Legendary motoring artist Denis Sire, champion of inserting fantastical pinup girls into historical situations, has died.  His work is well known to a generation who came of age in the 1980s, during the second wave of Rocker style, when Sire was already well established as an artist and musician in France, and his work was exposed worldwide in popular magazines. Sire was born in 1953 at Saint Nazaire on the Atlantic coast, and studied art in Paris at ‘L’Ecole des Arts Appliqués. His work is most familiar to 1980s readers of Playboy and Heavy Metal magazines, and I’ve had a copy of his Velocette Thruxton sketch on my office wall since the mid-1980s, and admired his outrageous mix of scantily clad femininity with hot rods, record breakers, fighter planes, and motorcycles. Meeting Sire in person last February at Rétromobile in Paris, I discovered he also possesses a unique sense of style, befitting his outré artistic ouevre.

‘Moto Femmes’. The Bonneville Salt Flats were a constant source of inspiration for Sire [Galerie Jean-Marc Thévenet]
While in Paris studying art circa 1980, Denis Sire met Frank Margerin, and they formed the band Los Crados.   His comic art simultaneously appeared regularly in Heavy Metal magazine, the first slick publication devoted to a new generation of comic artists: after the R.Crumb/ZAP comix era of the  1960s/70s, and before the current craze/praise for manga and graphic novels.  Sire’s published many books since the 1980s, and his work appears in countless editions of magazines, but you can start digging into his print publications here.

The following excellent interview appeared in 2015 on the French website, Monsieur Vintage, who regularly featured his work.  I’ve translated it from the French for our readers, as it gives the best insight to his character and story.  Vale, Denis:

Denis Sire you have 2 facets, rocker and draftsman. In a few words, who are you?  I am a dandy rock and roller and refined designer, although the profit is not always the result, but in any case I feel free.

Denis Sire in the 1980s [Denis Sire]
When did you get your motorcycle license?  In 1972. I started with a Moto Morini: it’s like a drug, once you have tasted it is difficult to do without it, because the sensations are unique, it is made with the machine. It’s awesome. I never had any Japanese except one that was offered to me by a friend; a Yamaha 900 Diversion.  A gift that allowed me to escape at the time. Later, when flirting with the future mother of my son, I told her my biker escapades, so she wanted to ban me from motorcycles.  Since that period, I ride more.

My Japanese moment was very short, I followed up with a BMW R68, Aermacchi 350 Sprint, Harley Sportster 1000 XLH, H-D Duo Glide (which I never rode), a BSA B31, a Norton 850 Commando (Fastback), an H-D Cafe Racer (cast iron Sportster), a Panther Model 100, a Triumph TRW (ex-Paris Police), BMW K 75. Then a Buell M2 Cyclone (orange fusion), for me the greatest pleasure on 2 wheels.

‘Thruxton’, the work that alterted me to Denis Sire…while I owned a Velocette Thruxton, I never found quite this accessory! [Heavy Metal]
What made you want to draw?  In my memories, I have always pretty much drawn. My father was an old biker and told me his motorcycle stories. He still had an Indian Big Chief, coming from the American surplus of the 1940s war. Passionate about mechanics, he was painting, so drawing for me was something natural. And my parents did not hinder me on that side.  Fortunately, because they understood that a classical school did not fit me.

‘LeMans, 1958’ [Galerie Jean-Marc Thévenet]
You are from Saint-Nazaire, when did you arrive in Paris?  We arrived in Paris in 1962, I was 9 years old. The arrival in Paris for me was dramatic, I lost everything leaving Saint-Nazaire; the house, the dog – a royal poodle. I was very small, after we ended up in the upper part of Rue Lepic, at number 22.  A 2 room apartment. We’d had a garden before, but I was not allowed to go out, because at the end of our garden, there was the sea.  In Paris it was another story: I went to school alone, the public school was just across the street. This is where I started to fight, because at the time there were tough kids, and there was the underworld of Montmartre, the OAS…a pretty hot atmosphere.

Later we moved to Sceaux fortunately [a suburb of Paris – ed.]. We were in a refuge city, a garden city, great. With the Parc de Sceaux in the 60s it was great, it was crazy, still old-fashioned with small farms,  the shopping street, there were still printing houses, those who printed Bibi and FricotinFeet Nickelés … I was skateboarding and cycling, and at 14 I rescued a moto Solex from a cellar. I went straight to bikes, there was no moped between the two.  I bought a Honda PC50, with 4 speeds and a horizontal motor: I though that had class. My father told me “You can ride a moto, but you have to buy them.

‘Gold Star’. A riff on Wal Handley’s epic 103mph lap on a BSA Empire Star, that founded the Gold Star line [Galerie Jean-Marc Thévenet]
The motorcycle often appears in your drawings, like cars, pin-ups. Where does your passion for ‘retro’ come from?  When I studied the Applied Arts in 1970, I also discovered Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, but they died. Then I was interested in the Stones, and I discovered Eddie Cochran in a compilation made 10 years of his death.  A gray metallic sleeve: I listened and said to myself: “It’s not bad the Rock, huh …

Later, I met Frank Margerin, who studied Applied Arts at the same time as me, and I went to flea markets with Los Crados, and we formed a good band. I was already doing comics, I decided it at age 11 because my father bought me Spirou, I always had the Spirou it gave me ideas.  Franquin was my master, I managed to meet him and interview him before his death.

To come back to the past: what interested me, came from the past. To please the ladies, it was great, we did a concert on the Place de la République in ’81. We sang the twist, it was the easiest thing to sing, I did not think I was bad in English. We cut our hair and slicked it back. At the time the news was Yes and groups like that, I did not like them, so I stayed stuck in the past. I rediscovered the Early Beatles, which is pure Rock’n’roll, and their premiers on the BBC were crazy, McCartney sings great, as on Long Tall Sally.

Captured at a comic art booth at Retromobile in 2012, another Sire drawing depicting the Bonneville Salt Flats, with a 1930s Indy Car.  Sadly, I could not afford to buy it at the time… [Paul d’Orleans]
You are someone nostalgic?  I am always saying “it was better before.” The Volkswagen Beetle, I always preferred the first model, the Chevrolet Corvette is the same, the Stingray with the Split window demented, the Mustang when we see how they have evolved it has nothing more to see. Yes, it was better before.

My father told me his stories from the war, it was fascinating, the Guérande peninsula. My grandfather Sire was an engineer at the Atlantic shipyards, he made sea tests from Normandy.  My father was a great storyteller, where I discovered the childhood of my parents, and my grandparents.

I am also interested in history, of the 1940s among others, where the French social malaise comes from all accounts. The ’30s are very interesting, the Speed ​​Twin Triumph, it dates back to the ’30s we did not invent anything better.  These motorcycles were perfect machineries: we see that when we draw them.

‘Jimmy Guthrie’ on his factory racing Norton, circa 1935 [Galerie Jean-Marc Thévenet]
Does the past have a future Denis Sire?  Yes, I think so. You have to think about turning off the computers, getting back to drawing. Today all cars are similar, because they come out of a computer that has a binary operation. I was a fan of Jim Hall and his Chaparral. In his studio in Texas, this guy was alone, although he was a descendant of an American oilman, he found himself orphaned very young. He started ragging on the cars of others saying ” I’m going to improve that and that .. “, he’s done fabulous things, it’s part of the beauty of the past.

Your drawing stroke is very fine and dynamic, how do you work?  I’m crazy, I cut my pencils to 0.5mm on the cutter to have a finesse. They are already thin and I size them more.  I can not do that anymore because of my eyes. In my Zybline and Bettie comics, I worked in India ink, extremely fine. It was wash and brush.  With Willys Wood, we were influenced by a lot of people, including Americans. With Will Eisner and The Spirit he used the same technique. I met him through Heavy Metal for the first time, with my first print publication.

Denis Sire on his Aermacchi 350, in front of an Aermacchi jet! [Denis Sire]
Your first job was with Heavy Metal?  Yes, there was Driver too, but it interested me less. I was doing comic book competitions. At Pilote, they had asked me to leave my box saying “we will write to you.” I left, I reconsidered, and went back to get my work.  Heavy Metal did not look like any other magazine, there was Charlie Hebdo monthly but there were few designers.

Willys Wood, this is a reference to the Betty Page pinup?  I discovered Betty Page through Jean-Pierre Dionnet and it was a timeless love story. She was also the muse of Dave Stevens.

In your artistic journey, if there was anything to change, what would it be?  Better to surround myself. All alone is rather hard, especially since I do not know how to sell myself.

You are edited by Zanpano Editions, is there a comics project at home?  No, no comic book, a Volume 3 of Dolls of Sire and then that’s it.

Do you work for hire?  Yes, I’m currently working with Vincent Marquis on the Continental tire brand, but that’s another approach. There are delays, more constraints, and an order remains an order.

‘Brooklands 1937’ [Galerie Jean-Marc Thévenet]
You never thought of working in design?  No, it never attracted me. I am an admirer of the work of others, but I prefer to transcribe.

Do you work on media other than paper?  No, I had proposals for cars, but I don’t see too much interest.  I want to use perspective, but they want flames: what Alexander Calder did on the BMW LeMans racer was great – it suited the car. Calder it is not figurative and it would be more in that sense that I would work.

Have you ever wanted to re-group a rock band?   We would only want to go back on stage. But hey, there was the death of Schultz [of Parabellum], which clipped my wings a little. And then, there is the alcohol, the drugs, and  you say to yourself  “What am I doing? I do with, or I do without?” When we look at the history of Rock all this is related, it’s the same for the bluesmen: they drink, their fingers are messed up, but they’re high and continue to play.  There is time to consider too, you can not do everything at once; family life, drawing, music, motorcycle. It’s a lot. When I was with Dennis Twist, I could not do comic books, because when you draw there is an immersion that has to be done.

Dennis Sire captured at Rétromobile in Paris, in 2012 [Paul d’Orléans]
Is there a drawing you regret doing? 
It’s hard to say. Like that, nothing comes to me. The regrets, they are more connected to the losses of original drawings, from the flights, and there were many. Once in the United States especially, when I worked for Heavy Metal: a poster that I had to fly to New York. I found the original for sale by one of my gallery owners, he had bought in a Comics Convention! Another time, returning from Rome, I lost a whole box on Harley-Davidson, for whom I worked. But that loss is even more stupid, more annoying.

For your Pin-Up drawings do you work with models?  I drew the Heavy Metal boss’s wife, but it depends.

Today, if we want an original Denis Sire, how do we find one? 
There are exhibitions that I do sometimes, but I do not sell live, I do not sell myself either, it is better to go through my publishing house.

What are your available collections?

‘Denis Sire’ at Nickel Chromium Editions

‘The Amazon Island’ at Albin Michel

‘Lisa Bay’ by Heritage

‘Bois Willys’ by Les Humanoides Associes

[Interview conducted on Dec. 20 2015 by Philippe Pillon for monsieurvintage.com]

‘Petrali Soul’. Joe Petrali’s record-breaking Harley-Davidson Knucklehead streamliner [Galerie Jean-Marc Thévenet]


Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
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