Sunday, 24 January 2010

Gay Men in Underground Comix

Well I’ve ploughed my way through all manner of magazines in the course of all this. But I’ve not got around to the underground comix of the late ‘60s and ‘1970s before. Supposedly breaking new ground in humour for the counterculture, the underground comix proved to be a hotbed of jokes about fucking. Not least this is because they are produced independent of the Comics Code Authority Standards, which monitored all the product of the mainstream comics companies. Just like the Hayes Code which censored American films during the mid-part of the 20th century, the Comics Code Authority Standards forbade representations of “sexual abnormality” and “sex perversion”. So the underground cartoonists run riot, thumbing their noses at ideas of accepted good taste and subject matter, drawing all manner of fucking, taboo-breaking, and the occasional descent into actual depravity. It was this that would ultimately hobble the movement when a 1973 judgement made the headshops which sold them liable to local standards of decency.

So, underground commix are rightly remembered for featuring in different forms, deliberately cartoonish or grotesque, staggering amounts of cartoon sex. But there’s precious little about gay men or gay sex. Is it a matter of politeness, discomfort, political sensitivity, or were they just too wrapped up in all the fun of getting their own heterosexual fantasies down on paper? These are comix drawn by people who are supposedly raising their consciousness, overturning the old social order, engaging with all sorts of different “lib” movements. These cartoons are supposed to reflect the new society they’re making for themselves. We’re not like the older generation, we can laugh at all manner of things, and not feel ashamed, even as we betray our assorted neuroses and hang-ups. But are there any homosexuals in sight? Nope. But then the underground comix community is probably at least 90% male. They have enough difficulties trying to depict women as rounded characters or taking female points of view or feelings into consideration.

Even for all the deliberate grossness and enjoyment of depicting the weirdest sexual acts imaginable, homosexuality barely rates at all. How much aren’t homosexuals in underground comix? I’ve read between 150-200 issues. Each issue usually has between 8-20 stories by different artists. At a low estimate that comes out at 2000 stories. I’ve found 20 instances over the better part of a decade that in some way or other touch on homosexuality. That’s 1%. Right up to the end of my search, representations of homosexuality were running neck and neck with depictions of bestiality, paedophilia, incest, or stuffing a fat penis into an empty eye socket (really, it’s not uncommon). In the end, homosexuality wins out, but only just. Whether it’s pure gross-out or comic inappropriateness homosexuality homosexuality never seems to occur – which may be a good thing. Of course from this you could argue that either a) homosexuality is not transgressive enough, or b) that it’s just a little too realistic and therefore artists don’t quite want to wave it about for fear of what others might think. If there’s sexual exploration, it’s not in any bisexual direction. The only really trangressive depictions of homosexuality with aggressive sodomy are from the 60s, still pre-Stonewall, just as the underground comix scene is starting out, and when homosexuality is still something rather alien. And as it happens, S. Clay Wilson’s “Captain Pissgums” is instrumental in initiating that taboo-fouling tendency of the underground comix. I will give pretty much everyone here credit. There are more cocks, and men lavishing attention on other men’s cocks, on show here than in the entirety of this website put together.

Once you dismiss the transgressive aspect of homosexuality, how does homosexuality fare in the comix when it does infrequently appear? As homosexuality is very slowly making some social acceptance, how are a younger cadre of cartoonists incorporating it as a subject matter? Well, not with any great degree of enlightenment has to be the final judgement. A few of them do address oppression and Gay Lib. And a few present something that is historically recognisable as bearing relation to the homosexual scene of the time. But most lack any real topical quality which might validate them as satire. Most of them have homosexuals as being asked to fit into the artist’s pre-existing comic strip style. And so most of them are just silly comedy homos, clichés embraced and confirmed. (And comix contemporary Terry Gilliam’s work throughout the sixties and up to his “Monty Python” animations is also dotted with cliché gays). Because of the omnipresent heterosexual horniness and other locker room attitudes which these cartoons comically embody and occasionally undermine, quite a few of these strips would not look out of place in “Playboy” - which by the by the 70s is not denigratory towards gays but neither does it suggest cutting edge content.

And this is why “Gay Heart Throbs” comics in the late ‘70s, and then “Gay Comix” in the 80s proved so necessary.

Thanks to Howard Cruse for hints and feedback.


(Is there a relevant Robert Crumb piece? Other than a few domineering feminist lesbians I couldn’t find a gay man in his works from this period)

1 S.Clay Wilson – early works 1967-1969

2 S. Clay Wilson – Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates, 1968

3 Jim Osborne – Paul & Marlon in Bottoms Up, 1969

4 Skip Williamson - The Voice of Doom, 1970

5 Rand Holmes - The Continuing Adventures of Harold Hedd, 1971

6 Vaughn Bodé and Berni Wrightson – Purple Pictography, 1971 - 1972

7 Ted Richards - Dopin Dan, 1972

8 Bobby London - Merton meets Yiddie Yippie, 1972

9 Bobby London - Artie Schnopp the Friendly Cop, 1972

10 Bill Griffiths – Real Live Dolls, 1973

11 Gilbert Shelton – I Led Nine Lives, 1973

12 Gary King – Boys will be Boys, 1973

13 Art Spiegelman – Real Dream, 1974

14 Trina Robbins – I was a Fag Hag, 1974

15 Willy Murphy – Once More, With or Without Feeling, 1975

16 Maurice Escutchier – Dungsbury, 1975?

17 Gary Hallgren - Tom Comes Out, 76

18 John Pound - Macho Motors , 1976

19 Sharry Flenniken - “Child of Divorce” in 'National Lampoon', May 1980
Flenniken found a home at “National Lampoon” in the early/mid 70s at about the moment that the underground comix scene hit the distribution wall

20 Alan Moore, “The Hot Slot”, in “American Flagg” #21, June 1985
Moore revisits the satirical sexual ethos of underground comix

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