Gaiety in Comics

Posted by on January 6th, 2010 at 7:10 AM

In Mark Buford’s Scary Gary, the title character of which is a lapsed vampire living in the suburbs, is Steve living it up in a gay bar in the last panel above? I don’t see any other interpretation. Frank and Steve, Karloff monsters both, are clearly “friends,” probably more than that. But maybe I’m missing something here because I don’t think this December 3 strip is particularly funny. Maybe someone else has an interpretation that is funnier?

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered a couple days later (December 7) more overtly relies upon gaiety for its comedy—one character having misunderstood “mandate” to mean “man date.”

So homosexuality has arrived in the funnies. It’s been there before. Milton Caniff famously introduced a gay character with the sleek lesbian Sanjak in Terry and the Pirates in 1939; even before that, with chubby Pyzon in 1936. And the latter creation shows up years later in Steve Canyon (under a different name). I suspect there are other gay characters in other strips. But Caniff’s creations were undercover, covert, and they appeared in serious strips; Frank and Steve in Scary Gary and the unnamed couple in Cornered are openly gay and they appear in comedies, and they therefore achieve a bellwether status that Pyzon and Sanjak and the others don’t.

Newspaper comic strips tend to be among the most closely attuned to the culture at large, particularly humorous comic strips. They aren’t funny if they are behind the times; people won’t laugh at terribly “old jokes.” Women working outside the home are no longer a springboard to comedy as they were in the 19teens. And comic strips that are too far ahead of the larger culture aren’t funny either: people won’t laugh if they don’t “get” some aspect of the joke, and if the gag relies upon some newly emerging facet of culture that hasn’t, yet, seeped into all the corners of the surrounding social order—into all the homes to which the newspaper is delivered—some readers won’t understand and therefore won’t laugh. So comic strip cartoonists must not let their fingers slip off the pulse of the culture in which they work.

Gaiety in Scary Gary and in Cornered therefore signal that society at large has likely accepted homosexuality. We can tell that from what we see on tv, of course: the emergence of homosexual characters in both comedies and dramas proclaims their acceptance. But newspaper comic strips are more vulnerable to the whims and whams of praise or protest than tv seems to be, so when we see gays in comic strips, we can be pretty sure society at large accepts homosexuality as an aspect of humanity.

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