Feb 1, 2015

Terry and the Pirates

Terry and the Pirates (1934-1973) presented the most overt adult-teen homoromance in the comic strips.  When fourteen-year old Terry Lane first set out to search for his missing grandfather, accompanied by soldier of fortune Pat Ryan, he was a wide-eyed innocent who seemed to belong in a humor strip, quite out of place among the jungles, copra plantations, and seedy port cities of the South China Sea, where everybody had an angle, a price, and a lot of secrets.  He was even drawn differently from the other characters, with a round face and soft, curvy lines amid Milt Caniff’s trademark square-jawed, angular men and women.  Caniff often used humorously drawn outsider characters, like the pug-cute Dickie Dare and the eyeglassed, golly-gee-spurting Wash Tubbs, to link the preternatural world of adventure with the comfortable, familiar world back home.  But Terry was neither boy, like Dickie Dare, nor man, like Wash Tubbs.  He was a teenager, and he was growing up.

Most comic strip characters either do not age, or they jump from child to adult instantly, but Terry aged normally, celebrating his fifteenth birthday in 1935, his sixteenth in 1936, and so on.  As he approached manhood, his relationship with Pat Ryan became considerably more intimate than those of the other pairs, the homoromantic slipping inexorably into the homoerotic.  Terry and Pat were sometimes shown sharing a single bed, or showering together, or naked together.  In a 1936 strip, the sixteen-year old Terry has just bathed, and he is toweling off.  The towel shields his backside from readers, but his frontsize is fully exposed to Pat, who is gazing with obvious appreciation.

Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Don Winslow spent half of their time brawling with men and the other half kissing women, but as long as Terry is not yet a man, Pat Ryan actively avoids the tall, slinky femmes fatale who keep wrapping their arms around him.  . When jewelry fence–kept girl Burma throws herself at Pat for three weeks’ worth of strips, he consistently rejects her, consenting to a kiss only after she calls him “Yellow!”, denigrating his masculinity, eight times in three panels.  Then, after the kiss, he refuses to accept her purring “darlings.”

Pat’s masculinity is, indeed, open to question, in spite of his square-jawed stoicism and expertise at fisticuffs.  He is denigrated by worse terms than “yellow,” including “sissy” and “pansy,” but only by women, so he won’t have to fight back.  Late in 1936, when they are all shipwrecked on another island, Burma throws herself at the colonial administrator (although she is supposedly as hard as nails, she falls for every man she sees).  The solicitous Pat gives the adminstrator’s wife make-up and hairstyle tips so she can beat off the competition.  One expects that, if World War II had not broken out, Pat could have easily returned to America and opened a hair salon.

The sixteen and seventeen-year old Terry is often positioned structurally as a parallel to whatever tall, slinky woman is lusting after with Pat this time.  The lady strips down to her underwear, and in the next scene Terry strips down to his underwear.  Pat is knocked unconscious, and the lady gingerly holds him in her arms.  The next time Pat is knocked unconscious, Terry gingerly holds him in his arms, in precisely the same position.

Columbia’s adaption, released on May 5th, 1940, is one of the era’s few intentionally humorous movie serials (it was directed by James W. Horne, who did the Laurel and Hardy shorts).  Terry was played as a squealing teenager by 22-year old William Tracy, a rather stout, likeable blond.  Pat Ryan, the soldier-of-fortune bodyguard, was miscast with Granville Owen, adequately tall and muscular but only five years older than William Tracy – he had just finished playing a college student in Start Cheering (1938), and he would go on to play the eternally teenage Li’l Abner in the adaptation of the Al Capp comic strip (1940).

The two are by far the most physically expressive of homoromantic partners in movie serials, one with hand always firmly placed on the other’s arm, shoulder, or back, except when they are walking with their arms wrapped around each other’s waists. Terry screams and flails like a damsel in distress when he is terrorized by crocodiles, headhunters, and villains lobbing hand-grenades, and after Pat swoops down like Tarzan to save him, they embrace, Terry’s face pressed against Pat’s chest.  In an early chapter, they are bedded down for the night when a gorilla breaks into Terry’s room and tries to carry him away.  Pat rushes to the rescue, getting his shirt ripped off in the process.  Afterwards Terry stares appreciatively at Pat’s bulging muscles and hints “I’d feel a lot better if I slept with you tonight.” Pat agrees.

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