Trigan Empire by Oliver Frey
'More Adventures of the Trigan Empire' (Look and Learn , 18 September 1976).

Oliver Frey was a Swiss-British comic artist, illustrator and poster designer. Working for children's magazine publishers like IPC and DC Thomson during the 1970s and 1980s, he drew installments of the 'War Picture Library', briefly succeeded Don Lawrence on the dystopian 'Trigan Empire' saga and worked on the classic aviation comic 'Dan Dare'. As house illustrator of the influential computer and video game magazine Crash (1984-1991), he designed several memorable, sometimes controversially risqué covers. The magazine also featured his sci-fi comic 'Terminal Man' (1984), scripted by Kelvin Gosnell. Frey was additionally a notable creator of gay erotic comics, published in HIM Magazine and the 'Meatmen' comic book series. With his husband Roger Kean as scriptwriter, he drew the wild adventures of the seductive hunk 'Rogue' (1976-1983), the more realistic but short-lived gay romance story 'The Street' (1982) and the titillating 'Bike Boy'. Frey also illustrated several educational-historical books by Kean, of which the 'The Complete Chronicle of the Emperors of Rome' (2005) and 'Living in the Ancient World' (2007-2008) series are the best known. Frey and Kean were also driving forces behind the publishing companies Newsfield Publications, Thalamus and Reckless Books.


'The Street'.

Early life
Oliver Frey was born in 1948 in Zürich, Switzerland. His parents came from the Italian-speaking canton Ticino, so his native tongue was Italian. But since Switzerland is a quadrilingual county, he also spoke German fluently. Frey's great-grandfather was a portrait and landscape painter who later spent many years in the United States. In 1956, the Frey family also moved abroad, in their case to the United Kingdom. During their flight there, the seven-year old boy was given a badge depicting comic character 'Dan Dare' (created by Frank Hampson). The child had no idea who Dan Dare was, but once they checked into their hotel in England, he found issues of Eagle Magazine underneath the cushions of the sofa. He instantly recognized 'Dan Dare', started reading and became a lifelong fan of the series. Going to school in Wembley, young Frey became even more hooked on the comic, since all his classmates read Eagle. He started copying the drawings and considered becoming a comic artist himself. Among his graphic influences were painter Eugène Délacroix, and the comic artists Hal Foster, Frank Hampson, Frank Humphris and especially Frank Bellamy.

A few years later, his family moved back to Switzerland. By now, Frey had enough knowledge of the English language to enroll in the Famous Artists School, an American correspondence course with its European homebase in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Students received drawing lessons by mail, and then had to mail their graphic "homework" back to have it inspected and corrected. Later in life, Frey credited Famous Artists as the best learning school he could ever imagine. As a teenager, he already tried to apply for jobs at various comic magazines, including Eagle, but all rejected him. As a thirteen-year old, he did received an encouraging reply from Don Lawrence, at the time the artist of 'The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire' for Look and Learn magazine.


Cover illustrations for War Picture Library. 

After fulfilling his military service with the Signals Division in the high Alps, Frey studied at the University of Bern, but eventually dropped out. In January 1969 he moved back to the United Kingdom, where he stayed the rest of his life. At the time he wanted to become a movie director and therefore studied at the London Film School. As a teenager, he had made two amateur movies with a Super-8 camera, starring his sister and brother. Inspired by the 'James Bond' film franchise - the main character was the Swiss super-spy Apple-Apple 7 James Tell - the films were popular enough to receive a limited screening. Frey also designed the film posters. Due to union regulations, his movie career never got off the ground. At Film School he did however meet fellow student Roger Kean, who became both his life companion and business partner. In 1973, Frey and Kean settled in Highgate, North London. Nine years later, they moved again, this time to the medieval town Ludlow in the Shropshire Hills.

Early graphic career
To earn income, Frey tried to find work as a freelance illustrator. Eventually he applied with publishing company Fleetway, where editor E.J. Bensberg hired him to work on the 'War Picture Library' comic book series. These were action-packed adventure comics about heroic soldiers, typically set during the Second World War. As a try-out Frey was asked to illustrate the first five pages of a comic script. His draft was accepted and soon he was allowed to finish the rest of the story. Throughout the first half of the 1970s, Frey illustrated dozens of stories and painted several covers for the War Picture Library. In addition, Frey and Kean did book packaging, graphic design and freelance writing for various magazines. Frey also livened up covers for novels published by Souvenir Press, children's books by Hamlyn, Usborne and Oxford University Press, video inlay jackets and lollipop wrappers for Walls.

In 1978, the big-budget Hollywood adaptation of 'Superman' was released in theaters, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's classic superhero. Oliver Frey provided artwork to the pre-title sequence, which featured comic book drawings done in a style mimicking 1930s comics. On his website, Oliver Frey recalled being thrilled to see his imagery on the big screen, even if it only lasted 15 seconds.


SOS International in Speed & Power magazine #68 (4 July 1975).

Trigan Empire
Between 1973 and 1984, and then again in the early 1990s, Frey worked through an agent for the comics and children's magazine publishers IPC and DC Thomson. In the 1970s, his art appeared regularly in IPC's educational weekly Look and Learn. Besides editorial illustrations (mainly historical), he also had a stint on Look and Learn's hit comic feature 'The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire' (1976-1977), originally scripted by Mike Butterworth and drawn by Don Lawrence. Set on a planet modelled after civilizations from Antiquity, this dystopian series enthralled readers since its 1965 debut. Don Lawrence had been the main artist since 1973, with fill-in episodes by Ron Embleton, Miguel Quesada and Philip Corke. By 1976, Lawrence demanded a highter payment after finding out that 'Trigan Empire' was serialized in several European magazines without his knowledge. When his editors refused his request, he left the series and Frey was appointed his successor.

In a 2010 interview with comic historian Paul Gravett, Oliver Frey admitted that he was never that interested in 'Trigan Empire'. Still, he saw the job as a career opportunity and went about copying Don Lawrence's style as good as he possibly could. Since every panel of 'Trigan Empire' was lavishly painted, it took a long time to finish one page. Eventually, Frey moved more into his own graphic style, which the editors and readers accepted. But to Frey drawing the series remained a tedious undertaking, so in 1977 he passed the pencil to another artist, Gerry Wood. Wood continued 'Trigan Empire' until Look and Learn's final issue in 1982.

SOS International
For Look and Learn's short-lived sister magazine Speed & Power (1974-1975), Oliver Frey additionally drew an aviation series titled 'SOS International', loosely inspired by Gerry Anderson's TV puppet series 'Thunderbirds'.


'Dan Dare' in Eagle #90 (December 1983).

Dan Dare
On 7 March 1982, publisher IPC relaunched its popular sci-fi comic weekly of the 1950s and 1960s, Eagle. Just like in the original version, the main comic feature was about the "Pilot of the Future" Dan Dare. The new Dan Dare was however not the original - as created in 1950 by Frank Hampson - but his great-great-great-grandson, propelling the feature further into the future. Written by Pat Mills and John Wagner, the revamped feature was initially drawn by Gerry Embleton and Oliver Frey, with Frey drawing two episodes of the first serial 'Return of the Mekon' (1982), the eight-part story known as 'The Timads' (1983) and some stories for specials and the 1984 Eagle Annual. Eventually, Ian Kennedy became the feature's lead artist, who was in turn succeeded by Carlos Cruz and John Gillatt until in 1989 the original Dan Dare returned, by then drawn by Keith Watson.


Poster art for a theme night in the Heaven nightclub.

Gay erotic comics
Still in the 1970s, Frey also found his niche in creating gay comics. Between 1975 and 1983, he drew several erotic comics and illustrations for gay magazines like HIM Magazine, Man-to-Mane and After Lunch. Frey was motivated to venture into gay comics when buying a copy of Playguy in 1975 and reading their comic strip. He felt he could do a better job and drew a three-page erotic story titled 'The Hitchhiker'. After submitting it to Playguy's publishing company Incognito, they ran it in the magazine's next issue. After that, Oliver Frey was commissioned to do a monthly erotic comic for Playguy, but both the publisher and the magazine disappeared from the market before publication could begin.

Through former Incognito editor Alan Purnell, Frey then found a new home in another monthly gay magazine, HIM International. In 1978, Oliver Frey, Roger Kean and Alan Purnell founded Street Level Ltd., a publishing imprint for HIM magazine, along with other gay porn titles, like Teenage Dreams, Hot Dog and the HIM Gay Library series (1980-1982). In December 1979, the team also opened the London gay nightclub Heaven, for which Frey often designed the theme night posters. They attracted a notable celebrity fan in pop art painter David Hockney, who often asked to keep copies of the posters aside for his personal collection. Frey also designed several ads and brochures for the dating service Gay Way.


'Rogue'.

Rogue
For HIM Magazine, Frey launched the comic series 'Rogue' (1976-1983), about a muscular, self-conscious gay young adult who has a reputation for being a gentleman killer, figure-of-speech. Few men can resist his seductive tactics and overall charm. Frey acknowledged the 'James Bond' influence on Rogue; both are irresistible Casanovas who nevertheless can come across as sexually intimidating and their conquests as near-rape. But since Frey used humor and far-fetched scenarios, his audience took it all in good fun. In 2011, the 'Rogue' comic was collected in book format by the Bruno Gmünder Group as 'Hot For Boys: The Sexy Adventures of Rogue'. Despite being labeled a "porn comic", 'Rogue' had to follow the strict guidelines of the British censor board, meaning the strips couldn't depict erections, penetrations or oral sex. Sex scenes are therefore often left to the readers' imagination, with characters being shown in suggestive poses. Nevertheless, some raunchy images did pass the censors.

The Street
In 1981, under the British anti-obscenity laws, police forces organized a raid at the Street Level headquarters. They confiscated their entire pornographic stock and had it destroyed. Although Kean and Frey weren't sentenced to prison, the case brought them into financial trouble. They had to sell all their gay magazine titles to Millivres (nowadays Millivres-Prowler), publisher of the rival gay magazine Zipper. Frey's hit comic 'Rogue' made a return in the new HIM Magazine, albeit as a "cleaner" spin-off serial, titled 'The Street' (1982).

'The Street' (1982) features a young adult, Gareth, whose luggage is stolen at the station. He meets Rogue, of whom he knows is a sly seducer. Since he has no other place to stay, Gareth spends the night at the player's house. Rogue lusts after a one-night stand, but when Gareth tells him he is reluctant, Rogue respects his opinion. That night both sleep in separate rooms, but it does make Rogue wonder whether his sex-obsessed quests are really all he wants from life. The plot thickens when some of Rogue's friends also become attracted to Gareth. Contrary to the original 'Rogue' strip, 'The Street' was notable for being more grounded in realistic situations, comparable to a TV soap opera like 'Coronation Street'. Trying to create a character-driven look at gay life, Frey drew 'The Street' for nine months, after which it was cancelled due to changes in the editorial board. HIM magazine was later retitled Gay Times.

Bikeboy by Zack
'Bikeboy'.

Zack comics
Inspired by the gay liberation movement, Frey was determined to publish his gay erotic comics under his own name. During the 1980s however, his work became more hardcore while he was also running a mainstream publishing company with publications aimed at teenage boys. To separate these two activities, he began using the pseudonym Zack, and briefly also the pen name Clint for some comics made for a Scandinavian publisher. Various gay comics by Zack were included in the American 'Meatmen' comic book anthology series (1986-2004), published by Leyland Publications. His contributions included the recurring feature 'Bike Boy', about a cute attractive biker, along with stand-alone porn stories like 'Message to the Emperor', 'Slaves to Lust' and 'Teasy Meat'. In 2010, four of Zack's Meatmen stories were compiled into the book 'Bike Boy', published by Bruno Gmünder.


Game map for CRASH #31.

CRASH and other computer magazines
In 1984, Roger Kean and Oliver Frey ventured into another market when they teamed up with the latter's brother, Franco Frey. In February 1984, the team founded the monthly computer magazine CRASH, which they published through their Newsfield Publications imprint. The magazine's name was inspired by J.G. Ballard's classic 1973 sexual fetishism novel, 'Crash'. The magazine came about when Franco made a deal with a German firm that wanted to import games software for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer. Initially, the trio started a mail-order company, Crash Micro Games Action, to sell Sinclair Spectrum computer games. Frey illustrated their catalogue, which eventually became an actual magazine. CRASH focused on the latest news and releases in the computer, arcade and video game industry. Roger Kean served as its chief editor until August 1985. Kean and the Frey Brothers decided to let children and teenagers test the latest models and releases and give their reviews. By doing this they were completely in tune with their target audience. While CRASH featured photographs and computer screenshots, Frey also livened up the cover of each issue. When he didn't directly visualize particular electronic devices, he depicted characters and scenes from video games. Some were presented as two-page illustrations, suitable to use as posters. In the 1980s and 1990s, most video games still had one-dimensional or two-dimensional graphics, so Frey's three-dimensional illustrations were veritable eye-catchers. Other illustrators contributing to CRASH magazine were Ian Craig, Mel Croucher (creator of the 'Tamara Knight' comic) and John Richardson (creator of the 'Lunar Jetman' comic).


Two controversial cover illustrations for CRASH magazine by Oliver Frey (August 1986 and July 1987).

Nevertheless, Frey's artwork regularly caused controversy for being too violent or sexually suggestive. His cover for the 18th issue (July 1985) promoted the sword & sorcery arcade game 'Dun Darach', by depicting a swordswoman in bikini posing next to a kneeled, chained, bare-breasted man. Some storekeepers felt this S&M bondage scene was not suitable for youngsters and kept the issue out of view by putting it on a higher shelf. Another controversial cover was issue #31 (August 1986), on which staff writer Hannah Smith was caricatured. The issue promoted her tips on how to defeat aliens in certain games. The illustration depicts Smith in a bikini, mudwrestling with a grotesque monster. Finally, the cover of issue #41 (June 1987) caused concern for showing a muscular swordsman from the game 'Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior', covered in blood and holding a head in his hand. Even though on closer inspection the head was not decapitated, it did give this first impression to passersby. As a result, this violent cover was also kept from view by concerned store owners. Retailer WH Smith even wrote them a letter of complaint, threatening to remove the issue after receiving numerous parental complaints. When issue #41 became one of CRASH's best-selling titles, WH Smith changed its tune and merely warned them to "not do it again". In the end, only one cover was ever rejected. When CRASH featured Eric the Pie and promoted the horror game 'Frighteners', the illustration was deemed too gruesome and quickly had to be replaced with a less scary image.


'The Terminal Man' (CRASH, May 1987).

CRASH also had a comic feature, 'The Terminal Man' (1984) scripted by Kelvin Gosnell and drawn by Frey. The story revolved around a passenger spaceship, Arcadia, which crashed on a distant planet. The surviving passengers, Officer Cross and his female assistant with psychic powers, Jin Kimas, try to find a way to return to Earth. Cross is so injured by the accident that he has to be re-created as a computer-generated image. However, he and Jin are captured by the local tyrant Vilgarre, who rules in the city Kebwob. Vilgarre orders them to rebuild their spaceship, but only so he can start an intergalactic invasion. It's the start of a long struggle to defeat the despot and get everybody safely back to Earth. The 'Terminal Man' series was later reprinted in Zzap!64 magazine. In 1988, 'The Terminal Man' was also made available in comic book format, reprinted in 2012 by Reckless Books.

Frey also provided cover and spot illustrations for CRASH's sister magazines Zzap!64 and Amtix (1985-1987). Zzap!64 focused on Commodore games, while Amtix concentrated on Amstrad computer software. Between July 1988 and October 1991, Frey's art also adorned the short horror stories published in Newsfield's horror, fantasy and science fiction magazine Fear. Among Newsfield's other, short-lived special interest magazines were LM (1986-1987), The Games Machine (1987-1990), Movie - The Video Magazine (1988), Prepress with the Macintosh (1989-1991), Complete Computer Entertainment Guide (1989-1990) and Games Master International (1990). In 1991, the competition from other computer magazines became too strong and Crash and Zzap!64 were sold to Europress, after which they quietly petered out.


Horror story illustrations by Oliver Frey for the July/August 1988 issue of Fear magazine.

Thalamus Publishing/Reckless Books
By the mid-1990s, Kean and the Frey Brothers changed their business endeavors. Instead of magazines, they started writing, illustrating and editing educational books for companies like Carlton, Virgin and Topps-Merlin. Roger Kean wrote various educational books about civilizations from Antiquity, collected under the 'Living in the Ancient World' title, published by Chelsea House Publications. Frey co-edited and livened up their pages with his artwork. Among the volumes were 'Living in Ancient Mesopotamia' (2007), 'Living in Ancient Egypt' (2008), 'Living in Early China and Japan' (co-written by Norman Bancroft Hunt, 2008), 'Living in Ancient Greece' (2008) and 'Living in Ancient Rome' (2008).

Kean and Frey also founded new publishing companies, Thalamus Publishing (2000-2009) in Shropshire, and Reckless Books in Ludlow. They made the ambitious 'The Complete Chronicle of the Emperors of Rome, Vol. 1 and 2.' (Thalamus Publishing, 2005, reprinted in 2012) and 'Forgotten Power: Byzantium: Bulwark of Christianity' (Reckless Books, 2006, reprinted in 2013). In 2009, 'A New History of the Roman Emperors' was released, again co-created by Kean and Frey. For their book about the Roman Emperors, Oliver provided 380 portraits of men, women and children, all drawn from original busts or coins that depicted these people. Much of the artwork was done with aid from his Apple Mac computer. Thalamus went bankrupt in 2009.

Graphic contributions
Frey co-illustrated Erik Esdoorn's 'Usborne Guide for the Supernatural World: Vampires, Ghosts and Mysterious Powers' (1979). He also livened up the pages of Chris Wilkins' and Roger Kean's 'Ocean – The History' (Fizzy Pop Digital, 2014), a book about video game company Ocean Software. Kean and Frey also worked on the 3-D illustration books '3-D Fun', '3-D Horror' (both by World Publications, 1995), '3-D Puzzles' (World Publications, 1996) and '3-D Erotic' (Éditions Solar, 1995).

Death and legacy
In 2022, Oliver Frey died at age 74. He is survived by his husband Roger Kean. Frey's comic series 'The Street' was cited as a huge inspiration on the British TV series 'Queer As Folk' (1999-2000) by the show's creator Russell T. Davies. For those interested in Frey's life and art, Roger Kean's book 'The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey' (Thalamus Books, 2006) is highly recommended.


Oliver Frey.

www.oliverfreyart.com

www.crashonline.org.uk

www.zack-art.com

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