Aug 19, 2012

The Subtext in Casper the Friendly Ghost

When I was a kid in the 1960s, my favorite comic book title was Harvey, with its odd jack-in-the-box logo and its fantasy characters (Casper the Friendly Ghost, Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost, Hot Stuff the Little Devil)

Harvey also produced comics about human kids, like Richie Rich, Little Dot, and Little Lotta.  Casper the Friendly Ghost was about a ghost boy who lives with three nameless adult guardians in the Enchanted Forest (Not to be confused with the inferior Charlton knockoff Timmy the Timid Ghost).

In Casper’s world, ghosts were not dead people, but beings in their own right, who are born, grow up, take jobs and houses, and eventually grow old and die.  The stories were mostly proto-science fiction, about alien invaders and superspies with brainwashing ray guns.

Gay-coded, but no sissy or milquetoast, Casper is a strong-willed nonconformist, a Vietnam-Era pacifist who refuses to follow the hawkish status quo of ghost society. So strong are his principles that even when his life is in danger, he refuses to “boo” his way to safety.

Casper has an ally and confidant in Wendy, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed witch girl in a red jumpsuit who lives with three guardians of her own. They are not romantically involved; they are merely friends and comrades, thrown together by their common disdain for the social institutions that tell them they must scare. Neither expresses any heterosexual interest. (The 1995 movie starring Devon Sawa turned Casper heterosexual.)

But occasionally Casper moves beyond a simple lack of heterosexual desire to offer a glimpse of that other world. His efforts to bond with other beings (almost always male) sometimes transcend the merely friendly, especially whe the objects of his attention are perfect strangers whose struggles may cost him his life. He accompanies Oliver Ogre on a perilous journey to the moon (Casper 113, January 1968), and helps an ancient Egyptian pharaoh regain his throne from a villainous usurper in (Casper 117, August 1968). When his new friends are adult humans, pixies, or Greek gods, drawn with the hard tight chests and rippling biceps more commonly associated with the DC and Marvel lines, it is easy to locate romantic attraction among his motives.

We see similar gay subtexts in “The Evil Planet” (Casper in Space 6, June 1973): Casper dreams that he has joined the deep space expedition of Crash Hammerfist, a Buck Rogers-type adventurer drawn as a brawny muscleman. They land on The Evil Planet, where flying bird-men abduct Crash’s female companion, Gale. While Casper calmly evaluates their options, Crash goes to pieces:

Crash: This is a disaster! Look – my cape is ruined! I can’t explore this evil planet looking like this!

Casper: [Trying to keep him focused on the crisis.] Is Gale your girlfriend?

Crash: No. . .she’s my seamstress. She made this entire outfit. [Hand swishily on hip.] Do you like it?

Casper: [Looking decidedly suspicious.] Er. . .yes.

At Casper’s urging, they ignore the soiled cape and set out to rescue Gail. They discover that she is being forced to compete in a beauty contest; the winner will become the wife of Emperor Zinzang, a young, slim Castro Clone. 

 When Crash bursts in, flexing his muscles and issuing taunts, the Emperor seems quite impressed, if not downright attracted; he forgets all about the beauty contest and challenges the superhero to single combat. They spend several panels lunging, grabbing, and jumping on top of each other, in the process accidentally shredding their outfits so the interplay of their muscles becomes even more evident.

During a lull in the battle, the Emperor explains to Casper that he really likes Crash, and he’s not evil, he’s just crazed with power – he received a year’s worth of invulnerability for his 27th birthday, and he’s been behaving rudely ever since. But in a few minutes he’ll be 28, normal again, and Crash will annihilate him.

Casper suggests that he call a truce and apologize for abducting Gail, and then he and Crash could start over as friends. The Emperor agrees.

 Then, abruptly, Casper wakes up. We never find out if the Emperor selects a wife, or if Crash and Gail ever leave the Evil Planet. Should we attribute this sudden jerk into “reality” to the writer’ incompetence, to running out of space in the issue, or to the realization that the only logical conclusion to the story as portrayed involves Crash and the Emperor arm in arm, watching the sun set on the Evil Planet?

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