Opus 67: A Few Curves and None Too Soon (August 15, 200l). Julie Strain is almost forty. No, that’s not her measurement. That’s her age. She’ll be forty on February 18, 2002. But, judging from the photographs of her that abound hither and yon, she doesn’t look forty. Or, even, thirty-nine.
I saw her in person a couple years ago, and her face seems the face of a twenty-niner not a thirty-niner. But the most impressive aspect of this visage was the humor lurking at the corners of the mouth and in the eyes. She seemed at the brink of bursting out laughing. And that’s a virtue.
Her figure, however, isn’t funny. No sense of humor there. Anatomy, in fact, has no sense at all. But it does have shape, and Strain’s shape is no strain on the eyes. If her body seems younger than her age, it is due, doubtless, to the five years she spent in body building (from age 17 to 22 or so).
Oddly, Strain didn’t get into the pin-up business until she was in her late twenties. And at the time of her big centerspread in Penthouse, she was twenty-nine. Between careers building her body and then displaying it, she was a house wife and bred and trained Doberman pinchers. Eventually, she married Ninja Turtle guru Kevin Eastman, a mogul wealthy enough to arrange publication of three books devoted to pictures of his mostly-naked wife: It’s Only Art If It’s Well Hung, Six Foot One and Worth the Climb, and Julie Strain’s Greatest Hits— the most recent from Heavy Metal, reprinting the content of the other two plus 40 pages of previously unpublished material and deploying another word-play title (trying slurring "greatest hits," and if you don’t get it, the title page inside will explain it); $25.95 in hardcover and slick, slick paper.
It is in this last opus that we learn that she met Eastman at a signing at the Golden Apple Comic Book Store in Hollywood and that she’s still in love with her "prince charming and adorably sweet husband who stays up all night to piece this book together while I rest my weary body."
Threading between hundreds of photographs of Strain grinning and grimmacing atop her embonpoint, the book’s text is autobiographical, tracing Strain’s early life and various careers (including an enviable record as a basketball and track star in high school and college). She’s one of nine brothers and sisters but the only product of the union of her father and mother. (Her sibblings are all half-brothers and sisters.)
But the other interesting thing about Greatest Hits is the number of pages devoted to graphic artists’ renderings of her zaftig curves: 24 pages (a tenth of the book) of paintings by Julie Bell, Luis Royo, Milo Manara, Boris Vallejo, and others. Over nine pages of Strain by Olivia; ditto, Simon Bisley. Also a couple exquisite full-page pictures by another favorite of mine, Alfonzo Azpiri.
Speaking of which, we at last have a bumper crop of his work available in this country.
Azpiri first attracted my wandering eye in the pages of the regrettably short-lived (and, alas, somewhat monotonous) Penthouse Comix, where installments of some of his stories about a space vamp named Lorna appeared. Subsequently, Lorna re-appeared in book form, Lorna and Her Robot and Lorna: Mouse Club. In all of these, it was more than apparent that Azpiri loves limning the curvaceous gender.
And he is one of the few cartoonists who proportions his female creations in a way that accords with the actual feminine form. Jack Cole was another (in Plastic Man, yes; but more obviously in his Playboy watercolor cartoons). Actual women are someone larger through the hips and derriere than most cartoonists portray them. They’re, well, pear-shaped, kimo sabe. And Azpiri renders both pear shapes and shapely pairs (the other distinctly female part of human anatomy) better than most.
His drawings and paintings seem to flow, to undulate, with lyrical motion. Clothing—capes, gowns, robes—and his women’s luxurious tresses—all seem gripped by some attendant zephyr, whose ministrations keep everything that can move in rippling motion as if being transported hither and yon by some invisible, eddying river. His colors are warm—heated, even. Steamy. And his linework and some of his anatomy and treatment of wrinkles in clothing—the clutch of a fist, the fold of a garment—remind me of Bud Thompson (whose work on Captain Marvel, Jr., has never received adequate notice). And his subjects—women, science fantasy—are eroticized on every page.
Three of the newly arrived hardcover tomes are from Heavy Metal: Leviathan, Wet Dreams, and Reflections (48-56 9x12-inch pages; hardbound $14.95 each). Lorna is the central figure (so to speak) in only Leviathan; but Azpiri has other female confections to delight, so the other volumes are as pleasurable as any of the Lorna books. But a fourth book from NBM’s Eurotica imprint is equally compelling—Sensations (80 9x12-inch pages; $18.95 in paperback).
In this book, Azpiri presents samples of his work as an illustrator—covers for books, videogames, magazines, and the like. And there are, additionally, several pages of preliminary pencil sketches accompanying some of the finished art. Finally, we have Aspiri’s own words, too—a short but informative tour of his career and attitudes.
Incredibly, in his early twenties the young Spaniard made his mark by producing an astonishing 240 pages of "short erotic stuff" every month for Italian publications. (Yes, every month; that’s what he sez.) Although he isn’t very precise with dates, it was apparently towards the end of his six-year stint at this sort of work that he invented Lorna. But he continued to produce work for venues other than comics, too.
He discusses the difference between illustration and comics. Comics offer much more opportunity to tell a story, he writes. "But in an illustration or a book cover, you have the limitation, and the obligation, to tell a story in a single picture.... It’s like a piece of advertising: you have to get attention, to make an impact, to create a flash." And to tell the story. Always with a cartoonist, a story lurks in every picture.
"If I had to pick one genre that I don’t have a particular affinity for, it would be war stories," he writes, "maybe because the gun barrels of my tanks always seem to come out crooked, or maybe because I’m anti-war. The truth is," he confesses, "I prefer the roundness of the female figure."
But his preference was underscored by production schedule necessity, too.
"I began to be more interested in the female figure more out of obligation, due to the demands of putting out 240 pages a month for Italy. That didn’t leave me much free time to go looking around for inspiration.... I had to draw and get it done fast. I found myself obliged to clean up my lines and details—and that," he explains with wonderful brevity and insight, is why his lyrical linework is so simple, coming to the conclusion that I applaud in theory and in my own work: "the key to [rendering] the female form—you need to eliminate lines, the faces and the bodies have to be simplified."
Few lines. Simple, flowing lines. No wrinkles, no feathering, no shading clutter.
"I learned that the most important parts of the female face are the eyes and the lips; of the body, the hips and legs. And that the motion should be feline and elegant."
And Aspiri’s work is all of that.
Dunno why pictures of barenekidwimmin drawn by cartoonists and calendar artists aren’t considered "art" by the populace at large. The masters of yore, Rubens, Titian, Boucher, Ingres and their ilk —not to mention the moderns, Picasso, Matisse, Manet —drew barenekidwimmin, too, and we go to museums where we stand in full view of little old ladies and young children in tennis shoes and ogle their pictures. Nothing furtive about it. But somehow, pictures of barenekidwimmin that don’t hang in museums are taboo.
So we should be all the more thankful for the so-called "art books" that seep into the marketplace unheralded —but not unnoticed. Take, for example, a collection of beautifully pencilled fantasy heroines by Esteban Maroto (another Spaniard), Urania from NBM (64 9x12-inch pages; paperback, $12.95 at www.nbmpublishing.com). The book is divided into sections (one each for Adventurous Women, Warrior Women, Erotic Women, Women from Other Worlds), each introduced with a few prose paragraphs from Maroto.
"They are the main characters of this collection of women images drawn in pencil," he writes. "It is a simple and ancient method, just like the coal and wood it is composed of. I trust you will be amused, and that, beyond the smiles provoked by my drawings, the real images, which I have tried to capture for you, will remain."
The drawings themselves are exquisite. Despite the medium (pencil), these are not "sketches": they are fully realized (albeit skimpily costumed) and surrounded by props as detailed as the rest of the rendering.
Finally, to come full circle to real women who are turned into objets d’arte by artists and other men of vision, we have the September issue of Heavy Metal, the cover of which is adorned by a painting of Stacey E. Walker by Alex Horley of Italy. No question about it, Editor Eastman has a thing about fantasy interpretations of actual voluptuous women: inside this issue is a four-page gallery of Walker pix, interpretations by the Hildebrandts (and by Greg alone), Dorian Cleavenger, Dale Devries, Boris Vallejo, and others.
About Walker, Horley writes: "Working with Stacy is great not just because she has such a perfect physique for fantasy characters but especially for her interpretive abilities. She can easily look strong as a warrior-like amazon or vulnerable as a wounded angel and always be sensual. I never even considered working with models until I met Stacy. She has added a whole new dimension to my work."
Julie Bell, who has produced three of Walker’s six Heavy Metal cover appearances, adds: "Stacy just evokes sexuality. When I need attitude, I know just where to go. She also played a creative role in two of my paintings she modeled for, including one of my most popular published pieces, ‘Beauty and the Steel Beast’" (a Heavy Metal limited edition poster).
And Joe Jusko says, "She has that dominant type of look that’s perfect for the genre we work in."
Like Julie Strain, Walker appears regularly at comic and sf/fantasy conventions. And much of her work involves comics. She was the model for the Hildebrandts’ rendition of the ice goddess Cythonna in Superman: Last God of Krypton. And they painted her for her fifth cover appearance in Heavy Metal.
Aside from the interest among men that human biology inspires in generously arrayed women, I find in Walker’s career a stunning example of our wayward ideas about sex and pictures of nudity and semi-nudity. Portraits of Walker in fantasy publications attracted the attention of one of the royalty among romance novel cover artists, Pino Daeni. And now pictures of Walker in ripped bodices and off-both-shoulders peasant blouses grace the covers of a growing number of romance novels.
Romance novels may be literary trash, but they are, for some obscure reason, more acceptable in polite society than Playboy centerfolds. True, the panting portraits on these novels are not displays of outright nudity; but a picture of a bare-shouldered woman pressing her cleavage against the naked chest of a well-muscled male is more overtly sexual than anything in pin-up art.
With a foot in both the pin-up and steamy pot-boiler worlds, Walker vividly demonstrates the hypocrisy in our attitudes about public displays of sexiness. In this respect, her career is as disconcerting as turning up the base volume in a car radio while playing Tchaikovsky’s "1812 Overture": if it doesn’t rock the car in rhythm, it’ll at least wake you up.
Walker has other wake-up calls planned. She’s presently exploring several avenues for her talents —more comic books, erotic fairytales, music CDs, trading cards, calendars, CD Rom, gaming, dolls, and figure models as well as live action and animated fantasy series for tv and the internet. All based upon her own stories and characters.
"These characters have been running around in my head for about three years," she explains on her website (www.stacyewalker.com). "I base a portion of the stories on reality and then add the fiction. I don’t want the reader or viewer to know exactly where the reality stops and the fantasy begins.
"I want to bring a whole new dynamic to the challenging world out there," she continues, "and to be counted among the ground-breakers who are making a difference in it. In my view, more is more. I’m not subtle. I think larger than life is better than life.... The Xena-Hercules explosion was only the beginning. Men and women alike long for romance and adventure. I know I do. My intention is to develop creative entertainment that people can enjoy at all levels."
Right. "More is more." Reminds me of something Fraser said: "If less is more, think of how much more more is."
For a hint about how much more more is, visit Strain, Aspiri, Maroto, and Walker and all the other legions in our fantasy lives. Meanwhile, stay ‘tooned.
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