Steve Ditko is a fascinating figure in comic book lore. His reputation as a recluse and his famous breaks from traditional ways of pursuing the craft, of insisting of doing it his way are some of the things which make always fertile ground to explore. No less a detail of that territory is his long professional relationship with sex fetish artist Eric Stanton. The book Eric Stanton and the History of the Bizarre Underground does a masterful and highly entertaining job of covering the career of Stanton as well as showcasing the publishers he worked for, men who would often as not end up in jail for selling their materials through the U.S. mail.
For much of the time that Eric Stanton produced fetish artwork he shared a studio with Steve Ditko and despite Ditko's efforts over time to play down his role in that work, this book reveals that he was much more involved than has been generally acknowledged. And likewise it's just possible that Stanton gave Ditko a hand with is work, especially a little gem title Spider-Man.
Stanton's real name was Ernie Stanzoni and he would change his name quite a bit during his career and life. He started in art alongside Ditko in classes taught by Jerry Robinson. After working with the offbeat artist Boody Rogers on books like Babe, he discovered that narrative comics weren't his primary interest. He was an artist who found illustration more up his alley and he used those skills working for folks like Irving Klaw. Klaw was one of those publishers who specialized in photography mostly, selling images of partially dressed dames to interested men across the country. Thanks to the fame of Bettie Page we remember those days with some nostalgic glow for a simpler time when women took off almost all their clothes for the delight of men. Other publishers such as Edward Mishkin and Stanley Malkin were eager to publish Stanton's work when Klaw was unable to do so. It was of course much more grim than that and all you have to do is read up about Page herself to know that.
In the 50's and 60's Stanton moved from underground publisher to publisher as one fell into legal trouble or fell out of cash. His artwork always seemed to be a draw for the customers aside from the photos. Other artists like Gene Bilibrew (Eneg) were also active in these markets. The call was for artwork which was not explicitly sexual as that was instantly tagged by the government, but for odd quasi-fashion fetish material that seemingly confused the issue of sexual arousal for censors. Bondage and Sado-Masochism were a large part of the kind of artwork that Stanton delivered though in a decidedly soft-core mode. The extent to which he was a part of this scene or just a documentarian of sorts is unclear though there's little said to suggest the former. In the 70's when what we truly understand as pornography became more widespread Stanton himself began to produce more provocative material. Also he began to produce Stantoons, a regular collection of his images.
Throughout is career Stanton was eager to keep a low profile, not to call attention to his art or himself for the sake of his children. That more than anything seems to be the reason that he didn't really press issues like his hand in the creation of Spider-Man, contributing in all probability details such as the web-shooters and the tender Aunt May (Stanton seems to have actually had an Aunt May). It's also been noted that Dr. Strange often featured elements of sado-masochism bondage in the nature of the traps that Doc and Clea and others encountered. The fact is that Ditko and Stanton worked together on each other's gigs and while that's something Ditko was reluctant to claim, if in fact to deny, it is manifestly evident from some of the work produced, especially a highly successful comic narrative called Sweeter Gwen. More on that tomorrow.