CW: This post contains explicit, drawn pornographic images, including an image from a book that was seized in Norway and Oklahoma on obscenity charges.
This interview ran in The Comics Journal #280 (January 2007).
Frank Thorne began his comic-book career in 1949. Like most of his contemporaries of the time, he started off by drawing standard features for a variety of comics publishers, scrounging for jobs, honing his craft in the meantime. His first feature was Ibis the Invincible for Fawcett, he moved to Western (Dell) in 1953 and drew the adventures of Flash Gordon, the Green Hornet, Jungle Jim, as well as adaptations of movies such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He drew the Perry Mason newspaper strip for a couple of years beginning in 1952. In 1957, he drew another newspaper strip, Dr. Guy Bennett. He also worked as an illustrator doing commercial work for corporate clients (such as Bell Telephone).
His work took a turn for the better (in my view) when he moved to DC Comics in 1968, where he drew a variety of second-banana books (second banana because none of them were superheroes, a genre he neither liked nor excelled at) — war, Western, mystery comics. As a kid, I fondly remember reading Tomahawk, a Western comic about a white pseudo-Indian named Tomahawk. I didn’t know it was drawn by someone named Frank Thorne (and I couldn’t tell you to this day who wrote it without looking it up) but I do remember that it had a rough-hewn drawing style well suited to a Western that was unlike anything else DC published (except the war books, which is probably why he was given Enemy Ace to draw later).
Thorne started moving around in the ’70s: He did a couple of books for Archie’s short-lived action-adventure line Red Circle, then worked on the black-and-white magazines of the similarly short-lived Seaboard/Atlas line where his drawing took on greater assurance and his storytelling and panel composition became freer. In 1975, he started drawing Marvel’s barbarian character Red Sonja, and his life changed forever.
There was no indication in Thorne’s career prior to this that he was any more adept at or interested in drawing women than he was at drawing anything else; his professional output could, up to this point, have been described as competent journeyman work; he drew strips in a variety of genres with equal facility. The 18 issues of Red Sonja he drew changed his professional life and launched him on an unprecedented career arc at the age of 45.
The general perception of mainstream comic-book artists of Thorne’s generation is of steady, commercial workhorses who were more or less content to slave away in the four-color-comics format, and while this is true for the most part, it is astonishing how many of these “workhorses” tried to forge a path of independence from their corporate masters by engaging in risky, entrepreneurial efforts or at least to do work outside their editorial parameters on the side. There were, for example, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, who published Get Lost, and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who started Mainline Comics, both in the ’50s. Wally Wood started Witzend in the ’60s and published several projects of his own (such as The Wizard King). Steve Ditko started doing his Mr. A strips in the ’60s for a variety of independent publishers. Gil Kane published His Name Is…Savage and Blackmark in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Joe Kubert published Sojourn, an anthology of short strips by his contemporaries that lasted two issues, in 1977. In the early ’80s, Neal Adams started the comics publishing company Continuity Comics. And so on. Most of these efforts were aesthetically modest but less mediocre than the generally moronic editorial strictures the same artists had to adhere to under their usual company yokes. Among all of the mainstream comic artists who tried to liberate themselves from mainstream comics companies, Frank Thorne’s attempt was probably the most unusual, as well as the most successful.
Red Sonja inspired him to wed his art to what was, professionally speaking, a hidden obsession — women and sex. During his Red Sonja stint, he grew his hair long, added a beard, and became one of his own fantasy characters —The Wizard— and traveled the country doing performance art with women who would play Red Sonja (most famously, Elfquest creator Wendy Pini). When this ran its course, he created a succession of women characters, usually in fantasy and SF trappings, who became increasingly sexual and sexualized — Ghita of Alizarr, which originally ran in the Warren 1984/1994 magazine, Lann, which originally ran in Heavy Metal, Danger Rangerette, which originally ran in National Lampoon and High Times, Moonshine McJugs, which originally ran in Playboy, and culminating in his two hard-core comic-book series The Iron Devil and The Devil’s Angel. Last year, he published his first prose novel — Nymph. He is currently writing and drawing gag cartoons for —surprise— Playboy. He found his métier and he went for it, full bore.
I can’t remember the first time I met him, but in 1991, Fantagraphics started its money-making porn division, Eros Comix, and the first person I thought of to contact was, of course, Frank Thorne. We created a series entitled The Erotic Worlds of Frank Thorne, an anthology title that reprinted selections of his previous erotic work as well as some new material he drew for the series. In ’94 and ’95 we published The Iron Devil and The Devil’s Angel, two series that pushed the explicit nature of Frank’s work as far as it could go — or at least I hope so. Frank’s career clearly breaks into two parts — Before Porn and After Porn, with the latter being the work that he’s proudest of and most passionate about. Artistically, he is one of the most libertine members of his generation of artists, and refreshingly unapologetic about it.
The interview reflects the easy familiarity of our professional working relationship, covers every aspect of his career —BP and AP— and reflects the easygoing, libidinal, impish nature of the man I’ve known for almost two decades. It was conducted in five sessions between May and October 2006 and copy-edited by Frank Thorne and Michael Dean.
— Gary Groth
GARY GROTH: You were born on June 16, 1930, in Rahway, New Jersey. Where exactly is Rahway?
FRANK THORNE: My hometown is in Union County in central Jersey. It’s about 12 miles from Newark.
GROTH: Tell me a little about your upbringing. You grew up during the Depression, but based on your memoirs it didn’t sound like you suffered terrific hardship.
THORNE: Depression? That’s what you get after watching the 10 o’clock news! Actually, we fared quite well after the stock-market crash in ’29. My father was a competent draftsman until he reached his mid-40s when he developed a nervous condition and couldn’t continue at the board. He found some menial work and then took a job as the elevator operator for Merck and Company, which was, and still is, in Rahway. My early life was as a farm kid, complete with animals and daily chores. A good neighbor let us farm a field nearby. So I did a lot of going back and forth during growing season, hauling wheelbarrow loads of produce back to the house. We ate a variety of things during the Depression. Actually, we ate starlings. We often had starling potpies. Believe me, squirrel potpies are delicious. Guinea pig and rabbit meat properly prepared make a meal fit for a king! The sunnies that I caught In the Rahway River tasted great fried with butter. Once a week, Mondays, we had chuck steak.
GROTH: A starling is a bird, isn’t it? You shot birds?
THORNE: Oh yes, my father was a hunter. He was always shooting something. Like you, so I’ve heard. You’re an advocate, aren’t you?
GROTH: I only shoot computers and refrigerators, no birds. [Laughter.] Nothing I can eat.
THORNE: [Laughs.] It’s true! I was a barefoot boy with cheek of tan! It was a rural setting. We had livestock: chickens, Muscovy ducks, rabbits and hound dogs running around the back yard. I wrote about that passage in The Crystal Ballroom. It’s a must-read if you want the flavor of the period.
GROTH: When your father was a draftsman, did he work at home or did he work in an office?
THORNE: He worked in the offices of the Steel Equipment Company. That was in nearby Woodbridge. His company was in the shadow of the famous Rahway prison, which made me notorious because whenever you said you were from Rahway, they’d ask, “Do you live anywhere near the prison?” We didn’t, but I always said we did. It’s now the New Jersey Correctional Facility. With that name, it doesn’t have the same panache. It’s stripped me of the only epaulet I had as a youth.
GROTH: So your father was a draftsman — but what did he actually do? What does that mean?
THORNE: He designed office equipment. Actually, he was part of a crew that drafted — he did the drawings — and installed cabinets in the Frick Museum in Manhattan. It was the high point of his career; then the neurological problems ended his drafting days.
GROTH: Did you watch him work?
THORNE: Yes, he had a board in the corner of the dining room and he would bring home some of his assignments. As a kid, I would occasionally watch him work. I suppose it was an early inspiration. My father drew but didn’t have a refined drawing sense. His strong points were the schematics. I still have some of his drafting stuff. You know, a compass, T square and a triangle with his initials “G. T,” carved on them; pop was George Washington Thorne. I’m Benjamin Franklin Thorne. Actually, most of the family calls me “Ben.” “Frank Thorne” is my professional name.
GROTH: So your dad might have inspired you in terms of you wanting to draw.
THORNE: Well, what inspired me most was his huge collection of pornography.
GROTH: Your father’s?
THORNE: Yep. I discovered it early on, and that was really where the drawing-naked-ladies thing originated. [Laughs.] I started to surreptitiously draw from the photos in the old man’s collection. Then I unearthed his modest collection of eight-millimeter stag films. When mom and pop were off visiting, I’d watch them in the cellar, sketchbook in hand — in the other hand. [Laughs.] In this enlightened age, any kid anywhere on the planet can, with a couple of mouse clicks, access the great celestial full-color, high-resolution mother-lode of porn on the Internet. They couldn’t live long enough to see it all! [Laughs.] We’re awash in it, and it has devalued the delicious potency of porn.
GROTH: I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but how old would you have been when you discovered this stash?
THORNE: Oh, about 8 or 9. By that time I had begun to yank the crank.
GROTH: You were an early bloomer, I think, relative to my own experience.
THORNE: A late bloomer, eh? [Laughs.]
GROTH: How did being aroused by these images segue into wanting to draw?
THORNE: I began drawing intensely explicit images inspired by my father’s collection. Picasso probably had a father like mine, because he drew some great porn. [Laughter.] In his case, it’s called “erotica.” They showed some of it when they mounted the Picasso exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art years ago. The last display in the show was a very small gallery featuring a discreet display of his naughty drawings and etchings. Man, it turned me on! It was great stuff.
GROTH: We wouldn’t let that happen in an exhibit of yours.
THORNE: [Laughs.] Actually, some of my non-erotic stuff was shown in a gallery at Kean University here in Union, New Jersey. I spoke before a large gathering and got 500 bucks for it! Yes, Gary, like the ad that ran for years in the old comic books said: You can “Make Big Money in Comics!” [Laughs.]
GROTH: I meant we wouldn’t relegate your sexual stuff to a little room. It would be the main exhibit.
THORNE: I produced a lot of it, but it wasn’t all erotica. I loved to draw just about anything. I made cartoons of my classmates, especially the females. I would do sketches on the spot. This eased me through the adolescent passage. I was inept at sports, but I could draw. While the other guys were making cartoons of Nazi dive bombers and Japs getting fried with flamethrowers, I’d be doing naked Nazi ladies with swastika armbands! [Laughs.]
GROTH: When you started drawing from your father’s porn stash — now that would have been around ’40, ’41, ’42 — I assume that wasn’t hardcore porn, it was cheesecake-type stuff.
THORNE: Oh no, I was doing outrageously pornographic imagery; massive pudenda and giant breasts. I kept it stashed in the attic. One dark day, they vanished. Maybe my chum Fudder took them. Could be my brother was the culprit. The mystery remains unsolved to this day.
I did homage to those drawings at the end of Iron Devil: Devil’s Angel. There’s a phantasmagoric scene where Roxy is transformed while she’s being impregnated by the Devil. Her breasts and genitalia become grotesquely enlarged.
GROTH: When did you come under Alex Raymond’s spell?
THORNE: Raymond became my idol the moment my father got a subscription to the New York Journal American and I discovered Flash Gordon. That was it. He drew great ladies. I can remember the moment when I had my epiphany. It was an otherworldly scene from the Waterworld of Mongo featuring Flash and Dale. I started copying Raymond’s stuff. Young aspirants shouldn’t ashamed to copy their favorite cartoonist. It’s a great way to learn, to a point. Eventually, you have to become your own man or lady.
Back in the early '40s, there was no such thing as the excellent Kubert School here in Jersey. There were very few books on the subject. I did have a copy of Draw Comics! Here’s How, by George Carlson. I practically wore it out. At age 13 I got a copy of Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth by Andrew Loomis. I near wore that one out as well.
During my three years at the Art Career School, I enjoyed a number of epiphanies; I discovered the great magazine illustrators of the ‘40s in a great book titled Forty Illustrators and How They Work. Al Parker, Coby Witmore, Dean Cornwell, John Ganham, Matt Clark, Harvey Dunn…I could go on and on. The young Raymond was influenced by Matt Clark among others. You’ll find where Raymond got his vision of Mongo in the marvelous works of Franklin Booth.
GROTH: Did you ever meet Alex Raymond?
THORNE: I wrote Raymond a letter after I was hacking away at Perry Mason for several months. I excoriated myself, pleading forgiveness for copying his style. To my surprise, he wrote back. The letter had the tone of a moral scold. I was justifiably reduced to the size of a repentant pickle. Yes, I did meet Raymond; it was at the annual National Cartoonists Society outing at Fred Waring’s palatial estate on the Delaware near Stroudsburg, Penn. I, the feckless lick-spittle, a mere boy, really, approached The Great One with trembling chin. The minute or two he shared with me oozed with condescension. After that it didn’t take much urging from Devlin to move on from the Raymond style. Gary, I ask you: if he was The King, what of noblesse oblige? Isn’t royalty obliged to act with compassion?
GROTH: Raymond’s great talent allowed for such pomposity.
THORNE: The one who truly carried the Raymond torch was Al Williamson.
GROTH: Yes, right.
THORNE: I discussed the Raymond thing with Al on several occasions. He also felt the burden, and he carried it for decades after I long dropped it. But no one did Raymond like Williamson. It was great stuff.
GROTH: So you were focused on illustrators, not comic-book artists.
THORNE: True, Raymond’s stuff was highly illustrative and I went forth holding Raymond’s banner. I was never enamored with Caniff’s drawing style, but I loved his writing. I was in awe of Foster’s Prince Valiant. You’ll see his influence in The Illustrated History of Union County, which is a mixture of Neil O’Keefe, Raymond and Foster. Incidentally, my royalties from The Illustrated History have been very beneficial to the fund to restore the historic 18th century Frazee house here in town. So I can’t thank you guys enough for publishing in book form the stuff I did as a teenager.
GROTH: Caniff had a lush style and a number of strong women characters like the Dragon Lady.
THORNE: But they looked like cartoons to me. Raymond’s women looked real and sexy. Raymond was the primary influence, along with the great illustrators of the period. The Kirby style I could never take, I couldn’t look at the stuff. I worked in the Raymond manner into the mid-’’50s. In '52 I showed my portfolio to Sylvan Byke, the editor supremo of King Features, located then in New York City. He saw my Raymond style and to my amazement handed me the daily and Sunday of the Perry Mason newspaper strip. I was this 22-year-old kid. It went on for over a year and nearly killed me. That’s a lot of work. I was making $350 a week in 1952, which was a hell of a lot of money in those days. We bought a house and a brand-new yellow Chevy convertible.
GROTH: That’s probably the most money you’ve ever made in your life, relative to cost of living.
You were working away from the Raymond influence in the mid-‘50s.
THORNE: Yep, I was developing my own style under the pressure of Harry Devlin, who was a great cartoonist. He and his wife Wende lived in nearby Mountainside. He became my mentor. Harry was the one that insisted that I become my own man and drop the Raymond style. So I was about 24 or 25 years old and I started breaking away from the Raymond look. When I got to Dr. Guy Bennett, which went on for six years — it was another grueling daily and Sunday — for the Lafave Syndicate, I had pretty much moved on from Raymond.
GROTH: Early on, I would say the artist you most resembled was Kubert.
THORNE: That’s the highest of compliments. Consider the fact that Joe’s dad was a butcher and mine was an elevator operator. Had we been born into the bourgeoisie we’d have probably been sent to Europe to study oil painting. That sociological observation was a point that Gil Kane made years ago, and he was probably right. Gil would, without the slightest provocation, expound on any subject.
GROTH: Now in the ‘50s Toth was, ironically, probably influenced the most by Caniff.
THORNE: Alex was inspired mostly by Sickles, as was Frank Robbins of Johnny Hazard fame. Years ago I met Robbins at a Cartoonist Society dinner. He claimed he’d never heard of Sickles, which was the whopper of the century. I knew Sickles through Harry Devlin. Toth worshipped Sickles. It’s well known that it was Caniff who adapted Sickles’ technique that produced the mature Caniff style.
GROTH: Right, and of course there was Crane.
THORNE: Ah, the great Roy Crane. He influenced a whole generation of aspirants. Meanwhile, Toth heard that I had socialized with Sickles at the Devlins’ famous soirees and wanted Sickles’ address and phone number. Harry obliged and I passed the info to Alex. Toth wrote Sickles a couple of letters and tried to call him. Sickles thought Alex was a nut case. He refused to talk to him and never answered any of his mail, which got Toth really pissed off. Alex writes me a sulfurous postcard saying “I wrote him and I’m not hearing anything, and when I call he won’t talk to me.” It’s like my fault that I gave him his address.
GROTH: [Laughs.] When in fact Sickles should have been pissed at you.
THORNE: [Laughs.] I doubt he knew how Toth got his address. In my small collection of original art, I have a dynamite Sickles illustration from the old Life Magazine. He presented it to me at one of the Devlin parties.
GROTH: Approximately what year would that have been, when you gave Toth Sickles’ address?
THORNE: Fifty-seven. Fifty-eight.
GROTH: OK. That late.
THORNE: I don’t think Toth had come to his Zorro yet, but he was doing some great stuff.
GROTH: What was Sickles doing in the late ’50s, mostly illustration?
THORNE: He did product and magazine illustrations. I recall him doing the Battle of Gettysburg for Life Magazine. A big double-page spread of Pickett’s Charge. It was sensational. In a social situation, both Sickles and Caniff seemed preoccupied. That’s OK; they were two of the great craftsmen of that time. Harry and Wende were gracious hosts at those gatherings at their fabulous home in Mountainside. What can I say? Marilyn and I were lucky to be on the guest list. Incidentally, we named our oldest daughter Wende, after Dorothy Mae Wende, Harry’s glorious and loving bride. She was an extremely gifted painter and poet. We sorely miss them both. I can’t believe they’re gone.
GROTH: How often did you visit the Devlins?
THORNE: Maybe a couple of times a year until I started with Playboy, then things cooled off. Wende had a thing about Playboy.
GROTH: Tell me more about Harry Devlin. He was an illustrator and a painter, wasn’t he?
THORNE: Harry was a good painter, but a great cartoonist. I never quite forgave him for leaving the cartoons behind to become an architectural illustrator and writer. He felt it had more prestige. Harry always wanted to be “official,” and cartooning certainly isn’t official. He and Wende did a whole bunch of wonderful children’s books together: she wrote and he did the illustrations in his inimitable cartoon style. He had brought American cartooning to new heights, and then he walked away from it.
GROTH: What are some of the titles they produced?
THORNE: Old Black Witch, which was re-titled Old Witch in subsequent editions, A Kiss for a Wart Hog, and The Knobby Boys to the Rescue, to name a few.
GROTH: Is Mountainside near Scotch Plains?
THORNE: It’s about six miles west of here.
GROTH: How did you get to know him, was he a friend of your father’s?
THORNE: [Laughs.] No. Harry’s accountant lived across the street from Marilyn in Elizabeth. The accountant set up an appointment. I showed him my portfolio and he gravely told me I should go into another line of work. I was 18 at that time. So with moist eye I left, but I had the fire in the belly. Nobody could have dissuaded me, because you know if a kid’s going to do something, he’s going to do it. And when I have the opportunity to look at a young person’s work I’m always encouraging. I always find something positive. After the meeting with Devlin I developed The Illustrated History of Union County. When it began appearing as a daily feature in the local paper, he called me. It was an apology of sorts. He wanted to see me again, so I returned, and from that point our friendship grew, and it was wonderful.
GROTH: You were gravitating toward illustrators and toward the more illustrative comic-strip artists.
THORNE: Right, we’re not talking cartoons. I had seen some of Heinrich Kley’s line work. Kley could be wickedly funny. Think naked ladies ice-skating with alligators! That’s my kind of guy.
GROTH: We’re going to have to talk about that later, because it seems to me that you’ve moved more toward cartooning in the last 20 years or so.
Young Man with a Horn
GROTH: It sounds like you had two artistic passions in your youth. One was drawing and the other one was the cornet?
GROTH: Tell me how that started, when you started playing the cornet?
THORNE: My first horn was a used silver cornet. Then came the trumpet, a brand new Martin Committee model. I took lessons from Fudder’s old man. The Morbachs lived down the street. A bunch of my high-school chums formed an 18-piece swing band. I played first trumpet and did some of the ride solos. We were doing mostly Miller and some Kenton. The band got a lot of gigs in the ‘40s, mostly proms and weddings. Our signature job was the four-night gig at The Crystal Ballroom in Keansburg N.J.
GROTH: You had your own swing band.
THORNE: It was Bob Ulbrich’s band; he took the name Williams as leader. His father was a lawyer. He bought the orchestrations and the music stands and got us going. After several years, Bob left the band behind and went on to become a successful lawyer like his dad. But The Bobby Williams Band was his bliss; it was his sweet spot. The original of the big illustration of the band that’s in The Crystal Ballroom is hanging over the head of his bed! [Laughter.] He loves to reminisce about the old Bobby Williams days. Recordings of the band survive, and they still sound pretty good. Harlem Nocturne was our theme, and man, that sounds really good. Bobby sure was great on those passages on the alto sax.
GROTH: We could include a CD with the issue.
THORNE: [Laughs.] Great idea! One of my favorite band stories involves the 50th anniversary of the class of 1947. Bobby brought along a tape of four or five of the songs we had recorded, and the DJ played them on the big speaker array. Voilà! The class of 1947 danced to the music of Bobby Williams Band yet again. We had lost a trombone and maybe a trumpet. But principally, most of the band members were there, all white-haired old men bent with age and long in tooth. But it was wonderful.
GROTH: What got you into jazz?
THORNE: Well, I loved the black musicians. Cootie Williams and Louie Armstrong, they were doing it for me. Everybody was listening to Harry James, and I preferred the black jazz performers. Dizzy Gillespie totally blew me away. I was a huge fan. And what a showman! I wish I’d heard Diz live just once.
GROTH: There was Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.
THORNE: The horn men; that’s where I was at. Those guys really inspired me.
GROTH: Were a lot of your friends into jazz?
THORNE: Yeah, we had a nucleus of musicians. None of them were interested in art. They were only into the music. And we would jam. When we started playing gigs we could make 10 or 15 dollars a night, which ain’t bad, but we were pretty good and getting better all the time. We played the Rahway Youth Center, often in small and large groups. Then I became enamored with Bobby Hackett. He wasn’t black, but I loved his style. If you’ve heard his String of Pearls CD you’ll get the message.
GROTH: How old were you when you were in the band? Were you 14…16?
THORNE: The band got going when I started high school in ‘43. I was 13. But I had the art thing going, and I was something of an amateur magician. I recall being mostly in the art and music rooms all through high school. I did manage to pass two years of Algebra, which considering my dazzling incompetence in math, amazes me to this day. John Cooper was the art instructor at old RHS. I had him in my freshman and sophomore years. John’s tutelage, warmth and interest were an inspiration. I owe my chosen path in life to John. Last summer is coming a letter. John Cooper is 95 years old and lives on Harstine Island off the coast of Washington State! I hadn’t heard from him in 60 years. He got a copy of The Crystal Ballroom and writes me the letter. It was a rave review. We’ve been corresponding ever since. My hambone acting on the Playboy Channel show, and all those Wizard and Red Sonja shows stems from the fast and funny high school Art Club shows that John wrote and directed. He was an accomplished magician and taught me the basics. I did some shows and invented and manufactured several magic tricks. “Thorne’s Wobbly Wand.” You can still buy ‘em online.
GROTH: Do you still get royalties?
THORNE: I only manufactured a couple of hundred for Max Holden, who owned a magic shop in Manhattan. He paid me for the batch and that was it. I moved on. Somebody took the design and produced the wands; but they kept the name. Recently I attended a Magician’s Roundtable and by George, one of the magicians used the Wobbly Wand in his act!
GROTH: At some point you had to choose between music and art.
THORNE: Enter Maggie Burke. She became the art instructor when John left Rahway High in my junior year. Understand that I was a pretty good on the horn at age 17. I was playing with Bobby Williams and Bobby Kaye’s big swing band out of Perth Amboy, N.J. Kaye, his real name was Koch, was a fantastic trumpet man, but the best was Morris Nanton on piano. Google him, Gary, he’s got a bunch of CDs out there. Howard Kelly, the music director at Rahway High, was encouraging me toward a career in music. He took me in to Manhattan to meet Ray Conniff. Conniff was staying at a seedy hotel in midtown. It was a dreary experience. His room was a mess, and he was with some dame who looked like a drawing by Toulouse-Latrec. Here was the great Conniff, and the scales are beginning to fall from my eyes. Kelly was to sit in with his band that night on the Starlight Roof of the Hotel Pennsylvania. I went along and played in the trumpet section for most of the evening. I started scabbing jobs at 17.
GROTH: There were some legendary broadcasts from the Starlight Roof.
THORNE: Yeah, most of the greats of the swing era played there. What a thrill it was to play The Starlight Roof. I was on top of the world!
GROTH: So you really had a choice to make: music or art.
THORNE: That’s where Maggie comes in. I’m about to graduate from Rahway High and Maggie comes to our house one afternoon and says to my parents “This boy has to go to art school!” She would arrange for a half-tuition scholarship for the first year of a three-year course at the Art Career School atop the iconic Flatiron Building in lower Manhattan. There was much serious pondering and family discussions. Probably the visit to Conniff’s hotel room was the deciding factor. I started at The Art Career School in the fall of ‘47.
GROTH: Did you continue with the music while in art school?
THORNE: Hell yeah, but I had to cut back. I couldn’t practice as much and I was losing my lip. The summer of ‘47 was also pivotal in another most important aspect. I attended the Roselle Band and Orchestra School and met Marilyn, my bride of 56 years, but it was 60 years ago that I first saw her, a beautiful blonde, playing first trombone in the school’s symphonic band. It’s true, Gary, I married her for her embouchure! I was in the trumpet section, also the band librarian. I’d adoringly give her extra copies of the first trombone music for Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. I was in love. Gary, what can I tell you? It was kismet!
Marilyn was first chair in the All State Band for two years and then attended Julliard. She’s been a professional musician most of her life. Marilyn has played the Mighty Wurlitzer at the nearby Willow Grove Presbyterian Church for 53 years. She has dozens of private piano students, and has been at it for over 30 years. My bride — all cartoonists’ wives are brides — is a person of faith, while I remain an unregenerate heathen. We are the odd couple. She is also the understanding angel. After all, there I am hamming it up on the Playboy Channel and canoodling with Sybil Danning and porn diva Tyffany Million.
GROTH: Does Marilyn still play the trombone?
THORNE: Alas, it’s been gathering dust in the attic for many years. She plays just the organ and piano. We attend a lot of concerts, mostly classical orchestral and choral works. We’re into chamber music as well.
GROTH: No jazz?
THORNE: I’m content to hear the jazz greats on CD. I have a whole bunch. Getting back to ladies, naked or otherwise, I think the cello is the sexiest musical instrument ever devised.
GROTH: That’s right, and it’s almost as big as a woman.
THORNE: Playing the cello requires the musician to hold the instrument between his or her legs. When it’s a dame sawing away I’m distracted, even with the Boccherini Cello Concertos which are my favorites. I’m sitting there thinking, “Is she wearing any underwear?” Some years back Charlotte Moorman concertized playing the cello topless. Had I attended one of her recitals I would have died! [Laughter.]
The late cellist Jacqueline Duprey was absolutely fantastic. She was blonde and sexy, even when she wasn’t playing the cello. I’m a sucker for a female musician.
GROTH: Wouldn’t jazz have been considered slightly risqué or disreputable at that point, I mean among the white, middle class?
THORNE: Well, yes, and my father was not friendly to black people. He was actually frightened of them. Pop didn’t have a robust musical aesthetic; a Sousa march and “Roll Out the Barrel” were all the same to him. I’d play the records in my room and keep the albums out of sight. When you’re in your early teens, you’re so impressionable. You carry that stuff with you for the rest of your life. I mean, that’s my music. Forget rock and roll and everything that followed. It’s like the matrix has been set and that’s what it’s going to be for the rest of your life. I gather you’re a jazz enthusiast.
GROTH: I am indeed, and especially of that period.
THORNE: Now, when did your interest begin?
GROTH: Well I didn’t start until the late ‘70s, and the guy who really helped me figure out what the hell was going on and what to listen to was Gil Kane.
THORNE: Ah, the professor himself!
GROTH: [Laughs.] That’s right.
THORNE: He always dressed like he was going to a party! [Laughter.] But he was brilliant. With the slightest encouragement, he would deliver a tutorial on practically any subject.
GROTH: Yep. Well, he was my best friend for over 20 years, and of course, he was your generation, so he was listening to the same stuff that we’re talking about. So I asked him where to start, what to listen to, and he would just reel off the names. And you couldn’t get a better tutor.
THORNE: Yeah. Think of it, my whole generation in the craft is gradually departing this mortal coil. Exeunt omnes is a Latin phrase used in theater meaning “exit all.” I mean, poor Al Williamson is battling Alzheimer’s, Gray Morrow’s gone, and now Toth, they’re falling left and right. Dedini’s kaput as well. By the gods! He was good! When Moon started in Playboy it was of the highest order that I was in there with guys like Dedini. Did you finish the Dedini book?
GROTH: It’s at the printer.
THORNE: Oh boy, it’s gotta be gorgeous. Michelle Urry was excited to work with you on that.
GROTH: Well, I’m sure I was equally excited to work with her.
THORNE: She’s a sweetheart. Has she ever been good to me. I can’t tell you, Gary.
GROTH: You will tell me.
THORNE: [Laughs.] We’re getting ahead of ourselves.
GROTH: OK, now let me skip back again. Did your parents encourage your artistic inclinations?
THORNE: Very much so. Yes. They were totally supportive of my aspiration to play music or do the art. But I must say, the music teacher would call and encourage, so they got the word from the school that, “You should get him a better trumpet, and he should be encouraged,” and so forth, which they did. And there was Maggie Burke pushing me toward the art career. At the graduation ceremonies of the Class of ‘47, I was 16; I was presented with awards for outstanding progress in both art and music.
GROTH: How long did you stay with Morbach as your music teacher?
THORNE: I switched to Harry Mandel, an excellent teacher and a great guy who thought I was going to going to be the next Harry James. Not. Diz maybe, if only in my dreams. But I practiced regularly. That’s what moved me along. It’s the same with drawing. You’ve got to keep at it.
GROTH: It sounds like you were living in a sensualized aesthetic environment.
THORNE: I was a dirty young man that loved jazz, but I had one foot in the classical genre.
GROTH: You say you’ve been with Marilyn for almost 60 years; how old were you when you married?
THORNE: We were both 20, our parents had to sign for us.
GROTH: You married at 20?
THORNE: Yep. Ours was and is a house of music. Marilyn has her music studio downstairs, and I’m upstairs in my studio drawing sexy women while recalling those great jazz musicians of that early period. It’s a time machine. When I’m listening, I can feel the mouthpiece on my lips trying to imitate Mugsy Spanier and Cootie Williams growling away. There was no double-tracking in those days; they were just up there wailing. It was just straight out the end of the horn.
GROTH: Did you like Artie Shaw?
THORNE: Yeah, yeah, sure. He was influenced greatly by the black musicians. And Goodman, of course; and what a technician he was.
GROTH: Do you have siblings?
THORNE: I had a brother George, yet another George Washington Thorne, named after my dad. He passed seven years ago.
GROTH: Would that have been an older brother?
THORNE: Yes, he was seven years older than me.
GROTH: And what was your relationship with him like when you were growing up?
THORNE: He played the saxophone, but we never played together. George was not musically gifted. He played in the high-school band and that was it. Then we went our separate ways. In the last 20 years of his life we became very close. It was wonderful, but I don’t think he ever figured me out. He was a businessman, a furniture salesman, a straight arrow. He had smoked cigarettes since his teen years and died of lung cancer. I still miss him.
SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL
GROTH: What was your school like?
THORNE: Art Career School?
GROTH: No, I mean elementary and high schools.
THORNE: Back then there were no “gifted and talented classes.” I think it’s stigmatic. They promise them too much. Here’s a kid that’s told he or she is gifted and talented and wakes up 10 years later in a dead-end job. Marilyn was, and is, extremely gifted and talented. But the teachers didn’t single her out, they encouraged her. Both of Marilyn’s parents were excellent musicians. Her father was her first music teacher. He taught her the piano, trombone and organ, which she plays with her hands and feet. How the hell she does it amazes me. [Laughter.] How Diz did it still baffles me. When I first heard Gillespie I damn near gave up and switched to the kazoo. [Laughter.] If it’s easy for you to do, that’s a good definition of talent. Diz played with such fury and ease, which is an oxymoron, but it fits.
GROTH: When did you gain an interest in writing?
THORNE: As a kid I read Great Expectations, which had quite an impact. I read Twain in between listening to Jack Armstrong, All American Boy. And my father had a copy of Life Among the Nudists, which I read vociferously. [Laughter.] It featured photos of nudists cavorting around in an Alpine setting. But the nudists were so far away that they looked like frolicking ants. If you looked at them with a magnifying glass, all you could see were a zillion little dots.
GROTH: You were born in a far different time.
THORNE: There were few distractions. We had radio, but no television. Think of it. No iPods. No Internet. No cell phones. For the average kid in those days the only thing that was in any way stimulating from an erotic standpoint was the ladies-underwear section of the Sears catalog. For me there was my father’s collection. It was a quieter time. I don’t envy the kids today, because there are so many distractions. There are too many things that they’ve got to have. They’re constantly being bludgeoned with commercials, and they’re promised too much. To put kids on a “gifted and talented” track is to stigmatize them. They wake up a few years later in some boring job wondering, “If I’m gifted and talented, how come I’m stuck here?”
GROTH: Did you read any comic strips other than Flash Gordon?
THORNE: I read most of the strips in the Journal American’s comics section. And there was a rotating library of comic books and Big Little Books that were shared by [starts to sing] “that old gang of mine!” [Laughter.]
GROTH: Did you read the pulps?
THORNE: I had a few, but they weren’t included in the floating library. My childhood chums Fudder and the Decker kids weren’t into heavy reading. Some of the great writers of the 20th century wrote for the pulps: Bradbury, Burroughs, Lovecraft, even Tennessee Williams, to name but a few. One of my proudest early achievements was illustrating for the pulps. It was crap, but at least I was part of that wonderful world that was rapidly being replaced by the colorful world of comic books. Fabulous full-color paintings adorned the covers, which was a higher-quality paper. I went back to the offices of Fighting Western in the mid ‘50s. Mr. Barrow, the editor, was still at the helm. The company had switched from pulps to a line of cheesy girlie magazines. He remembered me mostly because I had custom-made my portfolio out of plywood. It had a hole in it and it looked like a zither. He didn’t remember that I was wearing slippers and pajamas. In the warmer months, I wore my pajamas to school.
GROTH: Hmm, I need to talk to you about that. [Laughter.] But before I do that, tell me more about Art Career School.
THORNE: In ‘47, the WWII vets were taking advantage of the GI Bill. It was tough to get in most schools, and ACS was no exception. I won a half-year scholarship in a competition and signed on as one of the custodians, which covered my first year’s tuition. I was the clean-up guy for the next three years. When all the kids left at 3:30 p.m. there I was with Richard Henthorne, each with broom and pail. I was lucky if I made the 5:20 to Rahway out of Penn Station. Henthorne was an opera buff. He taught me several arias from La Traviata. I still remember them. [Starts to sing] “Di Provenza il mar, il suol!” [Dissolves into laughter.] In the winter I’d get the mother of all colds and it would last until late March. I lived on Aspergum. If I missed the 5:20 I’d have to take the 6:10 which didn’t get me to the North Rahway Station until 7:00, then it was a mile walk to home.
GROTH: We had so much energy at that age.
THORNE: Yeah, at 76 here it takes you a little longer to do things. What I used to do all night it takes me all night to do! [Laughter.]
GROTH: Where is the Flatiron Building?
THORNE: On Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street. It’s a magnificent building. We were across from Madison Square Park. The corner of 23rd and 5th is unique. It’s always windy, I mean really windy. In the early part of the last century, naughty young buckos would gather on the corner to watch the breezes blow the young ladies’ long dresses in hopes of seeing their ankles, or a stretch of lower leg. The police would sidle up to the oglers and move them on saying “Skidoo!” That’s how the phrase “23 Skidoo” crept into our language.
GROTH: You were a busy young bucko.
THORNE: Make that naughty young bucko! [Laughter.]
GROTH: I mean with the school and the gigs.
THORNE: I preferred the music jobs with smaller groups, the pay was better. Marilyn often played with our sextet. It helped having a beautiful blonde at the piano.
GROTH: Did you dig the New York scene?
THORNE: [Starts singing] “I love New York in June, what about you?” Especially 42nd Street. It was godawful glorious in the ‘40s! Smutty wonderful. Ah those fabulously foul rundown movies theaters lined up one after the other. You could catch a matinee of Around the World with Nothing On, then drift over to Captain Harold’s Flea Circus, which was a 24-7 sideshow. Then there were the shoddy little shops that sold the nude pictures of ladies. I’m sure hardcore photos were available somewhere along the strip, but I never saw any in the ‘40s. That came later. But the nudie pictures were gloriously innocuous. I’m thinking Maria Stinger and Pat Hall, pneumatic goddesses of sweet innocence with their pubes airbrushed to oblivion. And the nudist colony movies, often hosted by Velma Zupre, a 300 pound virago, featured a variety of sports activities filmed in the buff. Volley ball footage was de rigueur for any nudist movie worthy of 42nd Street. In the late ‘50s came Show World on 8th Avenue. You could see Candy Samples strip naked, and then meet her, still butt-naked, for an autograph at no extra charge! Then live sex came to 42nd Street. Sordid subterranean theaters offered a steamy smorgasbord of fellatio, cunnilingus, and all the positions in the Kama Sutra; all for five bucks a pop. Then came Disney and ruined it all. Disney is the Devil! [Laughter.] Those shows are made for the tourist trade. Most are vacuous crap. Can you imagine, some show’s seats are getting $480 for front-row center. The average is around a hundred bucks a seat. I’ve seen a couple of them. Each time I shuffled out mumbling “What a piece of shit that was.” [Laughter.]
There were three of us in A.C.S., Hy Eisman, myself, and Al Kilgore. The Three Musketeers!
GROTH: How did you meet Hy Eisman?
THORNE: I met him in our first days at the Art Career School. We were in the freshman class. Hy was on the GI Bill.
GROTH: And you guys became friends?
THORNE: We did indeed. And he’s still a buddy. He’s now writing and drawing Popeye and The Katzenjammer Kids. He’s done Little Iodine and Smokey Stover, to name a few. He also ghosted Kerry Drake for quite a spell.
GROTH: Correct me if I’m wrong, but he turned into a real stylistic chameleon, didn’t he? He can do almost anything, from the more illustrative stuff to the more cartoony stuff.
THORNE: Hy’s an amazing talent. He’s been teaching at the Joe Kubert School since it started. Funny story: A few years ago Hy was in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Florence, his effervescent bride, was with him. She’s very proud of Hy’s talent, so wherever they travel she wears a blazer with an enameled Popeye pin on the lapel. So, as all are in awe of the great Michelangelo ceiling, a guard approaches Florence, and in halting English whispers “Scusa, why you wear the Popeye pin, per favore?” She whispers back that Hy draws Popeye. In a thrice Hy is off to the side making sketches of Popeye for several of the attendants! [Laughter.]
GROTH: So why did you guys hit it off?
THORNE: All we wanted to do was comics. Al was also on the GI Bill. Art Career School was a three-year course in commercial art. They didn’t offer instruction in comics. That’s OK, because I suspect that you can’t teach art, or comics. Guide and nurture maybe. We need a better definition of “teach” here. Why, you may ask, why didn’t I go to the Cartooning and Illustrating School a few blocks east on 23rd Street?
GROTH: Why? I ask.
THORNE: Practicality. The theory was that I should get the basics in commercial art-techniques, so when I went around to get a job I would know how to do masking, frisketing and paste-ups — they don’t have paste-ups any more. Mechanicals — no more mechanicals — but I employ some of those commercial techniques in my stuff to this day.
GROTH: The School of Cartooning and Illustrating became The School of Visual Arts.
THORNE: The Cartooning and Illustrating School was started by Cy Rhodes and Burne Hogarth.
GROTH: Hogarth of Tarzan fame.
THORNE: Yeah. I attended a lecture by Rhodes and Hogarth years ago. It was boring beyond human endurance. [Laughs.] I never heard such pompous claptrap in my life.
GROTH: Burne took himself, and his art very seriously. What kind of artists was the Art Career School turning out?
THORNE: I hasten to add that A.C.S. was a small school. The graduates were mostly people who would go into advertising agencies, printing companies, publishing houses and the like. One graduate, Warren Aldoretta, became the art director of Kodak, and Charlie Long made it to the top as art director of New Jersey Bell Telephone Company.
GROTH: Talk more about the basics you learned.
THORNE: Well, we were taught the color wheel and the fundamentals of design. We visited the Metropolitan and studied the great paintings. Then you had the life classes; naked ladies, we’re back to that again! [Laughter.] Fortunately I never had to do a paste-up or a mechanical after A.C.S.
GROTH: You were lucky.
THORNE: Gary, I’ll tell you something. This is very significant. About 30 years ago I finally decided I had to have a card made. I never had a business card. So I had 500 made. And by last count I have about 480 of them left. [Laughs.]
GROTH: Fortunately, you didn’t end up in an agency.
THORNE: Yep, I’ve been in the craft for 60 years, working constantly. I had to; we started having kids, five in all. Incidentally we have 10 grandkids and three great- grandchildren. With all the naked ladies, we are a solid family. It’s really a G-rated act. I’ve saved a recent note from Michelle Urry. It’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received. I quote: “Congratulations on your 55th wedding anniversary! You’re really an amazing person. For someone who is so quintessentially an artist to have this deep-seated and focused family life is great for we editors who constantly deal with the trials and tribulations of painfully bereft, lonely and disgruntled artists who cannot find their way. You’re an example for all of them.”
FIRST TIME IN INTIMATE LOVE
GROTH: Let me ask you this. You started going to Art Career School in ’47. At what point were you starting to draw for money?
THORNE: Before art school I was making a few bucks doing covers and inside drawings for The County Sportsman. The first comic-book work would have been at Standard.
GROTH: I thought the first comic work you did was Ibis the Invincible.
THORNE: I’m sure it was for Standard. I penciled “My Selfish Heart,” an eight-pager that ran in Intimate Love #7. Joe Archibald gave me the job. So we can thank Joe for getting me started. Dan Barry was freelancing at Standard about that time. Boy, was he good. He did a Flash Gordon that was just great; it was different from Raymond, but solid stuff. His brother Cy was at Standard as well. He went on to do The Phantom.
GROTH: There have been a couple of artists on that strip.
THORNE: My buddy Fred Fredericks did the Phantom Sunday page for several years. He’s been doing Mandrake for over 40 years. Boy, am I glad I didn’t sign on to something like that. [Laughs.]
GROTH: The history of comics is littered with stories like that; people who get into a rut and that’s what they do. Someone who refused to do that was Everett Raymond Kinstler; do you remember him?
THORNE: Yeah, he did Silver Tip at Dell when I was there in the early ‘50s. He worshipped James Montgomery Flagg. He did pen work in the Flagg style, it was great stuff. Ray left comic books to become a much sought-after portrait painter. He’s had commissions to paint several presidents.
GROTH: Do you know him now?
THORNE: Haven’t seen him in years. In the ‘50s, Hy Eisman and I visited his spacious studio in SoHo. Ray had painted a life-size portrait of himself and it was mounted in a gilt rococo frame that dominated the wall. It was great. Just before Flagg died, Kinstler brought him to a National Cartoonists Society meeting. Flagg was hanging on to Kinstler; the poor old guy was nearly blind and struggling along with a cane. Here’s a room full of drunk cartoonists trading bawdy stories and it’s like the mummy of Rameses II was being toted out of his tomb. Then a silence enveloped the room. As Flagg haltingly moved toward his seat, all the guys got up and applauded until he sat down. It was a wonderful moment. I think he died shortly after that. The mantle fell from Flagg onto the shoulders of Ray, and they were broad enough to carry the load.
GROTH: You did Ibis for Fawcett?
THORNE: Actually for Louie Ferstadt, who inked my pencils. It was his book for Fawcett. I call him Fierstein in Drawing Sexy Women. Some of the names in all my books have been changed to protect the innocent! [Laughs.] He taught at Art Career School. Old Louie was an unregenerate Bolshevik.
GROTH: How old would you have been when you did Ibis? Were you in the Art Career School?
THORNE: I started at 17, in ‘47, and graduated at 19, in ’49.
GROTH: You started early.
THORNE: You think I had an early start? Joe started when he was about 12.
THORNE: Yeah, the great Kubert. And he’s better now than when he was flying through the decades doing Sgt. Rock and all that great stuff. Joe still mourns his old Norman Maurer. They worked on the first 3-D comics together. We would go every year to the Kubert School graduations. Joe would be saying that Norman was the more gifted of the two. Not. Joe had it over Normy in spades. Maurer’s uncle was one of The Three Stooges and went on to produce their movies.
GROTH: Tell me how it worked, and tell me how you hooked up with Ferstadt, first of all.
THORNE: I just started going around showing my stuff and voilá! This little pigeon-chested guy with the genial smile gave me work. When I think about that early passage, it seems like I was living two lifetimes. Fortunately, since those early days, I haven’t had to hustle for work. It comes to me.
OF HUMAN BONDAGE
GROTH: In Drawing Sexy Women, you write about a woman named Bonnie.
THORNE: She was one of the nude models for the life classes at the Art Career School. Bonnie was an auburn-haired beauty with a body that could raise the dead. I refer you to the cover of this magazine. [Laughs.]
GROTH: How old was Bonnie when you knew her?
THORNE: She was in her early 20s and delightfully uninhibited. Bonnie also modeled for Louie and a lot of other artists and photographers around The Big Apple.
GROTH: And she got you involved in the girlie-magazine and bondage scene.
THORNE: I penciled Ibis in Louie’s studio at Union Square. Bonnie was the model, so I got to know her personally. No, I didn’t get laid! [Laughs.] I remained a virgin until I married Marilyn.
GROTH: Jesus, how did you manage that?
THORNE: Six years ago we were celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary at a family event. I was sitting on the patio polishing off my second martini. Our three sons-in-law joined me. During the conversation, I mentioned that Marilyn was the only woman I had ever slept with. There was an incredulous pause. They laughed! They didn’t believe me! [Laughs.] Ingrates! How sharper than a serpent’s tooth!
GROTH: Well, it is a little astonishing.
THORNE: That’s the dirty little secret of my act. My act is G-rated, but it looks dirty. I’m perfectly happy with Marilyn. I owe it all to her love, support and understanding, and she gets better-looking every year!
GROTH: You were telling me about your platonic relationship with Bonnie.
THORNE: Yes, we discussed Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy while I drew her tits.
GROTH: Did Bonnie pose for Jugsy Malone?
THORNE: No, Jugsy sprung full-blown from my feckless brow; albeit Bonnie was an inspiration. A dead man would’ve been inspired by Bonnie. I again refer you to TCJ cover. In reality, the Jugsy half-pager was crude juvenilia. It only lasted four issues.
GROTH: I understand that Bonnie introduced you to the bondage czar Irving Klaw.
THORNE: I’d visited Irving’s establishment several times before meeting its fabled proprietor. It was a scruffy little shop in the shadow of the el on 13th Street in lower Manhattan. Long and narrow, it beckoned hapless hordes from the antipodes. What resembled a bar, complete with stools, ran the length of the store. Nervous hopefuls stood two-deep anxious for the opportunity to pore over the thick loose-leaf binders that displayed samples of Irving’s colossal inventory of bondage photos.
GROTH: Bettie Page and …
THORNE: There was Roma Paige and Maria Stinger along with Bunny Pope and Lynn Davis. There were offerings other than bondage on Irving’s menu. Consider the Junoesque Irish McCalla — whatta pair she had! [Laughs.] He had a binder devoted to strippers: Sherry Britton, Margie Hart, Tempest Storm … I’m beginning to hyperventilate! [Laughs.] And to think that now they’re all little old white-haired ladies.
GROTH: In Drawing Sexy Women, you have a hilarious description of meeting Irving Klaw and then a subsequent shooting session with Bonnie and Bettie Page at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd. You described Irving Klaw as looking like a waiter from Smith and Wollenski’s, which I thought was just perfect.
GROTH: You were such a devotee of porn and there was the allure of women, I don’t understand why you weren’t promiscuous in your youth.
THORNE: I was whacking the willie so much, I didn’t have anything left.
GROTH: Right. So tell me about Irving Klaw and his office; what it was like?
THORNE: I refer your readers to page 36 of Drawing Sexy Women. They’ll note that Klaw is holding my homemade portfolio in the shape of a zither! [Laughs.] I was never into bondage, so I backed off working for Irving. I was producing the Illustrated History and the pay was better than what Klaw offered. I was getting 25 bucks a pop for the daily feature in the local paper. It ran through 173 issues. A hundred–twenty-five bingos a week was a lot of money back then.
GROTH: You met Eneg in Klaw’s office.
THORNE: Ah, yes, he was the Thomas Kincade of bondage art! [Laughs.]
GROTH: Kincade, “The Painter of Light.”
THORNE: The painter of crap. I can’t stand that treacly shit. Incidentally, if you had a pristine collection of Eneg bondage art, you could make a fortune on eBay.
GROTH: The shooting session, both Bonnie and Bettie were there, right?
THORNE: Bonnie invited me to come to the shoot at the fabled Chelsea Hotel. It was just a block or two east of the Flatiron on 23rd Street. Bettie Page? Let me tell you; here I am in the same room with the primary initiator of a hundred seasons of fevered sleep. That alabaster skin, those raven tresses! She drove me to deliriums of self-abuse! [Laughter.] I had a modest gathering of her nude photos in my private collection. But a scoundrel with an airbrush had crudely obliterated her pubes on the master negative leaving the print with a pasty swath that resembled dried buttermilk. One of the spin-offs of the sexual revolution was [the fact that] that same guy, now bent with age, using that damned airbrush, re-established a dubious reproduction of her furry mound. [Laughs.] Bettie Page? Let me tell you; before my eyes, the goddess nonchalantly undressed, and there, like the Holy Grail, was her actual fully upholstered bush. Was I hearing a choir of angels? It was a seraphic bombo, so why not a host of singing seraphim?
GROTH: There was some tension between Bettie and Bonnie at the Chelsea, as I recall from your memoir. What happened to Bonnie?
THORNE: Last seen in the arms of the wrestler Gorgeous George in the lobby of the Chelsea after the shoot. I never heard from her again.
PRIVATES ON PARADE
GROTH: OK, you got the Perry Mason strip in 1952. Who wrote the scripts, and how did you get them?
THORNE: It was written by a staffer at William Morrow, the publisher of Earl Stanley Gardner’s books. I was working with Thayer Hobson; he was the head honcho at Morrow. He was a great bear of a man. My god, he looked like Baal, but he was a gentleman — Baal playing the cello! He was wonderful to me. Anyway, Hobson’s secretary would send me the scripts and I delivered the finished strips to his office in downtown Manhattan every Friday.
GROTH: So you didn’t have any contact with King Features after Sylvan Byke gave you Perry Mason?
THORNE: None. King syndicated the strip and Hobson did all the rest. Hearst, William Randolph, that is, who owned King Features, was a good buddy of Earl Stanley Gardner. That’s how Perry landed in the newspapers. When old man Hearst died, the powers that be at King killed the strip, which saved my life, because drawing Perry was killing me.
GROTH: How so?
THORNE: I would get up Wednesday morning, and work straight through to Friday without sleep. Then Marilyn would drive me into Manhattan while I slept on the back seat. When we arrived at Morrow, Marilyn would wake me and I’d slog up to Hobson’s office with the strips. Producing a daily and Sunday single-handedly is a man killer. I was lettering the strips and coloring the Sunday page as well. Marilyn began to be concerned for my health. It taught me a great lesson.
GROTH: Which was?
THORNE: Which was: What’s it all about? I could have died of a heart attack. It remains a trophy of my youthful passage; I mean for a kid that age to be doing a strip syndicated by King Features is almost better than bedding Bettie.
GROTH: Were you in the service during the Korean War?
THORNE: Had the 306 Special Service unit been activated, the Chinese wouldn’t have bothered to cross the Yalu River.
GROTH: What was the 306 up to in the early ‘50s?
THORNE: Hardly anything! [Laughter.] No, actually we were an entertainment unit based in Manhattan on 43rd Street. I played trumpet in the pit band for a musical developed by the unit. My oldest buddy Bob Ulbrich, aka Bobby Williams, played alto sax in the band. We toured army bases with a show. Yes! [Laughs.] We were traveling players just like with “Ramballock” in Nymph, but our show was “Magee.” [Starts singing “Magee, oh what a town it will be …”] I also designed the sets for the show. Actually, several guys in the unit who went on to fame. Everybody knows John Cassavetes. I loved his acting; he was really good in “Magee.” Following his career, I felt he was a better actor than director. Ever see Mikey and Nicky? It’s great. John’s wonderful. His buddy Peter Falk is in it too. He’s a marvelous actor. Elaine May directed —
GROTH: [Interrupting] You didn’t like Faces and Shadows?
THORNE: Sheer imposture. Unfathomable tedium. [Laughs.] Sorry, John, wherever you are!
We also had Joe Layton in the unit. He went on to become a well-known choreographer. Bambi Lynn’s brother was in the troop as well. Bambi was a beautiful dancer in the early days of television. There were excellent puppeteers, dancers, costumers, singers and musicians in the old 306.
GROTH: You must have been doing Perry Mason when you were in the 306.
THORNE: The Perry newspaper strip was waltzing off to limbo as I joined the Army Reserves. Perry would return to TV some years later. I’d be dead if I had to do a daily and Sunday and be a weekend warrior at the same time. With it all, Marilyn and I were starting to produce kids. All of this, and then the 306 was off to Fort Wayne to do the show, and then back up to Pine Camp in Watertown, N.Y., and then back in Manhattan. Each summer, the 306 did two weeks at Pine Camp, which has since been renamed Camp Drum.
GROTH: What happened after Perry?
THORNE: I slept for two weeks! [Laughter.] Then I went over to the Dell offices in Manhattan. They had been publishing all types of magazines since the ’20s. Dell farmed out the comic production to Western Printing located then in Poughkeepsie, NY.
GROTH: Who did you deal with at Dell?
THORNE: Well, the head honcho was the late George T. Delacorte Jr. Dell, the name of his company is a diminutive of Delacorte, which is funny because that wasn’t his real name, it was a simple Jewish name and he changed it to G. T. Delacorte Jr. He even added the Jr.! [Laughs.]
GROTH: Did you meet him?
THORNE: No, I dealt with Ann Destefano and Dick Small. Dick Small gave me a Flash Gordon coloring book to illustrate, followed by Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Green Hornet, and the Tom Corbett Space Cadet books. I did two movie adaptations: Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, and Moby Dick. It was a tough passage because I was making a third of what I got for Perry Mason. We had bought a house and a brand new Chevy convertible with the Mason money.
GROTH: You took over the Dr. Guy Bennett daily and Sunday from Jim Seed in ’57.
THORNE: Bennett was the poor man’s Rex Morgan M.D. So I was back doing a daily and Sunday strip for the LaFave syndicate. It was something I swore I’d never be involved with after Perry Mason, but I was turning the stuff out a lot faster in my own developing style.
GROTH: Tell me about LaFave.
THORNE: Art LaFave was a big buttery man with a snaggle-tooth and a voice like B.S. Pulley. When I signed on he was still syndicating Napoleon and Uncle Elby, done by the great Cliff McBride. It made Art a rich man, but he was having a hell of a time getting the strips from Cliff, who had a drinking problem. I visited him in Cleveland and he delivered this long jeremiad about McBride and his boozing and how difficult it was to get the strips. On many occasions Art had to cut and paste to create a new gag from the published stuff. While there Art gave me an original Napoleon daily from the first week of the strip’s long run. It’s a fabulous piece of pen work.
GROTH: Hang on to that one!
THORNE: I keep it in a safe, along with a Sullivant and my cover for Red Sonja #1. Recently I sold a Moonshine and a Herriman topper through Heritage Auctions. When I told the contact at Heritage that I was offered 10 grand for it, he said he could get me a lot more than that. Gary, I was paid a hundred seventy bucks for it back in the ‘70s.
GARY: You said you were working faster in your own style.
THORNE: It was still a killer, but Art dropped the Sunday page after about six months. Doing just the dailies gave me time to pick up some commercial illustration work and spend more time with the family. We had three kids at that time. We soon added two more to our brood.
GROTH: Now, what did you do when Dr. Bennett ended?
THORNE: By late 1960, the list of newspapers that ran the strip had fallen below 20. The end was near, there were few vital signs, and emergency measures were needed. So Art changed doctors. He got a second opinion! [Laughs.] Art replaced Dr. Mike Petty and found another MD to write the script. He phased out Dr. Bennett and changed the strip to Dr. Duncan; Dr. Douglas Duncan! That dumb name was the death knell.
The new writer soon abandoned ship, and I wrote the last six months of the strip. I had written The Illustrated History of Union County, but this was different. It created a thirst in me to write my own material. That opportunity didn’t come along until years later with Ghita of Alizarr, and all that followed.
GROTH: OK, what happened after Dr. Duncan?
THORNE: I switched to commercial illustration for several years then drifted back to comics with Mighty Samson, among others, at Gold Key. Incidentally, in 1960, the management at Western Printing decided to start their own comic-book line, hence Gold Key was born. They had a good start under the leadership of Matt Murphy. Matt’s a great guy and a damn good editor. He landed the Disney material for Gold Key, which was a big boost to the new line.
GROTH: After Mason, you returned to comic books. What was the pay rate in the ’50s?
THORNE: Thirty-five bucks a page. What I get for a single-full-page gag at Playboy is more than two 24-page stories I did way back then.
GROTH: How did it work? Did they just hand you a script?
THORNE: Yep. I think I probably still have some scripts from that era.
GROTH: Do you know who wrote the stories?
THORNE: I recall Paul S. Newman writing some of the Dell and Gold Key scripts, and there was the great sci-fi author Otto Binder who wrote Mighty Samson.
DOING IT ALL
GROTH: You told me that Mighty Samson at Gold Key was sort of a signal event for you.
THORNE: Samson was the first comic-book series that I designed all the characters and costumes. It was very exciting because I was working with Otto Binder, and no, I never met him either. I often wonder what happened to those original Samson pages. In those days they didn’t return the artwork. I did seven issues of old smelly Sam.
GROTH: Right. And Jack Sparling took it over after you left.
THORNE: Jack was a good craftsman, but he raced through Samson like Mike Schumacher at the Indy 500. [Laughs.] In the ’40s Jack drew Hap Hopper for United Features, and then there was his Claire Voyant. Samson didn’t last long after Jack’s speedy ministrations. Sam was very well written, and my style was coalescing. It could have been my vision of Samson’s post-apocalyptic world that caught the eye of the Marvel people when they were considering an artist for Sonja. Incidentally, I have in hand a request for payment form dated October 14, 1965, it’s for 12 penciled pages of “Sinister Satellites,” a Samson story, at $17.50 a “unit” or page, that’s $210.00. The pay was the same for the inked pages. That adds up to 35 bucks a page; which included lettering and coloring.
GROTH: Peonage by today’s standards.
THORNE: By the way, I loved drawing the softly beautiful Sharmaine, Sam’s girlfriend.
GROTH: Samson was the most extensive narrative you had done up to that point, I think.
THORNE: Yeah, and it made drawing comic books all the more seductive.
GROTH: Right. So you got the whole Samson script and just illustrated it.
THORNE: They were full scripts with dialogue and scene description on typed pages. I had license to work it up from there.
GROTH: The covers of the Samson books were painted, which was unusual for comic books.
THORNE: A painter I’m not. I was born a watercolorist, although I’ve done a lot of commercial illustrations with acrylics and tempera. My Playboy stuff is done with Dr. Martin’s TECH waterproof dyes. I apply them using a watercolor technique, which gives the gags a spontaneity and freshness that you can’t achieve with opaque colors.
GROTH: I chanced upon some of your work for the Boris Karloff horror books.
THORNE: I did a few Karloffs and some Twilight Zone stories.
GROTH: You were in good company — you shared the comics with great artists like Al Williamson and Wally Wood, though not quite at their best.
THORNE: Fred Fredericks also segued from Dell to Gold Key. At Dell he was writing books like Nancy and Sluggo and Heckle and Jeckle; it was really funny stuff. When he went over to Gold Key, he started writing and drawing the books. Among them The Munsters, Mister Ed and other titles; they were hilarious.
GROTH: He’s a good gag writer, right?
THORNE: Fred’s written some of my Playboy gags. Not Moonshine McJugs — I wrote and drew all the Moon material. Fred’s been doing Mandrake the Magician for over 40 years, and he’s bored out of his skull. He’s been writing the stories in the past few years, and they’re well done, but it’s straight adventure material. Fred’s an enormous talent, but because of Manny, we missed out on his humor writing.
GROTH: Toth was at Dell and Gold Key at that time.
THORNE: He was doing wonderful things, movie adaptations, Zorro and other titles. Toth owned the ’50s and ’60s. He influenced a lot of Young Lions of that era.
GARY: Did you meet him?
THORNE: I didn’t meet Wally, Fred or Toth until years later. I did meet Tom Gill. He was the anointed Lone Ranger artist. When you did a Lone Ranger, you couldn’t draw his head. Tom would come in and finish the head! [Laughs.] Jesse Marsh was on board as well. He had his own distinctive style; it was different and as solid as a brick church. His John Carter of Mars and Tarzan were fabulous.
GROTH: Yeah, Marsh is underrated — or not rated. Now, why didn’t you continue Mighty Samson?
THORNE: I was happily burdened with a lot of commercial illustration, and it was much more lucrative. We had four kids by that time and we needed the moolah. I was doing regular illustrations for the Golden Books and the Golden Magazine. I worked with Ed Marine, the editor who helped me develop my color illustrative style. Then there was David C. Cook, the publisher of religious books and magazines. Yes, Gary, I did more drawings of little kids praying than tits in those days! [Laughs.] But best of all were the Bell Telephone Company assignments. The pay was fabulous, not as good as Playboy these days, but it sure brought home the old bacon. I did a lot of illustrations for the Tel-News insert that arrived with the bill each month in the subscriber’s mailbox. They were big juicy illustrations of historical subjects. And it paid over 800 bucks a pop.
GROTH: That’s like 10 times the amount what you’d make doing the equivalent work for comics.
THORNE: Absolutely. And I could knock one of those babies out in three or four days. One assignment I did for the Bell Tel-News was to illustrate the Clamtown Sail Car. In the late 1800s some innovative clammers in Tuckerton N.J. built a narrow gauge rail line from Barnegat Bay to the center of the village. When the wind was right the sail car would deliver the morning’s clam harvest to waiting customers in Tuckerton. There was no record of what the sail car looked like, so it was up to me to get down to Tuckerton and interview a 90-year-old coot who could recall its appearance. The town historian took me to the old guy’s house and it turns out that he’s blind as a shovel-nosed fruit bat, and he has a grudge against the phone company! He refused to talk to me. He shut up like a clam! [Laughs.] After about 20 minutes, the town historian, an elderly lady, finally cajoled the old geezer into describing the sail car. The finished painting of The Clamtown Sail Car now hangs in the Tuckerton Seaport Museum.
GROTH: The pay for illustration was good, but page rates for comic books were rising slowly, weren’t they?
THORNE: Very slowly.
GROTH: Now, you inked all your own comic-book work, didn’t you?
GROTH: That seems to be a little unusual. Certainly at Marvel and DC, where they usually had inkers over the artists so that the penciler could crank out more pages and increase productivity since the inker could be less proficient than the penciler. The penciler may not have particularly like the inker that was assigned him, but he had to accept it.
THORNE: I think Joe Kubert is the only one that ever inked my pencils. It was a six-page Tarzan story. He did a great job. I was honored. He’s a genius, and I’m in love with his wife! [Laughs.]
GROTH: We know that! Now, did you letter your own stuff, as well?
THORNE: Oh yeah, and I colored the stuff, too.
GROTH: So you did everything, really.
THORNE: Normally, it’s like a cottage industry. I always felt more respect for the guys that did it all themselves, including the writing. I’m really dumb on comics, and it’s embarrassing. I haven’t been to a stateside con in 29 years. Recently I was invited to a one-day Fantasy Expo at the Du Cret School of the Arts, little private art school in nearby Plainfield. They had a good crowd, but you know, they’re asking me questions about comics and I’m like duh? [Laughs.] I was presented with an honorary diploma! I’m standing there like a badly aging lion thinking, I owe so much to the fan base, and I should be more attentive to the annals of the craft. I don’t read them or collect them, but comic books have given me an enviable lifestyle. I always say I can’t retire because I never had a job! [Laughs.]
NO LONGER STAID
GROTH: After Gold Key came DC.
THORNE: During the DC years, my commercial illustration withered somewhat, so I was happy to have Tomahawk, Hawk, Korak and the war books. I loved working with the writer and editor Archie Goodwin. He was a truly splendid human being, and he drew very well. Kanigher wrote a lot of the stories that I drew, but I can’t recall meeting him. I do remember meeting Murray Boltinoff. I wasn’t in the DC offices all that often. When Carmine Infantino took the top job at DC he requested that all the guys working on the books come to his office for a big meeting. He wanted to pump us up with his vision of DC’s future under his command. Can you imagine talking seriously to a bunch of fractious cartoonists? Worse yet, Infantino was a cartoonist, one of us, so the meeting quickly degenerated into pandemonium. One guy pulled his pants down so he could rub his bare ass on Carmine’s velour couch! [Laughs.]
GROTH: Carmine didn’t last too long at the helm, but he was a damn good draftsman.
THORNE: I occasionally saw Joe Kubert, who edited some of my war stuff. I’m in love with Muriel, his beautiful wife. She has a fantastic business sense. Incidentally, hung on the wall behind the Kuberts’ bed is a collection of original oil paintings of pulp-magazine covers. Fabulous. To eliminate any hint of impropriety; let the record read that I was not bedding Muriel when I saw the collection! It was at a social evening.
GROTH: The record stands as read. I assume DC paid better than Gold Key.
THORNE: It was better pay, but not much.
GROTH: Do you remember who you initially spoke to at DC?
THORNE: Could have been Archie. I did a couple of Civil War stories with him. It was the best working with Archie. So they kept giving me a lot of the war stories because they thought I had a Joe Kubert style. Although I greatly admired Joe’s work, I was never consciously influenced by him.
GROTH: They gave you Enemy Ace.
THORNE: I ask you, how could anybody do the immortal Enemy Ace in anything but the Kubert style? Nobody could touch Joe with the war stuff. His style is so loose and gritty. You can smell Sgt. Rock. Joe’s the Matt Clark of comics. Joe’s stuff always looks right, even if it goes beyond the boundaries of logic.
GROTH: Joe was your editor at DC.
THORNE: One of several, and one of the best.
GROTH: And they were written by a variety of people.
THORNE: A lot were by Bob Kanigher, he was the workhorse at DC. He was very prolific, a natural storyteller.
GROTH: Some were written by Mike Friedrich and Bob Haney. Did you ever talk to the writers over the phone?
THORNE: No. It’s a very insular craft. Paul S. Newman called me once when I was freelancing at Gold Key, and I had a delightful phone conversation with Clair Noto. That’s about it. Of course I knew Wendy Pini, and it was a pleasure.
GROTH: The closest you came to doing a superhero was The Spectre for DC.
THORNE: Yeah. Was he a superhero? I can’t recall; did he wear a cape and tights? I did one, maybe two stories.
GROTH: That’s right, and one of them became notorious.
THORNE: The one about the mannequins.
GROTH: Tell me about it.
THORNE: It was a story published with the Comics Code’s Seal of Approval. In brief, through sorcery, an evildoer animates a bunch of department-store mannequins. They go on a rampage of killing customers with meat cleavers — I mean we’re talking bloody decapitation and severing arms. But, folks, they still were mannequins. The old curmudgeon C.C. Beck, of Captain Marvel fame, sees the story. I’d guess he didn’t read it. Had he, perhaps he wouldn’t have drawn attention to it by blasting it in a fanzine as horrendous, and an example of how despicable some of the books had become. It was a cause célèbre at the time. In short, the shit hit the fan.
GROTH: You know that The Spectre that you illustrated was written by Michael Fleisher, right?
GROTH: Who sued us for $2 million.
THORNE: Oh my gosh!
GROTH: And in fact, we used my copy of Adventure Comics, with your story in it, during the litigation and it still has the U.S. District Court Exhibit number on it.
THORNE: Why did he take legal action?
GROTH: He sued us because Harlan Ellison referred to him as crazy in an interview we published.
GROTH: Ellison elaborated on that, but he was trying to praise the genuinely weird writing in The Spectre, and Fleisher took it literally. He claimed that we were saying that he was clinically insane.
GROTH: We won, but it took us seven years to do it.
THORNE: Seven years!
GROTH: Yeah. Seven years and $200,000 in legal fees.
THORNE: Holy shit!
GROTH: Now, I notice as I go through your DC books that your page layouts become more sophisticated, a little more audacious.
THORNE: I had moved from Gold Key, where the “staid page” was the norm; that is five or six panels per page, with no fancy design. DC allowed more freedom, and I soon adapted the audacious page layouts that were common to the DC line. When I hit Sonja, I was ready, using bold panel borders, circular inserts and other exciting page concepts. Image Comics went a step further; it seemed everything in the books was a splash page. They lost me going that route, but by the time Image happened I was long gone from the comic-book scene.
GROTH: There are other companies that you worked for; let’s start with Red Circle.
THORNE: It was just before Sonja, in ’73 and ’74. Gray Morrow called; he was packaging the books for Red Circle. Gray did most of the covers. I didn’t meet him until 1980. I’d see him every year at the Playboy Christmas parties in Hefner’s penthouse atop the Drake Hotel in Manhattan. Gray did a couple of things for the magazine. He seemed to have a different babe with him every time. I liked Gray, he did good work. He did Cosmic Kliti for you. My favorite of the Eros titles was Wendy Whitebread, Undercover Cop. I wish I’d created her. She was wonderful. Anton Drek, which can’t be his real name; does he still work?
GROTH: Intermittently. Don Simpson, his real name, is bitter about comics. He does not look fondly upon his erotic work. I think that he now teaches in the Pittsburg area. He has stories in a couple of Al Franken’s books.
THORNE: Did he get religion? I think that happened to Corben. Years later he reprinted all that beautiful stuff and put underwear on those heavenly bare-assed characters. Too late for redemption, I’m afraid. I loved Corben’s stuff. He rendered humongous tits like nobody else. He changed my life almost as much as Sonja. He was the William Blake of comics. It’s that otherworldly feel.
GROTH: Hold on, you say Corben changed your life?
THORNE: When I saw the first underground comics I realized the potential of the humble medium of comic books. Corben made the scales fall from my eyes.
GROTH: What about Crumb?
THORNE: To a lesser extent, but his erotica was fabulous. I couldn’t imagine being able to draw that kind of material and find a publisher and an audience. It was like it was all right to have drawn all those grotesque sexual images as a kid. Yes, what is suppressed will come out, and thanks to you and the Eros line, it sure did.
GROTH: So, you didn’t hang out with Gray on a regular basis.
THORNE: Honestly, John Workman, who was at Heavy Metal when Lann started her run, is the only one I socialize with. I saw Joe Kubert every year at the school graduation. He invited Marilyn and me regularly, but we’ve missed the past couple of years because of my difficult schedule.
GROTH: Did you ever teach at the Kubert School?
THORNE: No, but I’ve given several lectures there. It’s a very good school; I often recommend it to young aspirants. Joe and Muriel cut a sweetheart deal with Walgreen’s, the drug-store chain. Joe’s school is in the old Dover High School; it’s very big and Joe uses only a portion of the building. Walgreen’s leases all their properties, so they’re tearing down half of the Kubert School, and erecting a Walgreen’s, all at no expense to Joe and Muriel. They’re also restoring the school building to make it look architecturally correct. Here’s the amazing part: They’ll pay Joe and Muriel 20 grand a month for a duration of five years; after that, if Walgreen’s want to pull out, the Kuberts keep the building.
Some of my favorite work of the pre-Sonja period was for Atlas-Seaboard.
GROTH: Martin Goodman was the owner. He was the publisher of Marvel and split to start a comic-book company that would compete with Marvel. There was great animosity: To work for Atlas-Seaboard was considered betrayal by the Marvel people. Did you feel any of that?
THORNE: That was before Sonja, and the only book I ever did for Marvel was Sonja.
GROTH: Oh, right.
THORNE: And Larry Lieber, Stan Lee’s brother, was the editor at Atlas. Imagine being Stan Lee’s brother?! Poor Larry, he didn’t have any hair either. I had heard that Goodman was going to spend a million bucks on the company. If it wasn’t viable he would close shop.
GROTH: It wasn’t, and he did.
THORNE: So I get this call from Larry Lieber, who is a really nice guy, and I start getting work from Atlas-Seaboard. I did a bunch of covers, and one issue of Son of Dracula. By that time Sonja was just around the corner.
GROTH: Notably you did a story for one of their black-and-white magazines titled “Vendetta.” It was written by John Albano.
THORNE: I recall it well, it was about American Indians.
GROTH: More importantly it was about a naked female Indian.
THORNE: I loved that story and the black-and-white books. I have a passion for wash drawing, and newsprint complements it beautifully. It’s that watercolor thing. Later, I did a black-and-white Sonja story for Savage Sword of Conan. I don’t know how I ever found time to do it while turning out the Sonja books and doing the shows and all the rest, like the family thing. But I was 45, that’s young to a septuagenarian.
GROTH: “Vendetta” was the first time you drew beautiful nudes.
THORNE: I guess, at least for publication. [Laughs.]
GROTH: And you did Lawrence of Arabia for the black-and-whites.
THORNE: It was written by the redoubtable Jeff Rovin, who I met in Lieber’s office. He must be famous by now. Don’t tell me if he isn’t, [Laughs.] I loved the Lawrence character. But I was a natural for Sherlock Holmes; I did Sherlockian material for Red Circle and some black-and-white illustrations for Atlas-Seaboard. Both Lawrence and Sherlock were perfect for my illustrative style, not to be confused with my cartoon style, which is somewhat illustrative.
GROTH: Do you miss the professional camaraderie?
THORNE: First, I enjoy being alone, which is not the same as lonely. I love rainy days, and I work in complete silence. That said, I’ve had warm relations with a few of my fellow craftsmen, but they seem to be dying off in a most inconvenient manner. Both Tom Sutton and Pat Boyette are gone. They were my phone buddies. I never met either one of them. We would talk often, sometimes on a three-way hookup.
GROTH: How did you connect with Boyette?
THORNE: I knew his work, especially Korg, then after Ghita of Alizarr took off I am seeing in the Comics Buyer’s Guide a full-page montage drawing by Pat praising my blonde warrior woman. He di a beautiful drawing of Ghita. I sent him a letter care of CBG, and he responded. We started the phone thing and it went on for years.
GROTH: And Tom Sutton?
THORNE: Pat had talked to Tom for years, so soon Tom was calling regularly. Christ, he did fantastic stuff. I think Buffy, especially the first two books, was his magnum opus, his Bondage Obsession and Buffy, unbelievable. You recall I wrote the intro to the deluxe, hard-bound Eros edition of Bondage Obsession? Well, he hated that book because of the arty design on the cover.
THORNE: Yeah, and he was pissed off by the arrangement of the interior pages. I thought it was a beautiful book.
GROTH: It sure as hell was an amazing book.
THORNE: But Tom was battling demons. He was dealing with some heavy-duty personal problems; four times married, four times divorced, and he was a paranoid schizophrenic. His disorder produced some of the most intense and grotesque bondage images ever drawn. They are heavenly hellish and brilliant. He was fixated on Tyffany Towers, the porn diva with impossibly huge natural breasts.
GROTH: I didn’t know that there was a Tyffany Towers in the porn world. I only know of a Tyffany Millions who you introduced me to.
THORNE: Thanks to Holly-go-lightly Weinberg. She was illustrating a story about Tyff for Carnal Comics, and in conversation she learned that Holly and I were friends. Next is coming a box of her videos including, among others “Starbangers 6,” “I Touch Myself,” and my favorite: “Jailhouse Cock.” [Laughs.] Then she called me from California. She was coming east to do the Rolanda program; it was titled “Sexy Stars Surprise Reunion.” She was great on the show, Sandy — her real name is Sandra Schawb — is a competent actress with a quick wit and excellent mind along with a body that would make a orangutan pop his wad. [Laughs.] Anyway, she wanted to see me to discuss a possible Ghita film. After the taping of the Rolanda show I picked her up in Manhattan and brought her to a sound studio in Cranford. I had the Ghita costume waiting, Sandy donned it, and we did a video demo.
GROTH: Back to Sutton for a minute. He lived alone, and I understand that he died in his studio.
THORNE: And he laid there for days. I sure miss talking to Tom and Pat Boyette. Pat and I exchanged sketches, his were better than mine. He co-owned a company that did color separations.
GROTH: And he was an on-camera news anchor.
THORNE: Pat got a late start in comics, but once he got started he was terrific. Few people knew that Pat did an unsigned sequence of Honey Hooker for Hustler. I saw the stuff and it was Boyette at his best. He denied doing it at first, but acknowledged it confidentially the year before he died. Sorry Pat, your secret is out, but it was such excellent work I had to tell your fans.
Pat was a great, big, tall Texan who was a family man involved in local affairs, and his stint with Honey would have been embarrassing.
GROTH: You freelanced for Western, DC, Red Circle, Comico and Atlas-Seaboard. Were there different vibes from each company; was there a sense of a different personality?
THORNE: Hardly any difference, most of the employees at publishing houses seem to be living lives of quiet desperation. Dave Cockrum’s wife Paty worked at DC. She was the office vamp and a lot of fun. But most of the people in the offices looked like they were struggling to stay awake.
GROTH: You did Ribit for Comico.
THORNE: Ah, my little green Sonja. Diana Schutz called; she was an editor at Comico, located in a decrepit house in Doylestown Penn. that was right out of Charles Addams. I believe Diana was Mrs. Bob Schreck at that time. We met and I offered a miniseries, that I would own, called Spawn of Sorcery. She loved my workup and script ideas, but she felt that the title conflicted with McFarlane’s Spawn. She euchred me into calling it Ribit! I loathed the title, and years later I heard that she wished she hadn’t insisted on the change.
GROTH: There are some beautiful images and intricate panel arrangements in the series, but I’m curious as to why you think it’s the best-written stuff you’ve done.
THORNE: Well, I like the flow of it. It had an anticlerical feel to it, like all my work. For instance, Bobby God on the motorcycle and the creatures drawn from mythology, there is great power in myths; zealous religiosity has produced a blood-soaked laundry list of mythic figures. That’s why I’m not a person of faith, my role as a maker of myths gives me license. The worlds I create are blood-soaked at times, but it’s fictional carnage.
GROTH: So what was the editorial direction at Comico like when you were producing Ribit? Did Schutz do much editing of your work?
THORNE: Zip. Nada. She had her name on it but she had no input whatsoever. Comico was run by a shlepper whose uncle was Phil Lasorda who owned a sports team. Good old Uncle Phil set him up in business. He didn’t know his ass from a turnip. Comico folded ignominiously, shortly after the fourth book of Ribit hit the stores.
GROTH: Now, if you look at something like “Vendetta,” and compare it to something like say, Mighty Samson.
THORNE: One is luscious ink wash with all those beautiful warm soft halftones, and the other hard line work with punchy blacks.
GROTH: Right, and I have to say, a lot of the stuff I looked at that you did at DC, it didn’t seem as though you were too excited about the content.
THORNE: Yeah. Some of the writing sucked. I was never right for Korak, Son of Tarzan. I thought Kaluta could have done a great job on Korak.
GROTH: Well, he was busy doing Carson of Venus.
THORNE: But I was right for Tomahawk and Son of Tomahawk. I was experimenting a lot with materials in Tomahawk. I liked the characters. Actually, I never thought I was right for the Burroughs material. I preferred R.E. Howard, which brings us to Red Sonja, the woman who changed our lives.
THE SONJA PASSAGE
GROTH: Your professional life seems split in two: the period before and after Sonja.
THORNE: Ah Sonja, [ominous voice] “…in those selfsame days that Conan the Cimmerian did stalk the Hyborian kingdoms, one of the few swords worthy to cross with his was that of Red Sonja, warrior-woman out of majestic Hyrkania!” [Laughs and returns to normal voice.] A passage recited from memory from The Nemedian Chronicles, it needs an echo -chamber effect.
GROTH: You should know that I didn’t nod off.
THORNE: One of the prouder moments is when some guy advertised an eight-page Tijuana bible of Red Sonja in The Buyer’s Guide. [Groth laughs]. I ordered a dozen! [Laughs.]
The title: Red Sonja and Conan, Hot and Dry.
GROTH: [Laughs.] That’s great.
THORNE: I keep, in the first of my really big scrapbooks. I’m just finishing filling up the fourth. These scrapbooks are like two by three feet and two inches thick. Sonja got a ton of media attention. They were eating her alive, she appeared in Esquire, Newsweek, Playboy, and any number of newspaper articles. When we brought the Wizard and Red Sonja Show to the con in Philly we were on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, above the fold — an 8x10 photo of Wendy Pini and Angelique Trouvere in their iron bikinis and me in my wizard costume. The whole cast was on TV, and Evening Magazine came to the performance, filmed the show and interviewed all six Sonjas and our two male actors. The next week a crew and an interviewer came to Scotch Plains in a sizable van. They shot me in the studio babbling away like a madman about Sonja. Later in the month, when the show aired, we had a big party, got smashed and watched the broadcast.
GROTH: Did everyone have their clothes on?
THORNE: Unfortunately, yes.
GROTH: The reason I ask is I heard that one of the Sonjas was streaking naked through the hotel that hosted the con.
THORNE: It’s true! But I shall not reveal her identity.
GROTH: That con was run by the late Phil Seuling.
THORNE: Yeah, nice guy. And I forgot to mention that the mayor of Philly invited us to his house to watch the 4th of July fireworks from his veranda. We couldn’t make it because of our TV appearances. [Sighs.] Yeah, old Philly swallowed my redhead alive. Sonja was heading for the stars and the silver screen, and Philadelphia was the launching site. She was hot. In the scrapbooks are nude photos of young women sent to me by young buckos each asking that I make a sketch of his inamorata in the raw or in the Sonja costume if I was so motivated. One said it was his wife. If it was she wasn’t wearing a wedding band. Of course I sent them back, but not before I made good copies for the scrapbooks. That was 30 years ago, those dames are on the shady side of 50 these days.
GROTH: Let’s move to that fateful phone call from Marvel. Let me ask you how you felt you were developing artistically. You know, up until that point it does seem as though there is a kind of continual growth.
THORNE: Yeah, I hit Sonja at the peak of that.
GROTH: I think the longest series you ever did was Sonja.
THORNE: The Ghita material is almost as long.
GROTH: Yeah. But you were constantly aware that you were improving your craft?
THORNE: Well, I guess. I hope I still am.
GROTH: It seems to me that it improves continually.
THORNE: Wow, thanks, Maestro. It’s time to inform the readers that for near 20 years I’ve called you “Maestro.” It is a correct appellation, for you have orchestrated and directed Fantagraphics Books, one of the great publishing houses on the planet.
GROTH: I was aware that you called me that with, I hope, affection, but I was never sure why. But, thanks for the 20-year-long compliment.
Had you ever done any work for Marvel?
THORNE: Only Sonja. After 18 books and a Sonja story for Savage Sword of Conan, I left mainstream comic books and never returned, with the exception of the Ribit miniseries for Comico in the ’80s.
GROTH: How old were you when you found Sonja or was it the other way around?
THORNE: It was kismet either way! [Laughs.] I was 45, and ready. Granted, I’d been in and out of comic books over the years, but the years doing illustrations made it even a better fit. I was a porn man, still am, [laughs] and I’m not blaming my father; I have embellished the obsession. I had, however, repressed the addiction being so heavy with family. As they say, what is repressed will come out, and Sonja hosted the coming-out party! With the redhead, I reached into the darkest recesses of my being. Kismet part two: I was fixated on the buxom redheaded porn star Lisa De Leeuw. I was drawing Lisa at the outset, and then Sonja got jealous and took over.
GROTH: Who at Marvel contacted you?
THORNE: According to Roy Thomas, it was probably Marvel’s editor-in-chief at that time — either Marv Wolfman or Archie Goodwin. Roy knew of my stuff, particularly Mighty Samson.
GROTH: Thomas wrote the stories.
THORNE: Actually Roy was distracted with personal problems and couldn’t do the initial books, so he enlisted Bruce Jones. Clair Noto and Wendy Pini also wrote some of the books. Roy’s a first-rate writer and editor who could be prickly at times, but we got along well. Thanks, Roy, wherever you are for changing our lives forever, for when Sonja took off she took me with her! [Laughs.] Roy was sorry he couldn’t work with me on the first issue. I started with issue #2. Marvel Feature #1 Red Sonja had a beautiful Maroto/ Adams reprint of a Sonja story from Savage Sword #1 and an eight-page new story by Dick Giordano.
The first part of my vocation didn’t really mean that much, but we had all these kids and I had to turn out the stuff to pay the bills.
GROTH: Is that how you feel?
THORNE: Oh yes. Sonja was the watershed.
GROTH: Everything up to Red Sonja seemed to be, if I may say so, journeyman work —
THORNE: Exactly, I was happy to be a third-rate craftsman, but under the proper conditions, a third rater can do first-rate work.
GROTH: But with Sonja, you really seemed to find your inspiration.
THORNE: The build was there when I was doing the Atlas/Seaboard assignments. You can see it in the Dracula book and some of that stuff, the style was just heading in that direction. So, I hit the ground running with Sonja. And it all coalesced.
GROTH: Did you work Marvel style, in other words, without a full script?
THORNE: I was given the full script with dialogue, captions and scene descriptions in the text.
GROTH: That’s unusual for Marvel.
THORNE: Yeah, that was before they instituted the thing where the artist does the layout and then copy goes in last.
GROTH: Oh no, that’s not true. They started using that method as far back as the ’60s.
THORNE: Really? See how dumb I am about the craft.
GROTH: So that didn’t signify any change in your work habits, then, because you always got full scripts.
THORNE: Yeah, that’s true. Of course, mine wasn’t the Marvel visual style. I guess if the book hadn’t sold they would have shown me the door or given me something else. Actually, I never heard that they were concerned that my style wasn’t like the rest of the other guys. Bottom line: The book was doing well, and you don’t want to mess with a successful thing.
GROTH: By saying that you weren’t the Marvel visual style, do you mean the kind of Kirby action mode?
THORNE: Kirby’s stuff gives me the willies. I can’t look at it; it pokes me in the eye.
GROTH: Roy was a good editor.
THORNE: Yeah. He watched the Sonja pot with gimlet eye. If while lettering, I were to leave out a participle or a gerund in the script he’d be on the phone having a hissy-fit! I suspect he grew somewhat jealous as Sonja took off and a lot of the credit went to the art. It was the buzz, and I was getting a lot of fan mail. I still have boxes of it stored away. Then Stan Lee wrote a fabulous piece about me in Superhero Women.
GROTH: Now, in R. C. Harvey’s introduction to the Ghita book he writes, “Roy Thomas, who edited the Sonja books, didn’t like Thorne’s treatment of the character. He didn’t see, let alone participate in, the myth that Thorne was captivated by and so Thorne was edged off the book.”
THORNE: I offer in riposte, Roy’s comments in a recent issue of Alter Ego. He wrote that he wished he’d worked with me from the very first issue. Let the record stand that I left the book voluntarily to go on my own. I had a harem of ladies in my mind that craved corporality.
GROTH: When you were doing Sonja, you turned it into a kind of performance-art piece.
THORNE: Well, I guess you could say that.
GROTH: And you grew your hair out to be the Wizard character.
THORNE: That’s right, yeah.
GROTH: That strikes me as a slightly semi-radical thing for a middle-aged guy to do.
THORNE: What I heard back in 1975 was the sound of a Cimmerian broadsword knocking on my door. A dead man would’ve recognized the opportunity, and, by the gods, I milked Sonja for all she was worth. I painted the Sonja, which was produced by Mile High Comics in Denver. They were sold in every comic shop in creation; but here’s the trick: I had a full-color photo poster made of me with flowing beard and long hair in the wizard’s suit. It was the same size as Sonja’s — I gave them away by the hundreds at conventions in the late ‘70s.
GROTH: You also made a life-size painting.
THORNE: Yep, I hauled it around to conventions as a backdrop. Then there was the Red Sonja song, which was recorded and pressed. I gave away hundreds of them as well. T-Shirts? I had hundreds made; I licensed it along with the big beautiful Red Sonja buttons. They quickly sold out, but Sonja was hot and getting hotter. She had a zillion fans. Then came the Wizard and Red Sonja Show, which I wrote and produced with the inestimable help of the Pinis. Richard created some ingenious effects for the shows.
GROTH: You created the persona of the Wizard, and you were on the road doing these performance pieces. Prior to that, notwithstanding your jazz playing, you were a family man. Did you think of yourself as a buttoned-down kind of guy?
THORNE: Not really, I was never part of the mainstream. That’s obvious! [Laughs.]
GROTH: So this wasn’t so much a change as a flourishing of who you really were.
THORNE: Yeah, but there’s a ham actor in every one of us.
After 30 years I am enjoying yet another Sonja trophy. In Johnson City, Tenn., there’s Wendy Potter, a beautiful 19-year-old redhead who’s obsessed with Red Sonja. She wasn’t born yet when Sonja ruled! [Laughs.] Like the Sonjas in The Wizard and Red Sonja Show of yore, she has made a fabulous costume, the venerable iron bikini. Wendy Potter, as Sonja, has developed an action-packed, eye-popping, sword-swinging extravaganza complete with a wizard and a Minotaur! She and her troupe perform in theaters and comic shops in and around Johnson City. We have corresponded for over a year. Wendy was named to honor Wendy Pini. Her mom was one of many Elfquest fans.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Have you ever been to the San Diego convention?
THORNE: Oh yes, in ‘78. We did the last Wizard and Red Sonja Show on the big stage at the El Cortez Hotel. We packed ‘em in. SRO! At that con, I was presented with several infants that were named for my redhead. It was just Wendy Pini and I performing in the show. She was great. We knocked their socks off. The next day we were on the roof of the El Cortez. PBS was filming us in our costumes as we did some of the routine from the show. At the end of the shoot Wendy, who was having trouble keeping her beautiful wig on because of the wind, says “Frank, I can’t do this anymore.” That was the end of Sonja for both the Pinis and me. I had already begun work on Ghita of Alizarr, and the Pinis went on to Elfquest. I left Sonja at her peak and walked off with a ribald blonde. I’m sure glad that I did. It was time to try to develop and copyright my own material.
GROTH: Right. I saw Wendy a few weeks ago at the San Diego convention.
THORNE: How is she doing? Is she walking these days?
GROTH: She was walking when I saw her; we just sort of bumped into each other. And you know, she seems to be doing pretty well. We talked for just a few minutes.
THORNE: Richard Pini called me about a month ago. I hadn’t heard from him in over 25 years. He starts out by saying [imitates Pini] “You know, I thought you hated me all these years.” [Laughter.] I said, “Richard, what are you talking about? You know I always loved you!” Then we recalled the fabulous Sonja days. It was like two maudlin old drunks at a bar.
THORNE: Wendy was a slim lady during the Sonja passage. I understand she’s put on a little weight.
GROTH: She may have gained a little weight, a little maturity; she reminded me of Joan Blondell in The Cincinnati Kid. [Laughs.]
THORNE: I often wondered, did the Pinis ever develop another series?
GROTH: Not to my knowledge.
THORNE: Wendy had the greatest costume, and she seemed possessed by Sonja, just like Wendy Potter. Linda Behrle Correll, who I’ve been working with for years, wasn’t right for Sonja, but she’s a great Moonshine McJugs, Ghita and Danger Rangerette. Linda’s been in Playboy, and we were on a Playboy Channel show together. She did Ghita and Moon with me as Thenef the wizard and Uncle Zit. It was broadcast repeatedly in the ’80s.
GROTH: Well, she definitely had the body.
THORNE: [Laughing] Oh yes. Still does! We see her often. She has two grown sons and lives nearby and is still as sexy as hell. I communicate regularly with Angelique Trouvere, one of the Sonjas in the Wizard and Red Sonja Show. I mailed her a copy of the cover I did for TCJ that features this interview and she thought it was a riot. Angie works for the State Service Organization in Washington, D.C. She’s been sending me recent photos of herself in her fabulous costumes. She’s as gorgeous as ever. Angie was practically a member of the family during the Sonja passage. Wendy Snow is married to a fantasy illustrator and lives in Salem Massachusetts; we get a Christmas card every year. She owns a print and frame shop and still does artwork that she sells in her store. Diane De Kelb, who was Red Sonja of Rogatine, has a beautiful redheaded daughter named for Sonja, lives in Levittown, Penn. I usually performed with six Sonjas. As we did the cons, other Sonjas would join the fun, there was Michelle Walters, Gita Norby and Animal X, a stripper. I’m told that Animal was the first dame to the appear at a con as Red Sonja. Of course, there was a cross-dresser who billed himself as “Fred Sonja.” It was a hoot and a half.
In ’83 I did a Ghita of Alizarr show in Barcelona. Josep Toutain was my agent for European sales and invited Marilyn and I to the Salon, which is a classy moniker for a convention. Gary, let me tell you, a cartoonist in Europe is a celebrity on a par with a rock star. I’ve been to several European conventions. It’s like the paparazzi follow you around, and there’s always someone waiting for an interview. I was on Spanish TV and featured in two of the dailies in Barcelona. In one, I was paired with Lee Falk. The photo was of Lee in the Mandrake outfit and me in the wizard’s suit.
GROTH: Who performed as Ghita in the show?
THORNE: Toutain brought in the beautiful and statuesque Belán, who was sort of a Spanish Paris Hilton. Marilyn had been along for all the excitement of the Sonja celebration. This was different. The Sonjas kept their clothes on, Belán was uninhibited. I gathered the Ghita costume and Marilyn followed me into a side room. There stood Belán, naked as an egg, her clothes carefully arranged on a chair, waiting for me to get her into the Ghita suit. Marilyn, without losing her aplomb, helped me get Belán into the outfit.
GROTH: I don’t know too many wives who would do that. Did Belán speak English?
THORNE: Not a word. Anyhow the show went off really well. It was Guerrilla Theater, but Belán was so sexy and animated that it was a sensation. At one point she flashed a boob! [Laughs.] Neal Adams was in the front row salivating. Toutain was ecstatic. Incidentally, my table was next to Neal’s at the Salon. We were making sketches. Neal’s line was three times as long as mine. He was doing drawings of Batman. I had an average of three or four. I was doing sketches of Lann and Sonja. Neal’s buxom brunette girlfriend was sitting next to him and a horny Catalonian kid comes up behind her and squeezes her boobs. She screams and Adams flies into a rage and stamps out with his date. All of a sudden my line is 20 feet long! [Laughs.] Occasionally some of my sketches from Barcelona show up on eBay. We had a ball in Barcelona, and even a better time in Italy at the con on Lucca. Toutain paid the bill for that week as well. Josep passed on some years ago. I still miss him.
GROTH: San Diego in ’78 was the last stateside con you attended?
THORNE: No, we were invited to the Houston con the next year. That was the last convention, but I had done a lot of them; it was time to disenthrall myself.
GROTH: Who were some of the guests at the San Diego con?
THORNE: It was kind of spooky. Wendy, Richard and I were on stage early Saturday morning rehearsing the show and out from the shadows steps Jim McQuade, of Misty and Honey Hooker fame. He politely introduced himself, shook my hand, gave me his card, and disappeared back into the shadows. That was the last I saw of Jim.
GROTH: Wasn’t John Buscema at that con?
THORNE: Yeah. We were on a panel together. It turns out that John hated drawing Conan! All that beautiful balletic Conan stuff and he hated it!
GROTH: He detested drawing superheroes even more.
THORNE: I loved drawing Sonja, and he hated drawing Conan! [Laughs.] Next day we met at a Denny’s for breakfast in the early morning hours. He was frustrated. He wanted to start an art school, a correspondence course. Did he ever realize that dream?
GROTH: I don’t think so.
THORNE: Kubert was the same with the war stuff. Imagine, the great Sgt. Rock series being drawn by a guy who hated war comics. I was never interested in the superhero stuff; had I drawn Batman or Superman I could have made big money in comics!
GROTH: The Red Sonja film starred Brigitte Nielsen and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
THORNE: It hit the theaters in 1985. My vote for the worst performance in that show would go to Sandahl Bergman. She was dreadful. We, Marilyn and Becky, our daughter, were due in Rome during the time of the filming in Cinecitti. I called the Manhattan offices of the production company and asked if we might visit the soundstage. I mean, after all, I was in part responsible for her rise to fame. At least I milked the hell out of her! [Laughs.] Well, the dame knew who I was and said she’d call me back. Next day she tells me that Ms. Nielsen doesn’t permit anyone other than film personnel.
GROTH: Have you seen the Dynamite Productions reprint of your Sonja books?
THORNE: My Sonja was raped by a computer! The line-work that I labored over those years breaks up and looks like it was spattered with ink. I’m not comfortable with computer coloring; it’s too gaudy and slick. The technicians try to model the form, but it seldom is convincing. Stick with the original series, folks.
A MILESTONE FOR THE READER
THORNE: Your readers should know that we’ve been doing this interview in sections. This is our fourth conversation, and if, dear reader, you’ve made it to this point, I congratulate you. You will receive the Brass Figligee with Oak Leaf Palm, an award often conferred by Jean Shepard, the radio monologist and author, known mostly for the Christmas Story movie that was made from his book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.
GROTH: I think you told me once that you knew Shepard; how did you meet him?
THORNE: It was in 1956; Shep had moved from a station in Philly and started the midnight until 5 a.m. slot on WOR radio, a 50,000-watt station that could be heard from Maine to Florida. I was working through the hours of darkness those days. One night, Shep was riffing on comic strips, and I was drawing Flash Gordon for Dell. I called him from my studio and asked him if he knew Flash’s actual first name. It was Roger! Well, we talked a bit and he invited me to the transmitter and small broadcasting studio. The main studios and offices were in Manhattan, but the tower was in seedy nearby Avenel, N.J. At midnight the New York offices closed and the overnight broadcasts originated from Avenel. I arrived around 2 a.m. We talked at length during music breaks. I visited the transmitter several times after that. Shep had a fantastic following among creative types, among them Herb Gardner, who was at that time producing The Nebbishes, a syndicated newspaper panel. He abandoned cartooning and became an excellent playwright. He wrote A Thousand Clowns, The Goodbye People, and I’m not Rappaport. They were later made into films, which he directed.
GROTH: Did you know Gardner?
THORNE: Through Shepard. I took them both to a National Cartoonists Society dinner meeting. It was later in Shepard’s career. He had become arrogant; it was like he had made it big and he was flaunting it. He became what he so brilliantly railed against in his early work. His later shows reflected that attitude. To my horror, he got up and lectured the cartoonists on the proper approach to humor — a bad idea. Bill Holman, of Smoky Stover fame, who was sloshed as usual, started booing Shep. Embarrassed, Herb left for the men’s room as other comboozelated cartoonists joined Holman in razzing Sheppard; but he soldiered on. Holman began lecturing Shepard. Al Capp was near to slugging him. It was a disaster and the last time I saw Shep. He was a genius as a monologist in the early days, but later he lost it. The tapes of his early shows are virtuoso performances. Nobody ever came close to Shep in those first years at WOR.
GROTH: You’ve digressed from a digression.
GROTH: It must have been an enormous decision to leave a successful strip and move toward independence from the Marvel-DC axis, because, aside from the illustration work and commercial work you did on the side, you essentially worked for mainstream comic-book companies or syndicates. So that must have been an enormous, life-changing decision to go independent.
THORNE: Well, I guess, but I always had the illustration to fall back on. I was doing a lot of work for the Golden Magazine and Golden Books during that period. As I realized Ghita of Alizarr, and before taking it to Warren, I was advised by Jim Lawrence to show it to Al Zuckerman, the owner of Writers House in Manhattan. Al represented Jim, who was an excellent writer and a good friend. Zuckerman took one look at Ghita and signed me on. He loved my blonde, and loved my writing. To hear that from the head honcho of one of the most prestigious agents in New York was astounding. I mean, this guy reps the likes of Ken Follett and Stephen King! In truth, Maestro, I’d always wanted to write, it’s easy for me, easier than drawing or painting. The easiest of all was the music. I played that horn effortlessly. I know I made the right decision in embracing the art thing, but I still miss the trumpet and the ensemble playing. Incidentally, I sent Al a copy of Nymph: I received a warm response praising the writing and the beauty of the book design.
GROTH: The swing band has such a social or communal atmosphere to it, as opposed to making comics, which is such an isolated pursuit.
THORNE: Yeah, doing writing and drawing is like playing the cello solo down a dry well in Lower Slobovia. So it was Zuckerman who contacted Jim Warren and set the deal; Ghita would be serialized in 1984, the hip new mag from Warren Publications. When I saw Warren for the first time in his office, he was impressed with my connecting with Writers House. I guess he hadn’t dealt with a cartoonists’ agent all that often.
GROTH: It would have been unusual for that time.
THORNE: Jim and I got along really well. We’re the same age, and he played the trumpet in swing bands around Philly, his home town. I met Weezie Jones and Bill DuBay in my visits to the Warren offices. Weezie, now Louise Simonson, is a sweetheart. Bill just loved Ghita. In 1981, I received the Warren Award for excellence, no money involved, but I had hoped I’d at least get one of the rubber Frankenstein masks that Jim sold in the magazines. [Laughs.] I always keep my rubber chicken handy for a sight gag; it would’ve been nice to have the mask on while I took a shower! I wonder what ever happened to all that delightful kitsch that Warren pitched in his books.
GROTH: Jim Steranko got it!
THORNE: Touché! You beat me to it!
GROTH: Then Warren walked away from all that merchandise and the company.
THORNE Yeah, he sold it to Harris Publications. DuBay was so upset that a lot of the guys had little interest in retrieving their artwork before the Harris gang made off with the inventory. I was in there the day after he called and picked up my pages. A lot of fantastic art went to Harris; where that stuff is now is anybody’s guess.
GROTH: Warren lived well; I mean the vast estate on Long Island. He owned his own plane, or helicopter or something.
THORNE: After the sale of his publishing company, Jim became a recluse. He wouldn’t answer calls from Josep Toutain, my European agent. He and Warren had a sweetheart arrangement in trading films, the mechanical separations, of their features. It was similar to the deal Len Mogul of Heavy Metal had with the French publishers.
GROTH: Warren’s attended San Diego a couple times in the last few years; I saw him last year.
THORNE: Hey, maybe I’ll run into him. We’ll work up our lips and jam together!
The Ghita series has been translated into five languages and been optioned for a film. She’s still in print. When the book was published in Italy — in gravure no less — is next coming a letter from the great Italian film director Federico Fellini. In it, he describes how much he enjoyed the book and with it wishes me good luck. The letter and envelope hang, framed, on my studio wall.
GROTH: You mentioned that Toutain was your agent.
THORNE: I switched agents when Playboy bought Moonshine McJugs. Al was getting 15 percent of Ghita, but Playboy called me. Zuckerman wasn’t part of the deal, so I wasn’t hot to give Al a chunk of Moon, and considering the amount I was paid for each page, it would’ve been a sizable chunk. So we parted company on a very friendly basis. Man, did Al ever throw great parties around holiday time! Marilyn would be there eating great deli and sipping martinis in the Writers House building, which was originally an Andrew Carnegie counting-house, I mean complete with a huge safe with a really big round door. There were gold faucets and fixtures in the bathrooms. It even beat Hefner’s penthouse at the Drake Hotel uptown. Same deal at Hef’s parties: lots of booze and a groaning board of grub, with sweet Michelle as the hostess with the mostest. The big difference between the soirees was that the Writers House parties were much more subdued. Drunk cartoonists tend to get rambunctious. It was the same difference between the meetings of The National Cartoonists Society and the Society of Illustrators. Let’s face it, blondes and cartoonists have more fun! [Laughs.]
GROTH: Now, your arrangement with Warren was that you owned Ghita, right?
THORNE: Oh yes. Al Zuckerman saw to that
GROTH: A cartoonist owning his material was unusual at that time, as well.
THORNE: That was my goal — to own my creations.
GROTH: So even in 1978, when Ghita started, you were very conscious of that.
THORNE: Oh yeah, amen, Maestro.
GROTH: I understand that most of the other artists had a different deal with Warren where he owned the material.
THORNE: Thanks again to Al Zuckerman; he was worth every penny of his percent of the take.
GROTH: Now, did they have any editorial input, in terms of your creation?
THORNE: No, they let me do anything I wanted.
GROTH: So you basically created it from start to finish.
GROTH: You hadn’t written much before then, but you had the confidence to write and draw this very intricately designed mythic world.
THORNE: In a sense, it sprung, like Aphrodite, full blown from my brow. After Ghita I tried to write all my own material.
GROTH: Danger Rangerette was written by Ted Mann.
THORNE: That was the last collaboration; after that I did all the writing.
GROTH: You did Danger Rangerette originally for National Lampoon.
THORNE: Right. Then it moved to High Times. Man, the offices at High Times were bizarre. I went there just once to meet the editor and Ted to discuss the direction Rangerette would take in her new home. I mean the place looked like the Peppermint Lounge! [Laughs.] There were Peter Max posters plastered on the walls and Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” by the Plastic Ono Band was wafting through a haze of Columbian marching powder.
GROTH: What ever happened to Mann?
THORNE: An amazing talent; and I’ll add that it was a pleasure working with him. He wrote even funnier stuff after Rangerette moved to High Times; his scripts for the Lampoon were hilarious. Anyway, he’s a prolific writer, actor and producer. Ted writes mostly TV material, and his list of credits is impressive. He’s been seen as an actor on NYPD Blue, Prisoner, Deadwood and a whole bunch more.
GROTH: He wrote a lot of material other than Danger Rangerette at the Lampoon.
THORNE: Yeah, he was a regular on the magazine, like Mike O’Donoghue.
GROTH: Who wrote Phoebe Zeitgeist.
THORNE: Yes! And I did the intro to the reprint edition of the strip. It was through Ted that O’Donoghue called and asked for a video demo of Danger Rangerette for a possible skit for Saturday Night Live. Mike was a regular on the show. Linda Behrle and I did a really good sketch, filmed at the Stony Hill Playhouse in Warren, N.J. It was fast and funny, but as fate would have it, we didn’t get on the show.
GROTH: You didn’t say why Rangerette moved from The Lampoon to High Times.
THORNE: I don’t know. All of a sudden, Ted calls. “We’re moving her to High Times.” I don’t know, I was never privy to the inner workings of Rangerette, I was just creating the characters and doing the drawings. The pay was very good. I loved drawing Rangerette.
GROTH: Now, did Hefner watch what you were doing with Danger Rangerette?
THORNE: That’s what I had heard; if that be true it led me to Moonshine, which brought me to a higher plateau than Sonja. When I started on the full-page gags, Michelle Urry would gently urge me to get them to look more like the punchy Moonshine style. My gag that’s in the current (November) issue is very Moonshine, and she and Hef thought it was really good. It’s a full-page orgy scene, and I actually used the characters from Moonshine, but they’re pilgrims in this case.
GROTH: Michelle wanted a cartoonier, elastic approach to the drawing?
THORNE: Exactly. It’s a delicate line between illustration and cartooning. I write most of the gags myself, so in working out the idea, I get the feel of the style needed to make it work. I submit about four or five gags for each meeting, and Hef usually buys maybe one or two if I’m lucky. It was the same ratio with Moonshine. The pay is abundant for the full-page gags. I’m paid almost half again as much as I received when I was doing the Moonshine pages, and it’s half the work. Hef personally buys the gags and edits. After the approval, I actually color the pencil rough, transferring by copier to 1-ply Strathmore vellum. The transfer hardens the line work, and then I resubmit for the final approval and on to the finish. The finished image size is usually a tad more than 11 by 17.
GROTH: What’s the size of your penciled submissions?
THORNE: Same size as the submissions. I do them on pads of 19-by-24-inch Beinfang Designer Series Graphics 360 with a “HB” Sanford Turquoise lead in a holder. It’s a great surface to work on, just like the Strathmore Series 500 2-ply vellum I use in the finishes.
Moonshine was the most challenging and enjoyable period of my career. I had to work a complete full-color gag in six or seven panels on a single Playboy page. It had to be funny and sexy every time. No small task, but I was a mere 50 years old, and had a lot of energy. Moon was in the magazine from ‘80 to ‘84 until they eliminated the Funnies section.
My return several years ago to Playboy, doing the full-page gags, was another challenge. Several years ago Michelle Urry, the cartoon editor, called to say that Hef wanted to see some new Moonshine McJugs pages. I sent four in pencil form. The McJugs clan had struck oil on their land in Pork Hollar. Think Beverly Hillbillies. Months went by and apparently Hefner passed on Moon and started me on the single-full-page gags. I’ve been doing them on a semi-regular basis. Hefner is an excellent editor, and both he and Michelle, who is a terrific editor, have been guiding me through the transition to the gags. They couldn’t look like a big punchy Moonshine panel. They had to be more illustrative, loose, spontaneous, and above all funny. I’ve done a bunch and I think I’m getting the look I want. Hef and Michelle seemed to think so. I love writing the gags. So it’s been an interesting transition because the full-page gags shouldn’t resemble an enlarged comic-book panel. Because I’m a watercolor guy, once I get the control of the blacks, it’s quite easy for me. The use of color is so important, examine the gags for October and November: They’re two entirely different treatments. October is a bedroom scene, and it’s saturated with color done with wash and sponges to create the mood. November is more in the cartoon style, the color is spotted around leaving a lot of white for the action to take place.
But Hef urges me sometimes, through Michelle, to make it more of a cartoon. Or “Think Moonshine on this one.” I loved doing Moon. It was the highest point in my ignoble career. The Sonja period was great, it changed our lives, but I didn’t write or create Sonja. Moon was all mine. I was writing and drawing the strip of a lifetime.
GROTH: Michelle died this past Sunday, Oct. 15.
THORNE: She was 66 years old. I had known her for 26 years, going back to Moonshine McJugs in 1980 on through the full-page gags for the magazine. She was so good to me! She loved cartoonists and cartooning. Julie Feiffer called her the “glamorous mother superior of cartoonists.” It was an apt description of a beautiful, intelligent, funny, articulate, warm lady. Michelle loved our family. She and her crew came to our house to film my segment of Playboy’s World of Cartoons and Funnies for the Playboy Channel. We had a humongous barbeque in the backyard and the whole family gathered for the event. The crew shot the whole affair with Michelle talking to each family member. Then they shot the footage in my studio of Michelle interviewing me. From there we went to a theater in nearby Cranford to shoot the live segments of luscious Linda Behrle Correll and me hamming it up — her as a very sexy Moonshine McJugs with me as Uncle Zit. Then we changed costumes and Linda did Ghita of Alizarr to my Thenef the Wizard.
The place was jammed with Playboy executives ogling Linda. Michelle was exuberant. This was her show, and she was delighted to have the live-action theatrics that I scripted and produced. Playboy’s World of Cartoons and Funnies starts with my segment, and Linda Behrle Correll, who has appeared in the magazine, was a sensation. Months later when a tape of the finished show arrived, all the footage of our family had ended on the cutting-room floor! Still, it’s a great show, and it has been aired any number of times on the Playboy Channel. Arnie Roth plays a mean sax; he plays jazz with his sons in his segment, but it doesn’t compare with Linda’s overflowing bosom.
GROTH: Did you work on any other projects with Michelle?
THORNE: She asked me to work up an idea similar to Moonshine McJugs, for a proposed TV series. I concocted Sunshine Sam, and did the complete character workup and script for the pilot. It was as usual fun working with her, but the deal fell through. She loved my concept, and paid me handsomely for my efforts. One of the perks of that passage was lunching with her. She was so effervescent and so good to me. She would always ask about our family. I can’t believe she’s gone. I attended the memorial at her loft on Wooster Street in SoHo. It was odd to see so many subdued cartoonists. Poor Alan —she was Mrs. Alan Trustman— was a broken figure of a man. Caleb, her son, was brave, but that’s what Caleb means. Farewell Michelle, you were so good to me.
GROTH: I had hoped to interview her for the Journal. She was a tough nut to crack. She resisted but ultimately agreed — and now this. I was stunned.
THORNE: Michelle was stoked to be part of the documentary about my work and career that our daughter Wende is producing. Alas.
GROTH: What’s the current gag you’re working on?
THORNE: I’m just about to e-mail a wine-taster gag. It’s a fellow sitting in a fancy restaurant. He’s holding up a glass of wine; the waiter has just poured it, and he’s about to taste the wine. There’s this big-titted blonde across from him in a very fancy restaurant. And the punch line reads: “I dated a professional wine taster once. She wouldn’t swallow.” [Laughs.] This needed a staid approach. No spotted color like the Pilgrim gag, it’s socked with blacks and drenched with color like the October gag.
GROTH: When will it appear in the magazine?
THORNE: Don’t know, as it’s not a seasonal concept. I have one in the coming (December) Christmas issue. I had two in last year’s holiday issue. They have several of mine in inventory.
GROTH: You know, it occurred to me from Ghita, and especially on into Danger Rangerette and Moonshine, you moved from the illustration idiom much more into the cartooning idiom.
THORNE: You omitted Lann and Ribit!
GROTH: Sorry. Was your transition toward the cartoon style something you were conscious of at the time? Is that something that you actually wanted to do?
THORNE: Well, whatever the material required.
GROTH: Do you prefer one over the other?
THORNE: Maestro, I just love to draw and write. I did a couple of jobs for Hustler, incidentally.
GROTH: You did?
THORNE: That was another experience. They said they loved them and I never heard from them again. Is Hustler still around?
GROTH: Yes, they are. Who was it you did the work for?
THORNE: I can’t even remember his name. It wasn’t Flynt, but his rubber-stamped signature was on the checks. I could give you a sample of some of the Hustler work, but I don’t think you’d want to print it in your magazine. [Laughs.]
GROTH: You know, I was going to say that I didn’t think you were gross enough for Hustler. But maybe you are. [Laughter.] I’d love to see that.
THORNE: Hold on! Look at Iron Devil. Some of my best stuff is gross.
GROTH: Well, that’s true, but there’s still an elegance in your stuff that you don’t see in Hustler. Give me an example of Hef’s editorial changes in your gags.
THORNE: I just finished one for Valentine’s Day. The scene: A young couple is in bed, both naked. He’s screwing her and she’s in ecstasy. Scattered about are candy and flowers. In my version, the punch reads: “You hated my flowers and candy, but I’m glad I found something you liked!” Hef changed the cap to read: “You weren’t keen on the flowers and candy, but I’m glad I found something you like.” It softened it a bit.
GROTH: I see.
THORNE: Sometimes Hef makes a word change, he seldom criticizes my drawings of females, but he now and again mentions that the guy has to be younger or more like a cartoon. Hefner’s a damn good editor. You know, I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I can’t believe I’m talking to you about this. I’ve been damn fortunate over the years.
GROTH: Where does Lann come in? I can’t remember.
THORNE: The serialization started in Heavy Metal in ’84.
GROTH: Tell me how you hooked up with Heavy Metal. Who contacted whom?
THORNE: Julie Simmons, the editor, called me. I’ll never forget the day I went into Manhattan to see her. She had a long, narrow office; As I approached her desk I passed rows of portfolios leaning against the walls. In our conversation, she mentioned that she’d never have the time to even open them up, let alone review them. Julie is a sweetheart. Her father Len Mogul, the owner of Heavy Metal, doesn’t like the work of American cartoonists, hence the proliferation of work by European craftsmen in his magazine. Len had a deal going with a French publisher where they exchanged films of the strips. Even Steven. Very nice. Very inexpensive. All that was needed was a translation. Toutain had the same deal with Warren. Those arrangements had a profound effect on American comics.
GROTH: Exactly. So you created Lann for Metal.
THORNE: I was never happy with her run in Metal, but after she left the magazine I found the proper approach. It was funnier, more of a cartoon than an illustrated strip. Happily, it can be seen as the second part of the Lann graphic album. Incidentally, I was offered Star Wars but turned it down because I didn’t think I was right for the series. Fortunately, Al Williamson got it and did a masterful job.
GROTH: Part Two of Lann played much more to your comedic strengths.
THORNE: Yes and the Lann book is the perfect case study for the different approaches: Illustrative and comedic. I should have done the whole series in the comedic style.
The quintessence of my philosophy appears on page 62 of the Eros Lann collection. It was page 62 in the Lann compilation that caused the notorious Norway bust. It was the second time my books had been seized as child pornography. The first was in Oklahoma City when The Devil’s Angel, among other titles, was confiscated, at gunpoint, by uniformed policeman.
GROTH: Tell me more about the Norway incident.
THORNE: A bit of background first. In the story, we meet Lann and Shard, two middle-aged C.I. operatives on planet Neon Six. They employ a rejuvenation machine to return each other to the age of 24. Only there’s a glitch, and there always is a glitch, and Shard ends up a horny 9-year-old kid with this beautiful sidekick with huge boobies. So, on page 62 we’re seeing a nude 12-year-old kid in bed with a blonde butt-naked porn diva, where she delivers my thesis, and then the kid nails the porn queen with his teeny weenie. It’s very funny, and it’s a cartoon, folks.
GROTH: How did you learn about the Norway bust?
THORNE: Is coming in August ’98 a phone call from Kari Westengen, a perky reporter at the Norsk Telegrambya in Oslo. She tells me that my photo, and a description of my scandalous book, is on the front pages of the Sunnmorsposten, the Alesund and the Nationen. Both TV stations aired the story. Then Kari interviews me for the Norsk Telegrambya. I learned later that the Avalon Bookshop, wherein the deviant volume was purchased buy the local constabulary, no longer stocked the book. The owners were never charged, not so with the poor saps that ran Planet Comics in Oklahoma City.
By the way, during the Lann run at Metal, I met John Workman, who was the art director. We’ve been good friends ever since. John is the conscience of the craft.
GHITA IN HOLLYWOOD
GROTH: About the time you started at Heavy Metal, you were involved with working on the possibility of a Ghita film.
THORNE: Yep. It was optioned. That was more excitement; a wonderful passage. Marilyn was terrified; she knew of Ellie Frazetta’s feelings about Frank’s involvement with Bakshi and that sea of sharks in Hollywood.
GROTH: How well did you know Frazetta?
THORNE: We were both in the National Cartoonists Society in the ’50s. I’d see him occasionally at the meetings. We never hung out. Ghita of Alizarr was optioned for a film in the ’80s. Frank had just returned from working with Ralph Bakshi on Fire and Ice. I called and asked if he could give me some tips on how not to lose my cajones while swimming with the Hollywood sharks. He hated the Hollywood scene and loathed Bakshi for what he did to the film in the final cut. It was intended to be a paean to Frazetta. Bakshi co-opted the film. I’m an inveterate breast man. [Frank] Frazetta’s an ass man. Had I been an ass man instead of a tit man I might have become famous by painting Death Stalker, which I might add, is a small painting. Frank has all these masterworks hanging in a gallery that’s heated by a rickety pot stove in the middle of the room. I mean there are wobbly stove pipes that poke up through a hole in the ceiling!
GROTH: Did you see the documentary?
THORNE: Yeah, it’s great, and there’s Frank sitting with Bakshi and there’s so much gemütlichkeit, you could make sausage out of it. The series of strokes has mellowed Frazetta. Before that, some lesser talents were aping his style, which made him pissed.
GROTH: Now, the Ghita film proposal went on quite a ways before it faltered, right?
THORNE: For the record, it was Arthur Lieberman who started the ball rolling on the film option. Arthur was at that time the lawyer that handled the Robert E. Howard estate. Howard was creator of Conan, Solomon Kane, Krull, and a bunch of other characters; Red Sonja of course. But amazingly, she was a minor character in Howard’s Shadow of the Vulture. While I’m at it, I’ll mention that in the 1930s, after Howard’s suicide in Cross Plains, Texas, the rights to his material passed on to the family doctor, then to his daughter.
Archie Goodwin and I sat down and figured that at three cents a word, Howard could have made maybe 80 grand tops in his short career. The first Conan movie came in at 112 million.
With the success of the Conan film, a Red Sonja film was suggested. Lieberman would be a vital player, and producer. Actually, he hated the Sonja film so much that he insisted that they change the spelling of his name in the credits. He wanted to dub all the speaking parts using better actors!
GROTH: You mean he thought Schwarzenegger couldn’t act!? [Laughs.]
THORNE: Arnie doesn’t act, he just does Arnie. And folks, if you thought Arnie was bad, check out Sandahl Bergman’s performance. In a word: excretal, which is a fancy word for shitty. She makes Paris Hilton look like Nicole Kidman! [Laughs.] But Sandahl is an excellent dancer; she was great in All That Jazz.
So Arthur is calling me and we do lunch in Manhattan. We talk; we go back to his impressive office. He wanted all the press coverage generated by my involvement with Sonja; I brought it all with me, and it filled a very large scrapbook. I also brought along my Ghita of Alizarr books. He flipped through the pages and said “Christ, this is great; let’s do a Ghita movie!” Now, let me try to render into words the emotions that statement evoked: Better than a weekend at the Borgata with Melissa Bardzanian (Christy Canyon) or better than a weekend at The Mandalay Bay with both Melissa and Deborah Blaisdell (Tracy Adams). Or maybe like when Richard Dreyfus enters the mother ship at the end of Close Encounters. Let’s just say the Heavens opened and leave it at that.
So next I’m meeting with Harvey Flaxman and Jay Hyde, the producers who brought to the world the film Grizzly. The option was negotiated by Arthur. Then more meetings, mostly at Jay Hyde’s voluminous suite of rooms on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jay Hyde was the son of Johnny Hyde, the Hollywood mogul who discovered Marilyn Monroe. Johnny left his wife Polly and built a mansion, complete with a theater, and moved in with Monroe. Polly ended up living with Jay, and several times I caught glimpses of her during the meetings. She was frail, and in a wheelchair being tended by a nurse.
Monroe has haunted me that way, but consider Hefner; he got Playboy off to a running start with that nude shot of Marilyn. Hef feels that my women have that sexy innocent quality that Monroe oozed to perfection. Of course neither Sonja nor Ghita reflect that characteristic, but Moon and Rangerette sure do.
Michelle Urry was excited about the prospect of a Ghita film. Flaxman worked out a deal to have Playboy visit the sets and follow the progress of the filming. Boris got involved and did some visuals, which joined mine in the proposed layouts. It was beautiful stuff; perfect for Playboy.
GROTH: What was the atmosphere like during the meetings at Hyde’s place?
THORNE: I had frustrating exchanges with Harvey working on the screen treatment; he wanted to change Ghita’s persona. He wanted to add music, like singing! Ghita the musical! Eeech! He wanted Ghita to have a little sister. And I should add that Jay also was an agent for adolescent females, which explains why Harvey wanted to add the role of the sister in the treatment. They had already selected one from Jay’s stable, and she’d pop in occasionally with her boyfriend, a tall black guy that looked like a Zulu warrior in dreadlocks. He never said anything. I mean nothing. Scary shit, man.
I was torn more and more; I was losing control. I’d done dozens of character and costume designs. I rendered sets in full color, and they starting asking for changes in the graphic work. I wasn’t sleeping too well. My wife Marilyn was worried sick. One spring day Harvey called and announced that Jay had died of a heart attack, two days after Polly passed away! With Jay gone, the whole deal expired with a whimper. I was greatly relieved. Keep in mind that the option advance was a handsome sum, which helped smooth the bumpy passage. In all, it was the experience of a lifetime.
INFLUENCES AND IMPROVISATION
GROTH: Who are your favorite comic-book artists?
THORNE: There are some great craftsmen in the comic-book field, but I tend to idolize the work of guys apart from comic books, like the great British artist/cartoonist Ronald Searle, although my work doesn’t show his influence.
GROTH: [Excitedly] Oh, yes?
THORNE: He’s fantastic. I have a lot of his stuff; I drool over it.
GROTH: I’ve been trying to get a hold of him for an interview.
THORNE: His stuff is brilliant. Arnold Roth is the American Searle. I’m glad I didn’t go Arnie’s route. It’s really good, but it looks like frozen Searle. He does a lot of stuff for Playboy, too. Nice guy. Funny. Intelligent. He’s on the Playboy show with me.
GROTH: Of course, an English cartoonist who I think was influenced and inspired by Searle is Ralph Steadman.
GROTH: What do you think of his work?
THORNE: It’s ingenious but too cold and clinical. Searle’s stuff is warm and funny. And how he scathingly lampoons the pompous scallywags that populate our planet, pure genius.
GROTH: Well now, speaking of your own drawing, do you make a distinction between some of the stuff that you did in the ’50s and ’60s, and on into the ’70s, whatever it was, Perry Mason or Mighty Samson or whatever, and work you did post 1978? Would you have considered something of a more personal nature, that you invested yourself in more wholly?
THORNE: I think that’s just the natural development of a style that you’re seeing there.
GROTH: Did you care more about the material? Especially, it seems like, the material you write yourself, you’re putting more of yourself into it than you did simply illustrating someone else’s script.
THORNE: Exactly. It’s a sweep of 50 years of gradually evolving. I was always cool to comic books. I was never a collector; they just accumulated. Well-meaning souls sent them over the years. I seldom read the stuff. In fact, I just gave our daughter Wende my entire agglomeration. There were thousands.
GROTH: But you clearly have a connoisseur’s view of comics. I mean, you know who the great artists are; you admire people like Joe Kubert. You know good drawing from bad.
THORNE: Yeah, I can’t look at Doonesbury, the drawing is so repulsive. Did Trudeau ever draw it?
GROTH: There have been rumors over the years, but I understand he does draw it.
GROTH: But you do care enough about cartooning and comics to look at them and discriminate between good and bad.
THORNE: It’s an aesthetic call. I have the same problem with The Simpsons: it’s unwatchable, but they say it’s funny and very well written.
GROTH: It is. Another thing I noticed going through your oeuvre, especially The Iron Devil and Devil’s Angel, I think your sense of design got better and better; your sense of placing blacks and designing the page. Your stylistic evolution; are these changes largely unconscious?
THORNE: It’s like playing a musical instrument, in my case the trumpet; as I played more and more I developed a bigger tone, my range increased, and I became more adept at improvisation. It’s a very natural progression. When jammed with small groups it flowed, it came from that inner space that I unconsciously tap into when I’m drawing or writing.
GROTH: The perfect analogy.
TWO LORDS AND A LADY
GROTH: I wanted to ask you about Two Lords and a Lady, a documentary film you recently produced.
THORNE: It’s a 35 minute live-action feature that I wrote and produced for Public Access Channel 61 here in Jersey. It was also shown on our three local channels. It’s a great show done over a period of nearly two years with a very small budget — a miracle, really, Maestro. Cartoonists have no power, but if you are a film producer you gather clout. It’s amazing; I cast our two local mayors as Lord Cornwallis and Lord Howe.
GROTH: The film is set in the Revolutionary War period?
THORNE: Yes, it tells the story of Aunt Betty Frazee, one of our local historic icons, and her confrontation with two Redcoat generals after The Battle of the Short Hills in Scotch Plains in June of 1777.
GROTH: You re-enacted the whole battle?
THORNE: Complete with booming cannons, marching Redcoats and muskets firing.
GROTH: That doesn’t sound low-budget to me.
THORNE: There’s a trick to it; as producer, I licensed footage from Granada, an outfit in the UK that produced an excellent documentary titled Rebels and Redcoats. It featured great battle scenes and plenty of marching and pillaging British soldiers. Normally Granada charges $20 a second for the footage, but I pled our case: The film was not to be sold, just used as a tool to raise funds to restore Aunt Betty’s 18th-century house that still stands here in Scotch Plains. I pleaded, cajoled and euchred them into letting us use about six grand worth of their show for 500 bucks.
Again, cartoonists have no power, but a film producer has influence. Doors flew open. I had costumes custom made for our actors at the cost of the material, the wigs from the film 1776 were donated, and the wig man came all the way down from New York State to fit them before our big confrontation shoot in the Watchung Mountains. A local artist painted a large portrait of Aunt Betty gratis; on and on it went; everybody was so cooperative.
GROTH: Did you do the storyboards?
THORNE: Oh yeah. Unlike the Ghita film experience, I had complete control, and the result is a wonder to behold. Two Lords won the poor man’s Palme D’or at a regional film festival. Marilyn and I attended and it was the most boring seven hours we ever endured. Two Lords was shown after midnight, way after our bedtime.
GROTH: Now, were you actually the director?
THORNE: Our son-in-law John Fazio directed. I produced and wrote it. John’s a videographer. He has a thriving business doing corporate openings and bar mitzvahs, weddings, commercials, all of that. He has a huge studio out in Pennsylvania. That’s where we did the voiceover recordings for Two Lords and a Lady. We had a world premiere! Gary, you wouldn’t believe it. We took over a sizable community theater in nearby Westfield. We packed them in, standing room only. The local media ate it alive. Even The New York Times interviewed me!
THE LAST PORN BINGE
GROTH: We published The Iron Devil and The Devil’s Angel in ’94 and ’95; they could be your magnum opus.
THORNE: Of the hardcore genre, perhaps. Since those six books I haven’t produced anything that explicit with the exception of The Alizarrian Trilogy which are prose novels where the action is implicit; there are a few benign pencil drawings in the books, but only by reading the volumes can you get the flavor, and it’s there. I appeal to my comics fan base: Give it a try, you’ll enjoy an entirely different experience. The Trilogy is my magnum opus in belles-lettres. Michelle Urry loved Nymph, she sent me a wonderful note praising the book.
GROTH: You certainly have perfected a polished prose style, and it’s funny too!
THORNE: Merci beaucoup! That’s a high compliment coming from a major publisher. By the way, is The Trilogy the first prose fiction novel series in the Fantagraphics line?
GROTH: Yes, and as a company, we’re moving into that area commercially; we’re going to publish two novels next year, one is Laura Warholic or The Sexual Intellectual, an 800-page literary novel by Alex Theroux, and another is a reprint of Jules Feiffer’s first novel, Harry The Rat With Women.
GROTH: Tell me why you’re so proud of Nymph, because I would think that being an artist and a writer, and employing both those skills in comics would give at least the same satisfaction as writing prose novels.
THORNE: With Nymph it’s partly a tactile thing. I love how it feels; the heft of a trade paperback, and you did such a beautiful job; it’s visually appealing. With it I’m gaining a new audience because a novel reaches a different part of the brain. My mail concerning Nymph is generally from readers who aren’t into comics; I’ll quickly add that I value mail equally from those who read my comics. It’s where it all started for me, I’d be nothing without the comics fans, they’re great. I do receive mail one or two a week, mostly letters requesting a sketch of Moonshine McJugs, and occasionally soliciting a drawing of Sonja. Keep in mind that in those four years that Moonshine ran in Playboy the circulation was near 6 million —that’s a lot of exposure. Playboy’s current circulation is topping 3 million, which is phenomenal in this raucous age.
GROTH: That was another leap for you, from writing comics to writing novels. Tell me, whose prose writing style inspired you?
THORNE: First and foremost Rabelais, followed by Henry Miller and a gaggle of other really good pulp writers were a strong early influence. You know there’s just so much more you can do writing fiction. A picture is worth the proverbial thousand words, but a picture (in comics) takes up a lot of space. You can’t get inside the characters, read their thoughts; a thought balloon is not roomy enough, believe me. There’s a good example of the added perspective from Nymph; let me read it. You should know that the narrator is a playwright, in his 30s recalling his adolescence when he was having sex with his mother; the beautiful and voluptuous Anezka:
Even if the initial incident had not occurred, my fantasies about Anezka would have been enough burden of guilt to carry into manhood. The clandestine incidents with my mother were many, and as I aged they grew more intense and elongated. Such occasions brought about an unnatural democratization to our relationship. I was thrust into a new, often frustrating role. When a child has a sexually charged relationship with a parent … the lines of dependency are reversed. Suddenly the godlike adult shows a weakness for something the child possesses, for which the adult is willing to barter in subtle ways. For me, the role at first became both a fearful burden and a magical amulet; a thing of immense and mysterious value. It bent my view of mankind forever.
GROTH: That’s a terrific passage. I assume the creative process is different writing prose than it is composing comics.
THORNE: It’s almost impossible to define. It would be different for every individual; as unique as a fingerprint. In the movies the life of the creative mind too often turns to mush and stories about genius tend to be glaringly stupid; witness the Mozart and Beethoven movies. In film the creative process seems to have nothing more than exterior reality, the inner world of creation is simply too mysterious and elusive. Consider the movies about writers; you see them tapping away at their keyboards with a cigarette dangling from their lips, and a tumbler of gin within reach. That’s about it. I can’t knock gin, as I imbibe too often. But it’s not the gin or drugs, folks; it’s about releasing your inner imp. Gin helps me sleep and get the genie back in the bottle until the morning hours when I summon it from that sweet spot. Those conversant with my stuff will note that in Moonshine I often refer to her “sweet patch,” which is, in the parlance of Pork Hollar, a reference to Moon’s genital area. So perhaps in my case, it’s the naked, voluptuous female form that uncorks the muse, who in turn becomes a conduit to liberating a battalion of ladies of pneumatic proportions. Don’t be ashamed of porn! Porn unfetters the soul! [Laughs.]
GROTH: I think you’ve explicitly described the creative process. [Laughs.]
THORNE: While we’re on that subject, let’s return to the Iron Devil/Devil’s Angel comic-book series for a moment. I had completed the third book of The Devil’s Angel when the notorious Oklahoma incident occurred. The Devil’s Angel, among several other titles, was seized by armed members of the Oklahoma City police force. The owners of the Planet Comic shop were arrested. It was a cause célèbre at the time and it resonates to this day. I decided to conclude the four-issue series with a lampooning of the Oklahoma City episode. Usually by the time you get to the last book you’re running out of gas, the stuff looks wan and uninspired. But the Oklahoma City bust gave me an ensign to fly. I was stoked; I had an agenda. I gathered all of my creations and had them defend the First Amendment. It’s arguably the best stuff I’ve done in comics.
GROTH: Your sequence satirizing Janet Reno and Madeline Albright is a hoot.
THORNE: Ross Perot is in there too — in drag! [laughs] Nailing Pat Robertson was delicious, and Ralph Reed, that sanctimonious little twerp — recent events proved that he too has feet of clay. I used Tom Sutton’s Buffy as a foil in the dungeon sequence with Robertson and Reed. Tom tried to dissuade me from showing Reed inserting a cross into Buffy’s butt. I did it anyway. I couldn’t resist; anything goes when it comes to deflating those pompous assholes.
GROTH: So you are revealing that your politics are left-leaning.
THORNE: I am a born-again nihilist! [Laughs] Alistair Crowley, wherever you are, are you listening?
GROTH: Alistair Crowley?
THORNE: Crowley was a British occultist and sexual revolutionary. I wish he knew how to draw, he wrote well enough. I wish S. Clay Wilson could write prose; same thing! [Laughs.]
GROTH: The underground comix; how profound was their influence?
THORNE: It took 30 years to implement the impact. Seeing those first issues of Zap and Snatch were an inspiration. They were so bold and raw; wonderful stuff. I’m saying to myself: I want to do material like that; but I can’t because we still had four kids running around the house. I particularly loved Corben’s work.
GROTH: So, with the children grown and gone, you were emboldened.
THORNE: The genie was out of the bottle; make that “Jeanie” with big gazongas! [Laughs.]
GROTH: With it all, you’ve had a considerable career doing commercial advertising work.
THORNE: The account of my involvement with Autohaus is like a parable from scripture. During the Iranian hostage crisis our daughter Becky was delivering newspapers in our area. One day she mentioned that someone had been pelting eggs at the nearby home of an Iranian family. We were outraged that something of that nature could happen in our tranquil neighborhood. So, Marilyn and I, with bottle of wine in hand, rang the doorbell of the vandalized house. We were warmly greeted by Hassan and Mehri Nahvi and their infant daughters. We offered the wine and apologized for the actions of what we suspected were local teenagers. Inside I learned that Hassan was just starting a small auto-repair shop in Newark, N.J. I offered to design his sign and business card. Twenty-two years later what began as Best Power Train became Autohaus, a sprawling full-service automobile agency in neighboring Elizabeth. With a staff of 18 and yearly sales in the millions, it had become the biggest high-end auto agency in the region. Hassan specialized in German cars: Mercedes, BMW and Porsche, among others. I was with Hassan from the beginning, bartering my role as art director for free usage of cars and service. I wrote copy, did print ads, brochures, showroom posters and TV commercials. I did most of the stuff by hand early on, but as the business grew, I had to work faster, so Hassan bought me a fax machine and a computer. I now have two. If it wasn’t for Autohaus, I doubt I would have ever learned the computer or become conversant with the advertising business. We count the Nahvis among our closest friends, we still see them often. Hassan is like a brother to me.
GROTH: What happened to Autohaus?
THORNE: Hassan got the same deal that Joe and Muriel Kubert arranged with Walgreen’s: They leased the property, removed the showroom and adjacent buildings and voilà! Another ugly drugstore dots the landscape.
GROTH: If the auto dealership was that successful, why would he want to sell out?
THORNE: First off, Hassan gets 20 grand a month for at least five years. But the success of Autohaus was killing him; he micromanaged. We all, mostly Mehri and Hassan’s brother, breathed a sigh of relief.
GROTH: Now, when we drove down to the Adult Video Convention in Atlantic City together, were we driving in a Mercedes?
GROTH: Why not? [Laughter.]
THORNE: I think that was probably a Honda.
GROTH: That’s what I thought. [Thorne laughs.] Where the hell was the Mercedes?
THORNE: We were between Mercedes.
GROTH: I think we would have gotten laid if we pulled up there in a Mercedes.
THORNE: [Laughs.] Well …
GROTH: OK, I would have gotten laid enough for the both of us.
THORNE: Actually, I don’t like the Mercedes cars. They’re hard to start and smelly; I don’t know why they have such panache. We prefer the BMWs. They’re terrific; I should mention that Hassan gave us a week in London and Paris, also a week in Vegas. Man, can the Persians party! It goes on for three days, with belly dancers yet! Hassan lives in a mansion in the Watchung Mountains, so there’s plenty of room to party. I’ll add that the Nahvis are non-practicing Shia Muslims. Hassan took me to lunch at an Afghan restaurant last month during Ramadan. He scandalized the owner by eating during the daylight hours. At one of his extravagant Halloween parties, there were several Iranians dressed as Ayatollah Khomeini!
GROTH: I wanted to ask you if you recognize that your work, specifically the erotica of the last 20 years or so, is politically polarizing, and how do you feel about pornography as a political issue?
THORNE: Porn is a lightning rod for the religious right, and I’m delighted because my work is consistently anticlerical; moreso than the political.
GROTH: Did you have any religious upbringing?
THORNE: Well, I was raised, more or less, as a Presbyterian, but it never took.
GROTH: But you do have sort of a principled opposition to organized religion?
THORNE: Yep, and it really pisses me off when Dubya plays the religion card. He’s about as spiritual as an orangutan. Are you a Republican?
GROTH: [Laughs.] About a year or so ago I received a notice in the mail from the Republican Party that I had been voted Businessman of the Year in Washington State.
GROTH: Now, I assume the Republican Party has a gigantic database and that my name popped up as a business owner, but that they had no idea what business I owned. I was being invited to attend the award ceremony where I would be handed the award at a banquet in front of an audience of politicos and party contributors and so forth in Washington, DC. I was tempted to go and give an acceptance speech where I’d praise the Republican Party for being so progressive as to give the Businessman of the Year to a pornographer. You know, praising the party for having such a big tent. [Thorne laughs.] If I had more balls I would have done just that.
THORNE: I would’ve loved to be in the audience, but Republicans, like the church crowd, make me uncomfortable. Marilyn, as I’ve said, is the exception.
GROTH: In Nymph, you actually suggest that pornography serves a positive social function. Do you believe that?
THORNE: I quote from Nymph, page 13. The passage refers to Ramballock, an antediluvian traveling sex show:
The appeal was to the young rustics in need of the aid and comfort of our performance. The plight of some of these bumpkins was worse if he suffered from scrofula or the pip and was unable to contract the services of a harlot. To be poor and physically ill-favored is to be sexually condemned to solitary confinement; our show offered the illusion of release. We took care not to overlook the disenchanted husband, long into a marriage that has withered. Our show acted as a portable memory, a welcome shortcut to remembered bliss.
GROTH: How personal is your art? Now, I assume when you were doing Mighty Samson and Perry Mason and so forth, they were essentially work-for-hire assignments.
THORNE: Yes, but I was paying my dues. I was learning the craft.
GROTH: You weren’t investing yourself in them, in the sense that you’re revealing an existential dimension of yourself, putting that in your work. But I’m not so sure about your erotic work. That’s my question: Are you taking from the reservoir of your own sexual fantasies, the depths of your own sexual imagination?
THORNE: Well, that’s the secret to it. In my talk at Kean University, I urged the assembled aspirants to connect with that inner place no matter how dark it is. Call it whatever, it doesn’t have to be a sexual thing; it could be purple frogs! Or rutabagas! Whatever. And making contact requires the minimum of distraction; turn off the TV and music, get the flow going. I can never have it too quiet. I wear earplugs when I write and draw. It’s like a meditation. I’ve done Hatha Yoga for nearly 40 years. I start my day with 30 minutes on the floor then I hit the road and do a mile. In sum; you have to rip away the doors to the id and let this stuff pop out. My core is the great festering perfumed brothel of the Universe.
GROTH: Which just about describes the Internet! [Laughs.] I understand that about half the broadband width is porn.
THORNE: OK, so now we’ve got the stuff up from your id and on paper; Maestro, that’s where you and Fantagraphics enter the equation. The diversity of the books you have in your catalog is unique. Dover comes close, but your company and your enlightened view of publishing make it possible for an old shlepper like me to find an audience. You’ve put me, a maladroit player, on stage with some heavy-duty talent. I hasten to add that not all of your offerings are first-rate, but a remarkable number are extraordinary. So on behalf of all of us migrant laborers in the cartooning fields I offer deep-felt thanks.
GROTH: Gracias! The bulk of our line is non-pornographic, but we’ve published some genuinely solid 14-karat-gold erotica. Which leads me to another question: As a connoisseur, how would you distinguish between 14-karat-gold porn and rest? I’ve found that the aesthetics of porn is far more difficult to sort out than the aesthetics of non-porn.
THORNE: An excellent question, a personal and deeply psychological query. What attracts the viewer to one performer and not another? The subconscious is a shadow play of phantoms, each a possible matrix for a preference in appeal: an aunt or an old girlfriend, even a parent. Ellen Steinberg, aka Annie Sprinkle, is built like my own mother! [Chuckles.] Annie’s outrageous. She calls herself a “Post Porn Modernist,” she’s forged her own hilarious porn universe, and her tits are beyond compare. Imagine, she and her Electric Crutch Band played in the nude! [laughs] I talked to her during the Sonja years; she was studying tattooing with Spider Web. I called to thank Spider for sending me the photo of my image as the wizard that he had tattooed on the back of one of his clients — in 3-D! You had to wear the special glasses to enjoy the full effect. Incidentally, Annie is possibly the worst actress ever to appear in adult video, but all that matters are those huge supernal chee-chees.
GROTH: I’m loath to bring up your mortality, but have you made arrangements for the dispersal of your collection?
THORNE: I’ve already determined it’s going to be divided amongst our son, grandson and sons-in-law. [Laughter.] I’m preparing a special codicil to my will; you’ll get my signed copy of Around the World with Johnny Wadd! And my 1947 copy of Teenage Nudist, in mint condition! [Laughter.]
GROTH: Is your collection cataloged?
THORNE: There’s no catalog to my collection. I have a perfect memory of a double-penetration shot that Stacey Donovan did in 1986. [Chuckles.] I can’t remember my Social Security number, but I do have total recall of the blow-job that Buffy Davis performed on Ron Jeremy in 1989.
GROTH: You’re a man with priorities.
THORNE: Actually let the record read that to me the family is first and foremost. To give an example: Last Saturday we drove 233 miles into the bowels of Pennsylvania and back in the freezing cold to hear Tanya, our teenage granddaughter play the French horn in a marching band competition. The Quakertown High School band was on the field for six minutes! That’s what family is all about. Our grandson, Frank the third, who we raised for four years, is getting married this Saturday. It’s a huge family event; the reception is costing the bride’s dad 22 grand! I even went out and bought a suit! I’ll wear it when I get the Nobel Prize!
GROTH: Do you think that idealization is an integral part of porn or of your own particular imagination? You don’t draw unattractive women, or unattractive people.
THORNE: Hefner seldom criticizes my women. Occasionally he wants a guy to look more like a cartoon. You really can’t go too cartoony drawing a lady, because it diminishes her beauty. By the way, I’m not that knowledgeable, most of the Playboy cartoonists weren’t comic-book artists, Jack Cole was a comic-book guy. Do you know of any others that were comic-book guys that made the transition to full-page gags in Playboy?
GROTH: Oh, that’s a good question.
THORNE: Sorry about that, I put myself in a category that I don’t deserve comparing myself to the great Jack Cole. I know Gray Morrow did work for Playboy, but it was comic-book type stuff, not the full-page gags.
GROTH: I would be hard pressed to cite anyone other than Jack Cole.
THORNE: And you know, both of those guys committed suicide: Jack Cole and Gray.
GROTH: Of course, I knew Cole did.
THORNE: He jumped from a speeding train. Gray shot himself.
GROTH: Oh. I guess I did know that. Jesus.
THORNE: He stuck the barrel of the gun up his nose.
GROTH: Wally Wood, too. Who also did some porn.
THORNE: Yes. Delightful. I don’t think he ever sold to Playboy.
GROTH: No, I don’t think he did. But he was a terrifically erotic artist when he chose to be.
THORNE: Oh yeah, great stuff.
GROTH: So what is it with the erotic artists, where they have to off themselves? Guilt?
THORNE: [Laughs.] Shit, man, I’ve not a smidgen of guilt, and no plans to off myself — I’m having too much fun! [Groth laughs.]
GROTH: I was thinking about it the other day: you are truly the anti-Toth. I mean both in temperament and in your predisposition and willingness to do erotic material, which he hated.
THORNE: You know, it’s funny. I’m getting rid of tons of comic books. Actually, our daughter Wende’s here just picking up a remnant of it. And the few that I saved were the Toth books from that early period.
GROTH: He was unbeatable.
THORNE: I have three original pages that he sent me. He was even ambivalent in the way he signed the art. He was always flip-flopping. He attacked me in his postcard correspondence one month and praised me the next.
GROTH: Yeah. Me too, me too. He talked about you during my interview with him in the Journal. We talked on the phone; he hung up on me when I tried to defend you.
GROTH: He flipped.
THORNE: [Chuckles.] Sounds like him.
GROTH: It’s pretty funny.
THORNE: As I understand it, he had three wives, but the last one he really loved, and she died.
GROTH: That’s right, that’s right. Apparently, he was absolutely crazy about her. And my understanding was that he pretty much collapsed creatively after that; he just couldn’t turn out the work any more; her death devastated him.
THORNE: Well, he would have been 76 when he died? I think he was exactly my age. I’m glad I met him once, even just to shake his hand. That’s enough, I guess.
GROTH: We actually had a good relationship, although he was always cantankerous. I thought he was lovably cantankerous, but I think I was mistaken about that [laughter] and he was just plain cantankerous. [Thorne laughs.] But you’re sort of the opposite of cantankerous: You’re just such a joy to deal with.
THORNE: And it’s been a pleasure working with you all these years.
GROTH: Tell me, what do you have on the board as we speak?
THORNE: I’m finishing the “wine taster” gag for Playboy.
GROTH: What’s on the schedule after that?
THORNE: I just got the notice for the next Playboy cartoon meeting, so I’ll be working up five or six ideas for submission, after that I’ll do the cover for the deluxe edition of The Iron Devil/Devil’s Angel; then comes the cover for Sprite, and so on. I’m one lucky old sonovabitch!
PROUDLY DIRTY OLD MAN
GROTH: You know, it’s very unusual for a cartoonist of your generation to be as open about sexuality as you are. I’m not saying your whole generation was repressed, but maybe they were.
THORNE: That’s true.
GROTH: But I mean, most of the comic-book artists of your generation shied away from sexual content, were very coy about it.
THORNE: But a lot of them that are in Playboy are my generation.
GROTH: That’s true. But they’re not comic-book artists, they’re Playboy artists.
THORNE: That’s true, I’m lucky to be both a Playboy artist and a comic book artist.
GROTH: You’re unique.
THORNE: Mille Grazie! Let’s face it, Maestro, I was born a dirty old man! [Laughs.]
GROTH: Your work is not just explicit, but freeing and liberating. A lot of your work is uninhibited, but there’s also a great joy and comedy to it.
THORNE: Yeah, the first two books of Iron Devil are perfect in my estimation. I know; it has a limited audience, but who gives a shit. It really works and holds pretty well until the third book. But, even the Buffy books, Tom Sutton’s masterpiece, run out of gas after the second book. There’s redemption for me, however, limp the third Devil’s Angel might be: the fourth “Bust” issue addressing the Oklahoma case against Planet Comics is some of my best work. There will soon be a hardcover deluxe Eros edition of Iron Devil/Devil’s Angel that will combine all four books under one cover.
GROTH: Frank, have you ever had to deal with in-your-face feminist criticism of your work?
THORNE: Ghita was denounced in the letters column of 1984 in every issue; happily there were an equal amount of positive comments. Sonja took some heat as well.
THORNE: Yeah, I was on a local radio show and a couple of ladies called in and called me a sexist pig among other things. Soon after that, I was on NPR’s Fresh Air, and Terry Gross interviewed me for a half-hour prior to the big Philadelphia Sonja Con. She loved Sonja. Terry broadcasts from WHYY in Philly; she even came to the con. Her show has since gone national. I sound like a madman on that broadcast, but I was madly in love with Sonja, what can I tell you? I’m so fickle! I love all my ladies! [Laughs.]
GROTH: Have you ever encountered any problems getting work because of your involvement with Playboy?
THORNE: For the past five years Hefner’s kept me so busy I haven’t had time for additional work. I repeat, Hef’s been so good to me. I must say that early on, during the Moonshine years, there was a stigma attached to the Playboy connection. Local media wouldn’t touch me. It changed with Two Lords and a Lady; the interviews unabashedly mentioned me as a regular contributor to Playboy.
GROTH: Now, you say Marilyn is a member of the church hierarchy.
THORNE: She’s played the organ at The Willow Grove Presbyterian Church for coming up to 54 years. She’s been a church elder for a dozen years and runs the homeless program, the food pantry and donated clothing distribution. What can I tell you; she’s a celestial being.
GROTH: Do you ever confront problems there? If any of the powers that be in the church were aware of what you did it seems like they would go berserk.
THORNE: There was one occasion, in the early ‘80’s when Moon was running. I attended a service and at the conclusion a parishioner introduced me to another congregant as an artist for Playboy, the tight-assed old dame looked up and down at me through her lorgnette and said “May God have mercy on your soul.” I do not suffer church people kindly, Marilyn the exception. We’re perfectly matched. Next April we’ll be married 57 years. She goes to the Playboy parties with me, and I attend church with her on rare occasions, mostly memorial services.
GROTH: That doesn’t create any conflict between you and Marilyn?
THORNE: She was, as I mentioned, very apprehensive when Ghita was optioned. But she’s supported me every step along the way no matter what the project.
GROTH: Well, maybe that’s precisely why it works: because you have separate lives as well as your lives together.
THORNE: Stan Drake had four wives, Tom Sutton had four wives, Toth had four; I’ve been damn lucky in that department.
GROTH: You’re an inspiration to us all, Frank.