Jan 2, 2020

The Gay Men of Roy Crane's Adventure Comics

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, a cute teenage boy rode by on his bicycle every morning about 6:00 am and threw a tightly-bound copy of the Rock Island Argus onto our porch.

It had to stay in pristine condition, untouched, until after dinner, when Mom got around to reading it -- and doing the crossword puzzle. Some of my favorite memories involve the family gathered around the tv, watching The Flying Nun or The Brady Bunch while Mom called out crossword puzzle clues.

"Star of Casablanca, five letters, begins with an I."
"Vegetable related to the carrot, seven letters.  I have R and P."
"Boomer, you'll know this one!  Greek god, nine letters, begins with a H"

Dad got the paper next.  By the time the kids' turns came around, it was nearly bedtime.  I still instinctively associate newspapers and bedtime.

I didn't care much for the news, editorials, or sports (except when there was a picture of a cute athlete).  I read "Lifestyle", with movie reviews and tv listings and events going on in town, and the comics page.

The Moline Dispatch, from the town next door, got all of the good comics: Peanuts, BC, The Wizard of Id, Doonesbury.  I didn't realize it at the time, but the Argus got mostly dinosaurs limping through their senescence, with costumes, language, and themes that delighted Grandma forty years ago.

I just thought they were bizarre.

Still, they were sometimes good for beefcake.

Alley Oop, a muscular cave man transported to the modern era through a plot device lost to history.

Prince Valiant, a knight in King Arthur's court transported to pre-Columbian North America.

Out Our Way, a single panel strip reminiscing about the joys of the Great Depression, mostly involving naked boys.

Or gay subtexts.

Captain Easy seemed to involve the swashbuckling adventures of a pair of boyfriends, the taciturn, muscular Easy and the cheerful, eyeglassed Wash.

Neither looked twice at a woman.

How was I to know that when Wash Tubbs first appeared on the comics page in1924, the creation of cartoonist Roy Crane,  he fell in love with every woman in sight: "Gosh! Wotta bon-bon!  Wotta tomato!"

In 1929, he hooked up with Captain Easy, who soon took over the strip and changed the focus from humor to adventure.  Wash tagged along, gazing lustfully at semi-clad ladies as comic relief for 40 years.   I was just reading during a period of quiescence.

Roy Crane's Buz Sawyer, strangely, had  no character named Buz Sawyer.  It was a humor strip about middle-Roscoe Sweeney, a bachelor who had no interest in women.  He lived with his adult sister.

He had found a loophole in the "grow up, get married, have kids" mandate.  A way to live with a woman without having to do any gross sex things!

How was I to know that when the strip was introduced in 1943, it starred World War II flying ace Buz Sawyer, with Roscoe Sweeney as his sidekick? Or that both Buz and Roscoe fell in love with many half-naked women during their adventures in the 1940s and 1950s?

I was just reading about the middle-aged Roscoe, a war veteran living a quiet domestic life in a 1960s suburb, his adventurous and hetero-horny days long forgotten.

By the way, Roy Crane, a pioneer of the adventure comic strip, died in 1977.  No doubt he was unaware of the accidental gay meanings that some of his readers found in his strips.


  1. Comics before the Bronze Age in a nutshell: Gay and we didn't even mean it. (It's deliberate these days. If you saw Titans last season, you know what I mean. There is literally know way to interpret Dick Grayson's relaationship with a certain spoilerific male character as anything other than a tragic romance. Which brings us back to how the Bronze Age began.)

    It helps that any sort of story depends on having someone to talk to. So, if you have two male characters, even with the Comics Code's strictures about "sex perversion" (Holy bigoted language! I don't think Wertham likes us.), put them in any setting long enough and they'll have gay moments. And there are specifics to the type of gay moments in each genre. (What surprises me is how long it took for CMYK men to have nipples.)

    Actually, that can be said of pre-X generations as a whole. One tragic consequence of greater awareness about gays and lesbians has been that we all bite that forbidden fruit, and we can't return to the garden. (Maybe it's a bottled city now.) But we can embrace this new understanding.

    1. Wertham believed that reading comic books was the main cause of "sexual perversion," by which he meant same-sex desire. In the 1950s they thought that men "turned" gay due to bad parenting (a clinging mother and a distant father), spending too much time around women, or seeing or hearing about gay people. Even theword "homosexual" was dangerous, used only in a medical context, and then sparingly; seeing it in print, or hearing it spoken, might turn you.


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