Naked Ambition

Peddling smut is this young man's version of the American Dream

When Mike Marquez's ex-girlfriend found out what he's been doing with himself for the past year, she called him what many upstanding young entrepreneurs would take to be a nasty name. But given what he had in fact been doing with himself for the past year, Mike had to agree, and had the epithet printed beneath his name on a fresh batch of business cards. The paper rectangles announce him this way: "Mike Marquez, Smut Peddler."

Marquez is sitting in a booth near the back of Montrose Boulevard's late-night Mexican restaurant La Jaliscience with a stack of free, local "adult" magazines fanned out across the table in front of him. Among them are a half-dozen issues of Jack Cash, the masthead of which identifies Marquez as Assistant Editor, Photo Editor, Design & Layout, and Contributor, neglecting to mention that he is the CEO, as it were, of the publishing entity Jack Cash Corporation, such as it is, and also the guy who delivers 20,000 copies of his freebie naked-girl rag to distribution points across the city in a borrowed truck, since he's got no car of his own.

He looks sort of like what you might think a smut peddler might look like -- vaguely sinister arch to his eyebrows, some wicked body piercings at the corners of his mouth, rogue beard, twinkling eyes. But in the popular imagination, the smut peddler is older, on the avuncular side, and Mike Marquez is only 30. And there's a thoroughly non-sinister sweetness to Marquez's demeanor that, in terms of Boogie Nights, recalls Mark Wahlberg's self-help striving far more than Burt Reynolds's cynical exploitation.

Marquez was just 29 when he had one of those self-preservationist epiphanies lots of people have around that time: "I decided it was time to get off my ass and do something. I didn't want to be a bartender the rest of my life. I didn't want to go back in the club scene." He'd had plenty of experience with both, over the years, at the Vatican, the Abyss, the Unicorn and Emo's, where he still tends, and as a ladder-climber through the ranks of the now-defunct but once-mighty TAB Concerts.

True: Most adulthood breakthroughs don't include embarking on a career in publishing photographs of nude women. But Marquez already had publishing on his life's resume, having had a hand in putting together the local music 'zines Riveted and Pile. As for the naked ladies portion of the career equation, nobody spends much time at Emo's, behind the bar or in front of it, without learning to appreciate the charms of the city's strippers.

And so with a Macintosh, a few good friends and a stray copy of the First Amendment, Marquez and editor Joseph Claytor set out to plug a previously unplugged market niche.

If you think that market niche is free local-distribution magazines featuring full-frontal female nudity, then you're the kind of person for whom Houston's new Sexually Oriented Business ordinance is a pointless abstraction -- you just don't travel in those circles. There are already several such out there, including the weekly statewide newsprint SunDown, Adult Scene, whose February/March issue claims monthly publication, but whose published phone number does not reflect an active business, and the current king-of-the-monthly-hill Scandalous Quest, whose mammoth June issue boasts 148 pages of advertisements for all-nude revues, modeling studios, "stress" clinics, outcall and escort services, lingerie and kink emporiums, dungeons and dominatrixes, phone-sex lines, Viagra, fetish boutiques, etc., including any number of discount coupons and the stray editorial column and syndicated review.

Within this sensory overload, Marquez sees his opportunity to stand out with original editorial content, better graphics and an attitude slanted toward the porn consumers of his very own Generation X.

Writer Damon O'Banion, formerly of punk-rock magazine Thora-Zine, was brought on to write the monthly letter from "Jack Cash," a character invention as unlike Hefner's Playboy Man as can be. "He's supposed to be this kind of Euro-trash guy, kind of slimy, gold chains, speaks in broken English, makes fun of stuff," says Marquez. Cash is the cornerstone of a magazine that hopes to find its way on the strength of independent video reviews, independent interviews with porn stars and covers chosen editorially instead of sold to advertisers. Marquez did once sell a cover, for issue number five, "but she was an attractive girl," he says, someone he might have put on the cover anyway, so it wasn't so bad.

"The difference between my magazine and their magazines is, people keep mine. Mine's something you can read."

Whether people will actually read Jack Cash, and whether or not they'll find it funny, are matters best left to individual taste, but it should be noted that the magazine's claim to pornography lies mostly in its foul-mouthed video reviews. The photos are reasonably tame, solo women, certainly no penetration (it being illegal to freely distribute such). And an editorial personality emerges in regular features like "Men in the Field" (a traveling review of topless bars), porn reviews penned by women and a review of "Printed Matters" that in the most recent issue tackled the unlikely pairing of Sex Tips for a Straight Woman from a Gay Man and cultish gutter poet Charles Bukowski's posthumous The Captain Is Out to Lunch and Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship.

But it's sex that moves copies off the stacks at the 18-and-over bookstores and pipe shops and nightclubs where it's distributed, and this isn't a particularly good time to be joining the sex game in Houston. The recently enacted SOB ordinance has been bad for sexually oriented businesses, according to sexually oriented businesses. The standard line is that Houston is losing dancers, not to mention convention business, to Dallas and Atlanta, even Austin, as word spreads about Houston's new three-foot rule and dancer licensing provisions. The economy, according to Marquez, suffers right down to your mom-and-pop hair parlors and nail salons. "Those girls are high maintenance. They are. And there are a lot of dancers in this town. Or there were."

Aside from the general state of the smut economy, there's the threat of entrenched competition. Among the monthlies, Scandalous Quest has a substantial edge in terms of experience (president/editor John Gray ran the similarly themed Night Moves in Houston for four years before changing the name last year and expanding into Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Southern California), size (144 pages to Jack Cash's 30) and circulation (currently 30,000 in Houston).

Marquez claims that Gray has been "talking shit" in the community about Marquez's professionalism -- scaring off potential Jack Cash advertisers -- and he resents the alleged slight. "We're not fly-by-night," he says. "We're just underfunded."

Asked about Jack Cash, Gray's first response is: "Why are you doing a story about them? We've been in business five years and never missed a deadline."

And in reality, Gray's mini-empire of Scandalous Quests is about to become more unassailable still, when an impending merger with the Florida-based Vivid magazine chain becomes final. "We'll be in 12 cities by this time next week," said Gray, last week.

Jack Cash, meanwhile, subsists on Marquez's shoestring and a prayer for investors. Early attempts to contact Marquez for this story were thwarted by the fact that both Jack Cash's office and Mike Marquez's home phones had been disconnected. Efforts to wrangle an interview by dropping in at the skanky West Alabama offices yielded locked doors one day and vacated premises the next.

Marquez's home phone is back on, but the office remains closed since editor and co-founder Claytor has splintered off to produce a toll Jack Cash web site with hard-core stills and promotional movie scenes. He says the site should be up "next week, or the week after that." That leaves Marquez to helm the concept's print flagship, and Marquez intends to steer it into deeper financial waters, aiming toward a national, franchisable focus on adult films, and away from reliance on local service providers and SOBs.

He needs an investor to do it, someone prepared to "take it to the next level," and in the meantime he's got a few video reviews in, a cover girl, and a centerfold lined up. The rest, he's sure, will come.

"I will find the money and the next issue will be out. I've worked too damn hard at this to let it go. I have complete faith in myself, and I'm completely driven. I have the drive and the ambition to put it where it needs to be."

Marquez sweeps the fanned magazines into a pile on the table at La Jaliscience, pulling out of his bag two old copies of a non-porn weekly, one each for the top and bottom of the smut stack. He's brought them so that a reporter can walk out of the restaurant with research booty disguised, and so, presumably, with head held high. And a reporter has to wonder if Marquez is really so dedicated a smut peddler at all -- or more a guy peddling his own dream of getting off his ass and not working as a bartender the rest of his life.

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad_tyer@houstonpress.com.

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