Cartoons and comics are a blend of art and storytelling that use illustrations to convey a narrative.
In LGBTQ folklife, illustrated narratives have been a powerful tool for camp, sexual fantasies, and conveying shared experiences familiar to the LGBTQ community. While cartoons and comics can be divided into several categories, the impact of illustrative narratives on LGBTQ folklife fall into three broad genres: superhero comics featuring primarily heterosexual characters, Gay erotic comics that explore sex and power between men and between women using graphic illustrations, and cartoon strips that can be used to examine LGBTQ people’s daily lives from a variety of personal perspectives.
Superhero comic books have largely been the purview of boys and men, but women have also been marginally involved as characters or creators of mainstream superhero comic books. For children, including Gay youth, comic books are a way to stimulate the imagination and temporarily escape from reality by imagining oneself as something or someone else. The attempt to disguise the near-naked physique of the superhero (reflecting the impact of physical culture and bodybuilding, with the muscular man seen as somewhat superhuman) did not keep comics from being condemned as potential sources for deviant sexual behavior in the 1950s.
But rather than causing deviance, comics were means by which non-heteronormal people could understand their difference from the status quo. Significantly for Gay male youth, many superhero comic books offer examples of personal relations between men that are acceptable to parents and therefore do not need to be explored in secret. Like many LGBTQ youth in general, the characters in superhero comic books are forced to hide a fundamental aspect of their identities — their superpowers and alter egos — because coming out carries too many personal risks.
Heterosexual superheroes in mainstream comics are all open to homosexual readings that can greatly increase this genre’s appeal to Gay youth by drawing on same-sex desire, same-sex friendship, the closet, and gender difference. For example, a Gay male reading of Superman might acknowledge the increased muscle and definition Clark Kent has in his superhero form (Gay male body culture), or his constant need to deceive his female lover, Lois Lane, about his exploits as Superman (the closet). Other commonly cited Gay readings of heterosexual characters include an erotic-romantic relationship between superhero duo Batman and Robin.
Most importantly, superheroes embody a difference that each character struggles with unique ways, a central theme that is common to nearly all LGBTQ experience.
Since Marvel comics outed (revealed to be homosexual) the Gay Quebecois character Northstar (Alpha Flight) in 1992, LGBTQ characters have also emerged in other mainstream comic books in both marginal and leading roles. The outing of the Vietnamese mutant Karma as Lesbian (New Mutants, New X-Men) and Russian mutant Colossus in one alternate universe storyline (Ultimate X-Men) were significant moments for Gay comic fans, who have often expressed affinity with the hunted, despised, and closeted (yet powerful and sexy) mutants who could not help being born different. In the non-superhero comic world, Marvel brought back the cowboy comic that features an American cowpoke, the Rawhide Kid, as a homosexual hero (Rawhide Kid). For their part, DC Comics has rewritten Batwoman as a Lesbian (albeit “lipstick lesbian” or femme).
When DC Comics described Batwoman as Kate Kane, a Jewish Lesbian, another character, the Question, was rewritten as Dominican Lesbian named Renee Montoya, who becomes Batwoman’s love interest.
Although not a comic, the first book published academically on Gay folklore had a Gay cartoon superhero on the cover of its paperback edition (1989), three years before mainstream comics had one. More Man than You’ll Ever Be by Joseph Goodwin features a muscular man wearing yellow and fuchsia tights, a yellow cape, and pink eye-gear (“Lambda Man,” suggested by Goodwin and designed by Gary Barker). The first two words of the title is in blocky print as if it were the name of a comic: “MORE MAN,” and a word balloon coming from the superhero says, “THAN YOU’LL EVER BE!” He is busting out of a closet, coat-hangers scattering before him. He also sports a large yellow lambda (a Greek letter used as an early symbol for Gay people) on his chest.
The title of Goodwin’s book is taken from a quote in the 1976 movie, Car Wash. When called “faggot” and put down even further by a co-worker, transwoman Lindy (played by Antonio Vargas) responds by saying to him, “I’m more man than you’ll ever be, and more woman than you’ll ever get!” (click here for a clip of the scene)
Gay Erotic Comics
Also commonly known as “Gay comics” or “Gay sex comics,” Gay erotic comics are sexual adventures featuring men with exaggerated upper body and buttock muscles, lips, chins, and extremely large penises. While the comics sometimes depict a variety of sexualities, narratives are dominated by male homosexuality. Moreover, the fetishized male bodies and the male Leather apparel have made this style of comics almost exclusively the domain of Gay men. Such macho images also work to contradict the stereotype of the feminine or pansy Gay man.
The style was pioneered by Tom of Finland (born Touko Laaksonen, 1920-1991), a controversial Finnish fetishist who first submitted his pencil work for publication in 1956 and gained popularity in the 1970s. Tom of Finland ultimately published more than 2500 pieces.
There are homoerotic comics available in many artistic styles including cartoon strips, full-length magazines, webcomics, and three-dimensional comics. The popularity of such publications are also in Japanese genres such as yuri (pictorial narratives with Lesbian erotica) and yaoi (Gay male art with a fan base that is mostly Straight women). See article: “Yaoi and Yuri” forms of manga (comics and illustrated magazines).
The Gay erotic comics produced by Tom of Finland and his successors have been highly controversial, yet highly influential on Gay folklife (particularly in Leather folklife, as men adopted the subcultural clothing style of Laaksonen’s characters). Some argue that the comics are crude, emotionless, or pornographic, reinforcing the sex-centered stereotypes promoted by homophobia. Others praise erotic artists for their artistic talent and creative ingenuity, valuing the highly exaggerated sexualized work as an artistic form unique to Gay male folk art, and point out that the sexuality portrayed in erotic comics can often be read as playful, loving, or satirical.
Despite the negative criticism associated with many of these works, Tom of Finland drawings (as well as the work of other erotic artists) have received a number of gallery showings. Before his death, Touko Laaksonen set up the Tom of Finland Foundation, which first functioned as an archive for Laaksonen’s work but now holds a collection from more than 500 erotic artists of all sexualities.
Cartoon strips are oldest extant Gay comic art form. Whereas superhero comics and Gay erotic art feature exaggerated or imagined sexualities, cartoon strips tend to be grounded in the day-to-day experiences of living, loving, working, being in the closet or coming out to friends and family.
The earliest explicitly homoerotic work is from a largely anonymous collection called the Tijuana Bibles, which was initially produced in the early 1930s. The Tijuana Bibles include characters of all sexualities in explicit and graphic sexual situations. Homosexual titles include “Wally and the Pageboy,” “Layla Always Gets Her Girl,” “Girls School,” and “Girl Talk.” Because of sexual content, the Tijuana Bibles are more closely related to Gay erotic art than to contemporary cartoon strips.
In the 1970s, cartoon strips became a feature of Gay liberation literature, such as Joe Johnson’s Miss Thing, which ran in The Advocate, and cartoons in Christopher Street drawn by Richard Fiala, co-creator (with Charles Ortleb) of the cartoon book Relax This Book Is Only a Phase Your Going Through: Gay Cartoons from Christopher Street (1978). The 1980s saw a flourishing of Gay comic culture, including the start of long-running strips such as Gay Comix / Gay Comics, which was published between 1980 and 1998, and Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel, which began in 1983 (Bechdel also published a graphic novel, Fun Home in 2006).
During the 1990s and 2000s, cartoon strips gained recognition as an art form and expanded to include publications by professional as well as amateur authors and illustrators. The internet has contributed greatly to the expansion of this folk art form. Cartoon strips with low readership are collected and published online by fans and organizations such as Prism Comics, a nonprofit charitable organization that supports Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans comics, creators, and readers.
Syndicated cartoon strips have been reluctant to introduce LGBTQ characters into their storylines since Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse was permanently dropped from more than thirty newspapers in 1993 for including the coming-out story of a Gay character named Lawrence.
With the advent of the internet, cartoonists no longer need printed media to express themselves. One such LGBTQ artist is Dave Lupton in Britain, who uses his talents for disabled and differently abled people, especially those in the LGBTQ community and those who use wheelchairs.
Goodwin, Joseph. More Man Than You’ll Ever Be: Gay Folklore and Acculturation in Middle America. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana, 1989.
Lent, John A. Comic Books and Comic Strips in the United States Through 2005: An International Biography. Westport, CN: Praeger, 2006.
Ramakers, Mischa. Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity and Homosexuality.
New York: St. Martin’s, 2001.
www.gayleague.com/gaycharacters, accessed July 2010.