That’s “Mister Faggot” to you

My kind of guys.

My kind of guys.

Oh golly look, comics admit gay people exist, it’s a new day, the sun is breaking out from behind the clouds … … ‘cept you know, for those of us who were reading other comics once in a while this whole time.

LGBTQ goes with comics/comix like the original chocolate and peanut butter. You got your politics and history, you got your sex, you got your religion and morality, you got internal conflicts, you got external conflicts, you got families and growing up, then there’s every possible good and bad relationship thing ever, you got different questions and varying answers, you got humor, you got anger and frustration, you got serenity and joy … in light of the wealth afforded by non-superhero comics in this wise, what I wouldn’t give for an actual unironic superhero comic with plain and up-front gay content, relevant, insightful, authentic, action-packed, and stuffed with Lee + Kirby soap opera journalism to beat the band. I haven’t seen it yet; more on that in a moment.

My favorite titles over the years include:

  • Howard Cruse’s long-running Wendel, his collection Dancin’ Nekkid with the Angels, and his earlier, trippy Barefootz (and for all you want to rant about Dave Sim, it was his Single Page feature which tuned me into Cruse’s work)
  • Donna Barr’s The Desert Peach, possibly the single most hilariously offensive title I can think of
  • Kate Worley’s and Reed Waller’s Omaha the Cat Dancer – I met them some time in the late 80s, but only briefly and I wish there’d been more chance to get to know them
  • Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, starting long before her breakout, at the time available to me only in the Firesign paperbacks (I became quite the huckster for the series, “You gotta read this” “It’s about lesbians …?!” “Read it!”)

I love these titles and more like them, and some will get detailed posts of their own later. Looking for back issues and collections over the years has put me on at least one interesting mailing list out there, and I still sometimes get the catalogues and adverts in the mailbox. During the 90s it led to predictable speedbumps in new romantic entanglements: first when she notices all the queer comix on the shelf or coffee table, and again when the latest discreetly-wrapped OMG Bear Cock Comics Catalogue shows up (um – to my knowledge that’s not a real thing, I’m kidding about the title) and I thumb through it. These repeated instances of consternation were an insignificant price to pay for the most blunt, funny, insightful, intimate, explicit, and understandable comics I knew.

You’ve heard of the Bechdel test? I should stress that as a story and text, Dykes to Watch Out For mentions it barely if at all, doesn’t advocate for it, and certainly doesn’t conform to it. I’m talking about the comics, not appropriated and irrelevant yap. For example, here’s Carlos, the designated male role-model for Rafael, son of Toni and Clarice. Carlos is perfect in various ways, including the combined ethnicities of the two women, as well as being the gayest man in a thousand-miles radius … the only issue being that he’s such a guy. In this strip, he’s just resolved a delicate dispute while picking Rafi up from summer camp, regarding the range in using the term “gay.” As an example, he compares the way he wears his shirt to the way the admittedly gormless counselor wears the exact same kind, without naming it. Then …

dtwof1The fun part is that you never see the crucial question being asked and answered. But of course Carlos would answer it openly. High five to Carlos! You ask for a male role-model, then that’s what you get! Men are all over the place in this story, and not as foils or villains either. It’s also funny that after a rough transition to the ‘burbs, Clarice becomes buddies with the ‘phobic straight-arrow husband next door without him gaining an ounce of tolerance.

It’s strange thinking about twenty years ago, going into the only bookstore in town which carried the Firesign paperbacks, getting the big-time stink-eye from the staff and customers as I bought the latest Dykes, whereas now even as I write this, my wife shows me a clip from the Broadway version of Fun Home. (truth! she didn’t even know which post I was working on)

Right about now people are speculating and imagining and looking at me out of the corners of their eyes, so what to say? ‘Cause this blog is autobiography, yes, but then there are the people who are all “please that’s inappropriate” and triggered and stuff. OK: personal details of my sexual experience and preference are available on request, if you must know. Send me an email I guess. For open play, try this: I self-identify as straight, it’s based on plenty of relevant experience (yes, that means what you think it does), I’ve lived and worked with people of all genders and orientations since I was very young, I’ve been possibly maliciously “outed” as gay and suffered censure for it, I’ve been gossip-tagged as homophobic which then caused consternation when I [deleted], I’ve non-ironically kissed men in public including back in the 80s, I apparently code a flat 0.00 on Gaydar from those who claim to possess it, and writing this list is starting to bore me now. As far as this variable goes, I’m a widely experienced person who’s completely boring, which confuses, surprises, and offends almost everyone I’ve met regarding it.

So I’ll tell you who gets up my nose: people of any orientation working out their consciousness-raising who can’t imagine that someone else may have preceded them on this path, especially someone straight, possibly with less stress than they think is called for. Granted I don’t make it easy for them. As I never tire of reminding the reader, I’m a Left Coaster, and one regional feature I’ve never lost is is horrifying straight-faced sarcasm, combined with what the tropes people call Crossing the line twice. It does not mix well at all with progressivism from other parts of the continent. FYI: when someone from the coastal northwest of North America smiles mildly and says, “well, those homos, you know?” you are completely missing the point to intervene and explain that this is inappropriate and words have power to hurt and … Jesus, shut the fuck up. We get it. We aren’t ignorantly “just kidding.” We are lampooning what we completely agree is wrong without being afraid of it, miles ahead of your uptight claptrap. Sighhh, never mind. It must be the water over there.

That’s why I also keep a sharp eye out for creative people who really dig into diverse sexuality who also happen to be straight. I still think the best movie on or about lesbian coming-out is Lianna, written and directed by John Sayles. The title of this post is a quote from the dandylion character in the later issues of Grimjack, written by John Ostrander, who has been writing characters of all orientations for a long time, and I am pissed that I hadn’t encountered it before people called me “you little faggot” or similar, which wasn’t uncommon in younger years. (H’m – on reflection, people stopped saying stuff like that right about the time I trained up enough to back up any retort I might make. Damn it!)

It’s also maybe what I like best about the comics titles I’m talking about: they’re not pious ever. Gay subculture is full of pitfalls, contradictions, hypocrisy, familiar relationship hassles, and other aggravating things, and these comics are so honest about that, that they do the line-crossing-twice themselves! In them, gay characters don’t “get” love, sex, life, themselves, or anything any better than anyone else. Whatever sexual strangeness I may encounter in them as a cis, non-gay, non-bi guy becomes not strange at all, even when the boundaries or unassailable difference, i.e. no one ever threatened me with institutionalization for my sexuality, are made brutally more real as well. Here, let me lend you this one … and this one … oh, and I guess this three-year sequence of that one … see?

No more of this character, pretty please

No more of this character, pretty please

Similarly, and crucially, I have seen no Magical Queer in LGBTQ comics, no presumption of superior moral position or human-experience – think of the ever-present winsome-wise buddy in all those cross-dressing or romantic comedies. Bechdel’s characters are so thoroughly skewered in their follies that I am amazed her work isn’t rejected as ‘phobic or “self-hating” by more than one Queer Studies “expert” who misses the deep affection and reflection for the flaws. I remember Worley talking about how sex doesn’t always work, and how she and Waller weren’t going to present any sort of sex as the super-ecstatic special kind. I see little if any joy in these comics about embracing mainstream values as an ideal – if anything, great reluctance to lose half the battle by winning “normality.” I see much more affinity with the blunt material in the relevant episodes of 1970s Mary Tyler Moore, Soap, and Barney Miller TV shows than with the more recent Ellen, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, or Sex in the City.

That’s what I’m finding unconvincing and wince-worthy in what bits I’ve seen of “lookie lookie gay guy in superhero comic” material lately, especially the depicted men. They’re nice. They’re unthreatening. They’re ecstatically in love and completely monogamous. They make no mistakes. They’re “just like us!” … wait, not they’re not, because I’m not like that, and neither are you, and these characters are not human at all. They’re Kens. Not a whole lotta there there, as opposed to:

wendel

Pop that page into the next superhero issue, soften the naughty reference just a bit, and it would knock every comics reader and reviewer into much-needed hysterics. And it’s from 1989, already! Or similarly, when Mo in Dykes undergoes nigh-critical identity meltdown when she’s forced to admit that hard-line Republicans can be gay (“Oh my God, they probably fantasize about skinny-dipping at the Bohemian Grove with George Will!”). Imagine a scene in which, instead of all these sugar-coated domestic bliss moments, our Look He’s Gay Married Superhero argues with his partner about whether the latter’s beloved leather-man festival constitutes cruelty to animals.

It’s true that I’m not monitoring every last title and character out there, so if stuff”s being published which does meet this description, let me know.

Oh so much more to talk about, so I guess there’ll be later posts. Let’s see, one about Quentin Crisp and the Joker, one about blatant stuff in nominally mainstream comics over the years, I’m sure you can think of a few too.

Next: A hero shall appear

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on July 2, 2015, in Politics dammit, The 80s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Now I must go dig out my copy of Essential Dykes To Watch Out For – my issues of Grimjack are in limbo, unfortunately.

    I had a similar realization when I was reading The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, which ran on alternate weeks with DTWOF in our alternate weekly paper. It was kind of reassuring to know that gay relationships were just as complicated and confusing as straight ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One thing I never did investigate is whether the Essential version includes absolutely everything. The original books each had a little novella that she did for each one, and those were actually among my favorite material. I remember flipping through the bigger collection when it came out and suspecting that it wasn’t every last strip and special piece, but as I say, I didn’t verify it.

      I think the individual books are still available as such – there was some kind of breakdown with the publisher, Firesign, and Bechdel switched to a self-publishing label, which then re-issued the older ones. As a bit of a purist and completist about this title, I recommend getting them.

      Like

  2. oberonthefool

    Lessee… have you read Grace Randolph’s Supurbia? That’s the first thing that popped into my head with an imperfect gay relationship. I could probably come up with more, but my books are all packed up so I can’t do my usual “scan the shelf and see what catches my eye”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t! Nor The Pride, suggested to me at G+. One of my ulterior motives for this post was to find a few titles via the collective intellect. I’ve been finding collections of older stuff but not hunting the new ones.

      It’s become a thing with me, starting long ago and now cemented firmly, that I don’t really rush to buy or see anything in pop culture right away. I’d rather wait a while, until the hobby hubbub dies down. For TV shows, this is mainly because I don’t trust fervent cries of “Awesommmme!”, and for comics, it’s because I simply am not interested in following them issue by issue any more … too many losses of too many precious stacks in moves will do that.

      Therefore I figured, hey, it’s been a while since I looked through what’s happening in this comics scene lately, and thought it likely that some of you could help.

      Like

      • oberonthefool

        Yeah, I’m mostly the same way. Occasionally I’ll jump on a Netflix show if I hear enough about it, like recently with Sense8, which, don’t wait, go watch it now, trust me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • oberonthefool

        While I didn’t care for the first issue (mostly the art style didn’t work for me), Midnighter has apparently broken up with long time husband/boyfriend Apollo for his solo series, and is on the dating scene. That probably won’t go well, given his propensity to end up in the middle of batshit crazy violent melees and coming home soaked in other people’s blood.

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  3. Hi Ron! This time I have not read most of the comics you cite. Not because I didn’t want to, but because finding them was really difficult: I had to use comics shops that did mail orders, and that means mostly “mainstream” comics, or search the narrow selection of titles from one of the few bookshops who ordered original American books (I had a lot of difficulties even finding Doonesbury

    I was able to read Omaha the cat dancer because it was carried by comics shops, but i disliked the heavy soap opera structure (the characters interested me enough to buy it until the end, though). I “discovered” Howard Cruse when DC comics published “Stuck Rubber Baby” in the 90s. I loved that book and searched for other books but I was able to find only an anthology published by Fantagraphics. The same with Bechdel: I had read her stories in bits and pieces for years (and Fun Home obviously) but I was able to find only a single small book of DtWoF in a used books store.

    (thinking about it, now with Amazon I could order most of the books I was searching for at the time… but I don’t have the time or money I had in the 90s. Groan…)

    So I will try to list instead the comics with similar themes that I have read, but from your description, I don’t think that any of them really reach that mix of relevance and normality you describe. Homosexuality is too much idealized OR shifted to the background or both (I have to say that I never specifically searched for books about these themes, I simply wanted good characters and good stories, and cared little for their sexuality)

    – Did you read comics from Roberta Gregory? I am thinking more about Artistic Licentiousness more than the more famous “Naughty Bits”.

    – The Hernandez Brothers characters have a lot of range in sexuality, even if Maggie and Hopey will never be “normal people” and love and Rockjet’s characters are always a little idealized. But Gilbert has done some self-contained more down-to-earth stories like “Loverboys” and “Julio’s head”

    – About the existence of a “actual unironic superhero comic with plain and up-front gay content, relevant, insightful, authentic, action-packed, and stuffed with Lee + Kirby soap opera journalism to beat the band”… it’s funny that you ask for it as it was the most normal thing in the world, as if the world was full of ” relevant, insightful, authentic, action-packed, and stuffed with Lee + Kirby soap opera journalism to beat the band” comics about anything 🙂
    Not really what you asked for, but some comic books that came near, at least for a while, at least for some characters, can be found in Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics line, mostly in Promethea and Top Ten (it can debated if they are really super-hero titles, though, and they are totally NOT unironic…)

    Liked by 1 person

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