Apr 14, 2014

Hannes Bok: A Closeted Gay Life in Science Fiction Art

When I was in junior high, I discovered The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and thought it the best thing ever written. Was heroic fantasy always so wonderful?

As it turned out, no.  My friend Darry kept shoving novels from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series into my hands.  The titles were evocative and strange: Golden Cities, Far; The Wood Beyond the World; The Water of the Wondrous Isle; Red Moon and Black Mountain; The Broken Sword.  But the stories inside were boring, overwrought, and full of men obsessed with rescuing, winning, and wooing women.

One of the books that Darry recommended strongly was Beyond the Golden Stair (1970), by Hannes Bok.  I gave it a glance: in the first paragraph, a guy named Hibbert has a recurring dream about a beautiful woman; in the end, he wins her; and in between, there's some stuff about a golden stair, crystal masks, and a blue flamingo.  Yawn.

A few years later, I stumbled across a book, The Life and Legend of Hannes Bok (1970).  Turns out that he was an artist who illustrated over 150 covers for fantasy and science fiction magazines and paperback novels.  Some naked men in the lot, mostly being threatened by weird alien monsters, but also a lot of naked women.

I didn't think about it again for many years, until I met Emil Petaja, who published science-fiction versions of the Finnish Kalevala.  He was then in his 70s, one of the elderly gay men who had been part of the San Francisco gay scene since the days of the Black Cat Club.  But science fiction and the gay scene didn't merge easily.  In the 1960s, he and his lover had to pretend to be just roommates, even among close friends like Lin Carter, editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

His lover?

Hannes Bok!

But wait -- if Hannes Bok was gay, why all the female nudes?  And why did he fill his novel with heterosexist imagery?

Petaja stared at me.  "Are you kidding me?  Sometimes he had to draw naked women in cover art -- that's what the publisher asked for -- but his real art was all about gay men being threatened by a homophobic world."

"Ok, well...why was Beyond the Golden Stair so heterosexist?"

"Hibbert falls in love with a woman, sure, that's what sells.  But what about Burks?"

"Um...." I didn't remember the character.  It had been over 20 years since I leafed through the book and tossed it aside.

"The one who's transformed into a blue flamingo?"


He nodded triumphantly.  "Code.  He displays his true nature -- the blue flamingo -- and he becomes the Guardian of the Pool.  A position of authority.  The straights didn't get it, sure, but the gays did."

Even today, gay artists, writers, directors, and actors often present heterosexual love stories, in order to sell.  But never underestimate their ability to acknowledge same-sex desire and romance, if only in subtle, heavily coded images.