Bill Ward must be ranked amongst the greats of erotic and fetish art and yet his name does not usually spring to mind when that question is asked. He produced a large quantity of work, which most of you will have viewed at some time, enjoyed and been turned on by and yet recalling specific individual images? That's another matter. This one (which I found at Daddyshere) is completely new to me but it's a striking and sexy image and I wonder why it's not better known. Military uniforms often feature in his work.
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I started this article with one of Ward's stand-alone pictures but the majority of his work that I am aware of took the form of raunchy, technically innovative comic strips which in the 70's & 80's were published around the world in the new wave of magazines (like Drummer and Zipper) which were pushing open the doors of freedom of expression for those with beyond-vanilla interests. In these stories Ward portrayed intensely masculine and confident gay men who were up for anything, totally at home with their sexuality and determined to freely express it. This little episode beautifully epitomises the revolution of gay consciousness conveying a tremendously positive gay image. The highly erotic final frame could form the lead-in to an entire porn movie, it certainly must have prompted thousands of wet fantasies! Ward does not elaborate in that direction. That's a concession to publishing constraints but it gives clear space for his point to be made.
This comic strip picks up the military theme again showing a highly ritualised spanking, whose cause is unexplained until the closing frame when we learn that the hero 'Drum' has been hired to dress up like this and perform the punishment ritual for the voyeuristic, weedy-looking but wealthy man who is the owner of the lush surroundings. This unexpected twist is typical of Ward's work and sidesteps awkward questions about motivation and intent by deflecting them back to a member of the political establishment in an enjoyable flash of satire. The object of the punishment in this story is only shown in sketchy outline and his presence, paid or otherwise, is not explained. It lends an unreal, dreamlike quality to the scene, which is another helpful device for avoiding legal objections, however it does dilute the eroticism.
There's a tremendous dynamic energy in the way this episode is portrayed in a series of memorable frames. They interact visually in a complex way which is typical of modern comic art. It requires a degree of concentration to take it all in, but is all the more rewarding for that effort. You'd think that these dramatic images would stand up separately by themselves but look at the example below.
Shorn of it's context (admittedly with crude digital surgery) the individual frame proves to unexpectedly simple and is visibly incomplete. The impression of a luxurious mansion and frantic action disappears. That is a tribute to Ward's artistic skill in assembling his comic pages, making them add up to more than the sum of their parts.
It's interesting to contrast this little story with Tom of Finland's 'Sightseeing the Guards' (Kake No 13) which on the surface has similar erotic ingredients. Tom's gay hero is punished by the soldiers after admiring them in their uniforms, teasing them and taking compromising photographs. His open gayness inflames the Guard's fear of exposure and blackmail. That he (and they) enjoy his subsequent homo-erotic punishment (in a suitably discreet dungeon out of sight of public view) is a rationalisation which is mildly subversive but also speaks volumes about social norms. In Ward's story however, the gay hero steps into the uniform and takes control of the punishment, even getting paid for it. The role played by his paymaster arguably demonstrates that fear of exposure never goes away for some gay men.
Ward's skill in creating exciting, almost cinematic scenes is nicely illustrated by this page from a 'King' story, which is self explanatory. I love the drawing of the sailors in the bottom frame which has an authenticity and sexiness which recaptures the lusty joy of the Royale and Guys in Uniform Studios photos of the 50's and 70's. It makes me yearn to see what he might have done if he'd been able to give his erotic imagination full rein. The essential Britishness of Ward's work is plain to see in both the imagery and the language (although a Brit would never say 'swell', nor 'fag' for that matter as quoted in example 2 above – I assume the American publishers have replaced the original words which were probably 'great' and 'queer' respectively). Once through the gates King loses his hitcher but goes on to make hay in the Sailor's dorm (behind discreetly closed doors of course).
King is quite a neat leatherman but Drum's appearance in his cartoons is mature, slightly dishevelled, hairy, with torn and tattered clothing worn for sexual appeal rather than style. It gives him that 'real man' aura belonging to the bear/leather scene. Even so there's a degree of artifice in it all, the cut-offs worn here are a 70's fashion statement and consider the areas of flesh visible (but not shaded by Ward for some reason) through tears and gaps between his garments.
If you review the images I've selected you'll also find plenty of clean cut, youthful types lurking in the background (as here) and they are not infrequently the object of the hero's desire when he wants to play the active role (e.g. the sailors in the example above). This aspect of Ward's art perhaps explains the the unexpected phenomenon of 'Zeke'.
The staple diet of many gay comics around this time was the cute, naïve youth going from one gay adventure to another, aware of his sexuality but not his allure and frequently used by other men who can't believe their luck in getting their hands on him (e.g. Billy in 'Poppers' by Jerry Mills, Bruce by Jonathan). Ward produced something similar in the form of Zeke, the well-built but inexperienced country boy who goes to the big city and is duly exploited without even realising it. In his pictures Ward links that clumsy innocence with a youthfully butch appearance which will clearly evolve into prime leather scene material in due course. Zeke had a short run and seems to have been an isolated experiment by Ward who still put his humour to use with his more mature heroes.
There's a glimpse of Ward's true capabilities in the 'Man Bull' storyline which utilises the dream device (or an unstated drug causation) to conjure up a mythological man-beast who subjects the hero to his lusts. Beastly involvement in sexual matters is dangerous territory for Brits, but there's a well-established tradition in descriptive arts for using such hybrid creatures to express the nature of male sexual desire - from Updike and Picasso (pungently) back to the Renaissance masters (more delicately). Ward's imposing invocation more than does justice to that tradition in a terrific full page image that delicately tip-toes through the legal minefield of explicitness with an ambiguous sun-ray effect.
In the follow-up scene Drum is subjected to a spectacular, spread-eagled suspension by the beast whose intentions seem surprisingly fetishistic and outspoken for a 1977 top shelf* magazine. Probably most of the general population would have assumed the fist was to be used for punching and not known about fisting. Ward's accompanying picture is cleverly ambiguous.
As a measure of Ward's ambition here, this story is contemporary with Tom of Finland's Kake No 20 'Pleasure Park' which features nothing more provocative than multiple sex in a public place between clean cut, conventional gay stereotypes.
*magazines in the UK at this time were only sold in Newsagents shops, alongside tobacco and sweets. The naughty stuff had to be placed on the top shelf of the display, out of reach of young hands.
As the story proceeds, Ward goes on to show a more explicit sexual interaction with the beast (including penetration) but it's jumbled-up detail in an eye-grabbing image and heavily disguised. Just in case it is spotted, it is deliberately placed in the most unsubtle way imaginable so as to be seen as a product of Drum's brain, a mere thought, a fantasy. Ward may have succeeded in sneaking provocative material past disapproving eyes, but the unplanned consequence is that the erotic impact is largely lost. Moreover Drum seems to loose his essential masculine earthiness in this picture, it's overwhelmed by the (impressive) techniques invoked to suggest his unreal state of mind.
Perhaps it's not altogether surprising that our recollection of these works is as ethereal as the way Ward sometimes drew them. His work is visually complex and does not deliver instant gratification but it requires closer study for full appreciation which is worth it for anyone who likes fetish art, probably more than most of the artists I showcase here.
As far as I know there is no official Bill Ward site although an intermittent attempt is being made to set one up at Bill Ward Archive. There's lots of his work available via search engines and a decent collection at Ward at Daddyshere
For more articles in this series click on the A-Z label below or search for specific artists using the index page or search boxes (top right)