The work of artist Eugene Bilbrew might be better known had not a dozen books with his illustrations on the cover been confiscated and outlawed in the late 1950s. While he drew for 20 years, his work is still little known outside a small group of deviant collectors and enthusiasts. A Times Square–based artist (he literally overdosed in a bookstore on 42nd Street), Bilbrew is but one of a school of forgotten artists active in the shady sexual underground of Manhattan during the Eisenhower years. Were you a “man in a grey flannel suit” who stopped in a Times Square shop on your commute back to the suburbs, you might have seen his work wrapped in cellophane and hastily marked with a price ten times the going rate for a clean paperback. Today, his best work looks deviant, but popular Japanese sex comics go much further with less class. So does some contemporary art, but for the most part artists today have to work pretty hard to shock their jaded audience. Bilbrew’s work is now more than 50 years old and it still shocks, if in a campy, vintage, hard-boiled manner.
Eugene Bilbrew was born in Los Angeles in 1923 and began both drawing and performing early. He likely came of age in the Central Avenue area of LA, at the time a center of African-American culture, jazz, and nightlife. Bilbrew became a singer in the R&B group the Basin Street Boys, who had one hit, “I Sold my Heart to the Junkman.” The song was prophetic, as Bilbrew did indeed live and die on junk in his later years. While a young man in LA, he also pursued his interest in drawing and befriended fellow illustrator Bill Alexander. Alexander was involved in the burgeoning music scene as well, drawing illustrations for Roy Milton’s jazz record label Miltone (not to be confused with Bill Alexander the “wet on wet” landscape painter who taught on PBS). Together Bilbrew and Alexander created what is generally agreed upon as the first black superhero, the “Bronze Bomber,” who appeared in the Los Angeles Sentinel, a weekly that served Central Avenue’s black community. It’s still publishing after 70 years.
Bilbrew relocated to New York City following an aborted Basin Street Boys tour, and he rekindled his art ambitions by enrolling in the School of Visual Arts, then known as the Cartoonists and Illustrators School. Founded by Silas Rhodes and Burne Hogarth, the school today turns out some of the most prominent illustrators active in creative and commercial art, but during the 1950s it had only a few dozen students. Rhodes is often remembered for his answers to Senator Joseph McCarthy when he and Hogarth were questioned for suspected Communist activities, and Hogarth is probably best known for drawing Tarzan. The school was originally intended to train returned veterans of the Second World War, but a list of graduates now reads like the catalogue of a Whitney Biennial.
At the school, Bilbrew met two artists who would influence his work: Eric Stanton, the well-known fetish artist who helped create the Spiderman character with Steve Ditko while the two were sharing a studio in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and Will Eisner, famed artist of The Spirit cartoon series. Stanton would guide Bilbrew towards S&M illustration, while Eisner gave him a job drawing the children’s panel cartoon Clifford, an example of which is shown here. He was already drawing the greasy hair that would come to characterize his later soft-core book covers.
Bilbrew had three primary outlets for his drawings in the 1950s, all of which were active in New York City. One was Irving Klaw, the famed “pin-up king” who popularized the model Bettie Page. Another was Leonard Burtman, a major publisher of fetish material that never quite reached the popular market but has influenced fashion for decades. Finally there was low-level mobster Edward Mishkin, who owned bookshops in Times Square and was one of the largest pornographers active at the time. For Klaw, Bilbrew drew fantasy serials of damsels in distress — fetishistic work that appealed to the same audience familiar with John Willie’s roped women from a bit earlier. For Burtman, he did the covers for Exotique, an influential fetish digest reprinted by Taschen in 1998. For Mishkin, he illustrated a number of the books rounded up by the NYPD, where they became evidence in an obscenity case that went all the way to the Supreme Court (Mishkin was convicted).
Bilbrew’s best-known works are the strange covers he drew for paperback publishers such as Stanley Malkin (like Mishkin, also of questionable repute), and later the remarkable Satan Press books produced by Joe Sturman, the brother of major pornographer Reuben Sturman. But by this time, Bilbrew’s skills were beginning to wane, and the covers are today valued by book collectors as much for their absurdity as for their scarcity. Interestingly, he maintained his musical connections, drawing several record sleeves for jazz giant Charles Mingus and even a cartoon used by the musician to fight bootleg records, which ran in the Village Voice.
In the mid-1960s, as censorship eased and smut publishers were given free license, the spicy drawings of Gene Bilbrew were in less demand. Prurient illustrations could now be actual photographs, and the need for visionary artists to flame erotic desire slipped away. Burtman eventually moved to California, Klaw was virtually driven out of business, and Mishkin began to rely on far less artistic material for profit. Bilbrew’s work deteriorated, and he apparently spiraled into drug addiction. His passing in the back of a mob-owned 42nd Street adult bookstore in 1974 (some say he may have died in one location and been moved to the store) went unnoticed.
The artist’s work was seen as disposable during his lifetime, and once the books went to print, the originals were hardly archived. A modest group was saved by another member of organized crime, the so-called “Godfather of Rock and Roll” Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records and tough guy associate of the Genovese family. These pieces eventually came to light 50 years after they were drawn and were immediately snapped up by collectors. For the most part, Bilbrew’s drawings can be seen only in soft-core paperbacks and digests traded by pulp collectors and the occasional reprint.
Although it’s a slow process, comic book art is beginning to be appreciated by the art mainstream. Eugene Bilbrew came from the comic book school, but he worked in a narrow, short-lived medium virtually stamped out by censorship — yet another African-American artist unknown to most. As scholars work backwards to document artists (and photographers, models, and writers) active in the sexual underground of the 1950s, his work will become better known — even though his imagery and subjects will never be entirely acceptable to the mainstream.