THE FETISHISTIC illustrations and strip cartoons drawn by the American artist Eric Stanton were so distinctive and powerful that they attracted a clientele of connoisseurs rumoured to have included over the years Howard Hughes, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Elvis Presley and the Kinsey Foundation.
The missing link between the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and the cult film director Russ Meyer, Stanton never achieved respectability, but his striking work influenced the look and the record sleeve artwork of acts like the Cramps, Madonna and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Born Ernest Stanzone in Brooklyn in 1926, to a Russian mother, and an Italian father who never recognised him, he was bullied at school because of his limited English. He started to draw at the age of 12, when he was quarantined alongside his sister who had scarlet fever. Over the next five years, three bouts of pneumonia also kept him in bed. Stanton later told the photographer Eric Kroll, compiler of The Art of Eric Stanton: for the man who knows his place (1997):
I had nothing to do. I grabbed some comic books and did some tracings and things like that. That's how I started to learn and the first time I started drawing sexy girls, heroines, just for fun. I didn't show them to anybody but, even so, my stepfather told my mother: he mustn't be drawing these type of things. My mother said to him: let him draw what he wants.
Stanton joined the navy and put his skills to good use, producing a comic strip about plane recognition for a naval newspaper and amusing fellow sailors with his racy drawings. After the Second World War, he worked as a waiter, occasionally entertaining the guests with Russian-style dancing or a knife-throwing act in the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan where his stepfather was head chef.
In 1948, a chance meeting led him to a job with the newspaper strip cartoonist "Boody" Rogers. Stanton did the lettering and the backgrounds and coloured the proofs while also creating unusual characters for the plainclothes superhero Sparky Watts and Babe Darlin' of the Hills. Stanton felt that Babe, the blonde heroine, was too much of a carbon copy of Daisy Mae in Al Capp's Lil' Abner and looked around for other opportunities.
He noticed a magazine advert placed by Irving Klaw, a New York publisher who specialised in cheesecake photos and risque drawings of pin-ups sold through mail order. Disappointed by the Poor Pamela illustrated set he received, Stanton wrote back to Klaw boasting: "I can draw much better than most of your artists." Klaw challenged Stanton to produce something for him. The eight pictures of stocking-wearing high-heeled girls entitled Battling Women did the trick and Klaw gave Stanton $8 for his troubles. Eric developed the strip further and also created the serials Dawn's Fighting Adventures and Fighting Femmes.
On the advice of his new employer, Stanton began incorporating bondage themes into his drawings. For a long time, he used John Willie's work, also published by Klaw, as reference and inspiration. Eventually, he developed his own take on the wrestling scene. "Willie worked from photographs which are inherently static. I wanted more action, to show the women resisting. I wanted them to be moving all the time," he later reflected. "That is why I never used photos."
A two-year stint at the Car- toonists and Illustrators School studying under Jerry Robinson, the creator of Batman, helped Stanton immensely:
I learned how to lay out a comic-book page. To make an exciting face, one has to make two impressions on the same face. This way you get more life to the face. I learned not to try to make both sides of the face the same. Drawing the figure, you learn on your own. I don't draw from photographs. Photographs are very dull. If you draw from photographs, you're going to draw stand-up figures like Willie did.
In the Fifties, Stanton was incredibly prolific, coming up with many titles such as Madame Discipline, Girls' Figure Training Academy, Mrs Tyrant's Finishing School and Priscilla, Queen of the Escapes, reminiscent of the Amazon, Wonder Woman and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle comics of his youth. As cartoon censorship relaxed for a time in the US, Stanton began drawing men interacting with women. Men Tamed To Submission by Tame-azons inaugurated a new era of permissiviness and promoted dominatrix role models which were eulogised by female supremacists (such as the novelist Emily Prager) 20 years later.
Stanton's motives were much simpler. "I have always loved Amazons," he told Dian Hanson, the editor of Leg Show magazine. "The word itself is exciting. I've invented variations such as the Tame-azons who tame men. Being short and a little shy as a young man, I loved the idea of big strong aggressive women who would use their strength to wrestle me down."
However, by 1958, Stanton was down on his luck. His first wife had left him, taking their two children, and the clerk job he had taken at Pan American Airways to placate her had given him a crippling back problem and an addiction to pain-killers. He had also terminated his partnership with Klaw, who never paid him more than $50 for a page and who continued to reprint his work after they had parted company.
Stanton's fortunes revived slightly when he shared a studio with Steve Ditko, an old friend who later created Spider Man and Doctor Strange for Marvel Comics with Stan Lee. "He was a better inker than me so I let him ink. He thought my stuff was funny. We'd laugh a lot. We'd give each other ideas and characters. My Aunt Mae is the Aunt Mae in Spider Man," Stanton remembered.
He would often incorporate a demonic self-portrait - complete with moustache or goatee - of his alter ego Sir D'Astardly into the artwork. The pair collaborated on the Sweeter Gwen saga to great effect.
The pin-up and glamour industry remained a shady business and the publishers Lenny Burtman, Eddy Mishkin and Max Stone took advantage of Stanton over the following years, as he became a very collectable artist. "One colour cover I did, I know for sure that it was sold to somebody for $500, then again for $2,000 to somebody who told me it was later sold for $10,000," Stanton claimed.
Stanton's early Sixties association with the pulp-fiction supremo Stanley Malcolm proved more fruitful for him, but didn't survive various police busts. "I did about 300 illustrations for adult paperbacks published by Stanley in the 'Wee Hours' and 'After Hours' series," recalled Stanton.
I always worked with water and tempera. I never liked oils. I can't stand the thought of taking more than an hour or two on a piece. The cover illustrations were in no way connected directly to the text of the novels. Sometimes Malcolm would describe a specific scene but the titles - Strange Hungers, Pleasure Bound, Something Extra - never had anything to do with the story.
When Malcolm gave up the business, he left Stanton the mailing list and the artist duly launched a new kinky series called Stantoons, catering more and more to the specific needs of his 20,000 customers. "I am like a priest or a doctor," he admitted. "I can't say anything about my customers. I've just learned that, if one has a fantasy, lots of others usually share it."
The Seventies saw an upsurge of interest in Stanton's images; they were constantly recycled by the lurid posters advertising exploitation movies and pirated on shower curtains, stationery and even wallpaper. In 1984, the trendy New York club the Danceteria held the only exhibition of the illustrator's work to date. Four thousand fans turned up and made the event a resounding success. "Thirty-six women and four guys asked me to sign a catalogue," Stanton proudly boasted. He contributed to Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine and also infused the work of European illustrators like Crepax, Pichard and Saudelli.
Over the last couple of years, the German publishing house Taschen has issued a collection, 30 Postcards, as well as The Dominant Wives and Other Stories and The Art of Eric Stanton. The artist gave his full consent and, for once, reaped the benefits.
Ernest Stanzone (Eric Stanton), illustrator: born New York 29 September 1926; married 1951 (two sons; marriage dissolved 1958), 1971 (one son, one daughter); died Clinton, Connecticut 31 March 1999.
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