If you only know him as the old duffer in his pyjamas on The Girls Next Door, get a copy of the pop-culture journal Royal Flush, which contains a fascinating, surprising interview with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner about his love of comics and cartoonists.
I always knew that from the start of Playboy, Hefner personally chose the cartoons the magazine ran, and developed a stable of great artists such as Harvey Kurtzman (one of the key instigators of MAD Magazine) and Jack Cole (the creator of Plastic Man), paying top fees that could compete with publications like The New Yorker and Esquire. I also knew that, flush with the success of Playboy in the late 1950s, he bankrolled a gloriously doomed project, Trump, the first full-color comics magazine. (It lasted only two issues.)
But the Royal Flush interview is a small treasure-trove of information. Hefner tells interviewer (and Flush publisher) Josh Bernstein that by the time he was 16, he was drawing himself in autobiographical comics (reproduced here), using the character-name “Goo Heffer.” (It was also at this age, he says, that he started calling himself “Hef.” I’d daresay no one before the advent of hiphop had the wit and cajones to give himself a cool nickname that would be picked up and used by everyone who wrote about him.)
The Royal Flush interview glows with Hefner’s enthusiasm for comic art, and, clearly recognizing that Bernstein is a sympathetic interviewer, Hefner allowed him to reprint the suicide note that Jack Cole wrote him shortly before killing himself in 1958. (For a portrait of the great, tortured Cole, try finding a copy of Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd’s Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stressed To Their Limits.)
These days, if anyone thinks about Playboy cartoons, they might recall the slinky, gauzy drawings of Vargas or the madcap adventures of Kurtzman and Will Elder’s wiggly Little Annie Fanny (right).
But as Royal Flush makes clear, Hefner was both an important patron of comic artists and a fan with an expert eye. I wish that, instead of wasting more videotape on The Girls Next Door, someone would make a documentary about Hefner’s place in the history of cartooning.
In the meantime, this Royal Flush interview will have to do, and does so handsomely.