May 22, 2017

My Uncle's Queer: Joel's Transformation from Choir Boy to Punk Rocker

Rock Island, December 1999

I am in grad school in New York, visiting Rock Island and Indianapolis for the holidays, staying with my brother Kenny in his rundown, rambling house downtown.  The house is crowded with Kenny's four kids, his new wife, and her three kids, plus a huge assortment of dogs, cats, hamsters, and parrots.

It's easy to miss Joel, Ken's youngest son, in the crowd: he's thirteen years old, short, slim, a quiet, polite Johnny Nazarene.  But a talented singer: he's toured in Iowa, Minnesota, and Sweden with the Moline Boys' Choir.  We go to their Christmas concert and hear his solo in "Come, O Come Emmanuel."

December 2000

Yuri and I are visiting Rock Island for the holidays. My family practices a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, so they don't know if we're friends or boyfriends or lovers.  Most of them probably don't even know that we are gay.  But Joel figures it out.  Although he claims to be straight, he asked us to teach him and his friend Max "how gay guys have sex."

Yuri and I teach him about gay kissing.

August 2001

I've completed my Ph.D., and I'm visiting Rock Island for a few days just before moving to Florida.  Joel is a cute 15 year old with short black hair, pale skin, and nicely rounded biceps.  Nazarenes aren't allowed to listen to "the devil's music," basically anything with guitars, but he likes Weezer, Nickelback, and other groups that I never heard of, but sound loud.

Oddly, Ken doesn't forbid it.  "It's his life," my brother says.  "If he likes the devil's music, that's on him."

Joel asks why I didn't bring Yuri.  "You guys are, like, hot together, aren't you?"

Ken glares at me, accusing me of outing myself to his son.  "Boomer has a lot of friends, all kinds," he explains.  "Black, white, Jewish, Muslim, gay, straight.  He's so liberal, it hurts."

December 2001

Joel is a surly 15-year old, dressed all in black, who protests the "capitalist spending frenzy" of Christmas.  He spends most of his time in the room he shares with his brothers, listening to metal music.  He emerges to eat a bowl of Lucky Charms instead of Christmas dinner, and to ask "So, Uncle Gizmo, are the beach boys hot down in Florida?  I bet you get tons of action."

In front of the whole family, including relatives I wasn't out to!

"Um...well, I do ok," I stammer.

Later I ask Kenny if Joel is gay.

"Nope, nope, nope!" Kenny exclaims.  "He's totally hot for girls.  He's got a little gay friend, but that doesn't mean a thing."

June 2003

Maybe Kenny is angry about my accidental outing, or maybe he's just busy, but he doesn't invite me to Christmas in Rock Island in 2002. I don't visit again until June 2003.

Joel has just turned 17.  He has long green hair, earrings,  and a pierced lip.  He gives me a hug and calls me "Beach Boy,"

He just got back from Hardcore Fest, where he heard Walls Of Jericho, Suicide Note, Saved By Grace, As We Speak, Provoke, How It Ends, Devastator, Preacher Gone To Texas, Blood In Blood Out, Too Pure To Die, For Death or Glory, Wings Of Scarlet, Uphold, Begin Again, King of Clubz, Pound for Pound, Undo Tomorrow, Haunted Life and Butt Lynt.

"Sounds like a great lineup," I tell him.

And naturally he's the lead vocalist in his own punk band, The Dead Eunuchs.

June 2004

Joel has a bright red mohawk, and his group, The Dead Eunuchs, have been performing all over the Quad Cities.  Tonight they have a gig at the Rusty Nail in Davenport.

"You should come," Joel says.  "We play a great set."

Well -- I'm not much for punk music in noisy heterosexual bars. "I don't think..."

 "You'll like one of our songs.  It's called 'My Uncle is Queer.'"

The full story, with nude photos and explicit sexual language, is on Tales of West Hollywood.

Nancy: Lesbian Panic in a 1950s Comic Book

The cheesecake comic strip Fritzi Ritz premiered in 1922, with gags involving the aspiring model and her series of boyfriends, notably the nerdish Phil Fumble.  And a lot of sex jokes.

In 1933, Fritzie took in her orphaned niece, Nancy, a mischievous and rather melodramatic child.  Soon Nancy became the star -- the titular character in 1938 -- and acquired a series of friends and antagonists, including poor boy Sluggo.  Fritzie became mostly-absent parental figure.

Nancy has remained in print ever since. In contemporary strips, written by Guy Gilchrist, Fritzie is in her 50s and works as a music reviewer.

Nancy appeared in several issues of Dell Four Color and Dell Giants, and got her own title in 1957 (numbered #146 for some reason).

When John Stanley retired from the Little Lulu comic book,, he went to work on Nancy, writing all of the stories in issues #162  through #173, and then the renamed Nancy and Sluggo through #185 (1961).

Stanley specialized in the terrors and anxieties of childhood, and in Nancy's world  he goes unbrindled. The result is disturbing, sometimes painful to read.

Fritzie is at best neglectful, and sometimes downright abusive.

Nancy is jealous, spiteful, vindictive, petty, and vain.

Sluggo lives alone in an abandoned house and often goes hungry, unless Nancy agrees to feed him.

They are not friends, like Lulu and Tubby; they are dating, adding dark humor to their interactions as Stanley hints about just how physical they have become.

Neither has other friends, just antagonists and enemies who ridicule, criticize, manipulate, and harass them.

Sluggo has an adult nemesis who literally intends to kill him.

And the weird physical manipulations that, in Little Lulu, happened in stories, here happen in real interactions with the yoyos, who will transform you permanently unless you trick them into letting you go.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of the yoyos are the adults who fall into their trap, and spend their entire lives transformed, until, in old age, Nancy rescues them.

To top it off, there's Oona Goosepimple, who looks like Wednesday Addams from the Addams Family comics, an orphan (that's three of the regular cast).  She lives in a spooky old house with her usually absent grandmother.  Other relatives usually appear, as threats.

One uncle is a giant, lying asleep in the basement.  If he ever awakens, his movements will bring down the house.  So Grandma keeps him drugged.

Nancy dislikes the "creepy" Oona, and rejects all of her overtures of friendship -- but finds herself drawn unwillingly to the house anyway.

She is invited to a party, but arrives to discover that she is the only guest.

Oona pushes Nancy to eat cookies, play games, and spend the night.

Nancy tries to refuse, but can't help herself.

A weird compulsion to spend the night with a creepy girl, or eat the forbidden fruit.

During the 1950s, gay men and lesbians were portrayed as expert seducers, pulling innocents unwillingly into their "deviance."

Just another of the horrors of Nancy's world.

See also: Little Lulu

May 21, 2017

Tom of Finland

When I was in grad school in Bloomington, Indiana in the early 1980s, I used to buy a gay porn magazine at College Avenue Books:  In Touch for Men, which featured not only pictures of naked men, but articles on gay history and culture, dating tips, movie reviews, and even comics.

I was particularly drawn to a series of non-verbal, single-panel comics featuring macho icons like bikers, cops, lumberjacks, and cowboys, impossibly muscular and impossibly well endowed, interacting with each other.  Aggressive, athletic, and masculine, they were a sharp contrast to the contemporary mass media depictions of gay men as soft, willowy sissies.

They all had the same "look": they had wavy hair, Castro Clone moustaches, long faces, and square jaws.  They were always smiling, enjoying every moment of their lives.

There were occasional romantic or humorous moments, but mostly the comics were about sex.  Not the furtive, guilty sex of the 1960s tea rooms -- this was bold, aggressive, joyful, in public, in full view of passersby, who, more often than not, would ask to join in.

There was no homophobia in this world, but not much gay culture, either. Not many gay rights marches or meetings of the Gay Activists Alliance, not a lot of scenes set on Christopher Street.  Impossibly muscular, impossibly well endowed men interacted in police stations, gas stations, army barracks, tattoo parlors, in the woods.  It was a raw, primal world of same-sex desire.  I had never seen anything like it.

The artist was Tom of Finland, aka Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), who began publishing drawings in the early Physique Pictorial in the 1950s.  By 1973, he had become so famous that he was able to quit his job in advertising and devoted himself full-time to his art.  He published in In Touch, Mandate, the Meatmen series of gay comic anthologies, and eventually in comic-book length (but wordless) tales of Kake, a gay man on the prowl.

By the time I discovered him, in the 1980s, Tom was falling out of favor.  His work was not political enough, ignored homophobia and AIDS, and portrayed gay men as obsessed with sex.  Besides, it set the bar for male beauty impossibly high, ruining the self-esteem of those who didn't fit his rigid standards of age, size, and body type.  

Ok, but sometimes you just want to look at hot guys.

Today Tom has been rediscovered.  There are retrospectives of his work in museums in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berlin, and Helsinki.   You can buy Tom of Finland books, dolls, and a cologne.  In September 2014, Finland released a series of postage stamps featuring iconic Tom's men.

See also: Sean and the World of Gay Leathermen; The Mystery of Cavelo; and Gay Comics of the 1980s.