Men Of Flesh & Fantasy
Warning: This Article is intended for Adults Only.
Visitors of a sensitive disposition should turn back now.
No matter what fantasy figures he is illustrating, whether it’s the dazzling science fiction heroes in Dan Dare, The Trigan Empire or The Terminal Man or the homoerotic hunks Rogue, Bike Boy and others from HIM and Meatmen, Oliver Frey brings a distinctive masculinity and sensuous physicality to his comic art. It was never much of a secret to those who recognised his style and were ‘into the Frey’, although it may come as a surprise to some that this renowned mainstream comics illustrator and newsstand magazine innovator is also Britain’s (and Switzerland’s) greatest contemporary gay porn artist and writer, as accomplished and significant as Tom of Finland before him.
Frey has been gradually getting more of the recognition he truly deserves. In 2006 through his own company Thalamus Books he published The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey, a full-colour art book focussing on his non-adult artwork including his eye-catching magazine covers for gaming titles Crash, Zzap!64, Amtix and The Games Machine and horror-themed Fear. Here’s the review I wrote of it for Comics International at the time:
‘It all began in Ludlow, Shropshire in 1983 with a 16K Sinclair Spectrum and a few hundred copies of a mail order catalogue for the games, reviewed by ocal schoolboys. Catching the computer game boom right at the start, the business grew into the newsstand magazine Crash Micro Games Action, launched in 1984. On its covers Swiss-born illustrator Oliver Frey caught the electrifying rush felt by the first generation of videogamers. His exuberant paintings in inks and acrylics for Crash, Zzap! 64, Fear and Frighteners, free of their texts, fill this book, but there’s room for a revealing biography about his youth and his breaks on War Picture Library, Dan Dare, Trigan Empire and the retro opening sequence for the first Superman movie. It’s a handsome tribute to an extraordinary fantasist still painting at his peak.’
Then over the next two years, several of Frey’s rugged painted front covers for Fleetway and IPC War Picture Libraries were reproduced from the original art in David Roach’s two compendia, Aaargh! It’s War in 2007 and The Art of War in 2008, both from Prion Books. Frey made a rare public appearance on a Comica Festival panel at the ICA in 2008 as part of the promotion for Tim Pilcher’s Erotic Comics: A Graphic History from Ilex.
And now, in 2010, German adult publisher Bruno Gmünder has gathered four of his raunchiest erotic comics originally produced under his pen-name Zack for the American anthology Meatmen into one colour package, Bike Boy, out this August. And in October, Frey is releasing a collection of The Terminal Man serial that ran in Crash magazine. Frey is also selling online signed prints, paintings and taking private commissions.
Among his many admirers is none other than Doctor Who scribe Russell T. Davies, who praises Frey’s serial The Street as an important influence on his ground-breaking gay TV drama Queer as Folk. Oliver, or Oli as he likes to be called, is a delight to meet and talk with, witty, charming, with the modesty of someone confident in their self-taught talent, and still producing some of the finest work in his long career. He kindly answered my persistent email questioning back and forth for this exclusive interview.
When and where were you born?
I was born on 30th June 1948 in Zurich, Switzerland, and I am Swiss.
When and how did you become interested in drawing?
I must have doodled like any child, but I’m first aware of a real interest from when I was eight. It was 1956, and the family had moved to London (for what was to be a three-year stay); I came across Eagle comic, and was so thrilled by the picture-strip stories that I started copying them, met with approval at school and started drawing more seriously.
Were your parents or family at all artistic? Did they encourage you?
My great-grandfather had been a painter of landscapes and portraits who’d made his way in the States before retiring to a Swiss mountain valley. This had been well before my time, and only a couple of pieces of his work were extant; I wouldn’t say my family was particularly artistic. They did however encourage me.
Who were some of the first artists to impress you, whether in comics or not?
Frank Bellamy, Frank Humphris and Frank Hampson, all working on Eagle. Frank Bellamy probably the most - his line and colour work were so dramatic and action-packed; one of Britain’s best comic strip artists. Otherwise, I admired Eugene Delacroix, again for the drama!
Were American comics an influence at all? Or was it mainly British comics?
Not really. British comics were the mainstay, followed by French comic albums. American comics that spring to mind are old Prince Valiants (reprinted in Swiss mags). Superhero comics were too over-the-top for my liking.
What were first comics you drew for yourself? How old were you?
I must have been about fourteen to fifteen when I first properly set about drawing my own stories: Bond-like action and historical adventures. On the surreptitious side I began sketching secret sex fantasies…
Cover art for Crash Magazine 53, 1988
I know Robert Crumb did this too and used to flush his drawings down the toilet. What did you do? Have you kept any of your teenage drawings?
No, I haven’t… they ended up in the dustbin at some point later in life.
Did you study art? Did you go to art college? Who else influenced your growth as an artist?
I haven’t been to an art college. What I did undertake (when sixteen) was a correspondence course called the Famous Artists Course. This was a big three-book, 60-plus lessons, tutorial in the craft of commercial illustration and design put together by some of America’s top illustrators. It taught me just about everything I know about figure drawing, perspective, composition, inking, painting. Done at one’s own pace, you studied a chapter, then executed a relevant task and sent it off for marking up (in Holland). It was quite expensive, but Dad thought it was worth it - and so, still do I: I often browse the books even now.
Where did you get your first artwork published? Did you contribute to underground comix or fanzines or small press/self-published comics?
No fanzines, no comix… It wasn’t until 1969, when I started film school in London (I wanted to be a director) and needed to contribute to living expenses that I finally managed to my first assignment. I submitted samples to Fleetway’s War Picture Library series, and the editor E.J. Bensberg gave me my first chance. The mags were small-format, 64-page, 150-frame, black and white picture-strip tales of World War Two, and encouraged by the editor, I ended up drawing about 20 or thirty of them by the time I stopped in the mid-seventies.
The Trigan Empire from Look and Learn 753, 19 June 1976
Once film school was over, I had trouble getting work in the industry (being foreign, and trade unions); after a two-year stay back in Switzerland trying to start a business in industrial film-making with a friend from film school, I moved back to London in 1973 and found myself an artists’ agent and became a full-time freelance illustrator in the teenage market.
I did a lot of work for IPC (Speed & Power, Look and Learn magazines, including a stint on the Trigan Empire). The closest I got to film work was drawing the cover and opening spread of the American comic pastiche that opens the first Superman film!
Also how did you feel taking over Trigan Empire. Had Don Lawrence’s artwork also impressed you? I grew up on his bronzed. blond heroes in Roman garb, perfect material for you in some ways?
While I had been impressed by Don’s earlier work in Swift (Pony Express) and had even communicated with him once when I was thirteen - I’d sent him one of my attempts and got an encouraging reply, I never really liked Trigan Empire, nor his art for it. Taking over from him was a career opportunity, however; my biggest problem was that everyone expected me to draw/paint Trigan exactly like he did, which was tedious and, of course, well-nigh impossible! Over time they began to accept my style more and things became more enjoyable.
How did you start working for the gay magazine HIM?
I’d become aware (through fly posters) of HIM and summoned up the courage to buy a copy. It contained a comic strip by someone who’s name I’ve forgotten and the subject matter of which was erased by the awful amateurishness of his art, which I thought I could better. Some time early in 1975 I sent in a sample story, and finally got a response from the editor of a stablemate of HIM, Playguy. He took the story, and I did another one plus some story illustrations before the company went bust.
Covers of the last and first HIM Gay Library
Tell me about your regular strip character Rogue. Did you also write it?
The Rogue strip started in 1976 and ran till 1983. Not long after the company publishing HIM collapsed, I was contacted by one of its former directors, Alan Purnell, who had resurrected HIM and wanted a regular strip. He preferred something butcher than my previous efforts, and I came up with Rogue: inveterate he-man predator who seduces every cute boy in sight, whether they want it or not - and of course they all end up loving it. Rogue is a Bondian character, and the far-fetched scenarios became ever more so. Humour leavened what were often rather rape-like domination episodes… Yes, I wrote and drew Rogue… and I was the boys…
Were there strict rules back in the 70s about what you could and couldn’t show in the strip?
The rules were no erections (which meant they had to stand up no more than 45-degree angles), no visible penetration or oral sex (but that’s easy to take to the limit). We may have stuck to the rules, but the vice squad didn’t always seem to recognise them!
What was the reaction from the magazine’s readers to Rogue?
The reaction to Rogue was quite positive. I think raunchiness and humour combined to create entertainment that helped make readers (a lot of whom were older and still quite closeted, as opposed to the youngsters in cities who lived the disco life and didn’t particularly need sex mags) feel good about being gay.
Rogue spread from HIM Magazine
There was a collected book of all of the stories. How succssful was that?
We did two Rogue collections, and they did quite well by gay publishing standards which has always lagged behind sales of straight erotica. They sold 2-3,000 copies each.
Were you influenced by Tom of Finland, Quaintance or any other gay erotic illustrators?
I was aware of Tom, and Quaintance, but felt, and still do, that the former was much too exaggerated physique-wise and the latter “quaint”. The fantasy element in my work was in the situations, and I wanted the art to be realistic so as to make it all seem possible.
Did you know other British gay illustrators or cartoonists? I was thinking of Bill Ward [no relation to the American Torchy artist of the same name], for example?
I knew Bill Ward’s work, which also appeared in HIM, and good it was too, but I never met him. I also bumped into Roger Payne one evening at a church gay disco; it turned out he was on my agent’s books too - but I think he only started doing gay illustrations later… I’m not sure; his art is very detailed and based on photographs, with very butch, hairy subject matter - not really me.
How much did fine artists also influence you, and photographers and film-makers too?
All of these contribute to one’s intake of visual imagery, but their influence is more subconscious and less easy to quantify.
Do you own all or any of the original artwork? Do you own the copyrights to your various series?
I own much of the originals, but some have been given away here and there, others lost at printers and so on. I think I own the copyright, especially since copyright laws were changed in favour of illustrators in the late 80s.
Rogue spread from HIM Magazine
Did you always sign your gay work with your own name?
Yes, I did - it seemed necessary, to do my bit for the gay cause.
Can I ask how much you were paid? Do you know if the stories were translated into other languages? Did you get any royalties or payments for these?
I recall somewhere in the £150 region… and if any were translated I’m not aware of it and certainly received no further payment. Then, as now with the Internet, piracy was quite rampant.
I’ve seen just two of the HIM Libraries that you illustrated superbly. How many were there and who wrote them? The writing was always a lot raunchier than what you could show. I presume you worked from the finished texts to devise the illustrations?
We did twelve, and after the first two, which were by Roger Kean, they were written by various authors who submitted manuscripts. I did the text layout for them, leaving spaces for my illustrations.
What for you are the pros and cons of black-and-white line drawings compared to fully painted colour painted art?
Doing the subtle shading on naked flesh is easier with paint; with line drawings it is much more hard work and the end result can look a little like Victorian engravings (which I quite like) if you don’t want to end up with harsh, less erotic-feeling cartoon art.
What other illustrative work did you do at this time? Was it all for HIM in this country or did you work for other companies or in other countries too?
By the time of the HIM Gay Libraries, I was co-owner of HIM and the other gay titles in the HIM stable. Working on them, including learning the craft of page-layout, took up all my time, so I didn’t do work for anyone else - apart from illustrations for some advertisers. I came to be a partner in Alan Purnell’s company, Lespen Ltd (an off-the-shelf name, I think), which published the magazines, because he was in need of a cash injection and Roger Kean had a surplus which he invested on our behalf early in 1979. At a point in 1980, due to creative and business differences, Alan went his own way, and we formed Street Level Ltd and acquired the assets of Lespen (and a few of the staff; others went off to join Millivres). We also moved to new offices on Blackstock Road, near Finsbury Park, let to us by the company who did all the repro work for printing. They were a great bunch who taught us everything about the skills of scanning and film planning, which was an enormous advantage when it came to founding the computer games magazines in the mid-1980s.other gay magazines. I also used to do advertising illustrations for gay businesses, and a fair bit for Heaven disco, but nothing abroad.
What sort of sales did these gay magazines reach?
With better organised distribution and subscriptions, HIM probably reached monthly sales of between 7-10,000 copies; the others, like Teenage Dreams, much less. It’s hard after the passage of time to remember accurately…!
Did you also try your hand at painting and perhaps entering the fine art gallery world with your work?
No, I never seemed to find the time…
When and why did your work for the gay market get reduced, or perhaps cease?
Our company was raided by the police in 1981, and lost all of its stock. My partner and I were hauled into court, and a prison sentence was narrowly avoided (it was a clamp-down period for the authorities), but it broke us: we sold HIM and the other magazines to Millivres, now Millivres-Prowler, and got out of London. For a while I carried on doing Rogue for them, and a new strip, The Street, for a revamped, “cleaner” HIM.
Two episodes of The Street from HIM Magazine
I have found a run of The Street online - is this the whole story or was there more? The content and your artistic expression both seem rather chastened?
You’ve probably seen all there was. The Street was my idea, and what I wanted to create was a more ‘realistic’ character-driven look at gay life as I was aware of it then - Coronation Street, anyone? It was an open-ended storyline, with new characters introduced to follow different themes, but anchored around a burgeoning love affair whose ups and downs were going to be chronicled throughout. Unfortunately Millivres cancelled it, when my partner Roger stopped editing the new HIM and it was revamped again. Never mind… at least Russell T. Davies (a fan of mine) told me The Street was in part an inspiration for his Queer As Folk!
Dan Dare in the Eighties revamped Eagle
How did you first come to draw for the juvenile titles like Dan Dare in the revivied Eagle?
As stated above, I’d got myself an agent, and he found me work with IPC and Thomson - a lot of strip work, but also editorial illustration (mainly historical). I also did quite a bit for books: Hamlyn, Usborne, Oxford University Press etc.
What were the main series and characters you illustrated? How long did you do this?
This started in 1973, and carried on until 1984, then resumed for a bit in the early 90s. There was a series I illustrated for Speed & Power magazine called SOS International, loosely based on Thunderbirds, but within a more technological reality. I took over from Don Lawrence on Trigan Empire for Look and Learn in 1976 for two or three years. Dan Dare didn’t really happen until the 90s, when Eagle had gone to newsprint; I did a couple of stories, and some for their Annuals and Specials, but it was a little dispiriting, as the character had been revamped out of recognition.
You started your own publishing enterprise in the early 80s. How did it evolve?
Having moved to Ludlow in Shropshire in 1982, my partner and I got involved with my brother, when we started a mail-order company selling the then new-fangled Sinclair Spectrum computer games. We called it Crash Micro Games Action, and I did promotional illustrations for it. We had a catalogue, which “reviewed” the games we were selling, and I illustrated that. It was suggested to us that we might turn this into a real monthly magazine, and we discovered that WH Smith and Menzies, and the all-important news distributors, felt something like this would work. The computer magazine market was a serious one, and nothing really existed for the game players… thus Crash and our company Newsfield were born. Crash, which catered for Spectrum games, was followed by Zzap!64 for the Commodore market, and in time both topped the 100,000 monthly sales mark.
The Terminal Man
Did you produce comics for Crash or for computer/gaming and other magazines?
Yes, we published The Terminal Man in Crash and then in Zzap!64, written by 2000AD author Kelvin Gosnell and illustrated by me. It ran for 12 issues, at four colour pages a month. It’s actually to be published in October in book form, available exclusively at oliverfreyart.com. Otherwise I did 99% of the front covers and countless internal illustrations for all our games magazines, and then also Fear, our horror, fantasy and science fiction magazine - literally hundreds of covers over the years. This is what I’m known for in the straight market!
I understand that you have moved into packaging and designing illustrated books. Can you tell me more about what you have been working on more recently?
We slowly moved away from magazines, and began producing books for publishers like Virgin and Carlton; initially games guides, but then on into music and sports. From 2000 to September last year we packaged, as Thalamus Books, for international publishers - mainly illustrated historical reference for the family market. I did all the illustration work that was not photographic. Unfortunately the state of the economy took its toll and thus ended that. Roger Kean and I now run oliverfreyart.com, selling my originals from the computer games days plus new paintings, a second site, zack-art.com promotes my gay originals and prints. As Reckless Books, we have uploaded adventure novels and a mammoth history of the Roman emperors as eBooks for most formats on smashwords.com - see RecklessBooks.co.uk.
Cover art for Crash Magazine 79, 1990
How did you return to gay comics for Meatmen? I’m assuming that you hadn’t done any gay artwork since the end of HIM?
I did paint the odd erotic picture for myself over the years, which were all hard-core. I came across Meatmen one day, and decided to have a go at producing a hard-core comic-strip story for it. It was called Bike Boy, and adapted from a soft-core version I’d done for HIM. Meatmen accepted it, and I produced a few more for subsequent issues. The trouble was that payment was a measly $15 a page, and was not really worthwhile. Also, there was pressure to provide specific themes, my characters were felt to be too young, and so on… rather than be enjoyable, it turned into a grind, and I opted out.
What made you decide to adopt the pseudonym ‘Zack’? I think your luscious style is immediately identifiable!
Zack was for hard-core - I didn’t want to needlessly compromise our book publishing company’s integrity in the educational market. I know it hasn’t fooled many aficionados of my work!
Do you think with your 25-page lead story for Meatmen 25 ‘Teasy Meat’ you are now able to go much further in portraying explicit erotica than before?
You should see my Slaves to Lust for the same publication - out-and-out SM! You can be as explicit as you’re able or inclined…
How effective do you think comics can be as porn, as erotica, compared to photography or video/film? What special qualities do comics have?
Some people just don’t get turned on by drawings, but for those who don’t necessarily need to see real people in action comics can be titillating and arousing. It’s easier to create perfect fantasy scenarios than in films. Characters can be just so - they can do anything you like, whether it’s physically possible or not. Moods are easily (cheaply) created, and the creator has full control…
Does your portrayal of unsafe sex raise any questions for you, or are these images intended as sheer fantasy?
It doesn’t really. People know what’s necessary in real life - my strips are pure escapist fantasy.
The characters and situations in your sex comics are hardly intended to be realistic. Then again, I chuckled when you opened your story Bike Boy on the morning of his 18th birthday as your barely legal hero thinks expectantly, ‘And what a hot gift I’ve got waitin’ for me!!’ There’s quite a bit of humour in this one. Also I noticed the new book advises ‘All characters are 18 years or over’, presumably to conform to US law?
Indeed! As to the humour, I try to leaven even the darkest stories with some fun - see Slaves to Lust, for example.
Another long story by you not in the Bike Boy book is the Roman orgy epic ‘Message to the Emperor’. Will that be reprinted? Is there more material, enough for a sequel volume perhaps?
If Bike Boy sells well enough, it and other stories exist to fill another 96 pages when Bruno Gmünder decide to do a follow up.
The Meatmen stories are unapologetically pornographic. Would you be interested in trying to incorporate some fuller characterisation and dialogue and more nuanced homoerotic content in future comics?
My opinion is that we buy (usually expensive) gay erotica for the sex, so I aim to provide as much pornography as I can cram in with as little costly ‘padding’ as possible - so fuller characterisation must give way to randiness!
What do you think of the work by some of the newer gay comics illustrators and some now creating online?
I’ve seen a lot I like, and even more I don’t. Internet artists seem to be better than ones in print… whether that’s because it’s easier to “publish” your work that way and therefore there’s more of it, I don’t know.
Are you aware of the manga genres of ‘Boys’ Love’ and ‘Yaoi’, mainly by women and for women? What do you think of them?
They’re sweet, and I like them - they have a unique style; I also find it amusing that girls like them so much!
What illustration techniques are you using now for these new strips? Are you using computers, for example for the tones and the lettering?
I pencil and line my drawings, then colour and letter them up on my Mac. No direct drawing on computer for me…
How do you feel about computer colouring your line drawings? How does colour through shading, highlights, other effects, add another erotic dimension to them?
As mentioned earlier, colour is what brings warm life to already erotic line drawings. Doing it on computer is just a quicker, less messy way of achieving what I’ve always tried to do with brush and air-brush.
Do you ever use models or photo reference for your work or does it all come from your imagination?
Mostly it’s my imagination, although a cute face or body can set me off. Sometimes photos can be handy to negotiate anatomical problems. But just working from photos would mean using someone else’s vision, rather than freeing my own libidinous imaginings.
Given the right conditions and payment, could you envisage creating a longer erotic comic, perhaps a 48 page colour album like a European BD - or a longer story or graphic novel?
Definitely, I’m full of ideas.
Privately, for yourself, do you draw or paint, or express yourself in other ways?
Not much. History is my love, so the work I do for our books satisfies that, and when it comes to erotica I indulge in strips that are a little too young to show anyone else in this climate of pedophile panic (no little kiddies, mind you - I can’t see them as sexual: cute, maybe, but that’s all).
Are you ‘out’ in your private and/or business life?
I’m out, and yes I’ve been in a steady relationship with the same person since the early Seventies…
I think Tom of Finland said that he had to be turned on by what he was drawing for it to really work - it had to arouse him and that way he knew it would arouse the reader - something like that. Does that apply to you?
Indeed it does - if you don’t get a boner when you’re drawing, what’s the chance that anyone else will when they read your story?Posted: August 8, 2010