Body of Work

Byron Humphrey discusses how he came to draw cartoons that shocked even Hugh Hefner.


Byron Humphrey has problems. He needs some dental work. His dog won't stop barking. And, worst of all, they're trying to feed him salad. "Non, non," he says. "La salade n'est pas sur mon régime."

Of course, they're trying to feed him salad at his home in the south of France, the dental work is going to be done in Germany, and the dog is an $8,000 purebred. It's all in the perspective.

New Orleans-born illustrator Byron Humphrey still retains hints of a local accent, even after almost 25 years living in the south of France. His timbre and cadence are reminiscent of Rodney Dangerfield, but Humphrey got his respect, and more: He's handled advertising for 7-Up, Gillette and Kent cigarettes; Christopher Peachment of the London Sunday Times called him "the world's greatest living cartoonist"; and his illustrations and gag cartoons have been published in Playboy and Business Week. He's been exhibited in galleries across Europe, most recently at the National Gallery in Budapest.

Now, his work for the defunct Erotic Review is featured in The Diary of a Sex Fiend, a new book of essays by Peachment (for more information, see Web sites that sell British books, including

A Byron Humphrey cartoon is like a snapshot of a precise moment of explosion: Every figure is at the apex of outrageousness, each eyeball bulging to the limit, every frizzy hair on end. It has a dynamism and life unseen in contemporary cartoons, but prominent in the work of legendary 1970s-era cartoonists like Ronald Searle, Arnold Roth and Gerald Scarfe. Humphrey's mixture of dry wit and gleeful vulgarity has been a hallmark of his illustrations since his early days at Playboy. He began drawing at age 2, and from the moment the writing went on the wall, the writing was on the wall.

"I was born to be a dirty old man," he says. "My first subject was women. I was fascinated by the old Esquire magazine, fascinated by the female body. I would point to the erogenous zones."

As is the case with much of Humphrey's career, his entree to the pages of Playboy came accidentally. "I was living in Chicago. Playboy had an ad in the Chicago Tribune for a proofreader. I didn't know what the f--k a proofreader was! I was 24 and full of myself -- I had been to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and the Rhode Island School of Design and all this. The woman who interviewed me said, 'Mr. Humphrey, what the hell are you doing here? You're an artist, what are you trying to prove?' I said, 'Look, I don't know how to work for Playboy, I don't think I'm good enough to draw for you, I just want to get in the door,' thinking sooner or later they'd discover me at the water cooler or I would sketch on the wall."

He didn't get the proofreading job, but legendary Playboy art director Arthur Paul later called to offer the 26-year-old Humphrey a position as assistant art director. "I had to turn him down, because two weeks earlier, 7-Up had asked me to do their publicity," Humphrey says. "And it paid 20 times what Paul was offering. I had the bizarre experience of turning down Arthur Paul at the age of 26."

Humphrey eventually began contributing his drawings to Playboy -- and his work gained some notoriety. "In 1969, they had bought a hotel resort in New Jersey, it was a sex thing, like Club Med, only 20 years earlier. Arthur Paul wanted me to do a two-page spread, a humorous drawing of people humping in the bushes, stuff like that, and then playing tennis. I did a regular Sodom and Gomorrah, and Hefner said 'My God, this is filthy!' I figured that to have Hefner say my work was filthy was the highest accolade."

A short stint in New York doing advertising ended in 1972, when Humphrey returned to New Orleans to look after his ailing mother. He contributed work to New Orleans and Figaro, and then drew political cartoons and illustrations for The New Orleans States-Item and The Times-Picayune. In 1981, he moved to Nice, in the south of France, and began exhibiting his drawings in galleries. Still an illustrator and a cartoonist at heart, he started drawing for Oldie, a magazine aimed at senior citizens.

"I became the palm tree artist for the magazine," he says. "I draw palm trees that look like penises flying off in all directions. I did the Promenade Des Anglais with 300 buildings all in the wrong places because I had to have certain colors counterpoint other colors -- I figured no one reading a magazine for ages 60 and up would spot the difference.

"Eventually I went over to visit the offices with a bunch of drawings, and in the portfolio I had some of my nude drawings that I had done for gallery shows. I had some very tawdry-looking ladies, pole dancers and stuff like this." Oldie's publisher told Humphreys about a new magazine titled the Erotic Review that might be looking for illustrators. After a meeting, Humphrey reported back to the publisher: 'It's a marriage made in purgatory.'

"I drew for them for six years," he says. (Editor-in-chief) Rowan Pelling became a judge for the Booker Prize, the highest literary prize in England. Suddenly the Erotic Review, which always had good writers, was getting Booker Prize writers. And my cartoons were like this: I had two alligators, a male and a female, facing each other, the lady on her back, the male has his arms around her waist and his head is at waist level, and his thought balloon says, 'Tastes like chicken.'

"It was a magazine born to fail. This was not a magazine you could take into the bathroom. You're reading DCB Pierre describing his early sex life, which was as dull as grooming a dog, and then you've got Humphrey cartoons like Hamlet looking at Ophelia in bed and thinking, 'Sushi or not sushi?' This magazine had nowhere to go but down."

After a couple attempts to revive the magazine, the Erotic Review finally stopped publishing. Since then, it's been back to the galleries, plus a monthly drawing in New Orleans magazine. Otherwise, Humphrey entertains, draws and deals with his $8,000 white elephant of a dog. He's landed in a pretty comfortable place.

"I love going into parties with old people in Nice who ask me what I do, and I say 'I'm a pornographer,' and they say 'photographer?' and I say, 'No, no, no.' And they just look at me."

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