INTRODUCTION by Jim Linderman Vintage Sleaze the Essay part one
Vintage Sleaze Introduction. Gene Bilbrew, Eric Stanton, Bill Ward and Bill Alexander.
Of all the thousands of sleazy, trashy PG-rated paperback books published in the 1960's, those with the extraordinary covers produced by Eugene Bilbrew, Eric Stanton, Bill Ward and Bill Alexander stand out and stand above. This quartet of illustrators with interlocking lives and complicated connections produced an abundance of work. All were bright, light-hearted depictions of the darker-side of sexuality. All were also in the employ of a mobster. The work produced by "The Fun Fetish Four" was aimed at baser instincts and somewhat abhorrent taste, but for the most part were harmless if a bit strange. In addition to the artists, a fascinating gaggle of gangsters, smutsters, peddlers and speed-driven writers are involved in this story. This site collects and reproduces a series of posts placed on Dull Tool Dim Bulb during 2009. It will be obvious I have not edited or corrected much.
The publishers of these soft-core novels were hounded by moral crusaders and ultimately put out of business. The owners didn't comply with rules and regulations to begin with (using phony addresses, avoiding tax laws and featuring questionable content) Larger publishers who used "better" illustrators and "real" authors garner the most attention from legitimate collectors and aficionados. More accomplished (that is, more "painterly") illustrators have had their work better documented, detailed and appreciated. As the books here were mob-commissioned, distributed in darkness and displayed under the counter more often than in racks, they are today scarcer than more legitimate and more often seen mainstream paperbacks, even those which fall into the broad "vintage sleaze" category. Printed in editions of around 10,000 copies (a guess) they were fugitive literature, undocumented and born outside more established channels of publication. In fact, more traditional scholars and collectors sneered at them until several folks thanked below brought them back to life.
From 1960 to 1970, the already large paperback book industry grew huge. Having been invented as a way to entertain foxhole parked soldiers a long way from home, by this time pocket books were omnipresent. The books WW2 and Korean war vets were familiar with were now sold anywhere travelers passed...news stands, bus stops, roadside rest areas, even the occasional bait shop. The boys were also starting to age a bit...maybe suburbia was getting boring and the wife a little familiar. It was also a decade with the beginnings of sexual openness, experimentation and aggressive marketing of sexual imagery. The 1950's fetish publications of such pioneer pariahs as Irving Klaw (for whom several of these illustrators had worked) and his spicy Bettie Page layouts may have been coming to an end with prosecution, but the door had opened and "men's magazines" arrived, then followed by a flood of pornography. In the interim, raunchy titillating literature had to rely on aggressive, splashy cover ballyhoo. With nary a swear word between the covers, publishers required eye-grabbing pictures which told a story to the most brief and furtive of shoppers. They didn't have to make sense, in fact they didn't even have to be related to the story inside at all...and these usually don't. But they still did the job.
This site in a way documents my own exploration into the little genre. I'm not a book collector, a scholar or bibliographer, but I know a good story when I see one. Though I owned the covers illustrated here at one time, I no longer do. It was a brief dalliance with a curious little niche of art and publishing history. I brought a unique perspective to the field, having lived 25 years in the actual location where the sordid events took place, that is the now gentrified blocks around Manhattan's 42nd Street and the Port Authority transportation hub. The players worked, lived, sold their work and in one case expired there, and a good number of the clients for their books were among the hoards of commuters entering the city there daily. As I have degrees in both Sociology and Library Science, where social deviance and subculture meet the printed page has always been of interest.
All these writers had a New York city connection, and in fact several actually attended the esteemed School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, An esteemed organization for artists today...their creative alumni fill pages and you'd recognize dozens of their names. But had you heard of Gene Bilbrew? For the most part, my year-long affliction with vintage sleaze is done. Not being a professional writer, I won't ever expand the material here into a book, or even the New Yorker article it should, and one day hopefully will be. I'm not interested in claiming credit, others documented this work before me and I only added a few pieces of information here and there. So other than a brief perusal of my modest contribution, you should go to the sources, several of which I will link to here and mention elsewhere.
I also found the fact that two of these artists were African-American quite curious and worthy of study. Black artists in general, and historically, have been neglected by the mainstream art and publishing world. In fact, dozens of the most important artists of the 20th century are African-Americans who existed on the outside of our understanding of art. That they would find themselves producing work for an underground certainly isn't unusual...Jazz and Blues arose from somewhat dicey circumstances after all, so why shouldn't the illustrators. Additionally, the story of how these young comic book artists hooked up with the Jewish Mafia and the fellows who photographed Bettie Page is remarkable indeed.
On this site, I will link to a few sources which are far more accomplished. I have other sites and blogs to play with, and this one should only be a brief stop. All the essays which follow appeared on DULL TOOL DIM BULB, my daily blog, as I learned about the players. It was obvious the visitors to my site entered through these somewhat demented articles far more than what I considered "more uplifting" posts, so I decided to pull them together in one place. Do me a favor and see the other sites I maintain. I hate to see my hit rate plummet just because I've segregated the good stuff.
The articles here are just as I wrote them...I'm not updating, correcting or editing. They are already dated in less than a year's time. There is certainly much work to be done. Though the players are long gone they are still mere footnotes in the established art world...and so is their work.
It should be noted that all these four fellows had careers outside of the brief window I am covering. The paperback books here were all published from 1965 to 1970. However, each illustrator had sold work before, and two continued to generate enormous bodies of work after. Bilbrew faded out quickly, a victim of heroin. We don't really know the Bill Alexander story enough to say. But Stanton and Ward had long, productive careers working for numerous publications and each has had their work compiled into large books and catalogs. It should also be noted the covers here are far less dicey than the majority of drawings these artists made. As these were cover illustrations, even if they were not displayed prominently, they are far more mild than usual. Bilbrew and Stanton in particular made drawings aplenty far more offensive that explored the deviant sub-culture of bondage, S & M and fetish. I choose to let others study them. A good part of the appeal here is the relative good-natured, if quirky depictions of darker truths. Others might dig deeper.
I relied on the ground-breaking work by Jay Gertzman, Brittany Daley, Stephen J. Gertz and Richard Perez to learn about this material. You should too. I admire all their work very much.
Jim Linderman 2009