reaching again for her flip books – my eyes get a little more out of them each time.
I am grateful to Karen Aqua, George Griffin, Julie Levinson, Esther Keller, Martin Koerber and Helga Wilkeiling for bringing various types and uses of flip books to my attention.
For further flipping:
Ruth Hayes’ twelve flip books are: Hot Licks (1980, updated edition 1988); T.V. Dinner (1981); Frogs in Heat (1983); Gluttony (1985); Animal Husbandry (1986); The Flip book of Revelations (1987); Sloth (1988); Birthrite (1988); Paranoia (1989); Leash Law (1989); Flip Book of the Dead (1990); Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, My Cat’s in Heat and I’m Thinking of You (1990). All are available from The Real Comet Press, 1463 East Republican #126, Seattle, WA 98112 (206-328-1801), or from Inland Book Co., 140 Commerce St., East Haven, CT 06512 (800-243-0138), at $4.95 each.
Janet Zweig and Holly Anderson’s Sheherezade and This Book is Extremely Receptive are available from Sheherezade, P.O. Box 9095, Long Island City, NY 11103, or from Printed Matter, 77 Wooster St., New York, NY 10012 at $30.00 and $20.00 respectively.
Printed in Animator Issue 29 (Spring 1992)