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.
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.
By Jim Linderman author of Camera Club Girls see also Vintage Sleaze Art the daily blog