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
Bill Alexander was an African-American illustrator about whom virtually nothing is known. He did have some famous friends, I hope to write more about them later. A new CD release from the wonderful Acrobat label in the UK offers scarce images of his work in "Roy Milton's Miltone Records Story." I had known Alexander for his striking, colorful but inept fetish paintings done for the covers of vintage sleaze paperbacks (five from my collection shown here) after he moved from LA to NYC in the late 1950's or early 1960's. These books were published in 1967 and contain not a swear word, much less any graphic sex. Vintage Sleaze paperbacks are a wonderful, affordable hobby. They LOOK filthy, that was the idea after all, to attract consumers with lurid, tease covers, but the actual sex was no more graphic than in any romance novel. However, I had only seen a few of his drawings done for Miltone. The incredible new CD comes with a small 34 page book illustrating many of the illustrations Alexander produced for early 78 rpm "Picture Discs." Like the music, they were hip, urban, swinging, rocking and raunchy. Acrobat releases tend to sell out quickly, so get on your friendly provider's website and purchase soon. They have a wonderful back catalog and have been documenting many small independent R&B labels, all worthy and all beautiful. But this one, while offering no more information about the illustrator I love, does provide great illustrations which fit the music to a T. A great package and a wonderful introduction to an unsung Black Artist who deserves more research. I intended to link to the Acrobat website but seems to be a broken for now, and I read a recent blog posting which says the label may be in financial duress. They may continue as a download company only. If so, too bad. In the meantime, search your suppliers for this and all their previous releases!
BOOKS BY JIM LINDERMAN ARE HERE
New York City was a good place for an illustrator in the early 1950's, in particular one with the obvious but quirky talents of Gene Bilbrew. The comic market was exploding...the Kefauver Senate hearings had yet to dent their sales to vulnerable youth, Mad Magazine was getting off the ground and lurid pulp magazines requiring sexual humor were booming. Demand for less than tasteful "adult" humor was in demand. (Remember "cocktail napkins") In fact, one of Bilbrew's first jobs as an artist was replacing the recently drafted Jules Feiffer in the studio of noted cartoonist Will Eisner, who not only created the well-known comic strip "The Spirit" but also was one of the founders of the institution now known as the School of Visual Arts. This connection led to Eugene's enrollment and the cartoonist began taking his craft more seriously. He befriended famous fetish artist Eric Stanton who was also studying at the school. Soon he has made a connection to no less than Irving Klaw, the now "notorious" photographer of Bettie Page. Bilbrew sold drawings to Klaw and infamous publisher Lenny Burtman, it wasn't long before his work began to appear in racy publications of the 1950's which were sold under the counter near the Port Authority building and by mail order. Many of the drawings from this period are startling, offensive and lurid to the extreme, but were still, technically, not violating the law. Thousand of archetypical men in gray flannel suits passed the sleazy stores every day and many ducked in on their way home. Attention seeking politicians began to harass the shops, and sale through the mail also brought problems from governmental agencies. Drugs, filth, and one imagines the lifestyle of an artist hanging on the deuce, as 42nd street was known, soon took a tole. Most who know of the artist's work believe it began to deteriorate in the early 1960's, but these paperback covers show he was still in control of his quirky talents shortly before his death. They also, as far as I know, are the only examples of his drawings with full color treatment. Soon, legal pressures put most of the publishers he sold to out of business, and when they returned, several years later after legal rights were more or less granted to sleazy book sellers, actual photographs were used to illustrate the covers and illustrators like Bilbrew were in less demand. Bilbrew sunk lower, selling drawings to even more pornographic publishers with no interest in presenting even the facade of art or a professional front. How long after this he passed away is uncertain, but he was living in the back room of a 42nd street bookstore when he overdosed in 1974. Paperback books with Bilbrew illustrations on the cover are fairly scarce. They are nearly 50 years old now, and as you might imagine, if you were reading one while your wife was visiting your in-laws, or if you came across one while cleaning out Dad's stuff...they might not make it to the estate sale.
I have a few more entries in me about illustrators working on the underside of morality. Stay tuned. In the meantime, the 2008 book "Erotic Comics: A Graphic History from Tinuana Bibles to Underground Comix" by Tim Pilcher and published by Abrams contains a four page profile of Bilbrew. It, like the other books I suggest in posts on Vintage Sleaze, is recommended.
African-American illustrator and artist Eugene Bilbrew was born in Sunny L.A. in 1924. As with most of the illustrators I hope to profile here (see my earlier Bill Alexander post) his life is sketchy. In fact, even his 1974 death of a heroin overdose in the back of minor mobster Eddie Mishkin's bookstore on 42nd Street in Manhattan is poorly documented, especially for an artist whose work has had such an influence. Remarkably, it is known that Bilbrew knew Alexander in Los Angeles before WW2. While Alexander was able to come close to the music business (illustrating 78rpm records for Roy Milton's Miltone label) young Bilbrew actually made it to the stage, if only in a minor role. He somehow finagled himself into temporary membership in "The Basin Street Boys" a LA based Doo Wop group with one hit, the prophetic "I Sold My Heart To The Junkman." The song was later recorded by Patti Labelle and has been performed in concert by no less than Bette Midler and Bruce Springsteen. The group broke up leaving Eugene in New York City (from where I will continue his story in a later post) A warning to the faint...since Bilbrew obviously fell into some bad habits in the Big Apple, you would be correct to assume most of the young black man's talent was directed at artistic pursuits even less, umm..."acceptable" than the lurid sleazy covers of these 1965 paperbacks from my collection, so if you choose to google him up with your preferences open, you might be disturbed. There are literally thousands of entries on Bilbrew and his work on the web, and yet the "real" art world seems to know virtually nothing about him. This may be due to his "way outside the norm" life and body of work, but it could just as easily be due to his race or the fact that virtually none of his original work survives. Although he was accepted into the program at the "Cartoonist and Illustrators School" (later titled the School of Visual Arts in 1956) one suspects his drift into drug addiction and work which was was largely considered pornographic at the time may have been at least partially caused by discrimination. He had a most unusual and completely individual style which emerged from a more traditional genre of cartooning, and once one becomes familiar with his work it is instantly recognizable. The best biographical material on Eugene Bilbrew and other sleaze paperback artists is found in the outstanding 2005 "Sin-A-Rama" book published by Feral House, in particular the entry on Bilbrew by Brittany Daley. This year, Feral Press has also published "Dope Menace: The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks 1900-1975" by Stephen J. Gertz which is equally as fascinating and even more scholarly but just as much fun.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON JIM LINDERMAN HERE
The third illustrator who worked for Stanley Malkin and Eddie Miskin's line of sleaze paperbacks in the early 1960's was Ernest Stanten, the son of Russian immigrants. Under his adopted name, he is today highly regarded as the king of the fetish illustrators, and as such I won't spend as much time profiling him...numerous books have been published on the illustrious illustrator. Stanton's first girlie drawings were done on sailor's handkerchiefs while he was in the navy (at age 17). Like Gene Bilbrew (see my previous entries) Eric Stanton also studied at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and again, like Bilbrew, worked for Irving Klaw, the photographer who became infamous with his photos of Bettie Page. Stanton also worked closely with his friend and studio mate Steve Ditko (no less than the creator of Spiderman) "Hey Spidey...get a load of THESE drawings" He also learned from Batman inker Jerry Robinson. Like the other artists I am adding to my blog, he drew for many publications other than the imprints of satellite distributors and until he passed away in 1999 he continued selling his work by mail order. Published collections of his work abound, but for my money, his best work was the more than 100 covers he did for After Hours, First Niter, Nitey Nite, Unique Books and Wee Hours. Examples above. Stanton's work is marked by slender, stiff, upright figures with implied seething undercurrents of passion. As Brittany Daley writes in Sin-A-Rama, they had "... tall frames and mile long legs". The women are strong and confident, if somewhat curiously adjusted, and the men are weak. There is an elegance and style seldom seen in paperback covers, and in every one there are folks with secrets.
An additional group of seldom seen Eric Stanton drawings are HERE
Dull Tool Dim Bulb Books HERE
Bill Ward is probably the most recognizable of the group, and I doubt there is a man over 40 in the United States who hasn't seen his work dozens of times. Ward ruled the girlie magazines of the 1950's and 1960's, producing literally thousands of drawings, one estimate places the number at TEN thousand. Double that figure for the number of breasts he drew. As boy, Ward enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, I am sure they are quite proud of that today. What set him apart from the other sleazy artists titillating returning WW2 vets as they relaxed in their suburban dens was his use of the conte crayon. It highlighted his black and white illustrations with great effect. He was paid less than ten dollars each for the most part, and because he was prolific, his original drawings are easily found today. A 350 page compilation with over 600 examples of his work was published by redoubtable Taschen. Like all the Satellite artists, he worked for many publishers and freelanced, but the covers he did for these paperbacks are not only among his best work, they have vivid color which brings them to life. If you study early American folk art, both paintings and carvings, you'll see that the feet are often too small...it lends a charming, naive quality. In Ward's case, all it does is produce a tottering, somewhat gargantuan icon which lives in the minds of every randy man. They might LOOK sexist, absurd and grotesque to you females out there, but if you enlarge an image and place that Barbie doll you grew up with over it, the silhouettes are remarkably similar. I guess you could say Ward did for the top what R. Crumb did for the bottom.
This concludes my minor contribution to vintage sleaze paperback culture. For those of you who would like to obtain your own examples, the Satellite house had five imprints under their sleaze umbrella. From 1963 to 1969 they published several hundred titles with the following imprints: After Hours, First Niter, Nitey Nite, Unique Books and Wee Hours. For the most part, there is little reason to READ them, although numerous well-known struggling authors paid their NYC rent churning them out with fake names. Bilbrew also drew a dozen or more covers for the imprint Satan.
SEE DULL TOOL DIM BULB / VINTAGE SLEAZE BOOK CATALOG HERE
For those of you who enjoyed my articles on the illustrators for Eddie Miskin's 1960's sleazy paperback book line, in particular the strikingly demented work of Gene Bilbrew...someone is selling two covers I've never seen before on Ebay. It gives me an opportunity to crib the images and use up a days post. I pass...if you bid, good luck! If you haven't seen the earlier posts, click on label Vintage Sleaze below.
NEW BOOK GENE BILBREW, JUSTIN KENT, EDDIE MISHKIN AND THE MOB will be out summer 2011!
Eugene Bilbrew: A Return visit to the Studio on West 42nd Street
Of all the posts on this blog, the ones generating the most hits are the series I did on vintage sleaze illustrators of the 1960's, in particular the profile and pictures of work by Eugene Bilbrew. So much for my attempts to uplift the masses. I aim to please, so here's some more.
Bilbrew, an African-American School of Visual Arts student (!) fell into bad company and even worse habits. As he slipped into heroin addiction, his work became even more bizarre. He moved to the rear of a porno bookshop on the deuce. The mob-run publisher he worked for was busted out of business, so he sold his drawings to no less sleazy publishers such as Wizard, Satan and Chevron. Most of these are from Satan. A pall-bearer hits on the widow. An unlikely prison visitor tempts caged psychopaths. A rogue cop harasses an amorous couple out on the beach too late. A shop-class goggles wearing professor aims his student's motorcycle "headlights" into the wind. And of course, the extra-flamboyant dancer against a lime green wall "trips" and falls into the lap of his modern art loving suitor. Never mind that the text had absolutely nothing to do with the cover illustration, this is kitsch of the highest order. These all date to the late 1960's. Several have "saw-cut" slashes, which means they were returned to the distributor unsold. I can not imagine why.
To his credit, I suppose...Bilbrew was one of the few artists doing multi-racial covers at the time. (and the hair-impaired, for that matter) I don't think it helped sales.
BOOKS and $5.99 ebooks by Jim Linderman HERE