Aug 25, 2012

Goodbye, Horshack

Ron Palilo, who played cute-but-nerdy sweathog Arnold Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-79), has died at age 63.  Kotter made him a household name.  He didn't appear much on tv or in movies afterwards, but he was busy in live theater, and later he used his love of acting to become a drama teacher. He is survived by his partner of 41 years, Joseph Gramm.

I didn't watch Kotter very often.  The story  -- about a wisecracking underachiever who decides to move back to his old community and teach the new generation of underachievers at his old high school -- didn't appeal to me, when I was trying my best to get out of my home town.  I usually watched Chips instead.

I haven't seen enough episodes to determine if there was any significant gay content, but the closing bits always involved Kotter in bed with his wife, doing comedy schtick ("Hey, Julie, did I ever tell you about my Uncle Eddie?").  A man who uses standup comedy to stall for time when his wife wants to have sex -- sounds gay-vague to me.

The plotlines and catchphrases became part of the zeitgeist.  John Travolta, who played greaser Vinnie Barbarino, became a big star, thanks to some good movie roles (like Grease in 1978), and the strategic placement of beefcake shots.

But I liked Robert Hegyes as the Puerto Rican Jewish Juan Epstein: an Afro, a hairy chest, sleeveless shirts that displayed firm biceps, and a con-artist grin.  He specialized in forged notes from home: "Dear Mr. Kotter, please excuse Epstein today. He's sick. Signed, Epstein's Mother."

And there was a lot to be said for Horshack's quiet lunacy.

Aug 23, 2012

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

If Bye, Bye, Birdie got it completely wrong, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) got it right.  Set on the evening of the Beatles' American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, it follows the adventures of four girls trying to meet the Fab Four in person -- for various reasons.
1. To convince Paul McCartney to marry her.
2. To get a photo scoop.
3. To protest the Beatles' terrible music.
4. To have a fun evening with friends.

There are also 4 boys, there for various reasons.

1. The cute but nerdy Larry (Marc McClure, Jimmy Olsen in the 1978 Superman movie) lends them his car because he wants to fit it.

2. The sullen bad boy Tony (Bobby DiCicco) hates the Beatles and wants to protest.

3.  Ringo (Eddie Deezen) wants to make a lot of money by stealing a personal item from their hotel room.

4. Peter (Christian Juttner) is a big fan.

This is itself a big improvement, an acknowledgement that the Beatles appealed to both boys and girls.  But there is more.

Peter's interest in the Beatles marks him as gender-transgressive to his peers and parents.  His father especially hates his Beatles mop top -- "It makes you look like a girl," and refuses to let him go to the performance until he gets a haircut.  So he sneaks out, determined to stay true to both his devotion to the Beatles and his "girly" fashion sense.

Christian Juttner, then 14, specialized in male-bonding vehicles.  Unfortunately, his career ended with his adolescence, shortly after The Ghosts of Buxley Hall (1980).

Happy Days

Happy Days (1974-84) was a Tuesday-night sitcom about three high school boys in the 1950s, twenty years before, who concocted all sorts of wild schemes in their quest to fondle girls’ breasts. I always wondered about the title -- why were the 1950s so darn happy?  Because breasts were plentiful?  Or because contemporary “problems,” such those pesky gay people, didn’t exist?

Transforming the police-state decade of the 1950s into a Paradise of horny heterosexuals made Happy Days a phenomenon: it fomented Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, board games, lunch boxes, action figures, and half a dozen spinoff series, including Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, and Joanie Loves Chachi. The central cast, though neither built nor handsome enough to warrant a “kick in the gut” attraction, was certainly cute: Richie (Ron Howard), an eternally befuddled redhead; brash and brazen Ralph (Donny Most), who sometimes displayed his ample assets in tight jeans or a swimsuit; and Potsie (Anson Williams), puckish with gleaming eyes and a surprisingly buffed physique that he rarely if ever displayed on screen.

As the show aged, more muscle was introduced: in 1977 cousin Chachi (Scott Baio), whose muscles grew episode by episode; and in 1982 the immensely hot Flip Phillips (Billy Warlock), whose trademark cut-off t-shirt caused traffic accidents as male drivers jerked their heads around for a better look. 


The fourth major cast member and stand-out star, the ducktailed, leather-jacket clad Fonzie ( Henry Winkler of Lords of Flatbush), was renowned for his incessant heterosexual practice (wholesome and laudable in the 1970s, like eating a balanced diet).  He collected a boxful of engagement rings bestowed by hopeful girls, and needed only snap his fingers to bring several new volunteers running.

Yet Fonzie does not embody heterosexual practice at all, in spite of the innumerable poodle-skirt clad girls whose breasts he fondles (after shouting “Geronimo!”). He is no Casanova or Don Juan. Girls may be a pleasant diversion, but same-sex relationships are essential to survival. We see his life – his real life – in the closing shots of each episode, as he sits on his motorcycle in the parking lot of Arnold’s Drive In, surrounded by his friends, Richie, Potsie, and Ralph.

Fonzie is an odd addition to Richie’s gang: several years older and living on his own, employed full-time, he seems more likely a peer of their parents. Indeed, an 30-ish man who spends all of his time with high school boys would raise considerable suspicion today. 

 In early episodes, Fonzie is indeed an outsider, a dark and somewhat dangerous commentator on events, certainly not a friend. But gradually he begins to introject himself into every aspect of their lives, especially Richie’s life: he dines with Richie’s family every night, moves into an apartment over their garage, and takes classes secretly so he can graduate from high school with his friend. 

 In “Richie Almost Dies” (January 1978), as Richie lies in a coma, it is Fonzie, not his parents or a girlfriend, who refuses to leave his bedside. When Fonzie advises Richie against stealing an incriminating photograph in “Richie Gets Framed” (December 1978), his subliminal desire almost reaches the surface:

As my old grandma told me, two wrongs don’t make a right. [Pause.] Honey. [Pause.] And if you do this, you’ll never be able to look at that cherubim face [squeezes Richie’s cheeks] in the mirror again.

The stand-alone “Honey,” separated by a pause from its surrounding sentences, incites audience laughter because its speaker is indeterminate: we are not quite sure if Fonzie is still quoting his grandmother or himself referring to Richie as “Honey.” His facial expression, dark and almost alarmed, does not indicate embarrassment at using an affectionate term (and of course he could have made his point without it), but instead suggests an awareness that he is in uncharted and dangerous territory, perilously close to recognizing Richie an object of his own affection.

In “Mork Returns” (March 1979), the alien Mork (Robin Williams) arrives to conduct research on Earth life during the 1950s.  He hears not of incessant breast-fondling at Inspiration Point, the overt theme of Happy Days, but instead about the relationship between Richie and Fonzie: it is volatile, sometimes they fight, but they always make up. As Mork leaves to make his report, we hear “Isn’t it Romantic” playing in the background. The juxtaposition of a presumably homosocial friendship and a song presumably lauding heterosexual romance is stunning.

Aug 22, 2012

Phyllis Diller and Gay Childhood

Phyllis Diller, who has just died at the age of 95, was a fixture of the 1960s.  Her fright wigs, bizarre makeup, cigarette in a long holder, and raspy "ah-ha-ha" laugh appeared everywhere.

Her two 1960s tv series were flops; no one could stand her schtick for more than a few moments at a time.

But those few moments were priceless.

So she guest-starred on Laugh-In; she appeared in commercials; she did the voice of the Monster's Bride in  Mad Monster Party.

In her act, she pretended to be a "normal" suburban housewife.  Then she turned normalcy on its head. She hated cooking and housework. She was not attracted to her husband, a milquetoast humorously named Fang. He was not attracted to her.

That in itself was enough to make her a role model for gay kids.  She demonstrated that it was ok to be different, to reject the "normal" future of husbands, wives, and suburban houses, to not be attracted to the opposite sex.

One of my earliest memories is a tv commercial that appeared when I was four or five years old. Phyllis shows us a white business shirt ripped in back, and says "If you know my husband Fang, you know it didn't get this way from him flexing his muscles.  Ah-ha-ha!"

But I misunderstood.  I thought Fang did rip the shirt by flexing his muscles.  And I imagined what this muscular Fang might look like.

A promise of beefcake to a four-year old.

Aug 21, 2012

The Hunks of Fame

The tv series Fame (1982-87), about a high school for the performing arts, is notable for three things:

1. The cool opening sequence,  in which Debbie Allen brings the wannabe stars back to earth.  I can still quote it verbatim:
You got big dreams?  You want fame?
Well, let me tell you, fame costs.
And here's where you start paying. . .in sweat!

2. The complete heterosexualizing of the cast.  In the 1980 movie, one of the aspiring dancers, singers, and actors was gay (ok, one of the depressed Hollywood gays, who moaned "Never being happy isn't the same thing as being sad).  But in the tv series (as in the 2009 remake starring Paul Iocono), we don't get even that. Gay people do not exist.

3. The hunks.  The male cast members were, every one of them, muscular and gorgeous, and frequently without shirts.

Gene Anthony Ray as sullen dancer Leroy (top photo).

Billy Hufsey as soulful singer Chris, who posed in the gay-coded After Dark.

But my favorite was probably Carlo Imperato, because his muscles were so unexpected. His Danny Amatullo was a wisecracking comedian, for heaven sake.  Who'd expect Jerry Seinfeld or Jay Leno to be built?  But he was:

Here's another, to give you the general idea.


Greg Evigan: The Trucker and his Chimp

During the late 1970s, there was a trucker fad. The truck driver (or sometimes any driver, as in Dukes of Hazzardbecame the new cowboy, a loner who followed his own rules and thumbed his nose at the establishment.  People started throwing around terms like  "smokey" for cop and phrases like "10-4, Good Buddy" for "Goodbye."

Maybe the gas crisis made people long for the freedom of gas-guzzling semis.

On tv, the quintessential trucker-hero drama was BJ and the Bear (1979-81).  B.J. McKay, played by Greg Evigan, ran a freelance truck-driving business, got harassed by the smokies (especially Southern-fried Sheriff Lobo, who eventually spun off into his own series, starring gay ally Brian Kerwin).  As is usual in road tv, the plots involved BJ fixing the problems of the people he met along the way.  After resolving the crisis, he would head out into the sunset with his "best friend Bear," a chimpanzee named after the University of Alabama football coach.

I knew Greg Evigan from A Year at the Top (1977-78), a sitcom about two musicians who sell their soul to the devil in exchange for a year of fame.  It offered lots of bonding.

Unfortunately, BJ and the Bear didn't seem to.  I never watched the show, but the tv promos invariably showed B.J. picking up a semi-clad female supermodel who was hitchhiking or had car trouble en route to the Swedish Bikini Team tryouts.  As if that superfluous cheesecake wasn't sufficient, in the second season B.J. became the owner of a trucking company, and hired several female drivers with large breasts, including one named "Stacks."

But my friends and I often joked about the producers naming their character after a sexual act.

And Greg Evigan was nice to look at.  His semi-clad pictures soon flooded the teen magazines, even though he wasn't a teenager and he didn't sing.

A decade later, Evigan returned to television in My Two Dads (1987-1990), which wasn't about gay marriage. But he did play a gay doctor on Melrose Place.

Silver Streak

Silver Streak, a 1976 homage to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), seems odd for a movie that I found "good beyond hope" as a teenager.  Homely, frizzy-blond Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), plays mild-mannered but randy book editor George Caldwell.  He's traveling from L.A. to Chicago via train for some reason, and since this is the 1970s, where every conversation is about sex, he hooks up with a secretary (Jill Clayburgh), who admits that she can’t type or take shorthand but “gives great phone," while he brags that he edits sex manuals ("I know what goes where, and why").  Back at the cabin, preparing for "phone," George sees her boss, a renowned art professor (do art professors get renowned?) fall past the window, shot to death.

Hilly doesn’t believe that George saw anything, but art dealer Devereau (suave Patrick McGoohan) does; we discover that Devereau has masterminded many murders, and that he intends to kill Hilly as soon as the train reaches Chicago. But before George can help, Devereau’s henchmen toss him off the train.

Framed for the professor’s murder, George wanders through rural Oklahoma with every Sheriff Lobo in a dozen counties chasing him, and to evade arrest, he steals a police car – with car thief Grover Muldoon handcuffed in the back seat. Grover is played by Richard Pryor, star of a few blaxsploitation vehicles and writer for such programs as The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son.

The two experience an immediate, jaw-dropping attraction. They can’t seem to stop grinning at each other like schoolboys in love, in spite of the danger of their situation.

 Their union quickly becomes permanent: after they evade a police barricade and reach the safety of Kansas, Grover has no reason to stick around, yet he helps George steal a second car and drives with him through gorgeously-photographed rural landscapes while Henry Mancini’s romantic theme plays in the background. And their relationship becomes increasing physical: when they reach the train station in Kansas City, Grover grabs George’s hand, then puts his arm around him and pulls him close (ostensible to pull him out of danger); George responds by laying his head on Grover’s shoulder. 


They reboard the train together, and when the evil Devereau recaptures George, Grover dons a porter’s disguise and rescues him.

 After a gunfight, they are thrown from the train again, and grab at each other as they fall into a river. 

 Only after George is cleared of the murder charge and joins a cadre of federal agents out to capture Devereau does Grover opt to end their union. The two clasp hands, and then forearms, gazing at each other with an intensity that is painful to watch. George tries to say something chummy: “If you ever need anything. . . .” But Grover knows that they have transcended words. He touches his hand to his heart, and they slowly pull apart.

But he can’t leave, not yet. As George and the federal agents stop the train and exchange gunfire with Devereau and his henchmen, Grover inexplicitly re-appears.

 George knocks him over in the fury of his embrace, and then they reboard the train yet again to rescue the girl.

Finally, when the runaway train has stopped by crashing into Chicago’s Union Station, and George and Hilly -- the girl he spent ten minutes with -- discuss their future together -- Grover realizes that he has no chance with George. This time he permits no long farewell aching with desire: he steals a car and scrams. 

On the lobby card, Gene Wilder stands facing the camera, his arm around Jill Clayburgh. Off to the side, Richard Pryor is staring at them, a patently fake grin on his face. He has been abandoned.

Many gay and gay-friendly artists collaborated to produce this poignant evocation of same-sex love that almost – but not quite – triumphs over frenetic skirt-chasing.  Gay screenwriter Colin Higgins infused Foul Play (1978), Nine to Five (1980), and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) with a pleasantly low-key ambisexuality. Arthur Hiller directed many of the hunkfests of the 1960’s, such as The Rifleman and Route 66, and made an early attempt to portray gay men in a positive light in Making Love (1982). Richard Pryor was openly bisexual and supported many gay causes.  And Gene Wilder noted that he and Pryor had “an almost sexual relationship. It's like lovers. When we see each other on the set there's a certain nervousness, a little anticipation. . .People call [it] a chemistry, but I call it an energy, like a sexual energy. . .it's almost as if [we're] lovers who have just met.”

Aug 20, 2012

Mission: Impossible

On Sunday nights in the 1960s, if we were lucky, we'd get home from church by 9:00 pm, just in time to see a brawny hand strike a match to light a fuse, which sizzled into a fast montage of action scenes set to a jazzy score. Mission: Impossible.

By the way, the hand belonged to series producer Bruce Geller, and the score was by Lalo Schifrin.

When you're starved for beefcake in a cold Midwestern winter, even a hand is evocative.

Before 1969, my brother and I weren't allowed to stay up past 9:00, and by the 1970s it had moved to Saturday nights, when we usually had something else to do (no way to record programs back then), so I have only seen three years of episodes.

Mission: Impossible belonged to the 1960s spy craze, along with Wild Wild West, Get Smart, Hogan's Heroes, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  The plots: the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) engaged in Cold War espionage, usually involving wearing disguises to trick a communist leader into signing a peace treaty or prevent a communist general from taking over a "peace loving" country. An occasional Mafia don or master-criminal thrown in.

Not a lot of bonding. In fact, two of the team members, Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) and Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) specialized in seducing opposite-sex targets.  But Barney Collier (Greg Morris), the electronics whiz, and Willie Armitage (Peter Lupus), the weightlifter, rarely expressed any interest in girls.

And Peter Lupus was not shy about displaying his physique.  A frequent model for muscle magazines, he  was a Playgirl 1974.

Donny Osmond Doll

Speaking of toys, my sister had a Donny Osmond doll, which came out in 1976 as a tie in with his tv show, Donny and Marie (1976-79).  There was also his sister Marie, which you could use to do a duet of their theme song, "A Little Bit Country/A Little Bit Rock and Roll," and little brother Jimmy, which wasn't good for much of anything (I don't like Jimmy. He makes homophobic remarks).

I was a teenager, and thought myself too old for dolls, but the Donny figure was nice to look at -- bulging in all the right places.  So one day I checked, and sure enough, the manufacturers had realized that a certain percentage of kids would be interested in undressing the doll, so they eliminated the G.I. Joe problem -- he was almost all naturalistic.  There was even a little bump to ensure that he filled out his pants properly.

Aug 19, 2012

The Comic Book Jungle

When I was a kid, in the 1960s, I didn't care much for DC and Marvel comics. Whenever I picked up an issue, it turned out to be the middle of a story that would go on for months, with installments in three or four different titles.

Gold Key Comics were a godsend, with stories that concluded in one issue. They offered Disney's Donald Duck traveling to Tibet or the Amazon, Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig as Indiana Jones-style adventure archaeologists, and even more jungle beefcake than DC and Marvel.  (I also liked Harveys and Archies, but not Charlton).

1. Tarzan.  This was the Edgar Rice Burroughs version, articulate, wealthy, and retired from vine-swinging on a jungle plantation – and, when the television series began in 1966, illustrated by pin-up quality pictures of Ron Ely. Jane was usually absent; instead, Tarzan spends most of his time bonding with various noble Africans and extremely chummy white explorers. The testosterone-laced atmosphere is embued with a surprising degree of tenderness: In “Message in the Snows,” Tarzan and two explorers named George and Alec are captured by giant Autralopitheci. George is wounded. Cradling him lovingly in his arms, Alec cries “Oh, please don’t die! Not now – not yet!”

2. The back-of-the-comic, The Jungle Twins, which spun off into its own title in 1972, introduced the identical cousins, both with amazing physiques and a dislike for clothing. On an extended visit with Uncle Tarzan, they adopt a golden lion and use it to rescue a girl from a savage human sacrifice. She asks suggestively“How can I ever thank you?,” but they skip the kiss. “Don’t thank us! Thank. . .the golden lion.”

3. Korak, Son of Tarzan: not the Boy of the MGM movies, a curly-haired muscleman in leopard-skin Speedos.  He is not interested in girls, though he has a heterosexist back story, and spends a lot of time orchestrating heterosexual romances for others. For instance, in “Valley of the Monsters,” he saves an attractive young urban African named Muhammed Isolo (“graduate of Oxford University”) and helps him “go native,” strip to a loincloth and marry a native girl.

4. His back-of-the-comic feature, Brothers of the Spear, also spun off into its own title in 1972. They are the white Dan-El and the black Natonga, co-rulers of the lost kingdom of Aba-Zulu. They happen to have wives, but their administrative duties and marriages never take front-stage to the joy of stripping down to a loincloth and spending some quality time in the bush. 

5. Turok Son of Stone had the most interesting premise of the lot: two Stone Age Indians, the young Turok and the middle-aged Andar, are trapped in a lost world full of dinosaurs and savages. Both have magnificent physiques, of course, and they spend their stories trying to get home and rescuing each other from monsters, with no girl in sight..

Hours of beefcake and bonding for 12 cents apiece-- well in the early 1970s, 20 cents, then 30, 40, and 50 in quick succession, until the company finally folded in 1982.

See also: DC Comics Muscle

Leif Garrett in Love

Speaking of Leif Garrett, did you know that he fell in love in on CHiPs in 1979?

He plays Jimmy Tyler, a burnt-out rock star who is involved in a traffic accident. As he lies in his hospital bed, his manager, Frank Balford (Bill Daily of The Bob Newhart Show), rushes in a panic to his side. They argue: Jimmy accuses Frank of being all business, insufficiently attentive to his needs, and Frank retorts that he should be grateful that someone cares enough to handle the thousands of details necessary to maintain a rock star. They break up. Frank is heartbroken, but won’t admit it. Instead, he falls into the incoherence that we have seen often in actors and writers trying to express something that lies hidden in the depths of their characters.

Frank: When you’ve been with someone as long as I’ve been with him. . .he’s been with me. . . .

Ponch: [Helpfully.] You’ve been together.

Frank: I produced the first song he ever wrote.

Ponch: “Give In.”

Frank: That’s what brought us together. [Bitterly.] It used to mean something to him.

Ponch: Maybe it still does. If you walk away, you’ll never know.

The middle aged, less than dashing Bill Daily seems an odd choice for true love, but Daily was no stranger to gay-vague roles, and Leif’s characters often displayed romantic interest in older, less-than-dashing men.

The implication that they are a romantic couple intensifies when Jimmy, distraught over the break up, pulls his Ferrari to the side of the highway because he is crying too hard too drive; such hysterics seem somewhat odd for terminating a business relationship.

“It’s confusion in my head, trying to work things out,” Jimmy explains to the solicitous Ponch and Jon, his incoherence matching Frank’s. 

 Officer Jon invites him back to his apartment – why not Ponch, who invites stray boys home in every other episode? Maybe Ponch’s dazzling smile and tightly-packed uniform was too potent to combine with an androgyne with big hair and tightly-packed chinos. Even so, when Jon and Jimmy appear chummy in bathrobes the next morning, drinking milk, it is hard not to imagine that they are immersed in a “morning after” glow.

Jimmy soon realizes that he is lost, both personally and professionally, without Frank, but there will have to be some changes made before he is willing to take him back. “I feel things!” he exclaims. “I’m not just a piece of merchandise!” (Surely the original line was “piece of meat.”)

Officers Ponch and Jon, who like many sitcom stars have little else to do but engineer romances, devise a complex scheme to reunite the couple. Jon talks Jimmy into performing at “Skate with the Stars,” a charity roller disco exposition, and Ponch importunes Frank to attend with some of his celebrity friends. Neither realizes that the other will be there. Frank enters as Jimmy is singing “Give In,” the song that brought them together (coincidentally featured:

Give in to all the fire in your heart.

You know I want to enter every part

Of your heart and soul.

Let yourself go, give in.

Though Frank turns abruptly to leave and Ponch has to restrain him, his eyes mist up at the memory of Jimmy entering “every part” of his. . .um. . .heart and soul.  

 After some “what’s he doing here!” posturing, the officers literally shove the two together. Frank promises that he’ll “hire some people” so it won’t be just business anymore; they’ll “spend some time together." They hug – not a tepid Hollywood grab, but a weepy, full-body, head-nuzzling, never-letting-go hug. 

 The camera pans out to freeze-shots of Jon grinning, Ponch leering, and then Jon looking embarrassed when he sees the two still clinched.

 “I think we can let them go,” Jon says.

Only then does the hug break, and the actors shake hands. This seems to be a mistake, an out of character Leif telling Bill Daily “it was a pleasure working with you.” The last image we should see, the image has remained fixed in my mind, is of the two men, certainly lovers, holding each other tightly.


The only reason to watch CHiPs (1977-83) was to watch California Highway Patrol Officers Ponch (dark Hispanic bodybuilder Erik Estrada) and Jon (babyfaced blond Larry Wilcox) speeding on their motorcycles down silvery loops of southern California freeway.  

Ok, there were campy cameos, from Jim Backus and Natalie Schaefer of Gilligan’s Island to Milton Berle to H. R. Pufnstuf.  But the opening sequence revealed the program’s real focus, juxtaposing screen-filling shots of motorcycle parts with the officers’ equally hard and technologically-enhanced chests, butts, boots, and black leather gloves.  

Both officers filled out their khaki uniforms beautifully, but Erik Estrada, named one of the “Ten Sexiest Bachelors in the World” by People magazine in 1979, was stunning in a tank top or shirtless, his muscles dark and massive with just a hint of chest hair.  Many of the male guest stars were equally hot, and they were endlessly inviting the Ponch and Jon to swimming pools, beaches, yachts, and other places where male regulars and extras could dressed as skimpily as possible. 

Oddly, for all the beefcake, the producers were quite heterosexist; according to associate producer Randy Torno, “it epitomized everything about the good life in America – the beaches, the girls, the freedom.” There were no men on those beaches?  There were no gay characters anywhere.

Playing to a universe where same-sex desire most emphatically could not exist, Ponch and Jon shared few of the moments of the romantic attraction that characterized their contemporaries Starsky and Hutch, but they made up for it by befriending endless strings of has-been sitcom boys playing troubled teens (Adam Rich, Keith Coogan, Ike Eisenmann, Todd Bridges); indeed, Ponch rarely expressed interest in a girl unless she had a teenaged brother for him to comfort with a dazzling smile, a massive arm around the waist, and an invitation to a ball game or sleepover.

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?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...