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

376: John Pound - Macho Motors

"Macho Motors" by John Pound
in "Comix Book" #5, July 1976

These are the first pages of a longer story. Flip the Bird is a crass, sleazy con artist and usually gets his comeuppance later in strip. Ho-hum, it’s those deceptive trannies again, making for comic “Playboy” fodder. Although the coarse gay slur is further than “Playboy” lets its jokes by this time go. Both this story and the Hallgren had both hanging around for a year due to publisher problems. The underground commix scene was pretty comatose by this point, so this is the last instance I find. But in April 1976 there is the first issue of “Gay Heart Throbs”, gay commix content for gay readers. Which in one way or another will eventually point us to the upland fields of “Dykes to Watch Out For” and Howard Cruse’s properly gay cartoons.

375: Gary Hallgren - Tom Comes Out

"Tom Comes Out" by Gary Hallgren - "Comix Book" #5, July 76

Tom’s a farly pathetic and unsympathetic character but then why should everyone have to be. As far as the gay character goes, the leather jacket and bandana look bears some relation to reality, and as always there’s the lisping, pursed lips and fluttery eyes. Actually on average I would have to say that there are more lisping stereotypes in the underground commix than pretty much anywhere else. So not a success on that front. Then the rest of the strip is a series of failed heterosexual attempts, constantly reinforced with gay slurs on his masculinity, mistakenly leading to the horrified punchline that Tom to think he’s gay. Although at least, unlike in the original film of MASH, that’s not cause for suicide.

374: Maurice Escutchier - Dungsbury

Dungsbury (1975? Guessing from the Trudeau style being parodied)
by Maurice Escutchier
Reprinted in “Illustrated Checklist To Underground Comix”, 1979

Escutchier was important enough to be interviewed in the “Illustrated Checklist” but that would now seem to be the only record remaining that he had a career.
“It’s worse when you’re queer” – what, it’s harder to find men, or it’s just worse being queer? Since it’s delivered in the slightly oblique Trudeau manner, it’s deliberately ambivalent.

373: Willy Murphy - Once More, With or Without Feeling

"Once More, With or Without Feeling" by Willy Murphy
in "Arcade" #1 spring 75

Murphy regularly employed broad stereotypes for his humour. In his Arnold Peck the Human Wreck strips, Arnold was usually just an observer to some scene of fashionable hysteria. And so we get these extreme over-dramatic queens. If it had been drawn around 1969-1971 I’d give this a pass ,that no one would be expected to know much better. But since it dates from 1974-1975 and was drawn by someone living in San Francisco at the time, Murphy is fairly wilful about what he wants a funny homosexual to be. Which surprisingly, don’t approach the usual comic fag clichés either, but may actually be worse. There’s much comic mileage to be got out of the high drama of the emergent gay scene in San Francisco. This isn’t it.

372: Trina Robbins - I Was a Fag Hag

"I was a Fag Hag" by Trina Robbins
in "Manhunt Comix" #2 1974

The romance comics were another subgenre of the commercial comics scene often plumbed for satire and parody by the underground comix.
The woman falling for a friend who turns out to be gay was pretty much the de facto plot used by sitcoms for temporarily injecting a homosexual character into a one-off special episode. But it’s a satirical plotline you’d never had before in early romance comics.
Unlike almost all every other of the comix I’ve covered here, this one does actually pay attention to and incorporate various signifiers of modern gay life: Holly Woodlawn, Bette Middler, the Ccockettes. Partly this may derive from the fact that Trina Robbins was a feminist, and alert to the idea that liberation means a little more than just being sexually available for the next man who comes along. Looking back to the late 60s and very early 70s, it does show that emergent gays were hippies, not some separate breed apart, and also demonstrates camp is actually a kind of social behaviour. Slight bitchiness to women can be interpreted as the fact that your beloved doesn’t actually really need you in his gay world. Yet, even in one panel there does have to be an ostentatiously limp wrist. And yes, it’s America, so it’s almost the bloody law that there has to be a homosexual called Bruce. No cocks in sight, unlike her male comix counterparts, but some enthusiastic blowjob noises as compensation.

371: Art Spiegelman - Real Dream

“Real Dream” by Art Spiegelman
in "Short Order" #2 1974

This was one a series of strips which Spiegelman ran in various magazines recounting his dreams. It’s then up to the reader to decide how much they want to believe that is the case, and how much has been made up to fill in and flesh out. Windsor McKay’s “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend” are made-up fantasies for comic strips, while Rick Veitch’s “Rabid Eye” strips are supposed to be real dream journals. How much of this strip by Spiegelman is the original dream and how much is opportunity to pass off assorted thematically gay-related silliness under the cover of being a dream?
The clerk in his changing extravagant outfits reminds me of the roles usually played by Frank Nelson (Yeeeeeeeeesssss? in Jack Benny, “The Flintstones” and “The Simpsons” and numerous other shows). Everyone else in the shop is some sort of lurid gay variant on hustler or dandy – although the colouring is a big contributor. That a gay apartment would be a toilet cubical for cruising could be taken as a joke in relatively poor taste, although it’s made obvious the character is only there for a brief assignation himself. So when the police turn up, he has existing feelings of guilt. The piece therefore does recognise that homosexuals do suffer unjust oppression and brutality. Although with one proof of his heterosexuality, as in so many other cartoons, he is free. This piece was later reprinted in Alan Moore’s 1988 anthology “AARGH!” (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), to aid the fight against Clause 28. Since Spiegelman was then being critically acclaimed for "Maus", a contribution from him was a good thing in itself.

Less laudable is this throwaway gag from his parody crimefighter serial “The Viper” (“Real Pulp” #2 1973). Before even reading the text I was horribly certain it was going to be a gay joke – the hair, the shirt, the shit-eating grin. And then it’s a lisping, sissy actor. Oh, dear. Honestly, it’s no better than “Mad Magazine”, and that’s a very low bar in the ‘70s

But then even before that he had his positive gays in the military cartoon in “The Realist” which has also been repeatedly reprinted

370: Gary King - Boys Will Be Boys

"Boys will be Boys" by Gary King
in "Manhunt Comix" #1, 1973

I know all there is to know about the crying game
All about comic sexual frustration in the new sexually liberated age. Particularly when you unexpectedly find a raging cock headed your way. The transvestite who tricks the heterosexual was already a long-running subject for humour in Playboy cartoons. At least this strip recognises that tranvestism is not necessarily a gay trait, if only so to suggest that the gay man may be about to ball his “old lady”.

369: Gilbert Shelton - I Led Nine Lives

“I Led Nine Lives” by Gilbert Shelton
in "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" # 3, 1973

Just a lot of silliness, really.
One of the recurring gags in Fabulous Furry Freak Bros was that they were always under surveillance by the FBI and cops. Usually Shelton mocks the cops and FBI for their gung-ho, macho idiocy. So I suppose a drug which threatens to gay-ify the entire USA is a natural play on their view of the world. Really though, this strip is more a broad spoof of over-the-top James Bond heroics. Shelton seems to be happy just to leave the idea of a gay threat as funny in itself without much further development. Just the revealed sissy “ Tee hee hee” name gag. And then the brief appearance of the diabolical mincing villain. Although the suggestion of better dead than gay (which is part of the parodied macho spy ethos) only really works because of the 9 lives of a cat thing.

368: Bill Griffiths - Real Live Dolls

"Real Live Dolls" by Bill Griffiths
in "Short Order Comix" #1, 1973

Confess it, when you started reading this, weren’t you tempted to think that the hard-talking bitch model was going to be some mean tranny. Transvestites are usually drawn as laughable, never genuinely fierce like this. And it’s a reasonable suspicion, given the ambiguous way she’s drawn and her dialogue. It was a definite hope, but what a disappointment. And then when the gay photographer is brought on, he is just the weakest, most extravagantly lisping feeble mary.

367: Bobby London - Artie Schnopp the Friendly Cop

“Artie Schnopp the Friendly Cop” by Bobby London
in "Left Field Funnies" 1972

This largely stands in for all the other occasions in underground comix when the word faggot is liberally thrown around. In most instances it comes from the mouths of uptight squares, conservatives right-wingers, and cops and the military. And then the use of “hippy faggots” and “queer punks” is to illustrate their ignorance of what the counterculture is really about.
Here it’s the fact that it’s the sole punchline which make it noteworthy.
Anyway, you can read this comic two ways. The first is the most obvious. That you can say many things intended to offend, but calling someone a “faggot” is just crossing the line.
Or is it a double bluff, that in the minds of the authorities and the rightwingers, since “faggot” is the worst thing they can think of calling the hippies, it is likewise the worst thing you can call them in return.
Either scenario rewards you with a necessary truncheon in the face.

366: Bobby London - Merton meets Yiddie Yippie

“Merton meets Yiddie Yippie” by Bobby London
in "Left Field Funnies" 1972

“Merton of the Movement” was London’s comic parody of hippy commune life and radical politics. These are the first few pages from a much longer story. For a change, and unlike most cartoons of this type by others, London recognises that there is a “Gay Lib”. However, his Gay Libber is a bearded man in a dress with a flower in his hair and elegant eyelashes who calls himself “Tiger Lily”. Now a few people did go to early Gay Lib marches in drag, but I don’t think London is drawing upon those instances. It’s just funny to draw a homosexual as somebody who wears women’s clothes, and so unfortunately it’s not much of a strain or particularly enlightened on London’s part. Then again, how many cartoons have you seen with a bisexual orgy? The musical notes thing when gay men speak gets old very fast, as far as I’m concerned. The near-blowjob with the venal Fidel is comically achieved without descending into homophobic abuse.

365: Ted Richards - Dopin' Dan

From “Dopin’ Dan” 1972

From “Merton of the Movement” 1972

Now we get gays in the military, in this rather more adult, gritty version of “Beetle Bailey” – sex, drugs, actual combat, etc. And it’s an actual recurring gay character. That Kyle is a bit of a sissy stereotype and a sexual predator, is less encouraging. Kyle only appears in the earliest strips I found and the first comic book. Then Richards starts writing longer stories in which jokes about Kyle are superfluous.
There may be some strips which explain more about what may or may not be going on between Kyle and his superior.
And look, Kyle’s roommate is called Bruce.

364: Vaughn Bodé and Berni Wrightson –Purple Pictography

“Munchmo” in “Swank” November 1971

“Titus and Pubius” in “Swank” March 1972

by Vaughn Bodé and Berni Wrightson

A distinct part of the commix scene was devoted to sci fi, horror, and fantasy stories – Corben, Greg Irons, Jaxon, etc, although fantasy and weirdness is a large component of comix in general. The smaller men’s magazines like “Knight”, “Swank”, “Cavalier”, had already proven profitable markets for the New Wave of adult, literary science fiction of the late ‘60s. Vaughn Bode was probably Robert Crumb’s near-rival in terms of mainstream break-out potential, and “Cavalier” magazine and Crumb had had success with “Fritz the Cat”. So in the early ‘70s “Swank” ran “Purple Pictography” by Vaughn Bode for about a year. “Purple Pictography” were humorous sci fi/fantasy/horror stories as set-ups for sexual gags.

In “Munchmo”, an effete dragon with sissy expressive eyes, a misogynist distaste for women, perking up at the prospect of a flasher’s large cock has got to be a first of some kind.

In “Titus and Pubius” , the classical scenario as per usual portends sodomy of some sort (as seen here and here). Here Bodé alternates between unabashed brutish heterosexual and slightly perverse gay sexual appetites. In contrast to the hulking hetero, his homosexual is small with heavily lidded eyes, pouty red lips, and almost constantly clasped hands. As with American cliches of homosexuals, there’s the utterance of a “silly”, although the obsession with young boys is barely justifiable because of the Roman setting. Again, Bodé offers something new with pink speech bubbles for his gay character.

363: Rand Holmes - The Continuing Adventures of Harold Hedd

In the S.Clay Wilson cartoons, though not malicious, gays are largely there as part of a rambunctious spectrum of “perverse” sexuality. The Osborne comic is more about the thrill of depicting famous film stars roughly buggering each other with a few sissy comments. There’s no condemnation or real mockery in them, but this strip by Holmes is the first which is unabashedly positive. It is also quite contemporary. “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” had aroused much ire in the emergent gay communities and the new Gay Lib movements, and there were efforts in quite a few countries to have the 1969 book taken off shelves because of its obviously bigoted and ignorant attitude towards homosexuals. Gore Vidal wrote a magisterial demolition of the book. Then it’s the rest of the strip, with a sympathetic but explicit gay sex sequence, which contradicts Reuben, and would produce so many subsequent problems with the censors. Finally, you have Holmes’s final exhortation to his readers.

This strip had a checkered history throughout the 1970s. It originally appeared as just one more instalment in "The Continuing Adventures of Harold Hedd," published in the underground newspaper “Georgia Straight”, 19-22 October 1971. It was published in a censored form then, with the sex scenes removed because the printer refused to publish them. It was then reprinted in the May-June 1975 issue of “Body Politic”, a Canadian gay magazine. That issue was ordered off the newsstands by the Toronto Morality Squad. The next issue, #19 July-August 1975, had an article about the previous issue’s censorship and ran a partially censored panel from the strip of two men giving each other head on the cover. The blowjob depicted in the original was covered by a black lightning bolt labelled "Toronto Morality Squad." But this censoring zap, overprinted on the illustration, could be seen through. The collective had to order a second print run.

It was reprinted in the 1973 Canadian sex comix anthology “All Canadian Beaver Comix”. Then the cover came with this banner in the corner, which is a bit more disheartening, employing more familiar clichés. However, it may be a bluff to entice readers expecting a laugh and then confront them with this strip.

Holmes would also produce the cover for the first issue of “Gay Comix” in 1980.

362: Skip Williamson - The Voice of Doom

"The Voice of Doom" by Skip Williamson
in "Bijou Funnies" #5, 1970

No homosexuals in sight in this strip, but kudos to Williamson for recognising that homosexuals are a target for easy persecution. In light of this near contemporary piece in National lampoon, it’s worth wondering whether even the hint of Gay Lib and a slightly more visible and demanding gay presence in society elicited an immediate rightwing lashback, particularly in Reagan’s California.
Otherwise it’s a reminder that rightwing asshole commentators are forever. In this case based upon Joe Pyne. Although it ‘s a nice irony that the outrageous voice of bigotry kills its audience.