The publication of Ungerer’s Fornicon in 1969 shocked most of his American fans, but to those who knew him best it was no surprise at all. Alongside his more mainstream and ‘acceptable’ illustration work, he was making a name for himself with his anti-war and anti-segregation posters; he was also thinking deeply about the way in which sex in America had become at the same time so commercial and so taboo.
Here is how he describes the creation and reception of Fornicon in the introduction to the 2002 compilation Erotoscope:
The first edition was privately circulated and had a print run of a mere hundred copies, I paid for the whole thing. Back then, taboos still meant fear. Fornicon was the natural offspring of an emancipation. It, was like a champagne cork coming out of a bottle, with my imagination kissing, licking, prodding and ravaging a whole tribe of delicious muses drunk on the discovery of a realm of boundless pleasure.
Above all, the book is a satire on the American obsession with profit. Over there even the love that people make comes prefabricated, and sad to say machines are slowly taking the place of the things that people are too afraid to do themselves.
To the American way of thinking, a machine is a sort of guarantee, reassuring in its predictability. If you control it properly you get a sense of freedom, and any model can be adapted to your own tastes. The end result is a total absence of physical contact, where everything passes through a machine. A vibrator can work miracles, even in a place like a restaurant where no one else can see it.
I started out in life as a clockmaker, and there’s something of that in these Fornicon devices. My father was an inventor, and he patented a number of different mechanisms. He was cunning enough always to put in a few useless cogs so that no one could quite see how it worked and steal his invention. My machines caused something of a scandal because they were so explicit when it came to anatomical details. The drawing style is highly technical, clinical even.
The book was banned in England, and Daniel Keel, my Swiss publisher, was called in for questioning by the police. I was very pleased about that.
But I can’t help feeling that these machines aren’t so stupid after all. Everyone should be allowed to get their pleasure however they can. That goes for lonely old widows, wrinkled like old apples, just as it goes for a physically repugnant middle-aged man, obese and covered with pustules.
The people who were most hostile to this book were feminists, but I actually wrote it to give them a few ideas. I wanted to show how you can monkey about with the erectile supremacy of a man – he’s easily outclassed by a gadget you can turn on and off with a little button. It’ll stay up all night too!
Though shunned in the English-speaking world (not actually banned as Ungerer liked to relate), Fornicon went on to become a bestseller in the Diogenes German-language edition (as if the images needed a language other than visual!).