I was 14, on a family vacation. At a museum gift shop, a book cover caught my eye: a big muscleman in shiny leather against a brightly coloured backdrop. Thinking it was some kind of superhero comic, I ran over and opened it. Splayed across the two-page spread was a giant erect cock being stomped on by an equally giant shiny leather boot.
That was my first introduction to Tom of Finland. My appreciation remains the same, but my ability to browse his books in public places has deepened. And since then Tom of Finland has grown from a cottage industry to something akin to the gay General Motors. If people haven’t heard of Touko Laaksonen himself then they certainly know the Tom Man: square-jawed, broad-V torso, a butt so inflated you could bounce quarters off of it and, let us never forget, the cock, a monster protuberance with balls like sandbags and a head that shines like the Liberty Bell.
Taschen has been the chief perpetuator of the Tom of Finland industry ever since its 2002 monograph The Art of Pleasure. This year bookstore shelves are creaking under the pendulous weight of Tom of Finland XXL, a definitive mammoth collection of everything ever produced by the Finnish fornicator. Extra large, indeed: The book is three inches thick, a foot and a half wide, a foot high and clocks in at about 13 pounds!
The book’s format allows for amazing reproductions (all of a sudden, you can see individual pencil lines). Most of the book is a delicacy; the precise tonal shading that characterizes his finished work achieves a whole new level of sumptuous fidelity. But this isn’t always a good thing; some of these drawings are reproduced at more than double their original size. What looked polished and precise in a small-format magazine looks scratchy and messy on such a huge scale.
There are scores of essays: Armistead Maupin, Edward Lucie-Smith, Camille Paglia, John Waters. Editor Dian Hanson tackles women in Tom’s world, lamenting the lack of a Tomasina of Finland (somebody needs to introduce her to GB Jones and fast!). But really, the essays are the frilly underwear around the main package, and Tom, irrepressible as ever, comes bursting through.
I prefer the early Tom of the 1940s and ’50s. No less horny, his boys hadn’t yet been codified into what Waters calls his iconic “butch-elegance.” His earlier boys are dandies, lithe and kittenish, the sense of humour lighter and more impish. Rendered in delicate watercolour, they don’t have the stolid heaviness of his more famous graphite drawings. Still, one of the great pleasures of the leafing through the 660-odd pages of XXL is watching Tom’s progression. By the ’60s he lands in a firm style. From there, page by page, one watches the style refine itself. By the ’80s his graphite illustrations are polished and masterly, achieving a delicacy of light and a deep richness of tone, his boys looking like burnished bronze statues.
And if you think all this is beside the point, I beg to differ: Tom was an illustrator at the service of his erection (he famously said that the state of his dick was an infallible barometer of the quality of his drawing). The deepening of his craft also deepened the gorgeousness, the splendour and the jaw-dropping hotness of his fantasy boys.