The French comic book artist and writer Alex Varenne is best known for his erotic works, but that is not how he started out. He grew up in Saint-Germain-au-Mont-d’Or, a western suburb of the southern French city of Lyon. He showed an early aptitude for drawing, but to earn a living he chose to become an art teacher, as did his brother Daniel. He studied at the École Claude Bernard in Paris, graduating in 1962 then practising as an art teacher for twenty-five years, first in Provins, then in Martinique at the École Victor Schoelcher, and finally in Evreux. He stopped teaching when he could no longer reconcile it with his comics work.
Varenne became interested in comics in 1968, a time when new authors and magazines were becoming very popular, but it was not until 1979 that he finally broke into the comics market, creating with his brother, who wrote the text, Ardeur (Ardour), a post-apocalyptic science fiction series, which was published in Charlie Mensuel. Ardeur, which despite its title contained very little by way of sex, continued in six extended episodes until 1989.
His shift towards more erotic works came from a suggestion by Georges Wolinski, the then editor of Charlie Mensuel, a great lover of the female body: ‘It was Wolinski who advised me to try my hand at the erotic genre,’ explained Varenne, ‘because he thought I drew women very well. It also fit perfectly with that stage in my life. My first erotic volume, Carré noir sur dames blanches (Black Square on White Queens), was released in 1984, and immediately did very well.’
While continuing to work for Charlie Mensuel, Varenne also drew erotic stories for L’Écho des Savanes, including Erma Jaguar, later published in three volumes (1988–92), Corps à corps (Body to Body, 1987), Les larmes du sexe (The Tears of Sex, 1989), Amours fous (Mad Loves, 1991), and the portfolios Erotic Opera (1986), Fragments érotiques (1993), and Le goût des femmes (The Taste of Women, 2002). Most were published by Albin Michel, and some by Éditions Zanpano; Erma Jaguar was published in English by Catalan Communications in the United States.
For the last decades of his life, Alex Varenne lived and worked in a studio apartment in Paris; he never married or had children, but enjoyed the company of a succession of ‘muses’, including cabaret dancer Barbara Amorosa, who in the introduction to the posthumous collection of Varenne’s work Barbara et les nouvelles Vénus (Barbara and the new Venuses, Zanpano, 2021), writes ‘Alex left us shortly after completing the creation of this comic. He drew until the end, making his life a work of art. You will find, reading between the lines and the drawings, the most intimate and authentic portrait of Alex, the man and the artist, but also an expression of his profound love for all women.’ His trademark pen and ink style, latterly enhanced with bright colour, makes his work instantly recognisable. Some may find it a little repetitive and predictable, but there is no doubt that he loved his subject matter.