By Eric Burkett
Where were you when you learned Tom of Finland had died? Perhaps among similar scenarios – the assassination of Kennedy (either of them, actually), the Challenger explosion, or the attack on the World Trade center – it doesn't rank quite as meaningful to most of the world, but I do remember and I remember, too, that I felt a strong need to do something to mark the occasion.
I was 25 and ostensibly attending university in Montreal. I was working at Le Bar Lézard – the Lizard Bar – in Montreal's trendy Plateau Mont Royale neighborhood, as a barback. The popular dance bar drew a mixed clientele although it was primarily gay. Scene-conscious guys would show up during the week to dance and cruise while during the weekends the place filled with people the bar staff dismissed as curiosity seekers from les banlieus, the suburbs. Silent projection screens around the bar played old Quebecois television shows and Kenneth Anger film shorts. The Lézard's resident troupe of drag queens performed and mingled while Madame Simone, one of two cigarette girls, sashayed through the crowded dance floor on heels so high I worried for her with every twirl and pirouette.
Thinking about it, I don't remember how I found out that night. I don't remember who told me he had died nor even why it came up. We must have been talking about him (although up to that point, I learned a little later on, most of my co-workers had assumed I was straight, largely I think, because I was pretty uptight).
Tom, born Touko Laaksonen, died Nov. 7, 1991, from an emphysema-induced stroke in Helsinki. In the last few years of his life, he had switched from his finely detailed pencil and charcoal drawings to pastels because the disease had left his hands unable to perform the detail-oriented work for which he was known. Despite that, even his later work is strong and conveys the same love and enthusiasm he put into his earliest work, drawn in those first early days purely for his own enjoyment. The story goes he often drew much of his work while naked, turned on by the stories he illustrated, and by the men who populated his imagination.
I am struck most notably by the sheer innocence of Tom's work. Yeah, there's fucking. There's fisting, There's cock sucking and rimming, to say nothing of bondage, flogging, and coercion. Pornographic? Absolutely. But innocent? I stand by my assertion.
Just look at Tom's men (and try not to think about the real life consequences of being fucked by one of them). Their sex is unhindered by worries of being discovered, although, as a means to advance the storyline in any number of his comics it happens often enough. There's clearly no shame, although good-natured embarrassment crops up from time to time, too. Tom's guys fuck with abandon, delighting in each other and themselves. For these men, sex is as much about fun as it is about simply getting off or, in heavier scenarios, dominating other men who are clearly in need of it, even if they don't realize it themselves until several panels into the story.
Mostly, however, you see it in their eyes. Tom's men are earnest and, well, to put it plainly, a little simple. These are good guys with basically one interest in life and, despite the occasional presence of a clueless wife or a disapproving, seemingly straight male, sex is what they do. Jobs are means to hot encounters with their sexy co-workers or, often enough, passing bikers. Even trespassers, inattentive postal carriers, and criminals burgling houses are really all just looking for sex.
And, yet, despite that simplicity – or maybe because of it – Tom's men strike a chord with gay men. In Tom's world, there's no anxiety about how they have sex, or with whom. Sex is a natural, often urgent, part of life and it's accepted as easily as one might agree to a cup of coffee or dinner plans. In Tom's world, the men are comfortable with themselves and they've found, and happily settled into, their places in life.
It isn't just that Tom's men are hot, and they are, it's that Tom's men are supremely confident. They don't suffer from the anxieties gay men have labored under for countless years. In Tom's world, men don't worry about whether they're good enough for the guy they're interested in; Tom's men live in an egalitarian paradise where all men are potential sexual partners and all men are accepted by one another as such.
In a sense, Tom's work is more of an ideal rather than a mere depiction of beefcake or enticing sexual scenarios. Tom's world represents a gay man's utopia, a place where he can simply be himself, enjoying those around him in a carefree world of brotherhood, reaffirming sex, and self-confidence.
When I learned that Tom had died, I finished my shift at the bar and made my way home, cutting through Parc La Fontaine, which even at 3 am in the middle of winter could be quite cruisy. I got to my apartment, and probably after rummaging through the kitchen for something to eat, I dug through my porn collection. I don't remember which of Tom's comic books or pictorials I had at that time, but I found one that appealed to me at that particular moment, opened the pages, and began poring over the pictures, letting myself be turned on by the working's of Tom's imagination.
My hands found their way to my cock and I began to beat off, taking in the muscles, the dangerously enormous cocks, and the characters' unbridled enthusiasm. I beat off, thinking about the men I loved and lusted for, thinking about men I had played with before. And then I came, hard and satisfied. Like Tom's men.
I think he would have appreciated that.