Fans of Royal Flush magazine have had to wait more than a year for the sixth installment of the comics- and interview-packed independent arts publication—a wait that was unexpectedly extended even longer when retailers including Borders, Barnes & Noble, Hot Topic and Hastings refused to carry the magazine without poly-bags, on account of the potentially "offensive" material within. The culprit is a "Plaything of the Month" centerfold illustration by renowned comics artist Paul Pope, a homage to the legacy of the issue's cover subject, Hugh Hefner.
"I grew up in a household that had National Lampoon magazine, and even in the early '70s there were photos of boobs and crotches, I mean photos—this is an illustration of a nipple," says Royal Flush editor/publisher Josh Bernstein. "Yes the women are naked, but there are no sex acts. My mother is the copy editor of the magazine, and she said 'I don't get it, you can't even see anything! Paul just drew a bunch of bush.' And I'm like 'ugh, Mom, don't ever use that phrase again.'" Bernstein says he had to pay several thousand unbudgeted dollars to shrink-wrap every issue for the chain stores, and delay the national release by a week to Nov. 3. A group of contributing artists are discussing a benefit to help offset the expense. "I said to the distributor, 'really, what year is this?' Any kid can go into the Metropolitan Museum and see this stuff—I'm sure a kid could type anything into Google and see things 80 billion-times worse than this. In 2009 we're still stressing about just drawings."
Such snafus can be the cost, however, of a unique outlet like Royal Flush, which spotlights the illustrations and strips of dozens of cartoonists every year, and seeks out features and interviews that tie art, music and entertainment together in revelatory ways. The cover story on Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner began as an examination of his short-lived magazine Trump, a full-color rival to Mad Magazine launched in 1957—but it became much more.
"I knew [Hefner] was a comics fan, but he started talking about remembering the day his brother brought home Action #1," says Bernstein. "He said at that moment he started creating his own characters like Rock Man, Water Man, Cement Man—they weren't the best. But when he was a teenager, a girl turned him down for a dance, and he was so upset that he wanted to reinvent himself. So he created this character named Hef who was a cooler version of himself—all the characters in the comic were based on his friends, and in the comic he knew how to jitterbug really well, he dressed cooler, he could get any girl—and he said that basically everything he envisioned in this comic character, he eventually evolved into." The strips, called "School Days", and later "GI Days" when Hefner fought in WWII, were in many ways revolutionary. "I said to him, 'who was doing autobiographical comics in the '40s?'" says Bernstein. "'You were doing this at least 30 years before I can think of anyone.'" One of his last comics in 1951 was about Hefner starting his own magazine—and in 1952, Playboy was born.
Another feature in Royal Flush 6, written by Jeff Newelt, is the little-known story of the friendship between comics legend Jack Kirby and musician Frank Zappa. Bernstein and Newelt traced a photo of the two men to the original photographer, who explained how, as a fan of both, he managed to introduce them and spark a friendship. "In the course of the research, I also learned that the first rock and roll ad ever in a comic book was from [Zappa's Band] the Mothers of Invention, who put an ad for their record in Fantastic Four #72 in March 1968," says Bernstein. The article includes an in-depth interview with Ahmet Zappa about his recollections of his father's relationship with Kirby, and an illustration of “Frank Zappa as one of Jack Kirby’s New Gods” by Rick Veitch.
In a magazine publishing industry that is abandoning print for the web, a visually driven publication like Royal Flush is evidence that ink on paper still matters. Not that it's a moneymaker—"I wish it was even a money breaker-evener," says Bernstein, who works full-time as Revolver magazine's art director and started Royal Flush in the '90s as a Xeroxed 'zine with eight friends from college, most of whom still contribute to every issue. "But you know, people spend their money on mortgages and drugs and dumb things all the time. I spend my money on printing magazines, that's my addiction. Knowing that so many of my friends have gotten work in magazines or as illustrators because of their work for the magazine makes it more than worth it."
The new issue—a reminder of a time when magazine were still a viable outlet for cartoonists—the magazine's regular line-up of comic strips and humor features. Artists and creators with work in the issue include Ryan Dunlavey, Peter Kuper, Danny Hellman, Harvey Pekar, Harlan P. Cress and Sean Pryor, among many others. The issue is available at book, art and comics retailers, as well as at Amazon.com, Target.com, and Royalflushmagazine.com.