Gene Bilbrew African-American Artist of Vintage Sleaze (part three)
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.
SEE ALSO TIMES SQUARE SMUT THE BOOK AND EBOOK
Four Original Paperback books with Gene Bilbrew cover illustations, c. 1966 Collection Jim Linderman