The late ’70s and early ’80s were a paradoxical time. Crime rates, including violent crime, peaked in the United States, and films had become notably darker and more violent, as well as more sexually daring in some ways. They had even started to address child and adolescent sexuality and child sexual abuse much more directly (and, it should be said, quite often controversially here in the states). Pretty Baby (1978), You Are Not Alone (1978), The Tin Drum (1979), Beau Pere (1981) and Pixote (1981) had all come out in this period. As you’ll note, all but one of these were foreign releases, and the exception, Pretty Baby, had a foreign director.
Meanwhile, the precedent for America’s treatment of these themes had been set by 1976’s Taxi Driver, it seems (ironically, a film about a psychotic man who is unable to process his own attraction to a 13-year-old prostitute–played by a young Jodie Foster—and consequently goes on a violent shooting spree.) This film, perhaps more than any other, I think encapsulates the American mindset with regard to child sexuality. In a very real sense America is Travis Bickle, and it isn’t surprising that Jodie Foster’s character from the film eventually inspired a very real Bicklesque lunatic, John Hinckley, Jr., to make an assassination attempt on President Reagan’s life.
But film wasn’t the only medium in which Europeans explored underage sexuality. There were also a few European comics working in this territory. Of course, they often came with about a metric crap-ton of qualifiers and subterfuge, so as to get around censors. Although comics are really a much better medium for addressing this topic than live-action film (given the fact that no real children need be involved), in some ways it has been even more subject to taboo than film has. This may be because comics had traditionally been thought of as a kids’ medium, which only began to shift after the Underground Comix revolution of the late ’60s. It was also in the late ’70s—1978 to be specific—that Europe gave birth to one of the most outrageous examples of comics dealing with underage sex, Tamburini and Liberatore’s RanXerox.
I have already mentioned how these explorations often used subterfuge to get around the censors, and RanXerox is the perfect example, for, although certain female protagonists of the series—including one of the main characters, Lubna—claimed to be 18 years old, it is visibly obvious that they are in fact much younger. Not that there aren’t extremely tiny, nearly flat-chested 18-year-olds in real life, but what are the odds that two of them would be friends? What’s clear here is that Stefano Tamburini and Gaetano “Tanino” Liberatore were conspiring to pull a fast one over on their readership, and for the most part they succeeded.
RanXerox got it’s start in a small Italian publication called Cannibale in 1978, but it really didn’t become well-known until the American sci-fi and erotica magazine Heavy Metal picked it up in June of 1983. Right from the get-go the series was controversial, not only because of its blatant sexual transgression and graphic violence but also because its original title, Rank Xerox, was a dead rip-off of a very real business entity. Eventually the title was shortened to RanXerox of course, but again, this was just a sly way to get around what was actually intended by its creators.
The story is set sometime in the future and revolves around RanXerox himself, an ultra-violent, snub-nosed musclebound cyborg constructed from parts of a copier machine (hence the name) and his precocious drug addicted girlfriend, the aforementioned Lubna. RanXerox is a Punk Age monster, a force of unchecked violence and rage, yet he is often mistreated by his young girlfriend, the only person he loves. She is therefore the only one who can actually tame his violent tendencies, though mostly she exploits his talents to clear obstacles from her own path. Richard Corben, another Heavy Metal alumnus, says it best:
RanXerox is a punk, futuristic Frankenstein monster, and with the under-aged Lubna, they are a bizarre Beauty and the Beast. This artist and writer team have turned a dark mirror to the depths of our Id and we see reflected the base part of ourselves that would take what it wants with no compromise, no apology – and woe to the person who would cross us. But it is all done with a black, wry, satirical sense of humor.
But why has Corben suggested that Lubna is underage? After all, by the third page in the very first story arc in HM we are told that Lubna has recently turned 18. One at first wonders why it was necessary to make this fact known so soon. But the creators didn’t stop there; there are references to both Lubna’s age and the age of her friend Martine (who sleeps with Ranx after Lubna is separated from him for a time) throughout. It’s possible the creators were overcompensating for their own insecurities about the youthful appearance of these characters, but it’s more likely some editor or publisher insisted on it. Ironically, the constant references to the girls’ ages only serves to draw attention to the fact that physically they are nowhere near 18, and appear to be more in the neighborhood of 12 or 13, which was obviously Tamburini’s intended age for them.
But their youth isn’t simply gratuitous. The point was to show a future based on projections of the social and criminal trends of the time, a future in which ever-younger kids fell prey to the corrupting lure of the drugs, casual sex and general misanthropy that dominated youth culture in the late ’70s. To reinforce this point, an even younger girl—a child no older than 3 or 4—is often seen on the street corner that Lubna and her friends haunt; she wears outfits that expose her tiny undeveloped breasts and makes obnoxious comments to Lubna and others. She’s a little Lubna in training, another sign of the growing inverse relationship between the age and worldliness of the characters in the RanXerox universe.
The story begins with Lubna on the prowl for another fix of “plasma” in her home city of Rome, Italy, as she begins to feel the ache of withdrawal. They eventually wind up in the home of the wealthy, psychic (and psychotic) painter Rainier, who gets her high and then tricks her into shutting down her robotic lover and protector. Afterwards, he and his compatriot dump Ranx’s inanimate body near the Colosseum and kidnap Lubna for purposes unknown.
As it turns out, Rainier has plans for both Ranx and Lubna, using the former (after tampering with Ranx’s head) to kill an entire club full of people, though the real target is an art critic Rainier despises who happens to be at the club at the time. But there’s a notable scene just before the massacre where a small girl offers a rose for sale to Ranx, only to be met with a particularly brutal response from the still-malfunctioning robot, whose impulse control has been compromised. It’s scenes like these that earned RanXerox its notoriety.
It’s eventually revealed that Rainier has the notion to use Lubna as part of an art piece to be titled Cadaver of a Young Drug Addict. But of course, Ranx comes smashing into his apartment and breaks his neck, even though Lubna isn’t there. It’s striking that the first major villain of the initial story arc is a pretentious modern artist who makes ridiculous amounts of money off his meaningless art, and Liberatore, a mere comics artist in many people’s eyes, no doubt relished seeing Rainier meet his end at the hands of his and Tamburini’s creation.
With Lubna now missing and Ranx still hunting for her, he temporarily hooks up with Lubna’s friend Martine, who appears to be about the same age as Lubna. They have sex at Martine’s place, and the girl, a student of Bioelectronics, at last repairs his busted brain. It’s noteworthy that in some reprints of these stories this scene was heavily censored. Particularly bothersome to the censors was the appearance of Ranx’s penis. Their tryst is interrupted by the sudden intrusion of Martine’s insanely jealous and abusive boyfriend outside her door, but Ranx makes short work of him with a single well-placed punch . . . through the door.
Later, as Martine is changing the battery in Ranx’s back, a group of street thugs make a particularly conspicuous comment about her age, with one of them mistaking her for a 12-year-old and another correcting him. Later the group plans to gang rape the girl, with one of them commenting, “I bet she’s got an ass on her as tender as a filet.” Ranx, of course, doesn’t go for that.
After several violent episodes and a lot of traveling around the city, Ranx eventually finds that Lubna is being held prisoner by a wealthy, leather mask-wearing man named Volare and goes after her, only to be captured by Volare, who intends to use the robot to stage a Fred Astaire routine as part of a retrospective on the famous dancing actor. His speech to Ranx amusingly references Heavy Metal, the very magazine the story is running in. It seems Tamburini was doing meta before meta was cool. Meanwhile, Lubna is watching a cartoon with a bird character who proclaims, “Goddamn it!” A quite prescient observation when one considers the popularity of shows like Family Guy, South Park and American Dad today. (Remember, this series was published in the early ’80s.) Here it’s just another sign of the decadence and social decline of the future.
By now Lubna has bought into Volare’s promises of wealth and fame and blatantly manipulates Ranx by appealing to his love for her (not to mention giving him a hand-job) as they fly to New York in Volare’s private plane!
Ranx agrees to this as long as Lubna can stay with him, but Lubna betrays her robot mate by remaining with Volare while Ranx is training, ostensibly so as not to distract him but more likely because she is attracted to Volare’s wealth and power.
After 24 hours, which is all Ranx’s electronic brain needs to memorize Astaire’s entire song-and-dance oeuvre, Ranx and Lubna are at last reunited, with Lubna ironically behaving very much like a child. Observant readers will note that she is listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.
In the final issue of the first story arc, Lubna seems to have age-regressed not only behaviorally but even physically. She may be attracted to Volare, though more than likely it’s just the drugs talking. While Ranx is performing in the show, she attempts to seduce her abductor in a scene that is likely to send shudders down the spines of anti-abuse and anti-human trafficking advocates everywhere.
While Ranx is performing, Lubna attempts to seduce Volare; unfortunately for her, Ranx notices. He stops the show and smashes his way to Volare’s balcony box. Violence ensues. The object of his hatred is destroyed, yet Ranx is profoundly affected by this last and worst of Lubna’s many betrayals and, atypically for him, stands up to her abuse in a humorously inappropriate way that symbolically acknowledges her true age: he gives her a bare behind spanking.
For something so controversial, RanXerox has had its influence on other creators, most notably manifest in a surreal French fantasy film called La Cité des enfants perdus (The City of Lost Children), directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, which really deserves its own article on Pigtails in Paint. The physical resemblance of One and Miette to Ranx and Lubna cannot be overstated.
RanXerox is a role that was made for Ron Perlman, if it could ever be filmed. Of course, it can’t. Indeed, the environment is such today that even a comics magazine like Heavy Metal likely wouldn’t dare repeat it. It’s a concept whose time has gone. Or has it? There have been sexually precocious minors in comics since RanXerox‘s time, though, to my knowledge, rarely without some built-in moral consequence, where bad things befall the child and/or the adult involved with them, or they are clearly the product of sexual abuse. Yet, in its way, RanXerox may be the most moral story of all of these, for I imagine few people can read it without being repulsed by the characters’ behavior somewhere down the line. These are not people we would likely ever want to meet, and that may be Tamburini’s point. When you imagine a future filled with these blatantly immoral folks, you can see that Ranx and Lubna’s world is a true dystopia, one created not by government oppression but by gradual desensitization and moral erosion of the populace.
Tamburini might’ve believed this was where we were headed as a society. Of course, he was wrong. Reality never follows so straight a path. As for Tamburini himself, only three short years after the first run of RanXerox in Heavy Metal (1986) his lifeless body was discovered in his apartment in Rome. He had apparently died from a heroin overdose. He was 30 years old at the time of death.
In addition to the HM runs, this series has been collected into books (three major volumes) and translated into several languages. Here is the cover for one of them, RanXerox 2: Happy Birthday, Lubna.
And a cover for the Spanish comics magazine El Víbora (The Viper), featuring Ranx, Lubna, Martine, the toddler girl from the street corner (who Lubna sometimes babysits and whose name I do not know), and another girl I don’t recognize.
An unidentified image of Lubna working on Ranx:
You can read the entire first story arc and a handful of the other RanXerox issues (as well as most of the early issues of Heavy Metal) at this site. The first story arc runs from issue v07 #04 (July 1983) through issue v07 #09 (December 1983); there’s also a great interview with Liberatore in that December ’83 issue.