The Seedy Beauty of the Soho Diva

Rian Hughes is a master of many arts and a prolific author. In addition to books of comics, collections of vernacular types and other handbooks on design, his Batman Black and White is just out. He’s doing a book called Logos for American comic-book company, Valiant; he has a catalog of the first 20 years of his font foundry, Device, showing every FontFont and custom font he has ever released (and some that he has not). Most recently, he published a book of drawings, Soho Dives and Soho Divas (Image Comics), which so fascinated me I had to ask him:

What prompted this fixated fascination with Soho’s Dives and the Divas who work them?
The project began as something to get me away from the Mac, away from drawing and designing for clients, away from deadlines. To draw for the simple fun of it. As I say (and probably more eloquently than I’m doing here) in the introduction to the book, it wasn’t intended to be a book from the outset, but having produced several hundred drawings over a couple of years, eventually Eric Stephenson at Image, who had recently published much of my comics output in the U.S. for the first time, saw them and offered to publish them as a book.

Burlesque artists make interesting models because they know how to pose – they’re elegant and posed. They have angles and lines! Unlike the lumpen, unattractive blobs we all had to draw at art college. [ref: Dan Clowes’ Art School Confidential strip]

SDSDPBHow long did you participate in their revelry?
I’m still there. Volume Two is more than half finished, should the first one actually sell and warrant a sequel. I may call it ‘Soho Dives: Encore!’ in tribute to those Paul Mariat easy listening compilation albums.

It feels like a cinematic story . . .
Maybe I’m easing my way back into comics. This book doesn’t have a linear narrative as such, though I’d be intrigued if it did suggest one to the reader. Maybe someone could retroactively write one around the images.

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 19.24.32 Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 19.24.50 Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 19.25.33 Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 19.25.58 Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 19.26.14 Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 19.26.39What were your biggest surprises in this environ?
That it’s more about the clothes, the performance, than actually getting naked. I think that nowadays, as opposed to back in the ’40s or ’50s, because it’s possible to go to any number of sleazy full-nudity lap-dancing clubs or rough East end pubs should that be your thing, modern burlesque appeals to quite a different type of audience than it did back in the day. It’s about the vintage costumes, the knowing wink to performers of the past, the signature moves. It has a hugely appreciative female audience.

Did anyone object to your picture-making?
No, the performers often ask for copies.

Did you get to know any of the divas and learn about their reasons for being in the dives?
For many, it’s a sideline to a daytime acting or dancing career, but hasn’t this always been the case? I’m sure there are as many stories as there are performers, but mostly it comes from a passion for the history and form of burlesque theatre. There’s a lively circuit of venues and promoters, so it’s a busy scene.

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 19.28.27 Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 19.28.51 Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 19.29.19 Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 19.29.37Is this a dying form – striptease, that is?
It’s not striptease as such – that’s what happens in those East end pubs and ‘gentleman’s’ clubs. Burlesque is so much more, and has been around in some form since the 20s or earlier – this is just it’s modern incarnation. I’m sure it’ll be around for a good few generations to come.

What’s next?
My Batman Black and White is just out. Logos for American comic-book company, Valiant. The design for the cover of the new issue of The Chap magazine. A catalog of the first 20 years of my font foundry, Device, that catalogues every Device font, FontFont and custom font I’ve ever released (and some that I haven’t!). And that sequel to Soho Divas. Gotta keep the pencils sharp.

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