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Sarah, as she appeared in the original version of the Monster Porn t-shirt design

This is a story about how I almost screwed up a design job because I accidentally drew tentacle porn. 


The visual formula for horror is essentially exploitation; it’s an excuse to push the boundaries of how you portray sexuality and violence because as a visual genre horror is concerned with subjects that engage the viewer through visual shock.

Within this framework, women occupy a complicated space.  Women are often the heroes of horror, a phenomenon referred to as the “Final Girl.”  At the same time, women often exist within horror to satisfy the male gaze, acting as the visual focal point for the violent and sexual aesthetic of the exploitation formula.

This formula is visually apparent in much of my work, which often falls into the category of horror.

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Something is Wrong (2017) a surreal horror pinup

Within my own work, women are often the main subject; they are the “hero” and the picture tells a story about them, often one in which they are menaced by some type of monster.  At the same time, the female subject typically conforms to a set of aesthetic values which one might refer to as hypersexualized imagery due to the presence of thigh high stockings and impossible curves.  

So perhaps, given my own history of creating art that was heavily inspired by the visual language of horror, I had set myself on an irreversible trajectory to collaborate with something called “Monster Porn.”

Despite the name, the Monster Porn podcast was primarily concerned with creating fiction which pushed the boundaries of narrative horror by combining such disparate elements as furry culture and body horror.

And they needed t-shirts.

The initial pitch was concerned with finding a way to combine elements of multiple stories into one cohesive design:

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A very rough sketch of what would eventually become the Monster Porn t-shirt

“Okay, this is super rough, but the basic idea would be that the mermaid and her crush are singing to each other, and above their heads, like as a giant thought bubble, there’s a collage of scenes and characters from all the various episodes of Monster Porn, with the logo at the very top…”

Nic Calavera, T-shirt Design Pitch for Monster Porn

The only real constraint on the project was that the design had to condense all of the gore and bodily fluids that oozed from the Monster Porn library into an image that could be worn in public and not get a person banned from the mall.

“We have to avoid looking like we are *actually* porn.”

Bret Norwood, Monster Porn

I was up to the challenge. 

Despite my preferences, I did not want to be known as the artist that only draws “monsters and tits.”  I wanted to prove that I could draw things besides curvaceous women being stalked by phallic, leering monsters.  And so of course, my solution was to draw “monster porn.”

  “That’ll show ’em.”

Nic Calavera

The illustration job progressed incredibly quickly, due in no small part to Monster Porn co-creator Bret Norwood’s detailed design notes and the accompanying episode art which Bret drew himself.

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An example of Bret’s art from the episode “Some Fursonas Are Ancient.” 

Perhaps because of the speed at which the project developed, or perhaps because Bret and I were both so in tune with the particular horror aesthetic that Monster Porn evoked, the project felt much more like a collaborative effort than a typical freelance illustration job.

It was also much bigger than the work I had done previously.  Measuring approximately 14 x 16 inches and featuring 13 different characters and elements from 7 different stories, the t-shirt design was by far the largest and most detailed thing I had ever designed for a client.

So maybe Bret and I just trusted each other enough not to second guess what the other was doing.  Or maybe the sheer scale and amount of detail made us sloppy in our visual inspections.

In any case, late in the illustration process, when the image was already inked and mostly colored, Bret had the unfortunate task of informing me that I had screwed up by doing the one thing Monster Porn had told me not to do: I accidentally drew porn.

“We just noticed that Sarah’s pants are open, which…well, gives off a bit more of a rapey vibe than we’re comfortable putting on a t-shirt…

Any chance you can close her fly?”

Bret Norwood, Monster Porn

My first thought on reading Bret’s message was: I didn’t do that, did I?

Of course not.

I would remember if I drew tentacles molesting someone.  That’s not the type of imagery that you just drop into an illustration and then forget about.

Except I totally did.

Upon closer inspection, I had drawn the character Sarah with her jeans unzipped and her panties exposed, a tentacle thrusting towards her nether regions in an unmistakable prelude to something unsavory.

But how did this even happen?

It’s difficult to explain.

But, it helps to understand the visual language of horror and the way in which visuals are often meant to represent something beyond their literal meaning.

This goes back at least as far as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).  Sure, there’s a basic story there about an ancient vampire stalking young women, a plotline that’s sure to seem familiar to fans of slasher films, but it’s also a story that’s fraught with sexual implications that are not apparent at first glance.

“Dracula is “a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match […]”

Elizabeth Miller quoting from Maurice Richardson in her essay “Coitus Interruptus: Sex, Bram Stoker, and Dracula”

In “The Psychoanalysis of Count Dracula” (1991), Maurice Richardson suggests an interpretation of Dracula as a struggle between an evil father figure hording all of the sexually available young women hostage and the young men who must kill him in order to “destroy his sexual monopoly.” (Miller)  Meanwhile, in “The Monster in the Bedroom: Sexual Symbolism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1972), Christopher Bentley pointed out that the ubiquitous stake associated with vampire hunting is an obvious phallic symbol and that the act of draining blood from a victim is probably meant to represent the exchange of sexual fluids.

Christopher Lee as Dracula in “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1970). 

As horror and exploitation intersect, this leads to some interesting genre conventions.  

For example, a lot of people don’t remember that the original Halloween (1978) features several scenes of gratuitous nudity and sex interspersed between grisly murders.  From an exploitation standpoint, this makes sense.  But it also serves a thematic purpose as an unspoken element of Halloween is about the quiet suburban horror of unsupervised teens and sexual repression.

P.J. Soles in Halloween (1978)

Similarly, films like “The Last House on the Left” (1972) featured graphic sexual violence, but in context, the imagery can be understood as parental angst about a post-1960s America where “free love” has died and left behind a violent and degenerate subculture. 

Last House on the Left (1972)

All of this is to say that horror imbues meaning in shocking visuals beyond their ability to arouse certain base responses in a viewer.  The peril of this is that tropes become visual shorthand, often without an appreciation for the implications of an image.

And I think that’s what happened with “Monster Porn.”  We were focused on the aesthetic, using the visual shorthand that we had cultivated through years of studying classics in the genre, but we didn’t stop to think about the implications of the imagery that we chose.

“Climax of Two-Sided Sarah — A woman (see ep character model) on a jogging path tangles with an alien plant/tentacle monster growing out of a meteor containing a green stone.”

Bret’s notes on the Monster Porn episode “Two-Sided Sarah”

I vividly remember sketching Sarah’s pose because I had wanted it to feel dynamic and claustrophobic all at once, and it was a rare instance where the initial sketch that I drew ended up being good enough without several anatomical revisions.  As I was drawing, the “demonic tree” scene from Evil Dead (1981) was playing on loop in my head, a factor which I’m sure influenced my decision to unbutton Sarah’s pants. 

The curious thing is that I didn’t really give that design choice any thought because I was working in the horror genre.

In any other context I like to think I would have hesitated to imply something sexual occurring with the tentacles.  But, as a component of a horror illustration, it just seemed right because I had seen it so many times before.  Sarah, to me, was just another element in an aesthetic that I was trying to achieve.

And ultimately, that was the wrong mindset to have when working on the design.  Because as an artistic endeavor, the Monster Porn podcast had always been concerned with avoiding the pitfalls of genre tropes, and they deserved better than what I gave them when I drew Sarah. 

So, I am grateful that Bret caught it and that through the magic of digital editing I was able to fix it.  And the truth is, the image doesn’t suffer due to the lack of implied tentacle rape (as is generally the case with these things).

So what’s the lesson?  

Illustration as both an art and a job requires you to make a lot of decisions about what you show and what you don’t show.  Storytelling is very similar.

Part of the decline of storytelling in horror is due to the fact that creators have abdicated the responsibility for making these choices, instead electing to just show everything.  Often, that’s the wrong choice.

As artists, its incumbent on us to make those hard choices and ensure that the imagery we choose says something meaningful.  Otherwise we’re just machines manufacturing more pretty detritus to throw on the garbage pile of disposable entertainment.

My Monster Porn t-shirt is out now.  Click on the image below to go to the Monster Porn store and stock up just in time for Spooksmas!

T-shirt design for the Monster Porn podcast