The Artist

Talk to Me

Read an interview with Michael Kirwan

originally published in

Playguy - October, 2001

"Just Another Cocksucker in the Alleyway of Life."



Interviewed by Jim Eigo

[When I started thinking about special features to appear in our twenty-fifth anniversary issue, I knew that one feature should focus on Michael Kirwan's work. Why? Michael has been illustrating stories for Playguy for the last decade. Over that time, he's illustrated more stories for us than anyone else. And since 1995 Michael has been the pen behind three long-running Playguy comic strips, The Roadies, The Adventures of Richie Tease, and now, Beginner's Luck. So the visual look of Playguy for the past decade (and today) is more than a little bit due to the work of Michael Kirwan. Of course none of this would matter much were Michael not one of the most important homoerotic artists working today. Michael's work on Playguy comic strips reveals a narrative talent as forceful as his awe-inspiring facility with the pen. So we decided we'd better let Michael speak for himself For the last fifteen years, I've been a fan of Michael's work, as candy-colored and quirky as sex itself--well, some sex. So I was pleased for the magazine and for myself when Michael agreed to help Playguy celebrate its silver anniversary and talk with us about his work for our magazine. For the interview, and for a decade's worth of prick-tingling, brain-teasing art in Playguy, thanks loads, Michael! --Jim Eigo, Playguy Managing Editor]




JIM: I've been a fan of your work, Michael, since I first encountered it in a few portfolios published by Stroke magazine in 1986. I still have those and many subsequent issues where you almost became Stroke's house illustrator. Every month here at Playguy when the illustrations for your Beginner's Luck comic strip arrive at the office, I can recapture a bit of the shock and delight that I first felt encountering your work. Had your erotic work appeared elsewhere before those Stroke portfolios?  


MICHAEL: Stroke was the first magazine to print my artwork. I had found a copy and was delighted to see that the magazine accepted submissions from anyone who thought his stuff was good enough. The magazine was sharp, beautiful and very "hard." The first time I saw my drawings on those pages, I was the happiest person alive. You couldn't have pried the grin off my face with a crowbar. The only other exposure I'd had up to that point was doing three party posters for mailings for the Saint [a notorious gay disco in New York City in the 1980s]. I was working at the St. Marks Baths at that time and Bruce Mailman (the owner and true gay visionary of that era) encouraged me to do them, even though we both knew I wasn't really ready.


JIM: There were a few characteristics of your work that struck me when I first encountered it: the garish color; the extravagance of the practically psychedelic visual patterning (I can still vividly see some of the wallpaper and upholstery patterns from your early illustrations); the frequent odd angles; the huge range of male types you focused on; the equally wide range of their sexual activities--with an emphasis on kink that was notable even for Stroke; your affinity for foreskin (no one does it as well). Do any of these observations seem accurate?


MICHAEL: Hmmm. The color thing. Rex, possibly the greatest living homo artist, told me that my use of color was "vulgar and nauseating." But I was reacting to all the homo-erotica that I'd ever seen. Sex is the liveliest, jumpiest, most outrageously joyful activity humans engage in. I thought all the somber, dark, black-and-white stuff made sucking dick and getting a finger stuck up your  ass seem way too serious. It's a laugh, snuffling in someone's hairy crack. It's an explosion of nerve-endings and I wanted my colorization to reflect that. As for "the huge range" of my guys, again it was a reaction to the Tom of Finland and Etienne depictions {both Tom and Etienne were pioneering, explicitly homoerotic artists}. Sex wasn't only for the leather-clad muscle studs with great smiles and horse-dicks. I didn't want to perpetuate the exclusionary attitudes prevalent in male erotica. Marginalizing an already marginalized group seemed wrong. I wanted every gay person who looked at the body of my work to see themselves reflected somewhere, to understand that being bald, or short, or Hispanic, or just bland was a contributing factor in a guy being hot. I look at every male I see on the streets, subways and bars, and wonder what special trick they do in bed, what they look like awash with sexual pleasure, how would they like to be excited. I never wanted to draw demigods--who the fuck needs them with so many real men around? And thanks for the foreskin comment. I was butchered as a baby but grew up with Puerto Ricans who have the most beautiful foreskins on earth.  


JIM: When you look at your own work, how do you see it fitting into the history of gay art and illustration? Did other gay artists influence you? If so, who? But also, how do you see your work differing from the work of most other gay artists and illustrators?  


MICHAEL: I have to say that most of the influence of other gay artists on my work is negative in nature. I look at what they're doing and wonder why their field of vision is so narrow. Why must everyone be so young and buff and beautiful? Luckily, there's a whole new breed of artists out there doing bears and men of color, and generally incorporating all the many facets of gay life into sex scenes. I hope that some of those guys might've seen something I did and that gave them the impetus to start branching out and exploring the possibilities. For positive influences, I'd have to say Paul Cadmus, Aubrey Beardsley, Norman Rockwell (don't laugh!) and Joe Leyendecker. I'd like to be remembered as someone who found dizzying pleasure in the most ordinary of situations. Someone who didn't have to grope and grasp for idealized icons, someone who got off on real people, like Blade and Domino and a host of other forgotten contributors to the gay landscape. Just another cock-sucker in the alleyway of life.  


JIM: When did you begin working for our publisher's other gay magazines, Honcho, Inches, Mandate and Torso? When did you begin working for Playguy? How did that come about?  


MICHAEL: I first brought my work to your publisher in 1987. The editors were not amused and sent me packing. Later, in 1990 or 1991, a new regime welcomed my advances, perhaps because a lot of the stuff from Stroke had been circulating and gaining minor cult status. (I'm still approached in bars by men who recall specific details from those drawings.) I've drawn for Mandate, Torso, Inches and occasionally Honcho--as well as Playguy--for the last decade. I even had a regular column in Honcho called "Rant" that I wrote under a pseudonym. ["Lefty Boylan's" Rant appeared in Honcho for the duration of 1996.]  


I first began drawing comic strips with my older brother when I was about seven and he was eight. We filled up composition books with lurid stories, me sketching the left hand of the panel and him doing the right side. I was better at depicting women so that was my job. My brother did all the male characters (all of whom resembled John Lennon). As I got better he became just the "idea man" and I did all the cartooning. The plotlines eventually turned more demented as we got older--you know how that goes. When one of my best buddies got sent off to boarding school, I began sending him feverish comics featuring superheroes with dubious powers, getting stripped more often than actually saving the world. Years would pass before I was asked to do another serialized strip.  


JIM: You've done three strips for Playguy. The Roadies ran for two years, from October 1995 through September 1997. Can you tell us anything about it?


MICHAEL: I liked The Roadies a lot. It had four young guys exploring their sexuality and their friendship as they journeyed about. Originally they were supposed to be musicians, but I really knew zip about music and was too lazy to draw instruments and amplifiers. Besides, I wanted to concentrate on the personal relationships among four guys growing up on the road. I loved the story line, but because of financial and space concerns it was never more than two pages per issue and I had to have at least one sex scene each couple of pages. After a long haul I was informed that the strip was meandering, reader interest had waned and I should wrap it up.  


JIM: Your strip The Adventures of Richie Tease ran in Playguy from October 1997 through January 1999. It ended rather abruptly, with the hero winning a Playguy butt contest at a strip club. Were there episodes that were never printed?  


MICHAEL: Richie Tease was foisted on me. I did not want to do a single character who would have sex in each installment. A young stupid guy getting fucked every month is not hot; I thought the concept was dated, even irresponsible. I tried building up a stable of characters but the two-page spread was very restrictive and I came to dread each page. I ended it as soon as I could, offering the "prize asshole" as my last editorial comment on the series.  


[Despite Michael's memories of the strip, just this week a Playguy reader from the UK told us in an e-mail of the incredible crush he had on Richie, and how much the strip meant to him so the strip had its loyal fans.]  


JIM: Have you done strips for other mags? For venues other than mags?  


MICHAEL: While these two Playguy sagas ran I also had a straight strip called Sugah in Sugah magazine. It was a four-page job and featured a larcenous whore and her sexual adventures. Sugah was great and her friends, relatives and lovers were hilarious. Al Goldstein of Screw magazine called the comic offensive, but I got hundreds of complimentary letters and my black friends thought it was wonderful.  


JIM: Your first two strips for Playguy were monthly segments of a continuous narrative. Your current long-running strip, Beginner's Luck, began in July 1999 and continues to this day. It differs from your earlier strips (and from most strips) because there's no continuing cast of characters and there's so much text.  


MICHAEL: Now I'm doing Beginner's Luck as my only comic. I love being able to do new personalities in different circumstances in each episode. It gives me the chance to continue with my all-inclusive pageant and address a wide variety of situations. This is the forum that I wanted after The Roadies bit the dust and I have dozens of scenarios already mapped out in my head. Beginner's Luck is a pleasure to draw.  


JIM: Having worked earlier in your career for Stroke, a magazine that was very "hard," was it difficult to adjust to the demands of a "softer" newsstand mag, one that is subject to different standards? Is this a continuing source of frustration? You're amazingly inventive in making a strip hot despite the proscriptions. What you depict winds up "feeling" like penetration even when none is there. Do you feel that working within Playguy's understandable limits sometimes spurs creativity?


MICHAEL: I don't understand the prohibitions on bodily fluids and penetration. Ejaculate is the result of a natural human function. Who finds them offensive and why? It's not like we're trying to trick anybody. If someone buys Playguy, he's certainly aware that the pages aren't going to be filled with gardening tips. I'm outraged that we as an industry are forced to mask our activities as if they're somehow shameful. There's nothing but beauty in a mouthful of spurting cock. If distributors and outlets balk at the content, then homos will just have to create our own means of disseminating the material and tell the critics to go fuck themselves. That said, I usually take the restrictions as a challenge to get the viewer hard despite being unable to go the full monty. I push and prod the boundaries as much as I can, implying and suggesting what the next frame would hold if it were animation. I have to engage the onlooker, draw him in and make him an accomplice to the scene. I try to make it real enough so he can see in his head the cock nudged forward that last quarter-inch, know which finger is going to start tapping on that eager asshole to gain entry. There's sometimes a drawing that screams at me to put a slippery strand dangling from a polished dick-head, but I refrain.  


JIM: Is there anything else about you or your work for Playguy that you'd like our readers to know?  


MICHAEL: Having an audience is important to me. I want to be able to connect with the guys everywhere and share our experiences. It's important for us to have a common mythology. We should have a place where gay men can go and feel encompassed and comfortable and Playguy serves that purpose for thousands of guys who feel stranded or alone. I don't draw for the money. (Speaking of which, I haven't gotten a raise in ten years; can you do something about that?) I draw in order to applaud and thank every man who's ever been on his knees in the dark. I just hope every fag at some time in his life can gaze at one of my illustrations and feel the kick of recognition  and think, "Hot damn! That's exactly what it was like."  


{Fans of Michael's work will want to drop by his new Web site, Michael tells us that: "Everyone will be able to revisit all their favorite PLAYGUY illustrations and comix with commentary and after-the-fact add-ons." Sounds positively, uh, juicy.}  


Michael Kirwan's illustrations, art, comics, and essays

 appeared in over 95 issues of Playguy from 1990 - 2004.


The Artist

Talk to Me



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