Jan 30, 2016

Little Max: A Gay Father in 1950s Comic Books

When I was a kid, whenever we visited my relatives in Indiana, I spent the night with my Cousin Buster in the trailer in the dark woods, and we would squeeze into his narrow twin bed, our bodies pressed together, reading Harvey Comics.  I read until long after he fell asleep, associating the tales of friendly ghosts and little devils with that warmth and affection.

Two boys together clinging, one the other never leaving....

In high school, I looked back on those moments of perfect happiness, and tried to get my hands on the Harvey Comics I read all those years ago (actually less than 10 years ago, but when you're 16, it seems like an eternity).

So I put an ad in the Rock Island Argus, and a very cute Augustana student named Clay answered with an offer of five Little Max comics from 1958-1959 for a dollar each.

I never heard of Little Max, they were from before I was born, and a dollar was four times what a comic cost on the newsstand.  But I bought them anyway.

It was a weird type of deja vu, like looking at a photo of your parents before you were born: familiar, yet bizarre, with a story going on that you are not a part of and can't possibly understand.  Readers were obviously expected to be familiar with these characters and their histories, but I had no idea who they were.

The star, Little Max, looks like Little Audrey in drag: he is drawn in the familiar Harvey style, cherubic-cute, with a big head and gigantic eyes. He doesn't speak, and his thought balloons are full of malapropisms that suggest a learning disorder: "They're both so kindly and generosity!"

His mentor, chum, adopted father, or something is Joe Palooka, a tall, very muscular guy with a weird toothless grin. Max calls him "Dear Joe."

Joe has also adopted or is mentoring an unnamed girl.  Max calls her "Dear Her."  "

She calls Max "Maxth" and Joe "Mith-ter Palooka."

In this Panel, she's looking at Max, not at Joe's swimsuit.

Most of adventures are slapstick, with Max trying to do a good deed that goes terribly wrong.  Here he dresses at an Easter Bunny, is treed by a dog, and reflects on how "embarristing" it is to be "previously engagemented."

There are also fantasies, in which Joe reads Max a fairy tale, and he acts it out in his head, or Max writes his own version.

Sometimes Max appears a bit older, free to wander around without adult supervision.  Although he still can't speak -- or use American Sign Language -- he makes himself understood adequately to interact with a group of friends.

Lots of stories are set on the beach, where Joe can wear a swimsuit and show off his physique, and Max can engage in some heroics (and, here, demonstrate a feminine limp wrist).

Other than the bizarre familiarity, I was attracted to the character of Max, heroic yet not macho, feminine yet never called a sissy.

And Joe Palooka, a single man who had adopted two children, but didn't have a wife or girlfriend.

I've done research since:

Joe Palooka was a naive immigrant boxer in a comic strip by Hal Fischer that premiered in 1921.  He was immensely popular, spinning off into movies, a radio series, Big-Little Books, toys, games, and comic books.  He was less popular by the 1950s, when his Harvey comic book series began, but Harvey in that era adapted several aging comic strip properties, including Terry and the Pirates and Blondie.

Little Max was a supporting character in the Palooka comic strip, a mute shoe-shine boy who Joe befriended.  He had his own comic book series from 1949 to 1961.

And I discovered the origin of Little Max: Max Bartikowsky, a boy artist Hal Fischer knew during his childhood, who roamed around town in his mother's floppy hat.  He became Big Max, owner of Bartikowsky Jewelry in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

He never married.

See also: Joe Palooka

Jan 28, 2016

The Gay Arab World

During the famous summer of 1981, when I was working in the college library, taking classes in Chaucer and Modern German Culture, going to see Clash of the Titans, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Wolfen, Arthur, American Werewolf in London, Hell Night, and The Chosen, and finding subtext songs on the radio, the Film Club took a field trip to Madison Wisconsin for an Italian Film Festival, and I saw Pasolini's Arabian Nights.  

Somebody told me there was gay content.  Maybe a little.  But only as an aside in the main plot, where he searches for his lost girlfriend Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini). In the final scene, Zumurrud, disguised as a man, buys Nur-e-Din as "his" slave.  "He" orders the boy to strip and lie face down on the bed.  Preparing for a sexual assault, Nur-e-Din complies.  Then Zumurrud reveals her true identity.  Heterosexual love wins out over a threat of homoerotic assault.  I left the theater sick to my stomach.  My complete review is here.

I was amazed to discover, years later, that Pasolini was gay.  Homophobic, but gay nonetheless.

Throughout my childhood, movies about the Arab world provided few hints of a "good place." They were mostly adaptations of the Arabian Nights, replete with Sinbads and Aladdins and Ali Babas who get girls, even when they were played by gay actors like Kerwin Mathews (I hadn't yet seen Sabu's homoromantic Arabian adventures.)

TV offered only I Dream of Jeannie, a heterosexist fable, and Shazzan, about a boy and a girl trapped in an Arabian Nights world.  

I was not yet aware of the homoeroticism of Medieval Arab, Turkish, and Persian poets, such as Abu Nuwas: 

I die of love for him, perfect in every way,
Lost in the strains of wafting music.
My eyes are fixed upon his delightful body
And I do not wonder at his beauty.

Or of the Orientalist fervor that sent hundreds of gay Europeans, including Oscar Wilde, W.H. Auden, and Andre Gide, to North Africa in search of Arab lovers.

But there were tantalizing hints in books.  Sonia and Tim Gidal's Sons of the Desert was about two Bedouin boys. 

The Stone of Peace, by Karah Feder Tal, has a Jewish teenager running away from his kibbutz in the Negev and befriending the Bedouin Ahmad. 

James Forman's My Enemy, My Brother had another Jewish-Arab friendship.

And Passing Brave was a real-life adventure about two Americans, William Polk and William Mares, armed only with a knowledge of Classical Arabic, crossing the desert in search of a "good place." 

See also: The Egyptian Professor of Political Science

Jan 27, 2016

Summer 1984: I Meet a Zoroastrian in a Public Cruising Area

During the summer of 1984, just after we got our M.A. degrees in English, my friend Viju invited me to visit his family in India for two weeks.

Except for trips to Agra and Varanasi, we spent most of our time in Delhi, hanging out with his parents, sister Aruna, and old university friends, We went to a bodybuilding competition, a lot of shopping malls, and since I was interested in religion, a lot of temples and mosques.

There were no gay bars, bathhouses, community centers, or gay organizations  in India, but there was a lot of public sex in Jahanpanah City Forest.  You saw a guy you liked, nodded, and followed him into the bushes.

Viju said that it was perfectly safe: although "sodomy" was technically illegal,  the police didn't believe that it existed in India, so they didn't patrol.

I was a little hesitant, but when a tall, slim, very dark skinned guy in his 30s smiled at me, Viju whispered "Go for it!"  I followed him into a little copse, where

[Sorry, too explicit]

"You are an American, right?"

Right.  I'm here visiting my friend."

"I guessed that.  I love American boys -- you have an energy, an excitement. Would you have dinner with me tonight?"

"I'll have to ask if Viju has plans for us..."

"Invite him along, too.  The Host at 8:00?  But first, if you're not too tired..."

[Too explicit]

The Host turned out to be a very bright, airy, and expensive restaurant on Connaught Circus, about a half hour by car from Viju's house.

Arshad arrived with a date for Viju: Noel, slim, redheaded, with a British accent.  They were coworkers at an engineering firm.

"But originally I am from Ahmedabad, in Gujarat," Arshad told us.  "A Parsi.  Have you heard of us?" .

Parsis -- Zoroastrians!  The ancient monotheistic religion that competed with Christianity in the first and second centuries.  Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, light and darkness, order and chaos.   The Avestas.  Zarathustra.  Fire temples!

"You are very intelligent as well as handsome," Arshad said, cutting me off.

"Boomer is very interested  in religion," Viju said.  "Me, not much.  I look toward the future, not the past."

"Then you must let me take you on a tour of the spiritual sites of Delhi.  I will take tomorrow off from work.  There are temples for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Baha'is..."

"Christian churches, mosques..."  Noel added.

"A Zoroastrian fire temple?" I asked eagerly.

"Of course, of course," Arshad said, looking down at the menu.  "We will tour that as well."

 We finished the evening at Arshad's apartment.  Noel and Viju took the guest room, and Arshad brought me into the master bedroom, where


After breakfast,  Noel and Viju left, and Arshad drove me out to Ahinsa Sthal, about a half-hour drive south of his apartment.  Sacred to Jainism, with a 13-foot statue of Mahavira.

That was impressive.

Then another half-hour drive east to the Lotus Temple, sacred to the Baha'i religion.

Ok, but what about the Fire Temple?

Back into town, 30 minutes north to the Jama Masjid, a huge mosque.

I already saw it, but ok, I didn't mind seeing it again.

Back to Arshan's apartment for lunch.

Another 30 minutes around Connaught Circus to the Lakshi Narayan Mandir, a Hindu temple that I had already visited.

It was late afternoon.  We had been reverent all day.  I was getting "church fatigue."

"Next the Sacred Heart Cathedral" Arshad said. "It's only a few blocks from here."

Interesting, but I had seen Catholic churches before.

"Could we go to the Fire Temple now?  It's getting late."

He looked away.  "Sure, sure, I suppose.  It's only a few blocks away."

We got into his car and drove east on Nehru Boulevard.  Just past a gigantic hospital complex, we turned right on Bahadur Shah Road.

"The Parsi Anjuman is there on the left," Arshad said as we zipped by.

It was a small, square building with a pillared portico and some vaguely Babylonian fretwork.

"Hey, aren't we going to stop?"

"Oh, there's nothing much to see inside.  And I'm getting hungry.  Shall we have dinner?"

"Hey, what gives?  We spend all day touring the sacred sites of Jains, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Bahai's, and Christians, but when it comes to your own religion, you zoom past at 80 miles an hour."

"Sorry.  But...it's just that..."  He stroked my knee.  "One who is unclean may not enter the temple."

"Non-believers?  That's ok, I don't mind not going in."

"Not you -- me.  I'm unclean. My religion teaches that those who do such things are like dogs, filthy beasts."

I looked at Arshad.  Did he actually believe that nonsense, think of himself as a filthy beast?  It was hard to tell.  "Well...my childhood religion, the Nazarenes, have some crazy beliefs, too.  I suppose I wouldn't want to give you a tour of the their church either."

But still, the "filthy beast" statement made me feel uncomfortable.  After dinner, I refused another bedroom session, and asked Arshad drop me off at Viju's house.  We exchanged addresses, but didn't write..

The uncensored post, with nude photos and explicit descriptions of sexual situations, is on Tales of West Hollywood.

Jan 26, 2016

The Unrequited Loves of Michael Welch

If you're fifteen years old, you're familiar with Michael Welch from the Twilight saga about a girl torn between vampire and werewolf boyfriends (Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner).  He plays a human who has an unrequited crush on her.

Michael has sharp features and striking eyes that make him look angelic, demonic, or alien, so he is often cast as a  gay-vague outsider, even if he sometimes experiences unrequited heterosexual passions.

He began his acting career at the age of 10 in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)  as Artim, a boy from a non-technological planet who bonds with the android Data.  His touching performance won him a Young Artist Award.

Next came a series of paranormal and science fiction roles, including a clone of Colonel Jack O'Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) who just wants to be a normal teenager on Stargate SG-1.  

Michael also guest-starred in a number of sitcoms and dramatic series, including a memorable role as a new neighbor who falls for the brainy Malcolm in Malcolm in the Middle.

On Joan of Arcadia (2003-2005), he played Luke Girardi, younger brother of the girl who talks to God, who has a homoromantic buddy-bond with his best friend Friedman (Aaron Himmelstein), although he dates girls also.

He was also in many movies.  In The United States of Leland (2003), his mentally-challenged Ryan is murdered by classmate Leland (Ryan Gosling), who is dating his sister.

The Grind (2009) is about a grifter, Luke (C. Thomas Howell), who depends on his friends Josh and Courtney (Michael, Tanya Allen) to get him out of a jam. They start a sleazy website, but things go sour, and Luke has to rescue them from the Mexican mafia.

In Lost Dream (2009), college student Perry (Michael) falls for nihilistic free-spirit Giovanni (Shaun Sipos), who is involved in risky sex, drugs, and games of Russian roulette.  He must save Gio before it's too late.

Michael's many unrequited, doomed, and hopeless same-sex loves seem to be throwbacks to the 1960s and 1970s, where the gay guy was always depressed and usually doomed.  But, to be fair, his characters often have unrequited, doomed, and hopeless heterosexual loves, too.

Heterosexual in real life, he is a gay ally who publicly voices his support of gay marriage.

Jan 25, 2016

Jamie Croft, the Australian Tom Sawyer

Speaking of Jeremy Lelliott, his costar in Disappearance, Jamie Croft, had several buddy-bonding projects as a child star in Australia.

In That Eye, the Sky (1994), the oddball outsider Ort (13-year old Jamie) lives in the Australian outback with his mother, his sister, his paralyzed father, and his frail, elderly grandmother. He's getting weird premonitions and questioning his belief in God.  Then the hunky American Henry (Peter Coyote) arrives and teaches Ort about the magic of everyday life. Meanwhile Ort gets his first crush.

The miniseries The Valley Between (1996) follows the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn-like adventures of German immigrant Bruno (15-year old Jamie) in South Australia.

He has a crush on an older teenager, Eddie (Josh Picker).

No heterosexual interest in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1996).

In his guest spot on The Lost World  (1999-2002), about various people trapped in a sort of Land of the Lost in the Amazon, teenage Rob Dillon (Jamie) is kidnapped by a savage tribe and requires a daring rescue.  But he grins at a girl.

Then came Disappearance (2002), the gender-bending comedy Blurred (2002), and the teenage muscle hunk Hercules (2005; played as an adult by Paul Telfer). There is minimal girl-craziness in these projects, but unfortunately no shirtless or semi-nude shots, not even as Hercules.

More recently Jamie has moved into voice work, playing the 12-year old barbarian in The Legend of Enyo (2010) and Pablo in The Davincibles (2011).

In real life he is married with children; no word on whether he's a gay ally.

On the Town: Three Sailors on Leave in a Gay City

Long before I ever visited New York City, I learned all about the Battery, the Bronx, the Empire State Building, Central Park, subways, seltzer, and delis.  Like Los Angeles, it was a magical place, gleaming with steel and glass, where you could escape the constant "what girl do you like?" litany of the adults.

I learned all that through tv programs like That Girl and The Odd Couple, and through movies like On the Town (1949).

Based on a 1944 Broadway musical scored by gay composer Leonard Bernstein, On the Town follows the adventures of three sailors on leave in New York City before they ship out: the naive Gabey (dance master Gene Kelly), the fast-talking Chip (future Rat Pack singer Frank Sinatra), and the dopey Ozzie (comic relief Jules Munshin). They just have 24 hours, and they want to see and do everything, especially meet girls.

Then Gabey falls in love with a girl on a poster, Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen), mistakenly thinking she's a famous actress.

So his friends obligingly give up their plans to help Gabey track her down.

They give up their plans to help a buddy?  Anytime a same-sex friendship trumps the quest for hetero-romance, you have some significant gay symbolism.

During the madcap scavenger hunt, female cabbie  Hildy (Betty Garrett) aggressively courts Chip ("Come back to my place!").

Ozzie is courted by anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller), whose mentor thinks she's a lesbian, uninterested in men; actually, she just prefers the big, brawny type ("Give me a prehistoric man!").

And Gabey catches the eye of  the gawky Lucy Schmeeler (Alice Pearce).

Butch, aggressive women chasing unwilling, feminine-coded men: the gender atypicality gives the musical even more gay symbolism.

And even more: all of them become friends, boys and girls both -- when was the last time you saw a platonic male-female friendship in a musical?

They all help Gabey search.  When he becomes despondent, they all invite him to "Count on me."  

Gabey eventually meets the Girl, and the "three couples" share a final song and a kiss.  But there's no marriage and children: when the 24 hours ends, the three sailors head back to their ship.  Hildy, Claire, and Iris wave goodbye.

But they're not alone.  Strangers yesterday, the three women have found each other.

This movie is not about hetero-romance at all.  It's about friendship.  That's what makes it a gay classic.

Plus the energetic dance numbers, the gay connections of actresses Betty Garrett and Alice Pearce, and New York City, the most important character, brimming with light and color.  No wonder the posters call it "Twice as gay as Anchors Aweigh."

The original musical is a favorite of high school and college drama departments.  Not a lot of beefcake, but Tony Yazbeck dances shirtless in the Broadway revival.

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