The artist responsible for some of the most iconic magazine cover art of the 1980s was also a prolific illustrator of sexually explicit comic strips.
Oliver Frey, who died recently, was one of those artists whose work was instantly recognisable. As an illustrator, his work graced magazine covers and inner spreads back in the days when magazines still had illustrated covers rather than merely using photographs or box cover art. Thanks to an easily deciphered signature, Frey’s name became familiar with magazine readers even when he wasn’t credited and his work – often in the fantasy and science fiction genres – gave a sense of wonder to magazines as varied as Look and Learn – where he illustrated the long-running strip The Trigan Empire as well as providing cover and internal images – and War Picture Library. When the legendary Eagle comic was revived in the early 1980s, he became the artist on the flagship Dan Dare strip.
Frey, who was born in Switzerland in 1948, moved to Britain in the 1970s and soon established himself as an artist in demand. Amongst his most famous work was the pre-title sequence in Superman – The Movie, which set the scene for that comic book adventure. But perhaps his most iconic work was for Newsfield Publications, the magazine publisher launched by his partner Roger Kean. For Newsfield, Frey became the regular cover artist for CRASH and Zzap64, two early computer games magazines – his iconic covers, often strikingly dramatic and frequently extravagantly violent (you can’t imagine these passing muster with WH Smiths in later years) are forever burnt into the memories of young gamers – they provided dramatic and visually impressive versions of games that in reality had rather primitive graphics, becoming the version of the game that existed in the imagination. Frey also provided illustrative covers for the serious and determinedly upmarket horror magazine Fear, also published by Newsfield. In fact, he was producing so much art that it’s even more impressive how good his work was – this material must’ve been churned out and yet it has the style and complexity of something that had been laboured over for ages.
The quality of his work is even more impressive when you realise that all the time that Frey was producing this material – several pieces a month as well as comic strips – he was also working in a very different area. How many of the readers of Dan Dare or CRASH knew at the time that the artist they so admired had a second, equally prolific career in gay porn?
Working under the name ‘Zack’, Frey was a prolific illustrator of gay erotica in varying levels of explicitness from the 1970s onwards. His work – mostly for HIM Magazine, which he and Kean co-owned, ranged from the soap opera comic strip The Street through to the adventures of Rogue, a Tom of Finland-like muscle man who had various orgiastic sexual adventures. His work pushed the boundaries of UK obscenity law at the time, bordering on (or directly crossing into ) hardcore imagery with erect cocks, hand jobs and anal penetration during wild orgies – which were still technically illegal due to the wording of the laws that had only partially legalised gay sex. It was bound to raise eyebrows, and sure enough, the offices of HIM were subjected to police raids where entire stocks of the magazine and HIM Library titles (illustrated comic books) were destroyed.
Sometimes, the two worlds would blur. A muscled barbarian on the cover of one CRASH looks uncannily like one of his dominant gay men and you can see elements of his BDSM fantasies on other covers. Some of Frey’s gay work – the more commercial, less explicit illustration – bears his real name and he never actually tried to keep his adult work a secret – it’s just that the two worlds were very separate and there was no point in blurring the lines more than was necessary. Ironically, although his gay erotic art was the subject of an exhibition at the British Library in 2014 – giving it a degree of establishment respectability that was denied to his more mainstream art.
Frey died aged 74 on August 21st 2022.
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