Coming Out in the Comic Strips
By David Applegate
Out of the closet, into the newspapers...
Comic strips, like comic books, constitute both an art form and a vehicle for social commentary. But unlike comic books, which seem to have become primarily outlets for adolescent male power fantasies, comic strips appeal to a broader and more demographically diverse audience. Distributed via the daily and Sunday papers rather than direct-sale shops, comic strips amuse both the young and the old, male and female. And unlike comic books, which come out weekly or monthly, comic strips have a daily impact: throughout America they wind up on refrigerator doors and office bulletin boards rather than double bagged in mylar, collecting dust in closets or under beds.
The appeal of comic strips stems in no small part from their close relationship to the real world. If something happens in the strips, it's likely to have happened in real life, and if it's happened in real life, then it almost surely will show up in the strips. No one most of us know has ever leaped tall buildings at a single bound, put on cape and cowl and prowled the rooftops by night, or swung through the streets on artificial webbing, but plenty of people we know work boring jobs for bosses they hate, have played or coached high school sports, or deal day to day with the tribulations of raising a family on a budget. None of us knows anyone who has a cat or a dog that thinks like humans, but plenty of us act as if we think they do. Even funny animal strips deal with daily life in ways that are close to home: substitute humans for talking animals, and most of the situations are familiar to the readers.
A topic of increasing familiarity to Americans over the last generation has been that of homosexuality. Due in no small part to the emergence of AIDS, both families and schools now find themselves informing children about sex earlier, more frankly, and in greater detail than that familiar to an earlier generation. The names for homosexuals that one once heard in public only in anger or for the sake of meanness have been replaced by "gay" and "lesbian," and appear in the daily paper and on television. For a multitude of reasons, the defining act of homosexuality -- consensual sodomy -- has been transformed de facto in this country from a criminal act to an expression of an alternative lifestyle, and the trait of being homosexual -- simply having a gay or lesbian orientation -- seems uneasily to be teetering toward a societal status similar to being black or female--a segment of society governmentally entitled to civil rights protection.
In the United States in the l990s, it should therefore be unsurprising that overtly homosexual characters have made their appearance in the pages of the family newspaper.
In a story on the phenomenon, the March 29, 1993, Chicago Tribune reported inaccurately that the first gay character in comics was Andy Lippincott, "the lawyer in Doonesbury who came out in 1977 while dating Joanie Caucus." Like so many general circulation publications writing about specialized fields, the Tribune is wrong. Gay and lesbian characters began appearing nearly forty years earlier, in the Tribune itself, albeit more covertly.
Although better known for its heterosexual characters and escapades, for example, Milt Caniff's Terry and the Pirates featured both a gay and a lesbian in the thirteen years that Caniff produced the strip. On Sunday, October 18, 1936, four days shy of the second anniversary of the strip, the Dragon Lady, ruminating on what she might do with a captured Pat Ryan, informed Ryan that she could keep him chained up like a pet chimpanzee, put him in a small boat tied to the stern of her junk and watch him slowly starve to death, or tie him to the side of the ship and watch the sharks nibble him slowly away, but that all of those things would be merely amusing compared to her actual plans, which she proclaimed would bring her profit -- "and a great deal of satisfaction."
The following Sunday, the Dragon Lady announced her plan: "Have you ever heard of Papa Pyzon?" she asked in panel nine. "Sure--" replied Pat, "he's an almost legendary character who holds forth somewhere in the hills of South China! -- has a gang of ex- convicts and cut throats in his mob!" "Right! -- " responded the Dragon Lady, "and you may also know that many of his soldiers are shanghaied! . . . So you see, I'm selling you up the river! -- Then I shall join forces with Papa Pyzon -- and again I shall rule as -- queen of the pirates!" On Halloween Saturday, October 31, 1936, in the last panel of the strip, Pyzon first showed his face, eating an apple and directing the men who had signalled the Dragon Lady's arrival to prepare the "usual welcoming ritual." On Sunday, November 1, still eating, Pyzon received the Dragon Lady as "my well despised friend," then announced, "I hate women -- and you, especially."
Pyzon would repeat the sentiment twice in the next several weeks, on November 2, 1936, and again on December 14, 1936. On the former date, after having been assured by the Dragon Lady that Pat Ryan is a powerful fighter, Pyzon responds with the accusation that "all women are liars, and you are one of the worst! You are also stupid! I despise you, madam!" Six weeks later, after having escaped from Pyzon only to be captured again, Pat tells Pyzon that the Dragon Lady has lured Pyzon's men away by offering each man a wife, a tale that Pyzon refuses to accept. "It's all bosh!" the enraged pirate responds. "My men wouldn't be entranced by stupid women! They know better!"
Other than those few remarks, however, and the resemblance to actor Charles Laughton, after whom Caniff had reportedly modelled the character, Caniff was coy concerning Pyzon's sexual orientation. As Caniff stated in an interview with Arn Saba in The Comics Journal #108, "People just thought he was a sissy. The idea of any kind of sexual deviation didn't even enter into peoples' minds in those days."
Milt Caniff's lesbian character, a French naval officer named "Sanjak," was slightly less discreet, although still veiled. Following her first appearance on Sunday, February 12, 1939, disguised as "Madame Sud," Sanjak the following day removed her matron's outer clothes and wig while April Kane looked out the window, then stood revealed as a slender, mannish character, clothed in coat and necktie, yet wearing a skirt. When April turned around, astonished at the disappearance of "Madame Sud" and the appearance of Sanjak, Sanjak remarked "M'm'selle ees surprise! . . . But not half so surprise as she weell be soon!!"
A woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman might prove to be surprising indeed. Although she never came out of the closet and explicitly revealed that she was lesbian, Sanjak took her name from that of the Greek island next to Lesbos, the rocky Greek island from which lesbianism also gets its name. And in a fitting if unintended touch, Caniff revealed in the March 24, 1939, strip that Sanjak lived on a rocky island described as "an ideal hideaway." Yet Caniff never had Sanjak admit that her orientation was anything other than heterosexual. As Caniff explained in the Journal interview, "in those days the word 'lesbian' simply wouldn't have been understood by half your audience, and the other half would have resented it."
Other cases of homosexuality in the comic strips predating Andy Lippincott are harder to document. In a brief tongue-in-cheek article entitled "A Gay Deceivership," noted Pogophile Mark Burstein suggested in The Fort Mudge Most #32 (March 1993) that those loveable partners in crime in Walt Kelly's Pogo, Howland Owl and Churchy LaFemme, may have actually been gay lovers. His suggestion, based on sight gags and lines taken out of context, generated outraged protests and the conclusion that Kelly may have been engaging in whimsy, but that he certainly didn't seriously intend for readers to infer that Churchy and Howland were gay. Neither, it seems, did Burstein, concluding his article with the comment: "I have no crusade to bear here, nor point to make. I think that Walt, a large-hearted humanitarian, may just have been having a bit of fun, enjoying a private joke at no one's expense."
In any event, homosexual newspaper strip characters are nothing new; even before World War II, the American comic strip had documented sightings of both gays and lesbians, and both in the same strip. The difference now is that gay characters come out in the strips. In roughly the last year, two mainstream strips with high circulation have prominently featured not only homosexual characters, but also characters who either discover or reveal in the strip that they are gay; one more has at least raised the issue. For reasons easily understood in the context of each strip, one did so with great fanfare; the second is doing so with little fuss. The third, surprisingly, went completely unnoticed.
In the first category is Lynn Johnston's warm and engaging For Better or For Worse. In a highly publicized sequence that ran in nearly 1,400 newspapers from March 26 to April 24, 1993, Lawrence Poirier, the best friend of leading son Michael Patterson, and to the strip's extensive readership that he is gay. Lawrence reappeared in For Better or For Worse in April 1994, helping the Pattersons clean up their flooded basement and helping mutual friend and classmate Gordon move into his first apartment, with nary a mention by anyone of Lawrence's sexual orientation. The focus, so far, has been on Gordon, a hayseed with a bright mind but a penchant for blue-collar activities.
Whether silence about Lawrence's lifestyle will continue as the norm remains to be seen, even though the coming-out story line may have cost the cartoonist slightly more than 1 percent of her syndication income (as of the week following Lawrence's coming out, a reported fifteen out of over 1,400 papers had canceled the strip entirely; roughly an additional 50 had asked for substitute material). Once seemingly more of a Hi and Lois for the '90s, For Better or For Worse is perhaps more properly viewed as the successor in interest to Gasoline Alley, in which the late Dick Moores admitted that he often put characters into situations, then let them work themselves out. Johnston herself admitted in the Tribune that she started the strip in 1979 with no agenda other than humor; "it just kind of evolved this way." So, too, it seems likely that Lawrence will evolve and that he -- and his lover -- will find their ways back into the strip over the years. The potential is simply too great, and the possibilities too compelling. But for now, Lawrence has firmly established his identity.
The second recent overt discussion of homosexuality in the strips, unsurprisingly, is taking place in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. Of all the strips of the last quarter century, Doonesbury has probably spent more time than any other consigned to the editorial page, "edited," or dropped entirely because of its content. Certain papers run the strip on the editorial pages with regularity, while others simply move it there periodically when it becomes too political. One famous strip featuring the title character's then-wife -- performance artist Joanie Junior, or "J.J." -- answering the door naked and bound in rope compelled certain art departments to add additional rope to minimize the nudity; and a week's worth of strips satirizing the anti-abortion film "Silent Scream" proved too controversial for the syndicate to send to papers at all, running instead in The New Republic.
Doonesbury's first overtly gay character, of course, was Andy Lippincott, mentioned above. In a touching and wryly amusing sequence in 1991, Andy met his match and died of AIDS, leaving the strip with only known heterosexual major characters. Given the social milieu in which Doonesbury operates, this would never do. Rather than introducing a new character who would be gay, Trudeau instead reviewed his existing stable of characters, only to notice that "Marvelous" Mark Slackmeyer, former college radical, disc jockey, and irreverent son, was also a single male with no known female romantic interest. Popular and frequently featured enough to be meaningful, not so strange as to be insulting (as, for example, Zonker Harris), and not so prominent as to be shocking (as, for example, Mike Doonesbury himself), Slackmeyer was, in fact, a superficially obvious choice to be revealed as gay.
The initial sequence began, appropriately enough, with Andy Lippincott appearing to Slackmeyer in a dream, suggesting to Slackmeyer that he might be gay. After first denying, then questioning, the possibility, Mark drove up to Mike and J.J's apartment to talk it out. "The possibility of my being gay has really got me rattled," Mark said to Mike in the September 6, 1993, strip. "If it's true, nothing in my life will ever be quite the same . . . You're a good friend to talk this out with me, Mike." "No problem," said Mike, moving off panel. "I'll just sit over here."
Two days later Slackmeyer confessed, "I'm scared, Mike. Being gay in this culture is too damn hard. I'd rather continue as a sexual agnostic." When J.J. asked, "What's going on out there?" and Mike answered, "It's Mark, J.J. -- He thinks he might be gay," J.J. rejoined, "Of course he's gay. I've known that for years." Whether J.J. was just kidding is not clear, for on September 9, 1993, she asked, "No kidding? You think you might be gay, Mark?" Mike suggested that "It's just a theory, J.J. -- a working theory!" J.J. then blurted out, "So have you field-tested it yet?" The week of September 6-11, 1993, ended with J.J. offering to take Mark to hang out with some of her "lots of gay friends." "I don't think so, J.J.," was Mark's response, "I'm not quite there yet . . ."
In characteristic fashion, for a number of weeks, Trudeau moved on to other topics. Then, in a seemingly unrelated sequence, on October 19, 1993, Mike Doonesbury "logged into a late night party on the net" on his computer. "You'll need a cybertag," an unseen person on the other end of the modem typed on the screen. "Mine's Dancer." "Let's see . . . ," thought Mike, "How about 'Tin Man'?" "'Tin Man,'" responded his unseen correspondent, "You sound cute." Replied an unabashed Mike: "I can confirm that."
After flirting over the wires for three days of continuity, Mike inadvertently let slip that he was married, prompting the following message on his screen: "Dump: Tin Man. Exit: Dancer." On Saturday, October 23, 1993, a repentant Mike Doonesbury tapped into his computer a request for forgiveness, concluding with "I'm sorry for my selfishness" and a sigh. At the other end of the transmission, arms crossed and thinking "Damn," was, of course, none other than Mark Slackmeyer.
Since that episode, Slackmeyer has become more open and confident about his orientation, openly proclaiming on at least one occasion over the airwaves, "I'm gay." And in a strip that began the week of Mother's Day, Slackmeyer left his radio station for lunch with his mother, opening the conversation in the last panel on Monday, May 2, 1994, with "Mom, It's about my sexual orientation . . ."
The final newspaper strip recently to mention gays is none other than the Mort Walker standby Beetle Bailey, better known for its heterosexuality gags surrounding General Halftrack's civilian secretary, Miss Buxley. Roughly midway between Lawrence Poirier's announcement in For Better or For Worse and Mark Slackmeyer's revelation in Doonesbury, someone in the Walker stable let fly with a verbal and visual commentary on gays in the military. In the first of two panels of the June 7, 1993, daily strip, Lt. Flap remarks while looking at his opened newspaper, "I never thought it would happen . . . letting gays in the service," while Sarge, Beetle, and a crew-cutted officer look on. The last panel finds the four of them shoulder to shoulder looking through the opened doorway to the adjacent room, after hearing a voice proclaim, "Hooray! It's so long overdue!"
Only time will tell whether this will prove to be a one-shot comment, or whether it will be the basis for revealing that one of the existing characters is gay. Although perhaps unlikely, it wouldn't be too surprising to find that the character is General Halftrack's driver, Julius. Now that would be someone to see come out of the closet!
Originally appeared in HOGAN'S ALLEY #1.
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