With an amazing 50 years of underground art output to his credit, there is a solid case for claiming that Eric Stanton had, by the time of his death in 1999. become the most famous fetish artist in the world.
And that case is nowhere more convincingly made than by fetish art enthusiast and historian Richard Pérez Seves in his eagerly awaited Stanton biography, Eric Stanton & The History of the Bizarre Underground.
Into the 288 pages of this 7 x 10in ‘junior A4’-sized hardback, Pérez Seves packs the most exhaustive examination of Stanton’s life and work — including more than 400 colour and b&w images — attempted by any writer.
But as its full title implies, this book is much more than just an Eric Stanton biography.
Because of the many overlapping circles Stanton moved in, it is actually an impressively forensic record of an entire era — often referred to as the golden age of fetish publishing.
The author’s account of this period — spanning just over two decades from the late 1940s to the early ’70s — is populated not just with now-legendary artists and models, but also with the various publishers and distributors they worked for, some of whom were notorious and a couple of whom were very shady indeed.
Richard Pérez Seves had already given us a taste of his expertise in the realm of vintage fetish with his revealing biography of Charles Guyette (Charles Guyette: Godfather of American Fetish Art).
This self-published, profusely illustrated paperback (reviewed by us on August 25, 2017) was actually put together by the author while awaiting publication of his Stanton meisterwerk.
Guyette was a previously unsung hero of the genre whose work, though likely to be familiar to anyone with an interest in vintage imagery, was rarely attributed to him by name. He was a major influence on many of the people who now surface in this new book as part of Stanton’s story.
Not the least of these was publisher Irving Klaw, who in 1949 was the first to employ Stanton as a fetish artist.
As Pérez Seves explains, Stanton’s work for Klaw, and subsequently with a variety of other publishers, including another fetish publishing legend, Leonard Burtman, founder of Exotique magazine, brought him into contact with an ever-widening circle of fetish artists that included Gwendoline creator John Willie (John Alexander Scott Coutts) and Eneg (Gene Bilbrew).
During Stanton’s early days with Klaw (the man who famously made a star out of Bettie Page) his job included censoring artwork from other artists to meet Klaw’s strict ‘dressode’, in place to keep him out of trouble with the law (a recurrent problem for fetish artists, photographers and publishers of that era).
Pérez Seves reveals that Stanton was upset by Klaw’s insistence that his hero John Willie’s artwork must be censored (generally by adding more clothing) prior to publication.
And he didn’t much enjoy having to do similar cover-up work on the bondage photographs of Bettie Page and her model chums that soon became a staple of Klaw’s business.
But Eric always had an eye to putting food on the table for the children of his first (unhappy) marriage, and he applied his artistic talents wherever he could to bring money into the family home.
He was incredibly prolific, which might actually have worked against him in terms of the unit prices he commanded per illustration or per page.
He also seems to have been terribly naïve about providing publishers with originals (rather than copies) which, on a number of occasions, were seized and destroyed in various raids and prosecutions by the authorities.
A lot of his work was also pirated by various publishers (this continued into the 1970s and ’80s) and although he did later wise-up about protecting his intellectual property, considerable damage had been done by then.
The Eric Stanton story, as told by Pérez Seves, is an endlessly fascinating series of often surprising revelations which any review can only scratch the surface of.
This book, replete with wonderful illustrations, is also stuffed solid with text, which anyone with an interest in the subject matter will surely find themselves devouring as avidly as I did.
Of great assistance here is the author’s writing style, which is engaging and affectionate, thorough and careful but never dry, and enthusiastic without losing sight of the importance of objectivity.
Obviously the main appeal of this Eric Stanton biography will be to people with fetish interests who are already familiar with — or, through this book, might chance upon — the world of vintage fetish art, and are curious about its history.
Particularly valuable for enthusiasts will be the last 60 pages of the book, devoted to various appendices. More than 40 pages are devoted to the author’s Eric Stanton Collector’s Guide covering the underground years 1949-1970, followed by a page devoted to a list of the different names used by Stanton (14 in all!). Finally come 15 pages of notes relating to the book’s 36 chapters, and a very useful six-page index.
But Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground also offers some perhaps unexpected food for thought for students of another American comic/cartoon genre: the superhero.
I’m not sure how widely known it is that Stanton was partnered in many of his fetish art projects by Steve Ditko, creator of Spider-Man.
In fact the two were great friends, and for some considerable time shared a studio near Manhattan’s Times Square.
So it is not reasonable to guess that even when Ditko wasn’t adding ink to Stanton’s pencil creations under one of his pseudonyms, and was busy instead on his own work for Marvel, the two men sometimes acted as sounding boards for each other’s ideas.
Thus it is that, in a rare departure from the strictly factual content of his book, Pérez Seves allows himself to indulge in a bit of fanciful speculation about just how much Stanton might have influenced Ditko in his creation of Spider-Man’s look.
The skintight catsuit, the hood with its overlaid mask… these were all elements more familiar from Stanton’s work than anything Ditko had previously created.
However, the author insists that despite considerable speculation, Stanton — always the loyal friend to Ditko — never claimed any credit for the character’s look and always maintained in interviews that visually, Spider-Man was solely Ditko’s creation.
By coincidence, as this review was being prepared for publication, the death of Marvel’s Stan Lee was announced.
According to Pérez Seves, it was Ditko’s falling out with “editor and compulsive self-promoter” Lee that led in 1966 to his (anonymously) partnering Stanton in a new venture, Stantoons, which marked Eric’s first decisive move towards finally becoming an autonomous producer and entrepreneur.
It certainly appears that obituarists have largely gone along with Lee’s claims to the creation of Spider-Man, with Ditko somewhat relegated to junior partner status.
One can only imagine what those writers might say if it were to be established that this very mainstream Marvel character actually owed more than a little to the world of underground fetish art and its most celebrated exponent.
Want to know more about Eric Stanton? Read this review’s companion piece — a reproduction of Tony Mitchell’s interview with the artist when he visited London in 1984 — first published in Issue 3 of Skin Two magazine. Find it HERE!
STOP PRESS: Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground is also stocked by UK distributor Gazelle Book Services. E-mail email@example.com; telephone 01524 528500.
Published November 17, 2018; updated January 25, 2019
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