Sep 15, 2014

Winthrop: A Gay Kid in 1960s Comics

When I was a kid, if you wanted a good comic strip, like The Wizard of Id or Doonesbury, you had to go across the Mississippi to Iowa and buy the Davenport Times-Democrat. A lot of people did.  Rock Island's newspaper, The Argus (what kind of stupid name was that?), ran only thousand-year old strips like Out Our Way and Alley Oop.

And bargain-basement knock-offs.  Instead of Peanuts, with Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy, we got Winthrop, about a similar group of kids, but with none of the humor or ironic wit.

Apparently Winthrop wasn't intended to be a Peanuts knock-off.  Dick Cavalli started it in 1956 as Morty Meekle, about a mild-mannered office drone who was dating Jill Wortle over her father's strong objections.  Eventually he found the "disapproving dad" schtick too limiting, and started centering strips around Jill's preteen brother Winthrop.  In 1966, Morty and Jill vanished forever, and the strip was renamed Winthrop.

But at least it had gay-vague characters.

Winthrop had a set of quirky friends and relatives, most of whom I don't recall. There was a parrot who quoted Shakespeare, a best friend, a girl with a crush on him, a sister, a bully...nothing special.

But Spotless McPartland was nattily dressed, an intellectual, not into sports, and a germaphobe, sort of the Felix Ungar of the comic strip crowd.

And Foster Norman encapsulated the childhood fear of balloons: they might lift you off the ground and send you soaring into space.

He floated, balloon in hand, over the landscape, week after week, year after year.  He couldn't come down; he was lost  He looked on from above, occasionally making ironic comments about a world that no longer made sense, with rules that he no longer understood.

Even his name was evocative: "Foster," a foster child, someone who doesn't really belong, and "Norman," close to "no man," a boy who will never become a man.

I understood being an outsider, looking onto a world that made no sense, where the cries of "What girl do you like?" filled the air, and same-sex bonds were trivialized and ignored.

I was floating, observing but not belonging.  I was the boy with the balloon.

See also: Gay-coded Peanuts.