Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground
by Richard Pérez Seves
Eric Stanton is not a mainstream figure in American comics, but he was part of a strange underground scene which has become so ingrained in this country’s consciousness that the man was overdue for an in-depth examination. Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground provides that, combining his life story with an overview of the pre-hardcore days of the American pornography industry and a look at the influence his work has had on popular culture. Richard Pérez Seves has crafted a terrific look at the underbelly of the age of fake innocence.
Stanton (born Ernest Stanzoni) drew dirty comics. More specifically, he drew fetish and bondage comics. The most remarkable thing about his work, aside from the man’s extremely high level of craftsmaship, is that, by today’s standards, this is stuff that would barely register a “PG-13” rating.
Recurring themes in his work include: women in leather and lingerie fighting and binding each other; men being dominated and humiliated by women (and enjoying it); male transvestism; bondage; homosexuality and other things that were considered “smut” and perversion back in the middle of the last century, but which are not nearly so shocking today.
He did this without depicting nudity or explicit sex. Viewed through today’s eyes, these stories are basically tame sexploitation. The women are beautiful, no doubt, but more often than not, they hold the power in these stories, and now these tales come across as almost feminist in their execution.
The most shocking thing about this book is that it documents how, not so long ago, the US Government, using postal inspectors and the FBI, would harrass arrest, fine and imprison people for publishing material that is less explicit than a typical Madonna video that might be shown on MTV just twenty-five years later. The work of Eric Stanton and “smut peddlers” like Irving Klaw, Leonard Burtman and Edward Mishkin is not even remotely explicit, and the fact that law enforcement spent any time disrupting the first amendment rights of these people is a sterling example of how, even recently, the government can stomp all over the constitutional rights of those it deems to be politically unpopular.
Pérez Seves has done an admirably comprehensive job of combining what could be three different books into one. He rightfully weaves the life story of Stanton into that of the underground publishers who published his work, and tells of the man’s personal struggles, along with the governmental persecution that the entire industry had to endure.
The third part of the book is a comprehensive checklist of Stanton’s work, with years and publishers listed, and reprints noted.
Stanton’s story is worthy of examination alone. This is a man who served in the Navy, suffered through a disastrous first marriage and was separated from his children of that union. He shared a studio with Steve Ditko, and may very well have had a hand in the design of Spider-man. He certainly helped Ditko in a ghost capacity (and Ditko returned the favor, you can spot Ditko’s distinctive pencils and inks in many places in this lavishly-illustrated book) when deadlines loomed. Stanton also worked with the Irving Klaw models, and considered Bettie Page a personal muse. He was drawing her into comics decades before Dave Stevens re-introduced her into the public’s psyche in the pages of “The Rocketeer.”
That Stanton was able to weather the persecution of the time to reinvent himself, start a second family, reunite with his children and become a pioneering self-publisher is a triumphant story, darkened only by his death, some twenty years ago. Pérez Seves exhasutively researched this book, speaking to his surviving publishers and associates, his children and widow, and digging into public records to fully document Stanton’s life.
The book description reads as follows:
Tracing the rise of commercial fetish art from its shadowy beginnings in the 1940s to its acceptance in the 1970s, this illustrated biography explores the unconventional life and art of Eric Stanton, a pioneering sexual fantasist who helped shape the movement. With more than 400 rare images and interviews with Stanton’s family and closest associates, this biography chronicles the infamous circle of patrons, publishers, and cult icons populating his subterranean world, including Irving Klaw, John Willie, Bettie Page, Steve Ditko, and Gene Bilbrew. It is the untold, secret history of a misunderstood culture, the abuses of government authority, social intolerance, and gangsters. But above all, it is a tale about survival against all odds and an artist who had the courage to stay true to himself.
Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground is a fascinating look at the work of a man who created cutting edge work during an age of artificial innocence, exploring the underground world of sexual fantasies and taking major risks at a time before subsequent Supreme Court rullings upheld the publication of risque material. Plus the man really knew how to draw beautiful women.
PopCult recommends this book to anyone interested in the fringes of comic book history, the early days of the sexual revolution or the ironic crackdown on what is now considered rather tame material by an FBI that was overseen by a man who was secretly a homosexual cross-dresser.