"I draw for my people," asserted Burton Clarke, exhibiting his pride in being gay. "I love to draw men. I love to draw men together. I love to look at men."
Clarke, 38, has done artwork for several gay publications, among them First Hand, Playguy, Gay Comix, and Christopher Street. His Cy Ross character, described by [the Philadelphia-based African American] art historian Steven L. Jones as a "realistically drawn, classically handsome gay Black man," first appeared in the pages of the New York Native in 1980.
A native of Plainfield, New Jersey, Clarke, who is himself black, came to New York to pursue an acting career. (He has a B.A. in theatre from Syracuse University and a M.A. in acting from Florida State University.) Clarke had previously been the first black member of the Asolo State Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, where he "could be doing Shakespeare in the afternoon and French farce in the evening." After four years, Clarke decided he "wanted to have a more stable home base." He earns his living now primarily as a medical secretary at New York University Medical Center.
As a gay man, he feels accepted by his family, of which he is the oldest of six children. However, he does not feel accepted by the black community, and as a result his work "is not wholly black-identified."
A future project he has in mind is to "lampoon" the heterosexual notion that gay men lust after them just because "they have a dick."
Charles Michael Smith: When did you realize you had artistic ability?
Burton Clarke: I've always been able to draw. I've never had formal training as an artist. I've always doodled.
There was one point when I was in junior high school that I came to a fork in the road. I could be an artist or an actor. I chose to be an actor. When I got to New York, I decided that that was not the kind of life I wanted for myself. I was tired of doing auditions and I was tired of the lack of guarantees that an acting career had. It didn't depend on how talented you were. There were too many variables. A lot of times it was like too short, too tall, too light [skinned]. They wanted someone who looked and sounded black.
One of the problems of being a black actor, as far as being hired by a company for a season, is that very often they can't employ a black actor for an entire season. You can't do [Arthur Miller's] All My Sons and have a black actor in the cast because [the audience] is going to say, "What's he doing there? At this point he wouldn't have had that kind of relationship with these people." I had to do some hard thinking when I came to New York.
CMS: Would you say there was racism involved?
BC: I wouldn't call it racism. The opportunity just wasn't there. I don't think it was a conscious effort of racism. The play, the material wasn't there. For the type of theatre that they did, the roles were not available for black actors.
CMS: As a kid what kind of comics did you like?
BC: My favorite comic of all time, and I still hunger for this guy's work, although he's drawing a different comic strip now, is Leonard Starr's On Stage. It went from 1957 to 1979. I own three pieces of original artwork, one of which I bought at auction. The other two he gave to me when I interviewed him in his Greenwich Village studio in 1970. [Clarke was an intern reporter at the Plainfield Carrier News in New Jersey for three months that year.]
Right now, he's drawing Little Orphan Annie which was originated by Harold Gray.
My own style is heavily influenced by Leonard Starr. The central figure was Mary Perkins, who was an actress and [On Stage] dealt with her adventures. To my way of thinking, it was the best drawn comic strip. It was extremely literate, at times funny, but the characters were very believably drawn, not only artistically but as far as the characters were concerned. It contained a real sense of the theatrical. One of the things I adopted into my style is that whenever the action got very, very dramatic, the darker things would get. By the time you got to the climax, there would be either very heavy black and white silhouette or very heavy-duty lighting effects. It looked much more visually interesting because you were getting into the thick of things.
CMS: How would you describe The Satyr, the superhero comic character you created?
BC: He's a nice avenging angel. Because gay people are so abused a lot of the time, the feeling is that sometimes you would really like to get back. Sometimes you wish you had super human powers to be able to stop somebody in their tracks. It's not just a gay people's dream either. It's people who are downtrodden, people who perceive themselves to be powerless and would like to be powerful, to be able to have that gift. It's not a revenge strip--the end result is positive. He [the gaybasher] accepts who he is. He has gay feelings which he was fighting against so desperately that he was striking out against other people he perceived to be gay. He has come to an acceptance of self through catharsis--fire and water, and all that other stuff. This is not to say that all people who bash gay people have that particular problem. The point is they have a problem with it. I chose to have the Satyr help them see that it's OK to be gay.
CMS: Was the fairytale concept you used in a GMHC safe sex poster your idea?
BC: No. Gay Men's Health Crisis had three strips. Two of them I did not care for. They were basic. I don't want to say stereotypical. It was the kind of thing you've seen before. The storybook script was very different, plus it would give me an opportunity to draw things that were out of the ordinary. So I chose that one instead. I don't know who wrote the script.
CMS: Beginning in the spring of 1988, you plan to work entirely as a freelance artist. What brought you to that decision?
BC: It's time for me to make use of my gift. When I was convalescing from my injury [to my left Achilles heel], I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with my future. I didn't want to spend my days as a medical secretary. I figured I had a God-given gift to draw for some reason. I thought it was time I started to use it [full-time]. I'd be much happier, much more satisfied. Working out of my home is something I've always wanted to do. However, I want to make a living at this. Gay outlets are limited. The pay scale for doing gay work is limited. Gay publications have a bad reputation for not paying good. I don't want to have to hassle with people to get money for something I've already done. So I'll have to broaden my scope. I'll have to do more mainstream things. At the same time, I'm not giving up the gay option whatsoever. If I had a choice, I would probably do more gay-oriented stuff--if I could make a living at it. I would find that ultimately more satisfying on a personal level. It speaks to my experience.
The Satyr who, represents, said Clarke, a gay sensuality, appears in the recently published Gay Comix #10 .
This article was originally published in the New York Native (August 10, 1987).