Most Outrageous by Bob Levin

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester

Author: Bob Levin

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, pornography, constitutional issues

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It may not be full-bore odd in the way that many of the books I discuss here often are, but it’s unsettling and at the end of the book I had more questions than I did at the beginning. This book also dovetailed neatly with some of the work I am doing preparing for upcoming Jim Goad/”Rape Me” discussion, so discussing this is a warm up for what is to come. So the book may not be odd, per se, but it’s worth discussing here because I say so.

Availability: Published by 2008 by Fantagraphics Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Pornography as a whole doesn’t bother me. I’ve read every argument for and against it and ,all in all, the Red in me says all work is exploitation. Some of us get exploited more than others. Pornography is an ugly business, uglier than most, but it serves a purpose and I can’t look at anyone who makes or performs in pornography as being a victim. At least not in every circumstance. I sure know a few hundred dollars a scene or for a set of photographs, on the victim-scale, sure beats the hell out of working for minimum wage in retail or scrubbing toilets. People may say the latter work permits workers to have more pride but sentimental ideals like that are worth very little when you cannot pay your bills.

Whether or not opponents of pornography like it, pornography that involves consenting adults (within the legal limits of federal and state law) is protected under the First Amendment. Pornographic depictions in the form of drawings are far more lenient, as in the USA it is still legal to draw children in pornographic situations. Even if we loathe it, we have to tolerate it if we want to live in a free society. But it’s important to note that a free society is not always a healthy society. That’s where Dwaine Tinsley comes in.

If you aren’t familiar with the “Chester the Molester” cartoons that used to appear in Hustler, I tend to think you are a lucky person. I admit that my truly negative opinion of the cartoons are probably coloring this discussion, but I also am struggling to approach this with an even hand. That struggle is helped greatly by Levin’s book, because though I knew of “Chester the Molester,” I knew nothing of the man who had created the cartoons.

Dwaine Tinsley was born poor white trash and had an upbringing that was less Dickensian than straight out of an Erskine Caldwell novel. Throughout his life, he had an affection for plump women, marrying a couple of them, and eventually he made a decent life for himself as a cartoonist. His daughter from one of his earlier relationships moved to live with him and his new family when she began to have problems at home with her mother and, from all accounts, Dwaine and his wife did their best to give his daughter, called “Veronica” in the book, a nice life with some basic household rules.

But when “Veronica” began dating a man whom her father and stepmother disliked, a man who apparently got her hooked on cocaine, she began to make allegations that Tinsley had molested her. Her accusations came during the time when incestuous abuse of children was becoming a very big topic in mainstream society, from movies like Something About Amelia to talk shows with an array of people who had increasingly unbelievable stories about abuse. Tinsley went to trial for molesting his daughter and was convicted, supposedly, on the merits of some taped phone calls he had with “Veronica.” The transcription of those phone calls, when read dispassionately, are devastating to Tinsley’s denial that he did not molest his daughter. Those calls can also be open to interpretation, as a man who knows his daughter is troubled and is refusing to enter into another tiresome, interminable discussion about something that never happened.

But it’s also very much a possibility that Dwaine Tinsley went to prison because his daughter was urged by a boyfriend to blackmail her father. But mostly he went to prison because he was the creator of “Chester the Molester.”

Seriously, if you found out that the artist behind a cartoon wherein disgusting old men stalk and sexually interfere with children, mostly little girls, was accused of raping his daughter, would you even be surprised? Would you shrug and think, “Stands to reason that a man who would draw such cartoons might actually harbor salacious feelings toward children?” Is it even possible that a man who drew such a cartoon could get a fair trial if his work was invoked as proof of his overall degeneracy?

That’s why I am discussing this book here, even though it’s not so odd. It’s because it’s a hard book. Tinsley comes across as a sympathetic man. Levin does an excellent job of showing Tinsley as a man with a good work ethic, a sort of working class hero who made good after a crappy childhood, overcoming the limitations that are often part and parcel of being a “son of the soil.” But he’s also a man who drew some of the most vile cartoons, cartoons that in most cases were utterly devoid of irony (and often humor) because he claimed he was satirizing and lampooning the behaviors of pedophiles. That made me uneasy. And that sucks on my part because a man’s crappy attempts to create valid social satire is not proof positive that he has the urge to rape a child.

To make matters worse is the picture that Levin chose to lead off the book. In this picture, a pretty young woman is sitting on a low wall of some sort. She has her legs spread and Tinsley is leaning back against her, his ass level with her crotch. He is smoking a cigarette and she has her arms wrapped around his neck. I assumed it was a picture of Tinsley with one of his wives or a girlfriend. Of course, later I learned that the “Veronica” in the picture was Tinsley’s daughter. Without any signifiers of who the girl was when I first looked at the picture, I would never have thought the picture was of a father and his daughter. It was creepy and unsettling when I realized the relationship between the two people in the picture.

And that’s dangerous, isn’t it? Lots of families express themselves in ways that I may find odd but are not engaging in incestuous or even unhealthy behaviors. What can one really tell from one photograph? What can one tell from a photograph when the father inks “Chester the Molester?” And why would any man want to ink a cartoon like “Chester the Molester?”  

According to Levin, Tinsley was reacting to the sickness of society, Reagan’s America where everything was clean on the surface but dirty underneath. He used the example of a cartoon he drew of exterminators using a human baby to lure out rats, inspired by stories of actual babies being gnawed on by rats in tenement apartments. He said that when people were outraged, the fact remained that the sympathies of the viewer were with the baby, not the exterminators. The implication being, of course, that when one sees a “Chester the Molestor” cartoon wherein Chester has slipped his dick in a bun and a smiling little girl finds it, tongue sticking out in anticipation of the hotdog she is about to eat, our sympathies lie with the child. It’s hard to see that when one looks at the picture. All one sees is the child anticipating a treat – nothing hints at the horror to come when Chester steps out of the bushes and shoves his cock down her throat. It’s a very amateur hour claim to insinuate that the average viewer is supposed to fill in those blanks of intent when Tinsley fails to signpost the real danger. He implies danger in a few of the cartoons, but, for the most part, the consequences of Chester’s actions seldom foreshadow grave harm to the little girls he stalks.  The little girls are targets, but they are not portrayed as potential victims.  All we see is the fun Chester is about to have.

The hell of it is that Tinsley, in addition to inking “Chester the Molester,” drew some very trenchant and funny political cartoons. One very funny one is of a painter using a dog’s anus as a model for Newt Gingrich. Crude, but the point is unambiguous. Given that Tinsley was capable of creating cartoons that lampooned their target effectively, it makes it all the more curious that he was unable to convey the satire involved in Chester particularly well. Perhaps, as Levin states, Tinsley felt that the value in Chester was more personal:

He was saying, in effect, that there is value in the most foul and repugnant, as there is value in me.

In a way, it seems as if Tinsley stumbled into drawing Chester and kept drawing him out of some sort of defiance:

Dwaine had not planned to tread the tightrope walk above the razor-bottomed pit that is a career hand-in-hand with a ball bat-wielding pervert; but he had pursued his artistic vision, and his vision had produced Chester. If he took his art seriously, which he did – which he certainly did – it was his responsibility to push it to extremes, to grind Chester against the most noses, to fling him into the most eyes.

This passage was very important to me because it shows that Chester was art for Tinsley, more an expression he chose rather than a satire used to expose. It’s no crime in the USA to think such thoughts or even to reproduce such thoughts on paper, but if Tinsley wanted to rub our noses in his art, he wasn’t engaging in satire.

But given what happened to him, one can understand why he wanted to put some intellectual distance between himself and Chester, because once one is on a jury to determine whether or not the creator of Chester raped his child, it’s going to be hard not to convict him of molestation. Tinsley was convicted because the district attorney made the trial as much about Chester as it was about anything Tinsley may have done to his daughter.

The conviction was appealed and a cogent point was made about how damaging his case was to First Amendment rights.

By using Dwaine’s cartoon’s against him… the state had not only improperly imposed itself on one side of a sociopolitical debate, it had made his expressions of unpopular ideas appear indicative of criminal acts. If it was allowed to hang Dwaine with a rope woven in part from his creations, all artists would be discouraged from describing, in song or film or on the printed page, actions that might be used against them by other vengeful district attorneys.

I agree with this, and so did the judge who reversed the child abuse conviction against Tinsley because his trial had been contaminated when his cartoons were used as proof against him. Ventura County chose not to retry him, which makes it clear, to me at least, that the taped phone calls he had with his daughter – where he never admitted guilt but answered questions in a strange, evasive manner – weren’t worth much. The case hinged on the cartoons he created, not what he had said or even what his daughter had said.

“Veronica” later became a born-again Christian and, with a fierce anger, she maintains to this day that her father molested her. And I can draw no conclusions. I want to believe victims, but nothing in Dwaine’s life as presented by Levin shows any sign that he would rape his child. Other than those cartoons. And that picture…

Perhaps that is what is so very odd about this book. I don’t think anyone can walk away from it knowing any sort of truth other than that the things we type and draw and sculpt should not be used as proof about us but that human nature makes it difficult to avoid such conclusions. I was forced to think why it is that I admire the body of work of men like Peter Sotos and Jim Goad but found very sleazy and grotesque some of  Tinsley’s works. Pointlessly sleazy. It was hard to look at a cartoon of a pervert lying under a slide, his tongue sticking out so that he can lick the panty-covered crotch of the little girl about to descend. What custom is this lampooning? What cultural norm is this subverting? I couldn’t see how any of it was satire (aside from the parody of the Coppertone ad wherein it is Chester pulling down the little girl’s bathing suit instead of a dog). It seemed to me that Tinsley was just spewing his id.

And that’s okay, spewing one’s id. It’s just best to be honest about it. Pornography and art that many can dispassionately consider vile does not have to have a purpose that is readily identifiable to everyone who sees or consumes it. While at times Tinsley admitted that he was just being disgusting to be disgusting, he also insisted there was a cultural and critical morality to his Chester cartoons. Were I on a jury, I would have considered that a damnable lie. But inking disgusting cartoons, being evasive in phone calls and posing in an unusual picture with one’s child do not a conviction for molestation make, or at least they don’t in a country that respects freedom of speech and the rule of law.

As appalling as I found this book in so many respects, I also think it is very much worth reading. Levin, whom I had not heard of before but plan to investigate a bit, is a fine writer (though I think I liked him because I recognized a lot of my own labyrinthine writing style in his words). He does an amazing job of showing Tinsley as a man of some virtues and a man of some deep failures. His refusal to declare Tinsley innocent or guilty as he examines this case closely was the only honest way to handle this book. He asks all the right questions and I sense he was as frustrated as I am that there seems to be no definitive answers as to what happened between Tinsley and his daughter. If you have the stomach for this sort of thing, give it a read.

10 thoughts on “Most Outrageous by Bob Levin

    1. My gut says he didn’t do it. Pedophiles outside of the confines of NAMBLA, do not signpost themselves so clearly. Incest, in a society built against it, requires silence and stealth. Tinsley could never have been described as silent or stealthy. He seemed weird and creepy but my gut reaction include incest.

      1. My only other thought is that maybe he really didn’t see anything wrong or damaging in his behavior toward his daughter, and that allowed him to rationalize/deny. He’s drawing these cartoons with children who are happy and not victims because he thinks if you aren’t actively raping them, then what’s the harm? I don’t know. I’m so reluctant to not believe the daughter.

  1. While it’s hard to see them as anything but offensive nowadays, I do think Tinsley’s cartoons were pretty much in line with “men’s humor” of the 70s and 80s. That was the heyday of National Lampoon magazine, and I remember things like child molestation or violence against children being a frequent object of jokes in that mag. In a way, I think the moral repression of the times made that kind of humor possible — one can joke about horrible things when they’re at a safe distance, and at that time unsavory issues like child abuse were Not Spoken Of, which made them seem sort of abstract and something that only happened on the fringes of society, therefore something that could comfortably be laughed at. (What made Something About Amelia so shocking wasn’t just the topic of incest, but the stunning revelation that this kind of thing went on in “normal,” respectable white middle-class families and not just among the rural poor.)

    So I think one could argue that Tinsley’s cartoons were satire, in that they made a mockery of the illusion that America was a morally upstanding nation, and that perversions of morality like sexual predation and pedophilia were anomalous elements confined to the fringes of society. “Chester the Molester” wasn’t a hillbilly or a drunken homeless guy — he was portrayed as a perfectly average-looking white man. And note that the kids in the cartoons were always unsupervised; the terror that pervades parents today of their kids being victimized was really only starting to take hold in the 70s and 80s, so I think a lot of these jokes commented on the naivete of a society that was somehow only now coming around to the realization that kids were being victimized all the time, in “good neighborhoods” by regular-looking men, and were “shocked, shocked!”

    I also remembered just now as I write this that there was a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live in the 70s featuring Buck Henry as “Uncle Roy,” a pedophile who in every sketch was left to babysit two young girls (played by Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman), and would molest them in all kinds of “hilarious” ways. (I would be very surprised of any of those episodes are ever re-aired today.) It seems kind of unfathomable today that child molestation could be used as comedy fodder, but at the time I guess it was not only acceptable but kind of a comedy meme that Tinsley just picked up and ran with.

    1. It also occurs to me that in the late 70s and early 80s there was a wave of what I think of as “concern porn,” TV dramas about child abuse, sexual assault, child porn, and other issues that all had a kind of salacious or exploitative undercurrent beneath the grim-faced veneer of “raising awareness of the issue.” A couple I vividly remember are “Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night” with Susan Dey as an abusive mom (I’m still traumatized by the final scene where, I think it was a social worker character, says to another that “Mary Jane Harper died last night” and then that shock-freeze-frame that they did all the time in the 70s)…and one from the early 80s called “Fallen Angel” about a young girl who gets lured into child porn, which not only gave me a lifelong fear of actor Richard Masur, who played the pornographer with the sleaziest bushy mustache ever, but also warped me for life by causing me to have a crush on the actress playing the girl, Dana Hill (hey, I was 12 at the time).

      So I guess in that environment where these formerly taboo subjects were starting to be talked about openly, it was inevitable that the comedians would get in on the conversation.

      1. All of what you say has merit here. I guess I watched less television as a kid than most of my peers so a lot of the sort of gross humor about child abuse passed me by. It wasn’t until the concern porn movies like Something About Amelia and that suicide movie with Molly Ringwald and the dude who was in Gremlins came about that I got a dose of the sort of societal look at such issues (and it was just as exploitative as anything that Tinsley ever did).

        I think Tinsley’s work seemed a thing apart to me because having seen him when he was on target with satire and then seeing the Chester cartoons, the Chester cartoons have a ham-handed nastiness to them that doesn’t show what it is that Tinsley said they showed.

        Like the one with the slide and the tongue. You’re correct – poor child supervision, the sort of notion that we live in a sick society where a man can do such things, the sort of humor and innovative approach of subverting the slide. But then you look at the little girl. She is happy, eyes closed, smiling, ready to slide down. A couple of kids are freaked out but no one seems to care and there is no sense that this girl is about to become a victim.

        Tinsley neatly set up the notion that people do sick things but there is never a payoff. In order for what he was drawing to be genuinely sick, there has to be a sense that the little girl who counters his tongue, his cock in the bun, his naked balls in the Easter egg hunt is going to be in some manner victimized. That such things are nasty. All I got reading them was a YUK-YUK, here’s this dude interfering with kids in their realm and – LOOK – there’s his hairy balls! HI-larious. It’s hard to cut through that and see the intended disgust for Chester. Yep, he’s a symbol of a clean society with dirt under the surface but man, everyone seemed to be having such a good time in those cartoons, didn’t they. Perverts lurked under the surface but in Chester’s world we never see the harm in it.

        And thank god I never saw those SNL skits. I remember getting scarred for life from an Alice Cooper concern commercial (seriously, I get freaked out by people wearing too much makeup). I can only imagine what I would have felt having seen such a display. 🙁

        1. Those SNL sketches really are shocking in retrospect — they really are nothing but “Uncle Roy” getting the young girls to play funny games that are of course just a cover for him to get his jollies. (Although I don’t think there was any physical contact — he just took photos up their nightgowns and such.)

          But those didn’t really have the payoff that you speak of, either. There was really no suggestion of negative effects on the girls, who remained completely innocent to what was happening, and thought the whole thing was grand fun. So in that sense they were similar to the Chester cartoons. There was implied disgust for Uncle Roy, but he was depicted more as pathetic than evil. The punchline was always that the parents would come home and praise Uncle Roy for being such a good babysitter, upon which he’d give a knowing wink to the camera.

          I suppose the reason these jokes stopped short of depicting real harm to the kids is that it would push the concept too far, beyond yuks to something real, reminding the viewer that what was happening wasn’t actually funny. (I guess you could compare it to the gag of someone slipping on a banana peel — the victim’s always basically OK afterward…you don’t see them fracturing their skulls or being taken to the hospital.)

          So, I don’t know…I can rationalize these things to the extent that there probably were satirical intentions behind them, and the desire to make a statement, but ultimately they start and end as sick humor on the level of dead baby jokes. As such, I’m not really inclined to expend too much effort defending them!

  2. The first time I ever heard of “Chester the Molester” was from an anti-porn feminist who cited it as evidence that porno magazines promote rape. Now that I know about this accusation against its creator, I’m kind of surprised she didn’t cite that as well.

    “funny political cartoons”

    Up until I’d seen Tim Kreider’s work, I would have said that this was oxymoron. Being able to make political cartoons that are actually funny seems like such a rare talent that that alone probably makes this worth a look.

  3. It’s an interesting book. And the original cartoon strips by Dwaine Tinsley are a riot, I’ve seen several of them.

    All the controversy around this subject ever since comes from the fact that those cartoon strips, as Hustler itself were published at a time when the Feminist movement was gaining prominence in developed countries and they needed scapegoats such as Flynt and Tinsley to turn the heat against, which is exactly what happened.

    This ideological and political conflict is one still very much alive in today’s society, all the more so because of the fact that in the course of the past 2 or 3 decades we went from modern countries being synonymous with individual freedom and civil liberties to the almost exact opposite, due to the ongoing creation and placing of a Big Brother fundamented by extremists and lunatics pulling political strings at high spheres, exactly as predicted by such visionaries as Mr. George Orwell (“1984” and such).

    We now live in a increasing politically correct society where the individual’s behaviour is closely monitored by vigilance cameras, and where his very words are evaluated by a government and corporate-controlled society on the verge of crazed witchhunting only comparable to that of the middle ages – the aftermath of the above described ideological and political conflict – which is why you won’t find (not easily, at least) any of Mr. Tinsley arguably funny and controversial but ultimately silly and even childish, and certainly not dangerous in any way any more than another product of their own time, anywhere.

    Personally, I tend to dislike enclosed and scapegoat-based censorship as much as I dislike its open and frontal variants, which is why I find it all a bit sad and also a bit revolting.

    I might dig up some scans from the Chester the Molester original strips sometime, maybe join them together with others I can gather from people, and put them up on a dedicatory site sometime, so that people may have the chance and the choice to see them. If you’re reading this and you have some of those pages as well, please consider likewise.

    1. I think there is a lot to consider in your comment, but I think the best way to look at the situation that happened with the anti-porn movement in the 1980s is not to examine the feminist branch of it in a vacuum. A fringe feminist movement – the Dworkin and MacKinnon camps – made an unholy union with the religious right and together they found a scapegoat in the form of pornographers. Dworkin was nothing without Ed Meese and Jerry Falwell.

      I dislike censorship as well. I didn’t see the satire in Chester the Molester that some see. I found those cartoons strange in their focus because I couldn’t see what was being satirized. Pedophilia was never such an accepted norm that it needed to be lampooned and the pedophilia awareness movement started after Tinsley began writing Chester the Molester and the cartoons don’t reference such a movement. As I say in the discussion, it’s best to be honest about one’s intent. Tinsley was going for the disturbing and the gross-out and it made him seem like he was evasive when he tried to explain them as satire.

      His trial was a travesty. He was convicted mainly because of his comic, not because his daughter was particularly believable. It was a bad time in American justice when the exercise of first amendment rights was seen as a tacit sign a man molested his daughter.

      If you ever get a scan site going, let me know and I’ll link to it in this entry.

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