Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester
by Bob Levin
Fantagraphics Books, 200 pages, $19.99.
This was a tough book for me to review. I kept finding myself sitting down at the computer to type only to be possessed by a desperate desire to write about something else.
It was also a tough book for me to read at times, the main reason no doubt being that the assumed name author Bob Levin picked for one of the main characters in this sad tale is the same as my young daughter’s.
Yet Most Outrageous is one of the most moving, compelling and important books Fantagraphics will publish this year, not because it advances the cause of comics or offers some great sequential art revelation or shines some light on a heretofore little known but great artist — it’s really only tangentially about comics. Rather, what makes it great is the way it touches upon issues of how art and life intersect in often ugly ways, how families members can damage each other in unforgivable ways, how the ghosts of your past can reappear in ways you never expected and how heartrendingly clumsy our legal system is at uncovering the “truth.”
Most Outrageous tells the story of Hustler cartoonist Dwaine Tinsley, a man who built himself up from a poverty-stricken and extremely hardscrabble upbringing (Levin’s recounting of Tinsley’s traumatic childhood is one of the more harrowing parts of the book) to become the cartoon editor at one of the most infamous and established skin mags of the late 20th century.
His gag cartoons for the magazine that Larry Flynt built didn’t just cross the line of good taste, they broadly strode across it, then jumped up and down and thumbed their nose, screaming “nyeah, nyeah, nyeah” at the reader. They were often fueled by white-hot righteous anger, aimed squarely at Republicans, televangelists and anyone who he saw as profiting on someone else’s gullibility or bad luck.
Nowhere is that gleeful/vicious sense of impropriety more apparent than in Tinsley’s most infamous creation, Chester the Molester, an ugly, middle-aged lout who attempts to court prepubescent girls whenever possible, usually through surreptitious means, such as disguising his penis as a hot dog or his scrotum as Easter eggs.
It was these cartoons that became Exhibit A when Tinsley’s daughter accused him of sexually abusing her repeatedly over a five-year period. For his part, he steadfastly refuted the charges, arguing that this was merely her attempt to get back at him for throwing her out of the house. She had a longstanding drug problem and was trying to extort money from him. He was completely innocent.
But for the DA and the members of the jury, those Chester cartoons were a smoking gun. As Levin writes, “To those in the front lines of the war against child sexual abuse, Dwaine must have seemed the Target of the Decade. He worked for the most despised magazine in the country. He had created the most reviled character in cartoon history. And he thought child molestation — the most loathsome bogeyman than rattling our national imagination — a fit topic for humor. One can imagine what the district attorney thought when Veronica told her story. It was a story that had to be true. It was a crime that had to be punished. It was a case that could not be lost.”
So did Tinsley molest his daughter? Was he a monster or just a bad dad who tried to atone for the early abandonment of his daughter only to have it thrown back in his face? Did he deserve to be punished for making fun of a horrific subject? Was he just a victim of the child abuse scares that were going across the country at the time or was there something more sinister going on here?
As with the documentary Capturing the Friedmans, Levin shows just how hard it is to strip away the layers and discover that core nugget of truth. Neither Tinsley nor his daughter ever budge from their accounts of what happened, and while Levin ultimately favors Tinsley’s side of the story, he does so tentatively, with full recognition that he may be wrong, or that even if he’s right, that doesn’t necessarily absolve Tinsley.
If Levin has any vitriol at all, it’s for the justice system that jailed Tinsley largely based on circumstantial evidence, namely, his cartoons. While some may see it as a one to one ratio, Levin takes pains to exonerate the art work, to put it in its proper place as satire aimed at confronting you with mankind’s house of horrors rather than reveling in its excesses.
All this is captured with Levin’s wonderful idiosyncratic prose. Levin is one of those writers who can’t help but insert himself into his story, a fact which can either delight or frustrate the reader depending upon the subject at hand and their tolerance for that sort of behavior. His books The Pirates and the Mouse and Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers and Pirates are filled with footnotes and asides, sometimes from his wife, Adele.
That kind of self-conscious writing could have easily scuttled a book like this, but Levin is as graceful as he is intimate. His refusal to claim any sort of omniscient narrator stance actually helps the book. As we struggle to understand Tinsley and his daughter, so too does Levin, and his articulation of his struggle helps define and shape our own.
Most Outrageous tells a very sad story. At times it’s extremely uncomfortable and painful read, though that’s more due to the content than Levin’s abilities as a writer. In truth, this is an amazingly powerful and rich book that deserves to be read by as many people as possible. Don’t let it’s dour subject matter keep you away from it.