The name of Zack rings loud throughout the gay world as one of the foremost creators of erotic imagery.
“This artist has divine imagination . . . insightful into the workings of the mind, a Da Vinci, in effect . . .”
“Zack’s stunningly erotic Bike Boy, which I rate the hottest piece of erotica—written, drawn, or filmed—I’ve ever seen.”
“What sets him apart from his peers is his narrative sense. The ability to tell a story is something that sets pin-up art apart from good comics art . . . it’s beautifully rendered, erotically charged, and has a very clear, distinct narrative.”
These quotes represent just a tiny fraction of the praise heaped on Zack’s output over the years. But Zack (or sometimes in the past, Clint) is really Oliver Frey. As an illustrator of mainstream work, including masses of children’s books, it’s to be expected that he might have a pseudonym for the erotic pictures. But in fact, Zack came later in his career. At the outset of painting gay pictures, with gay liberation a new byword, Oliver Frey found the idea of signing his work with a pseudonym unacceptable. “It seemed necessary to do my bit for the gay cause as it fought for recognition during the Seventies,” he has said.
However, he did reconsider when, during the later 1980s, he was partly responsible for running a very straight publishing company whose output was aimed at teenaged boys, and so became briefly “Clint” for a few pictures bought by a Scandinavian publisher. Later still, while employed by a very straight-laced American publisher, “Zack” made his first appearance for the Meatmen comic books. Of course, the Internet has exploded all that. Anyone can put the pieces together with a few moments on Google, so Zack remains as a useful brand more than a pseudonym to hide behind. As at the start, Oliver Frey is out in the open again.
Oliver Frey was born June 30, 1948 in Zurich, Switzerland, the eldest of three children.
He grew up a fluent Italian speaker, since his parents hailed from Ticino, the southernmost Swiss canton, where Swiss-Italian is the language, but schooled in Zurich, he also learned German and French. In 1956, when he was almost eight, the family moved to Britain and the youngster discovered Eagle comic and the cover hero Dan Dare, Space Pilot of the Future.
When he started school in a northern suburb of London, Frey discovered that most of his schoolmates were comics-mad, especially for Eagle. Reading the weekly comic and watching television, he soon learned English, and then he started to copy the drawings of Eagle’s artists, and their styles became seminal influences. The feeling of bodies in movement, often in violent action, captured his imagination and is a quality that has never left his work.
Approaching the age of eighteen, and with no idea that he might have a career in illustration, Frey considered further education at a film school. He applied to the London Film School, gained a place, and started the two-year intensive course in January 1969.
While his parents paid the tuition expenses, Frey had to support himself. He looked around for freelance illustration work and found it in the Fleetway War Picture Library series of comics. The small-format, 64-page, 150-frame black and white stories of World War II, kept him busy and in funds for years. His association with the War Picture Library resulted in dozens of stories and covers before he stopped doing them in the late 1970s.
Throughout the 1970s, Frey established himself as a freelance comic artist.
In addition to strips for Fleetway, he worked for IPC Comics’ prestigious Look & Learn, its spin-off Speed & Power, painted novel book covers for the Souvenir Press, and illustrated children’s books for Hamlyn, Usborne, and Oxford University Press.
In 1976, Frey took over from Don Lawrence on Look & Learn’s celebrated colour strip “The Trigan Empire”, which he painted weekly for just over a year, by which time other events began to occupy his time. Even before the onset of adolescence, young Oliver Frey can remember semi-erotic moments when playing Cowboys and Indians with his next-door neighbour of about the same age. As a young teenager, in between penning “Dan Dare”-like comic frames, he sketched illicit images of a more sexual nature, always homoerotic. The habit persisted, and there are notebooks filled with the kind of situations which later underpinned his adult work.
During the early to mid-1970s anyone wishing to purchase a gay “adult” magazine under Britain’s harsh laws would have had a difficult time.
There were a very few such vehicles around, such as Jeffrey, Just Us, and Line-Up, but only sex shops sold them, and most of those had not yet recognized that there actually was a gay market.
The usual outlet for gay fantasies were Viva and the American glossy, Playguy; low-key titillation for women.
At some point during 1975, Frey got hold of a copy of Playguy (not to be confused with the magazine mentioned above!), published by Incognito.
The same company produced a range of gay magazines for the burgeoning market, but the first thing to catch his eye in Playguy was its comic-strip. He thought it pretty poor amateurish stuff and knew he could do better.
At last, some of those teenage angst-sketches and overheated imagination might be put to good use. He immediately sat down, thought up a story, produced the three-page “The Hitchhiker”, and sent it to Incognito.
Playguy’s editor, Ian David Baker, instantly saw its worth and published the story. He commissioned a monthly series, and Oliver Frey’s professional gay career was under way.
Early in 1976 Incognito went bust but deliverance was at hand in the form of Alan Purnell, a former partner in Incognito, who had taken with him HIM Exclusive, and renamed it HIM International (later International) Purnell wanted a tough, butch comic-strip.
He wrote to Frey, enclosing the two missing payments for “The Hitchhiker”, and invited him to discuss a new strip. And so “Rogue” was born, and for seven years the no-nonsense sex-machine manhandled his way monthly through endless hunky young men and more than 250 pages of erotic entanglements. At the same time, Frey drew and painted innumerable illustrations to short fiction, both in black and white and colour. Before long, the growing number of gay organizations were lining up to commission Frey illustrations for their advertisements.
In 1978, Frey and his boyfriend Kean joined forces with Purnell to form Street Level Ltd, which continued to publish HIM together with Teenage Dreams, Hot Dog, and the HIM Gay Library series.
Street Level also became involved with the gay superclub Heaven, which opened its doors in December 1979, in arranging massive theme nights promoted through HIM magazine. In 1980 and 1981, Frey found himself in part responsible for visualizing the events and naturally creating the theme night posters. The club manager always had to keep a pristine copy of the large posters for David Hockney’s collection. Heaven’s “Roman Games Night” made news throughout London and caused excitement in New York for its extravagant gladiatorial fight, slave auctions and the culminating collapse of a huge Roman temple (designed by Frey), right onto the heads of the packed crowd below.
Police from the Obscene Publications Squad marched into Street Level’s premises in 1982 and seized all stock and work in progress.
The matter never came to court, but the loss of so much stock and future publications wrecked the company. Purnell having left some months before, Frey and Kean sold the rights in all the titles to Millivres, publishers of HIM rival, Zipper. It was the start of a new era.
They moved from London to the small market town of Ludlow in October 1982, where for a year Frey continued producing Rogue strips for Millivres’ Mister magazine and created a new gay comic-strip called “The Street” for the re-launched HIM lifestyle magazine (later renamed Gay Times).
It contained a lot of gritty realism and Russell T. Davies has said that in his formative years Rogue and the feel of “The Street” not only reconciled himself to his sexual inclinations but were a part of the inspiration behind the cult TV series Queer As Folk.
Davies has also cited Frey’s AIDS cover for HIM in connection with the more recent TV hit It’s a Sin, in which a copy of the actual issue appeared.
Among the comics he created for his own amusement were ones which later found their way onto the Internet via the (now defunct) Gaytoons website:
Bike Boy, Tender Bait, and Funfair Surprise. In 1998, Frey approached Californian publisher Winston Leyland with samples intended for the Meatmen comic books. Leyland was taken by the quality and immediately commissioned a series of stories, which included Message to the Emperor, Slaves to Lust, and Teasy Meat. So often, the problem with imagination is finding an outlet for it, and over the years Zack/Oliver Frey has let his flow onto paper and screen to the great enjoyment of thousands and thousands of fans.