Nov 27, 2015

Howard Cruse: The World's Most Depressing Gay Comic Artist

I just bought From Headrack to Claude, a compendium of the work of Howard Cruse, with author commentary.

He's one of the most famous gay cartoonists of all time, so I thought I should give his work another chance.

Until recently  I thought it was a nom de plume, Howard Cruise, as in a play on cruising.

I first heard of "Howard Cruise" in the early 1980s, when the Advocate featured his comic strip Wendel.

Wendel was an average-looking, not-too-bright gay guy getting himself into mildly amusing situations as he negotiated life in the gay ghetto of New York.  Cruising, dating, romance...homophobia, AIDS, misery, heartache, despair pain, sadness, death.

Soon the mildly amusing situations gave way to the grim and heartrending, as Wendel faced gay-bashing, breakups, debilitating non-AIDS related illnesses, homophobia, AIDS, death, death, misery, depression, despair, heartache, pain, death, death, death.

This cover shows Wendel, his boyfriend, and their son watching in dismay as murderous hands approach, and the voice on the radio says: "We red-blooded, God-fearing Americans know what to do with the degenerates in our midst."

Who could stand to read the thing?

Eventually Cruse squeezed all of the tears he could get out of Wendel, and put him out to pasture, turning to other depressing projects.  In 1987, Dancing Nekkid with the Angels appeared: Comic Strips and Stories for Grownups.  

For grownups?  Does that mean that the gloves would come off, that the glimmers of humor that occasionally appeared in Wendel would be gone, replaced by "life is endless pain, unremitting agony!"

Sorry, there aren't enough antidepressants in the world to handle that.  I ran.

Next came a graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby published in 1995.

Ok, the title was disgusting -- who wants to read a graphic novel about a rubber baby with needles sticking out of it?

Upon research, I discovered the title is actually an incredibly obscure reference to what happens when a condom (aka rubber) gets "stuck," allowing semen to escape and conception to occur.  That's even more disgusting.   And it doesn't seem like a problem gay people have often.

It is the semi-autobiographical story of a boy experiencing the unremitting agony of life while growing up in the 1950s South.  Of course, most everyone he meets want to kick him out of the house, beat him up, arrest him, or kill him because he's gay, but that's only the tip of the iceberg of the gloom and despair:
1. His parents die in an auto accident, naturally.
2. He has sex with a woman to "cure" his gayness, and gives up the resulting child for adoption.
3. His friend is murdered.
4. A community center is bombed, killing lots of his friends.
5. His other friend is murdered.

Ok, I get it: gay people are doomed to lives of constant pain, unremitting agony, sadness, heartache, depression, despair, tragedy, gloom, death, death, death, death, death.

Or is it everybody, just the human condition?

From Headrack to Claude is supposed to contain "all" of  Cruse's 1970s Barefootz underground comix, Wendel (of course), Stuck Rubber Baby, some depressing one-pagers, and a send-up of the 1950s comic book Little Lulu.  Her traumatic memories involve child molestation, drug addiction, masturbation, fetishes, and...well, you get the idea.

Claude is about how all religious people are violent homophobes who want to kill us.


Look at this picture of a guy with washboard abs and huge veiny biceps.

Now try to convince yourself that life is unremitting agony.

See also: Gay Comix of the 1980s.; The Horrible Beefcake of the Horrible Home Town of Howard Cruse

Nov 25, 2015

Are the Pantos Gay?

Before researching my post on Father, Dear Father, I had never heard of a pantomime or panto, in spite of my years of study of English literature and hours of watching British tv. Apparently everyone raised in Britain has fond memories of Christmas pantomimes, but never writes about them or mentions them on tv, almost if as if they're too personal to share with the rest of the world.

The pantomime is a type of musical comedy performed during the Christmas season, using well-known stories.   Next winter, for instance, you will be able to attend the pantos of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Pan, Puss in Boots, Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Treasure Island, and Robin Hood (prices range from $12 to $30 U.S.)

It's important for the basic plot to be familiar, since it will be skewed, augmented with satiric bits, slapstick, references to current events, and ad-lib scenes.  The audience, mostly children, will interact with the cast, boo the villain, ask questions, shout "It's behind you!", and even argue: "Oh, no it isn't!" "Oh, yes it is!."

There are five standard characters, plus a chorus and various comedic players:
1. The Principal Boy, traditionally played by a girl in drag, but now more often a tv star, such as Ray Quinn of The X Factor as Aladdin (top photo), or a boy band hunk.

That explains why, when I saw Peter Pan back in the 1960s, Peter was played by Mary Martin.  And why the audience had to shout "I believe in fairies" to save Tinker Belle's life.  Panto roots.  But it doesn't explain the creepy dog in the nanny cap, or why people who aren't sick need to take "medicine."

2. The Dame, usually the Main Boy's mother, traditionally played by a man in drag.

3. The Comic Lead, the Main Boy's zany friend or servant, often played by another celebrity, such as Robin Askwith, or wrestler Nick Aldis as the Genie in Aladdin (left).

4. The Love Interest, an attractive woman with whom the Principal Boy will find love. If the original story lacks hetero-romance, not to worry, one will be added.  For instance, in the Wizard of Oz panto, Dorothy falls in love with Elvis.

5. The Villain, male, female, or a drag performer.

Questions immediately arise: why the drag?  What does it mean to watch a woman in male drag fall in love with a woman?  Does it ameliorate the heterosexism of the boy-and-girl plotline?  Are the pantos gay?

Maybe not.  Maybe the drag serves to accentuate rather than challenge gender norms.

Although there have been pantos for adult gay audiences, such as Peta Pan (a lesbian version of Peter Pan), Get Aladdin, and Snow White and the Seven Poofs, two gay writers who grew up with the pantos felt that they weren't "for us."

And attempts to incorporate gay characters or situations into the traditional panto have met with hysterical hand-wringing of the "It's for kids!!!!" sort.

If you still haven't met your beefcake quota after seeing a panto, check out the Boxing Day Dips, hundreds of people -- mostly cute guys -- dashing into the ocean nude, or at least wearing as little as the censors will allow.

See also: 15 Reasons to Skip Christmas.

Inner City Prettyboy: What's Happening!!

In 1971, there were no network television programs with all-African American casts.  In 1976, there were six, including such hits as Good Times, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons.  But only What's Happening!! featured teenagers (yes, two exclamation points in the title).

It began as a four-episode summer series about the exploits of Shirley (Shirley Hemphill), a sassy waitress in a poor African-American neighborhood.  When the regular series began, Shirley was still present, but the focus was on the bookish high schooler Raj (Ernest L. Thompson, right), his best friend, the rotund schemer Rerun (Fred Berry, left), and Duane (Haywood Nelson, center), a shy younger boy who was happy that they let him hang around.  Filling out the cast was Raj's imposing, no-nonsense Mama (Mabel King) and his little sister Dee, whose catchphrase "I'm telling Mama" enjoyed a brief popularity.

There were immediate complaints about the simplistic plotlines and the cultural stereotypes. Weren't Raj and Rerun just a teenage Amos and Andy?  And Mama just a new version of Aunt Jemima?  Mabel King wondered why her character had to be a maid.  Why not have her go back to school, get a better job, start a business?  It didn't happen, and at the end of the second season she left.  Without Mama as a moral center, the series limped along with low ratings and was finally cancelled.

But there was a lot for gay kids to like in What's Happening!!  

1. Minimal heterosexual interest.  During the first two seasons, no episodes involved Raj and Rerun liking girls or getting girlfriends (two involved Duane).

2. Homoromantic buddy bonding between Raj and Rerun.  In the third season, they even move into an apartment together.

3. Duane was shy, soft, passive, pretty -- gay-vague.  Maybe that's why he got girls, because audiences need reassuring about his sexual identity.

4. No shirtless or semi nude shots, but lots of bulging.  Duane looked good coming and going.

A sequel, What's Happening Now!!, aired from 1985 to 1988.  The gang was now young adults.  Raj, newly married, was working as a writer. Rerun sold used cars. Duane was a computer programmer with a spectacular bodybuilder's physique (but he took off his shirt in just one episode).  They also added a couple of teenage best friends (Martin Lawrence, Ken Sagoes).  The homoromantic subtexts were all but forgotten.
Ernest L. Thomas has busy since the 1980s, most recently in a recurring role as a creepy funeral director on Everybody Hates Chris.  I met him in Hollywood in 1988.

Fred Berry died in 2003.

Haywood Nelson was a popular teen star during What's Happening. His roles included The White Shadow (1979), where he got to buddy-bond with Timothy Van Patten (right), and Evilspeak (1981), where he had a nude scene.  Today he is well known as an inspirational speaker.  There are gay rumors, but he hasn't made any public statements.

Nude pics of Hayward Nelson are on Tales of West Hollywood.

Nov 24, 2015

American Dad: Horrifying, but not Homophobic

For as long as anyone can remember, Sunday night on Fox has meant animated sitcoms about nuclear families:
1. A fat, dopey Dad.
2. A slim, smarter Mom
3-4.  Two kids, a dopey son and a smart but plain daughter.

They vary in their expressions of hatred against gay people.

The Simpsons (1989-) is usually fine, with only a few homophobic jokes and only a few swishy stereotypes, plus two regular gay characters, Smithers and Patty (although Patty's gayness is barely alluded to).

Family Guy (1999-) oozes with homophobia, with a dozen homophobic jokes per episode, no regular gay characters, and the walk-ons always horrible stereotypes. Actually, I rarely manage to sit through an episode, even for research purposes.  It's too awful.

American Dad (2005-) is somewhere in the middle, with occasional homophobic jokes and swishy stereotypes, but not enough to make it unwatchable.

Unfortunately, something else makes it unwatchable.

The nuclear family consists of:
1. Ultra-conservative Stan Smith, a CIA agent who is sometimes world-traveling assassin, sometimes office drone.
2. His wife Francine
3. Nerd Steve, age 14, who is obsessed with girls in a nod to heteronormative bias.
4. Ultra-liberal daughter Hayley, a community college Women's Studies major.
5. Klaus, a German skiier whose brain was transplanted into the body of a goldfish.
6. Roger, a classic gray alien with a sarcastic sense of humor.

The only ongoing gay characters are neighbors Greg and Terry, ultra-feminine news show anchors and domestic partners.  Although swishy stereotypes with high-pitched voices who adopted a daughter as an accessory, they are a pleasantly progressive change of pace after watching the gay-baiting monstrosities of Family Guy.

They're not the problem.

Nor is Steve's hetero-horniness a problem.  He has three best friends, Toshi, Barry, and Snot, who alternate in buddy-bonding and gay subtexts.

There's even some beefcake to look at.

The problem is Roger.

Originally he was just a sarcastic alien with swishy, gay-coded mannerisms. Now he's mostly heterosexual.  And a monster.

He lies, swindles, manipulates, assaults, and kills with absolute impunity.

He tricks Steve into working in his meth lab by convincing him that it's Hogwarts.

When he's working as a limo driver, he gets revenge on some guys who "drive and dash" by killing them.  The last one tries to escape on an airplane, so he blows it up, killing everyone aboard.

He gets a crush on Hayley, but she's in love with Jeff.  So he cuts off Jeff's skin and wears the bloody mess, hoping that she'll like him now.

 Granted, Stan is a professional assassin, and the other Smiths have been known to kill people from time to time, but come on -- why do they let this psycho stick around, after he's assaulted and tried to kill them multiple times?

And why would anyone think that this carnage was funny?

See also: Simpsons Beefcake

Nov 23, 2015

The Marx Brothers

I first saw the Marx Brothers at a Film Festival during the Summer of 1978 (along with Animal House, Grease, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show: it was a memorable summer).  The anarchic comedians came from Vaudeville, moved onto Broadway, and started spinning their bits into movie comedy with Cocoanuts (1929).  Three of the greatest comedies of all time followed: Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), and Horse Feathers (1933).  Then they made some movies that were merely great.

Zeppo, the youngest, played the "handsome leading man" for a treacly romantic plot.

Groucho engaged in long cons, often involving wooing wealthy dowager Margaret Dumont.

Chico played an Italian-accented musical virtuoso planning cons of his own.

Harpo played his mute, addled sidekick, who liked to chase women while honking a horn. He also handed  random people his leg.

Wait -- Zeppo falling in love with a woman, Groucho wooing a woman, Harpo chasing women.  Granted, the wordplay came fast and furious, pretensions were deflated, social institutions were mocked -- but wasn't it still heterosexist?

Not at all. You can queer a Marx Brothers movie as easily as Making Love.

1.  You don't expect a lot of beefcake in movies from the 1930s, but there was some. Mostly from incidental players.

In this still from Duck Soup, Zeppo looks pleasantly muscular for the 1930s, and Chico positively buffed.

2. In the heart of the Pansy Craze, there are no pansy jokes  No screaming queens, no effeminate waiters, none of the overt homophobia evident in other movie comedies of the era.

3. Zeppo's hetero-romance is ludicrously over-the-top; it is one of the social institutions that the Marx Brothers are mocking.

Groucho woos Margaret Dumont for her money; elsewhere, his jabs and hints hit men and women both.  "Tell me, what do you think of the traffic problem? What do you think of the marriage problem? What do you think of at night when you go to bed, you beast!"

Harpo hands his leg to women and men both.

Chico doesn't seem particularly interested in women.

All of the Marx Brothers demonstrate an easygoing nonchalance about same-sex desire that is remarkable for the period.

4. In real life, Groucho was "straight but curved around the edges."

My friend Randall claimed to have been with him at a party in Hollywood in 1958.

Near the end of his life, the 80-year old Groucho fell in love with 30-year old Bud Cort -- who starred in Harold and Maude (1971), about a romance between a teenage boy and an elderly woman.  Bud moved into Groucho's mansion, where the question of whether they became physically intimate is nobody else's business.  "I loved him, and he loved me.  He was my fairy godfather." 

See also: Dick Sargent, Cary Grant, and Groucho Marx in the Same Bed.


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