Victor Banis, The Grandfather of Gay...
By Andrew Belonsky
The gay pulp market exploded after The Why Not's publication. Banis remembers flocking to Circus Books on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles every Thursday to get the latest paperbacks. Soon, hundreds of titles were available. Banis alone published approximately 60 titles between 1966 and 1969, some for Greenleaf, some for other publishers, including Leisure Books, Medco Books, Adult Press, Sundown Reader, and Ember Library. Most of the titles were nothing special — standard plots with a fixed ratio of sex and very often filled with reprinted materials (Banis's own Man from CAMP series regularly reused text from previous installments). Like almost all authors, Banis adopted a number of pen names, some more imaginative than others: Victor Jay, Victor Samuels, Dodd V. Banson, JX Williams, John Dexter, and then there was Don Holliday, the name Banis used for his aforementioned Man from CAMP series.
A franchise of nine books and numerous dubious tie-ins — the 1968 CAMP Cookbook was a cheeky attempt at crossover marketing — the Man from CAMP franchise starred Banis's most popular and joyous character, Jackie Holmes, a y secret agent. But Holmes wasn't just a campy character, a spoofy and gay James Bond. He was a sexually confident queen who disarmed bombs while exploding gender norms. As Michael Bronski wrote in the introduction to Banis's Longhorns:
"…An effeminate (if strong and agile) gay man was a shocking twist on the accepted notions of gender roles at the time. One might have imagined a gay hero who was big and masculine—that might make some sense—but a queen?…To push the envelope even further—Jackie Holmes was a bottom. With the publication of the first book in the series, Victor Banis overthrew a century of gay stereotypes and invented something shockingly new and culturally powerful."
And unlike past gay books, with vague, opaque covers, the Man from CAMP's covers, illustrated by Robert Bonfils, made clear this queen knew how to live life.
Within a few years, the pulp paperback market was super-saturated and made dark detours into a variety of sexual genres—including rape, incest, and pederasty—all of which Banis and Kemp say came from market demand and a tireless desire to "push the envelope." "We were changing the paperback world," Banis explains. Kemp adds, "We were fucking with the establishment." (The establishment would later fuck Kemp back: He was jailed in 1970 for publishing an illustrated version of The President's 1969 Commission on Obscenity and Pornography.)
By the late-'60s, Banis had become disenchanted with the pulp industry's assemblyline set up. He decided to move on to other genres, including gothic and western romances for straight women and even a few action titles for The Executioner, the grocery store paperback spy series. As political and cultural barriers eroded after the Stonewall, Banis's works were dismissed as frivolous camp or downright trash. He may have been forgotten had it not been for gay writers such as Bronski, who celebrates Banis in his anthropological study Pulp Friction, and, just as important, Laura Baumbach, a straight female author who discovered Banis' work at the turn of the 21st century and decided it had to be saved. "The content is important," Baumbach says. "It needs to be out there. It shouldn't be out of print." Through her publishing house MLR Press (MLR stands for ManLoveRomance), Baumbach has helped revive and reprint Banis's old titles. He's even produced a few new ones, including Lola Dances, Longhorns, and The Deadly Mystery series.
Despite their flaws—including weak plots or seemingly flippant portrayals of limp-wristed queens—pulps were essential to the creation of a coherent, collective gay identity. "Pulps were the first mass representation available to generations of (embryo) gay people," author and professor Fabio Cleto writes in his introduction to Banis's memoir. They created a "mirror that enabled queers — and heterosexuals, to some extent — to literally come to terms with their own self-understanding."
They also sparked the advent of gay consumer culture. In his book Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility, Bronski writes, "Gay culture had reached a point by 1967 where it could be marketed at a profit. It had become a saleable commodity." It was a commodity that was both born from community and that shaped a community, too.
After reading Banis's works, his memoir, and speaking with him, I was left with the feeling that I was talking to an old friend. Perhaps gay men—even across a wide generational divide—do speak a common language and do have a shared sensibility, one in which we have to find silver linings in the face of childhood taunts and institutionalized discrimination.
"One of the fundamental truths of the gay experience, is that gays have more fun," explains Banis, who, at 76 and despite a stroke, remains as vibrant as always.
How much Banis himself helped shape a common gay language through his writing may be impossible to gauge. By his estimate, he had two million books in print by 1972. It's certainly possible the language and inflections used in his pulp paperbacks, some of the first mass gay media, seeped into the queer vernacular and consciousness. When I ask him if he's ever considered this, he thinks for a moment. "I hadn't thought about that, but I probably did, because I did do so many books." He pauses and then laughs that infectious laugh. "I'm the most famous writer nobody's ever heard of." Or, at the very least, the most infamous.