When I was a teenager the only adult men's magazine I ever found access to was Playboy. The magazine had a lot going for it besides featuring airbrushed bombshells who were to real women of the time what Justin Beiber is to real teenagers today, totally impossible.
Hugh Hefner, the founder of the Playboy empire, had decided he wanted his nudie magazine to be as culturally sophisticated as possible. He wanted to mix the intellectual content of The New Yorker with the style content of Esquire and create an entirely new form of hybrid smut. One thing he greatly admired about The New Yorker was its cartoons.
The things I most enjoyed about Playboy were the quality of its interviews, fiction and humor. The magazine had a strong impact on the level of my appreciation of cartoon art. Three of the greatest cartoonists of the day were published regularly by Hefner: Jules Feiffer, Gahan Wilson, and Eldon Didini. Three more different cartoonists probably couldn't have been found, but all three shared a level of excellence that was missing from most gag humor.
|A typical example of Gahan Wilson's perversely funny work.|
I was very smitten with the horror genre at the time and particularly attracted to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Gahan Wilson took the darkness of Lovecraft's vision to an entirely new level. He was like the The New Yorker's Charles Addams ("The Addams Family") would have been after a series of botched experiments with psychedelics. His cartoons were sinewy and perverse, horrific and disturbing, and frequently bust-a-gut funny. Just this week a handsome and expensive three volume set of over 1000 of his cartoons has been released and looking at his work brought back many fond memories of my youth.
|"Of course there's someone else."|
Among those memories was my favorite Playboy cartoonist, Eldon Didini. Where Wilson liked to creep his readers out while entertaining them, Didini's approach was to take Hefner's philosophy about a brave new heterosexual frontier and skew it. But what most pleased me about Didini's work were the subjects he chose to portray in his cartoons and the medium he used for that portrayal.
I studied art in school. My favorite medium was watercolors and that was something Didini mastered in. I was already enamored with centaurs and satyrs back then and there were very few places to find work featuring the manimals. As fortune would have it, there in the pages of Playboy, Eldon Didini used manimals to convey his wicked sense of humor. Didini wasn't just a good artist he was a master of the gag cartoon and satyrs, centaurs, and impossibly zoftig nymphs frequently delivered his lines.
Now, in our sometimes entirely too politically correct culture, his work would be considered incredibly sexist. His male figures were as libidinous, leering, and lecherous as they could be while the women were depicted as almost mindless, perpetually dazed and smiling, lotus-eating vehicles of lust fulfillment. I was completely taken with the entire world he portrayed where animalistic desires were never thwarted and there was a rich bounty to satisfy all of the senses. Didini's work related the concept that there was absolutely nothing wrong with hedonism and living out your sexual fantasies 24/7 was exactly as nature had intended it to be. In a world rife with stress and unrelenting control Didini's satyrs were just boys who wanted to have fun and went about having it.
The irony here is that as a teenager discovering his sexual identity Didini unknowingly was promoting a standard I had yet to encounter but very much existed not in the heterosexual world but in the homosexual one. The place where young men were sowing seed and being incredibly sexually fulfilled wasn't at any Playboy Club but in the bars and baths and back alleys of impending gay liberation. The boys having real fun weren't the button-downed straights but the covert gays. Later, I came to realize that one of the reasons we were so disdained by heterosexuals was out of a certain form of hidden envy. Gay guys got away with everything the breeders could only imagine at a distance. Where they secretly admired sexual freedom but were forced to adhere to a very restricted code we were busy throwing that code away as having nothing to do with who we were and what our sexual identities were.
As I look at Didini's work now I see that they are classics of the form but the revolution has passed them by. I still enjoy the ribald satyr and centaur males who know that their only real function is to eye the sexual prize and go after it. Yes, the gags are very funny, but for me they helped to open a door into a realm of sexual connection that said there was no forbidden fruit anymore and for that I heartily thank Mr. Didini and his publisher, Hugh Hefner, perhaps the most satyric of all the players in the sexual revolution and at 84 a man completely unabashed about having has his eyes and loins firmly held on the prize (even though the young thing decided to leave him in the lurch just a day or so ago.)