Profile: Gene Bilbrew (1923-1974)

Eugene “Gene” Bilbrew was an African-American vocal group singer, cartoonist, and “bizarre art” pioneer. As noted in the biography, GENE BILBREW REVEALED: The Unsung Legacy of a Fetish Art Pioneer, he was “the first black career fetish artist in history.” Starting in the mid-1950s, he was among the most prolific illustrators of fetish-oriented pulp book covers. In addition to signing his work under his own name, he produced art under a range of pseudonyms, including ENEG (“Gene” spelled backwards), Van Rod, and Bondy.

Early life

Born in Los Angeles in 1923, Bilbrew’s first career was as a vocal group singer, performing with The Mellow Tones and the Basin Street Boys.

Art career

Starting in 1950, Bilbrew switched from singing to illustrative art. Rumors that he illustrated or produced the storyline for a comic strip series named The Bronze Bomberhave been debunked, nor is there any evidence that he contributed to the African-American newspaper, Los Angeles Sentinel.  His first professional art job was for the hugely influential comics artist Will Eisner, on The Spirit, where Bilbrew took over the back-up series Clifford—a little-kid humour page—after its originator Jules Feiffer was drafted into the army. Bilbrew’s Clifford was syndicated as a weekly comic strip by General Features from 1951 to 1952.

The start of Bilbrew’s “bizarre art” career came in 1951 through underground artist and pioneer Eric Stanton, whom Bilbrew met while attending Cartoonists and Illustrators School. From then on, Bilbrew focused on fetish art, producing work for notable underground publishers Irving Klaw, Edward Mishkin, Stanley Malkin, and the Sturman brothers. He also notably produced many illustrations and covers for Leonard Burtman, publisher of Exotique, a fetish magazine published between 1955 and 1959. A forced feminization drawing from Women Bind and Dominate Male Maid by Bilbrew

Death

While his career waned with the coming of relaxed censorship laws of the 1960s, his substance abuse worsened in the early 1970s. According to Eric Stanton, Gene Bilbrew died in the back of a Times Square adult bookstore in May, 1974.

Other

In 2019 the National Leather Association International established an award named after Bilbrew for creators of animated erotic art.

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