Jeffery P Dennis. The Journal of American Culture. Volume 35, Issue 4. December 2012.
During the last thirty years, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) characters have been appearing with increasing regularity in most media genres, from television sitcoms to comic books (Becker; Waldman). However, newspaper comic characters continue to be overwhelmingly heterosexual. In strip after strip, married heterosexual couples bicker over forgotten anniversaries, young men try feeble pick-up lines on women, young women endure endless dates with losers, and children and family pets pursue hapless heterosexual romances. Heteronormativity, the ideological insistence that heterosexual desire and behavior are universal human experience (Warner xiv; Nielsen, Waiden, & Kunkel 285), is promoted so loudly and incessantly that one finds no gay lead characters at all, and fewer gay minor characters than even in the most timid of children’s picture books.
However, the inclusion of specifically identified LGBT characters is only one strategy of representing same-sex desire, behavior, romance, and identity. Hennessy decries “the heteronormative tyranny of the empirical,” the presumption that gayness exists only in the phrase “I am gay,” so in the absence of self-declaration, all characters, statements, situations, and themes are to be taken as heterosexual (31). Artists working in venues where identifying characters as gay is risky or prohibited often depend on subtext, relationships, and references presumably opaque to the general consumer, but obvious to those “in the know,” or supratext, situations so outrageous that they lose any element of veracity and therefore cannot challenge the consumer’s heteronormative presumptions (Johnson).
Queering, locating representations of same-sex desire, behavior, romance, or identity that appear independently of specifically identified gay characters (Doty 10), has been successfully applied to several genres of mass culture, including novels, popular movies, cartoons, and even children’s television (Sedgwick; Dennis). This study will apply it to newspaper comics, investigating the frequency with which heteronormative ideology is disrupted through several different types of gay content. It will demonstrate that gay content appears in newspaper comics with some regularity, in spite of the near-absence of gay characters. It further investigates the role of cartoonist’s gender, the age of the title, and the strip genre in facilitating or prohibiting the various types of gay content.
Gay Content in Newspaper Comics
Characters who exhibited homophobic stereotypes were once commonplace in comic strips. Heer reproduces a Mickey Mouse strip from the 1930s in which Mickey demonstrates his masculinity by assaulting a lisping, mincing “pansy,” and Applegate reports that during World War II, the adventure strip Terry and the Pirates regularly featured stereotypic gay and lesbian villains. During the 1940s and 1950s, however, comic strips began to adhere to the postwar clampdown on nonconformity in general, and especially on depictions of same-sex desire, behavior, romance, and identity (Mann 121). Even stereotyped characters became vanishingly rare, and there were no references to same-sex desire or behavior, except occasionally in heavily coded jokes or situations. For instance, in a 1976 Wizard of Id strip, the medieval knight Rodney is assigned to fight “Bruce the Fierce.” “What a drag!” he exclaims. The king admonishes, “That’s the kind of talk that made Bruce fierce!”
During the decades after Stonewall, organizations, such as GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) strongly advocated for increased representation in media, and LGBT characters began to appear in movies, television programs, popular fiction, and comic books. However, the advocacy had little impact on the newspaper comic strip. Between 1950 and 2000, only three specifically identified gay characters appeared.
In a 1976, continuity in Gary Trudeau’s political Doonesbury strip, law student Joanie Caucus makes romantic overtures to classmate Andy Lippincott, only to be rejected because he is gay (“Are they sure?” Joanie asks, assuming that he must have undergone psychiatric evaluation.). Nearly 30 years later, in the 1990s, regular character Mark Slackmeyer, a liberal radio talk show host, grudgingly acknowledged his gay identity and became the only ongoing gay presence in any comic strip, although the very large cast of characters made his appearances sporadic. Both Andy and Mark drew numerous complaints from readers and conservative watchdog groups, even though Doonesbury was well-known for promoting liberal social causes, and generally appeared in the editorial section rather than the comics page.
In 1993 continuity in the nuclear family strip For Better or for Worse, minor character Lawrence Poirier revealed his “secret” to his best friend, the teenage Michael. The response was somewhat more negative: forty newspapers refused to run the continuity, and another fourteen canceled the strip outright. Some 2,500 letters arrived at cartoonist Lynn Johnston’s residence, some positive, but about a third outraged, some hysterically so. Johnston could not understand why so many people felt so victimized by a simple “coming out” story, and she donated the letters, or “boxes of emotion,” to a local university for detailed analysis. When Lawrence appeared again in 2003 to help plan Michael’s wedding, she offered newspapers two sets of strips, one open about his sexual identity, the other not (Johnston).
The hysteria surrounding the Lawrence storyline made other cartoonists extremely cautious about introducing new gay characters or “outing” existing characters. In 1998, Greg Evans considered “outing” Aaron Hill, long-time crush of the titular teenager Luann. To test reader reaction, he devoted many strips to dropping broad hints, and even had Aaron’s friends discuss the possibility that he might be gay. Hundreds of e-mails poured in, about half supporting Aaron’s gayness, the others opposing it. Half was enough: Aaron was not a minor character, like Lawrence Poirier, so if he came out, then Luann would have a permanent gay presence, with angry letters and skittish cancelations week after week. As Evans did not have the huge subscriber base of For Better or for Worse, even a dozen cancelations would be catastrophic. He decided that diversity was not worth the risk (Astor 28).
Even when cartoonists feel that their commitment to diversity or to the honesty of their artistic vision is worth a few cancelations, syndicates often disagree; they regularly censor gay characters, gay references, and the word “gay.” Some thirty years after the first LGBT characters began to appear in Hollywood movies, twenty years after they first began to appear in comic books, an article in a trade daily for cartoonists asked if newspaper comics were yet “ready” for gay characters, and answered with an unequivocal “no.” Editors interviewed stated that a strip with a regular gay character would “raise a red flag,” and that they would be “unable to sell it” to newspapers (Gardner).
The newspaper comic is a conservative medium in many respects, regularly displaying gender and racial stereotypes that have been long abandoned elsewhere in mass media; women cook pot roasts, men snooze on the couch, racial minorities are streetwise best friends or completely absent (Brabant & Mooney 269; LaRossa, Jaret, Gadgil, & Wynn 693; Glascock & Preston-Schreck 423). However, strips without those stereotypes do not raise red flags. Why is an attempt to increase LGBT diversity particularly problematic? The trade article suggests the widespread albeit erroneous perception that newspaper comics are consumed primarily by children, an audience traditionally expected to be kept unaware of the existence of gay people (Dennis). However, gay characters have been appearing, albeit sporadically, in children’s books and movies for decades, and a gay teenager, Kevin Keller, was introduced into the conservative Archie comics universe in September 2010 (Archie Comics Blog).
Another possible explanation is the widespread misconception that “gay” means “sex,” so stating that characters are gay is precisely die same thing as enumerating their bedroom activities, thus rendering the strip pornographic. Artists attempting to promote gay visibility in other genres frequently run into this misconception. In an interview, Kenny Ortega, who directed the High School Musical franchise, stated that he could not allow any of his teenage characters to be “openly gay” because they were “too young to have sex” (Hernandez). Other genres, however, manage to include gay characters without any plaints that the texts have thereby become pornographic.
Perhaps, the most likely explanation was expressed by Lee Salem of the Universal Press Syndicate: many people look on the comic section of the newspaper as “kind of sacrosanct.” (Jurkowitz). Even if they are not regular readers, they diink of the comic page as a nostalgic pleasure, safe, comfortable, and innocent, representing an hour in pajamas on Sunday morning when the bad things of life can be momentarily forgotten. In the minds of many syndicate editors, local newspaper editors, and cartoonists themselves, LGBT number among the “bad things” to be forgotten.
Thus, in 2006, the teenage strip Zits introduced a gay character named Billy, but dropped him after about a dozen appearances. Cartoonist Jim Borgman argued that the strip could hardly remain relevant to contemporary culture without acknowledging the existence of gay teenagers, but his writing partner, Jerry Scott, disagreed; he did not “want to see the six o’clock news on the funny pages” (Comic Alert). Gay characters may raise “a red flag” because syndicate editors and cartoonists believe that they belong to the category of “six o’clock news,” too harsh and upsetting to appear in the world of Blondie, Garfield, and Hagar the Horrible. Therefore, representation generally takes the form of subtext or supertext, of veiled references, and nervous jokes.
In this study, a comic strip was defined, after McCloud (7), as “the arrangement of pictures or images and words in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response.” This definition excludes single-panel cartoons (e.g., Family Circus) and pantomime strips with few or no words (e.g., Lio). Newspaper comic strips were specified as comic strips currently available for publication by newspapers in the United States, even though many readers access them online through cartoon archives or the cartoonist’s personal website, or arrange to have them sent directly to their email accounts. The population of newspaper comic strips was limited to humor titles with ongoing settings and characters, thus eliminating soap opera and drama titles (e.g., Mary Worth), which feature lengthy story arcs not amenable to random sampling, and titles lacking ongoing settings and characters (e.g., Non Sequiter).
A representative sample of sixty-two titles was drawn from the comic strips available in three online archives, comics.com, comicsarchive.com, and gocomics.com. Titles were chosen based on popularity, familiarity, and genre. For each title, a systematic random sample of twelve to fifteen individual strips was drawn from those published between June and September 2010. The total sample consisted of 824 strips.
Three independent variables were coded. Gender referred to the gender of the cartoonist. Two important female cartoonists, Cathy Guisewite (Cathy) and Lynn Johnston (For Better or for Worse), had recently retired, leaving the field more male-dominated than usual. In the sample, 91.3% strips were drawn by male cartoonists or male same-sex teams, and only 8.7% by female cartoonists or male-female teams.
Age referred to the date when the title premiered. Recent, but well-established titles were slightly oversampled because of their familiarity and popularity. In the sample, 26.2% of the strips premiered before 1980, 39.3% between 1980 and 1997, and 32.0% between 1998 and the present.
Finally, Genre identified the focus characters of the title. Although efforts were made to ensure variety in genre, 26.2% of the titles focused on Kids or Teens (Cul de Sac, Zits), 20.4% on Nuclear Families (Daddy’s Home, Foxtrot), 17.6% on Single Men or Single Women (Café con Leche, Jane’s World), 10.2% on Animals (Get Fuzzy, Pearls Before Swine), 8.7% on Married Couples (Arlo and J anís, Blondie), and 4.4% on the Elderly (Agnes, Momma). The remaining 12.5% could not be reliably classified by genre; they including Doonesbury, Dilbert, the space opera spoof Brewster Rockitt, and several fantasy strips.
Genre was determined by the focus characters. In the Married Couple, title Blondie and Dagwood, the couple has children (Alexander and Cookie), but they are usually absent or in the background, rarely the focus of any strip, whereas in the teenage title Luann, Luann’s parents (Nancy and Frank DeGroot) are usually absent, or mere commentators on their daughter’s exploits. Similarly, many strips featured sentient animals, but in the Animal title Get Fuzzy, Bucky and Satchell are featured in most strips, with their owner Rob merely reacting to or commenting on their exploits.
Heteronormative content was coded through three variables. Only the most significant content category was coded for each strip.
Forty-one strips, or 5.1% of the total, featured Hetero-Romance: a character expresses or displays romantic interest in someone of another sex. The mere presence of heterosexual romantic partners was not sufficient; they had to state romantic involvement (“I love you”) or express it through physical intimacy (kissing or hugging someone of another sex other than a relative or pet) or visual signs (hearts floating in the air).
Ninety-one strips, or 11.3% of the total, featured Hetero-Erotic Desire: a character expresses or displays physical attraction to someone of another sex, or to the other sex in general. Universalization, a statement indicating that heterosexual desire or romance is universal human experience, was also included in this category.
Twenty-two strips, or 2.7% of the total, featured Battle of the Sexes, an expression of hatred for one’s heterosexual romantic partner or for heterosexual practice or romance in general. Also included in this category were strips arguing that men and women are so different that no satisfactory relationships between them are possible.
Four variables coded gay content. As with heteronormative content, only the most significant content category was coded for each strip. However, it was possible for the same strip to include both heteronormative and gay content.
Sixteen strips, or 1.9% of the total, featured LG BT Characters, characters who at some point in the title’s history had been identified as LGBT through self-revelation, statements by other characters, or an overt relationship with a same-sex partner. They were coded in every strip in which they appeared, even strips that did not specifically reference their gay identity.
Twenty-seven strips, or 3.3% of the total, contained Gay References: allusions to or depictions of gay history, culture, or stereotypes. Effeminate gay male stereotypes and transvestism were included in this category, even if portrayed as negative or a joke. Only the strip in which the reference occurred was counted.
Twenty-three strips, or 2.8% of the total, featured Homoromance: a character expresses or displays romantic interest in someone of the same sex. Like Hetero-Romance, the mere presence of same-sex friends or partners was not sufficient for coding; they had to engage in a physical intimacy or express an emotional commitment verbally. Interactions with relatives and house pets were not included.
Sixteen strips, or 1.9% of the total, featured Homoerotic Desire: a character expresses physical attraction to someone of the same sex, or to the same sex in general. Homoerotic Desire was counted even if it was portrayed as a mistake or a joke.
LGBT persons are under-represented in every genre of mass media. Between 5% and 10% of the US population, but between 2% and 3% of prime-time US television characters, self-identifies as LGBT (GLAAD, 2011). In the newspaper comic strips in the sample, the under-representation was even more severe; of the approximately 800 major and minor characters appearing in the sample set, only five, far less than 1%, were identified as LGBT. All were gay men.
Boyd in The Meaning of Lila appeared most often, as the best friend of the titular Single Woman. No strip in the sample referenced his gay identity or showed him expressing homoromantic interest, and only one had him expressing homoerotic desire, when both he and Lila gawk at the same handsome lifeguard. His role seemed to be that of commentator, sounding board, and occasional competitor.
Similarly, in the Single Woman title Boomerangs, a continuity has central character Jane seeing a former acquaintance named Tad Hurley at a party. She once dated Tad, so she approaches and announces that she is finally “over him” and “ready to move on.” As she leaves, Tad’s male partner arrives and asks “Who was that, Honey?” He responds, “I have no idea.” The character of Tad was apparently introduced to accentuate Jane’s ineptness at hetero-romance.
Scary Gary, a fantasy strip about a reformed vampire, featured a gay couple, Frankenstein monsters Frank and Steve. They were apparently introduced to play with the humorous incongruity of “feminine” gay men as scary monsters, and in fact two of the strips reproduce effeminate stereotypes. In the first, Steve comments that it is not easy living with his slobbish partner, as “the place is usually a disaster area”; the next panel shows Frank messily working on his Liza Minnelli scrapbook. In the second, when the titular vampire decides to start an exercise program, his personal trainer is Steve, who chirps, “Who’s ready to get fabulous?” The term “fabulous” is stereotypically associated with feminine gay men.
The only gay character who did not seem to exist solely as a sounding board or means of establishing a joke appeared twice in Café con Leche, about a group of African American men. The regulars are astounded to discover the gayness of their white friend Bob (“he cannot be gay – he dresses like a slob!”). In another strip, Bob is attracted to a man who turns out to be straight. He complains, “My gaydar must be way off!” The joke herein is on Bob, not the heterosexuals.
In spite of the precedent in For Better or for Worse, none of the gay characters appeared in comics drawn by female cartoonists (Table 1). John Forgetta, creator of The Meaning of Lila, is gay (Ayers), and the other male cartoonists are presumably heterosexual. Heterosexual men, but not woman must continually address the homophobia that is central to hegemonic masculinity (Kimmel; Pascoe); hence same-sex identity is more salient to them and presents more possibility of comedie discomfort, whereas women can more easily ignore it.
In fact, 4.2% of strips by female cartoonists, but none of those by male cartoonists eliminated the possibility that LGBT persons exist through Universalization, a statement that heterosexual desire or behavior is universal experience. For instance, in Family Tree, a teenage girl and her grandmother are canoeing. Grandma exclaims “Listen to the sounds of nature!” She is interrupted by the girl’s heart thumping as a cute guy rows past. Grandma revises her statement to “sounds of human nature,” thus presenting hetero-erotic desire as a biological mandate.
We hypothesized that cartoonists drawing well-established titles would be more likely to include gay characters, as their popularity would ensure that they need not bow to the demands of their syndicates, and the syndicates themselves would be less fearful of homophobic cancelations -thirty cancelations out of 3,000 subscribers is negligible. However, as Table 2 indicates, all the gay characters appeared in titles originating since 1 998. The cartoonists responsible for drawing the older titles may believe that their older fan base is homophobic, or they may feel bound by a certain house style that admits only superficial modernization while preserving old-fashioned ideas about gender, masculinity, and sexual orientation. Battle of the Sexes rhetoric, depictions of heterosexual romance as hateful and oppressive based on longoutdated masculine-feminine stereotypes, was most common in the well-established titles, appearing in 4.2% of strips from titles originating before 1980 and only 2.0% of those originating after 1997.
As Table 3 indicates, gay characters appeared in only three genres. They were most common in the Single Woman strips (15.4%), primarily due to frequent appearance of Boyd in The Meaning of Lila. They also appeared in Single Man (5.2%) and Teen strips (5.8%). There were none in any strips in Family, Married Couple, Kid, Teen, Elderly, or Animal titles. This suggests that gay people, even when partnered, are assumed “single,” alien to both the “innocent” world of Kids and Animals and the “grown-up” world of Married Couples and Families.
One of the problems implicit in introducing gay content into newspaper comics is that LGBT identities and even such terms as “gay” and “straight” are often censored by the syndicates or self-censored by the cartoonists. In his acerbic Pearls Before Swine strip, Stephan Pastis wanted a joke to hinge on the statement that straight men cannot have purely platonic friendships with women. However, the syndicate told him that “straight* had to go, because children might ask what it means, and the answer implies that men who are “not straight” exist (Pastis 58).
However, twenty-seven strips, or 3.3% of the total, featured Gay References, characters who displayed or mentioned gay cultural tropes (rainbow flags, pride parades, the expression “coming out”) or exhibited stereotypic gay interests (show tunes, the Village People, Judy Garland). In most cases, references seemed to be used to portray gay characters “under the radar,” avoiding the putative homophobic hysteria attendant upon definitively identifying a character as gay. For instance, in Luann, an older boy named T.J. is fashionobsessed, a “neat-freak,” and a gourmet cook, all long-standing stereotypes of gay men. Furthermore, he never expresses any heterosexual interest. In two of his appearances in the sample, he taught a young girl how to flirt with boys by demonstrating a coquettish hair toss, further inviting speculation that he is in fact interested in men.
Six-year-old Andrew, central character of the Kid title Soup to Nutz, referenced gay culture in almost all his strips. He lip-synchs to Whitney Houston, presenting himself as a drag queen in training. Referencing gay-favorite The Wizard of Oz, he asks why Dorothy would ever want to leave Oz and return to the oppression of Kansas. He decides to befriend Peter Pan even though his brother warns that Peter Pan is a “fairy,” homophobic slang for “gay.” In an interview, cartoonist Rick Stromoski agrees that Andrew might be gay, but refuses positive identification, stating that Andrew is 6 years old and does not know yet. Besides, he is popular among both gay and straight men who felt like outsiders because they played with dolls and did not like sports (Nickel).
Gay references were also used to “accuse” a male character of gayness, either to tease and humiliate him or to establish the bigotry of the accuser. In Get Fuzzy, when the dog Satchel is hiding in a closet and announces that he is “coming out,” his fellow pet Bucky Katt exclaims “I’ve been waiting three years for him to say that!” In another strip, Bucky complains to their owner, Rob, “Why are you guys hiding it from me? There’s nothing wrong with it.” Rob begins to protest that Satchel is not . . . but he never gets a chance to say “gay.” The dog bursts into the room and exclaims that his new Barbra Streisand album is “Fabulous!” Bucky stares and points at the gay cultural tropes.
Male transvestism is another means of obliquely referencing gayness, although the joke usually hinges on the character’s homophobic humiliation. For instance, in the Kid title Cow & Boy, the ten-year-old titular character reveals that once he dressed as Dora the Explorer for Halloween. “Preschool was a confusing time,” he explains, implying that he was not yet aware of his “true” gender identity.
Conversely, transvestism can illustrate a male character’s humorous lack of concern for the strictures of gender polarization. When Andrew of Soup to Nutz appears in a tutu, his brother complains, “You’re not normal.” Andrew responds: “Why be normal when you can be happy?” In Luann, unconventional teenager Knute is flirting with some girls at a clothing store. When he admires a bikini, they jokingly suggest that he try it on. Knute does so. He refuses to buy it, however, because it does not flatter his bust.
Gay references require that both cartoonist and reader tacitly agree to dissimulate; both know what the strip is “really” about, but they agree to pretend not to know. The humor comes from seeing how close the strip can come to acknowledging gayness without crossing the line to forbidden definite assignation.
Gay references appeared only in strips produced by male cartoonists, presumably heterosexual, for whom same-sex desire, practice, and romance provide humorous anxiety. They appeared more frequently in titles established since 1998 (5.0%), but earlier titles contained a few; they appeared in 2.3% of strips from titles established before 1980 and 2.4% of those established between 1980 and 1997. Cartoonists responsible for well-established titles may perceive them as opaque to readers not “in the know,” and therefore safer than gay characters themselves.
Not surprisingly, gay references did not appear in Family, Married Couple, or Elderly titles, where gay content of all sorts is presumed alien. They also were absent in Single Woman and Single Man titles. However, they appeared in 4.5% of strips from Animal, 6.3% of Kid, and 13.5% of Teen titles. The assumption of gay-free “innocence” in the main characters may prevent skittish editors and homophobic readers from noticing subtexts, thus paradoxically allowing a free space for depicting gayness, as long as there is no open identification. A study of children’s television (Dennis) came to a similar conclusion.
Exclusive, passionate same-sex friendships have been a mainstay of newspaper comics, as the days of Mutt and Jeff and Krazy Kat, and they appeared frequently in the sample, most commonly in strips from Animal, Kid, and Single Man titles. However, Homoromance was not coded for every same-sex friendship; the pair had to express or display an emotional commitment using vocabulary or conventions common in media depictions of heterosexual romance. For instance, in the Teenage title, Watch Your Head, two male characters who had been feuding decide to reconcile with hugs and an effusive reference to their shared destiny: “It is like we were meant to be [together]!”
Intense physical interactions also were coded as homoromance. In the Animal title, The Barn, sensitive sheep Rory returns to his rural home after being lost in the big city, and he embraces his friend Stan so energetically that he knocks him over, exclaiming “I missed you!” in boldface with three exclamation marks.
Homoromance often occurs without the author’s specific intent to code the characters as gay. Indeed, it often occurs without any conscious intent at all, as an outcome of the creative process, where characters seem to take on a life of their own, developing interests, attachments, and passions that were not part of their original concept. Therefore, expressing heterosexual desire did not “disqualify” the character from also expressing homoromance. In one strip from the Kids title, Zack Hill, the titular boy expresses a crush on a girl named Tiffany, and in another, he and a male friend lie side by side on a hill, their arms nearly touching, a portrait of homoromantic intimacy.
As with gay references, homoromance was the exclusive domain of presumably heterosexual male cartoonists, appearing in 3.1% of their strips but, no strips by female cartoonists. It was also the exclusive domain of male characters. As the conventions of feminine same-sex friendships allow for considerable intimacy and passion, it was difficult to distinguish between ordinary friendships and homoromance. However, among heterosexual men in the contemporary US, the conventions differ dramatically, so what used to be called “particular friendships” are well marked and easy to identify.
Well-established titles feature more close male friendships in general, a throwback to the era where men and women occupied completely separate social spheres; hence we hypothesized that they would also have many occasions to express homoromantic physicality or emotional intimacy. However, friends in the older titles usually approached each other with contempt rather than affection. Instead, homoromance was featured in 4.3% of strips from recent titles, nearly double the 2.3% in older titles.
Homoromance was virtually absent in Single Woman and Single Man titles (0.0% and 1.0%, respectively), but relatively common in Animal and Kid titles (5.7% and 5.2%, respectively). The heteronormative mandate to find an appropriate heterosexual husband or wife is promoted incessantly among single women and men in real life, and thus reflected in Single Woman and Single Man titles. However, it is muted or absent among children, and similarly muted or absent in Kid and Animal titles (sentient animals in comic strips generally behave and are treated as children). As with gay references, the absence produces a discursive “free space” where homoromance can be developed.
If gay men are depicted as essentially feminine, they do not challenge the myth that all desire is heterosexual desire, flowing between masculine and feminine bodies or souls. However, homoerotic desire, representation of desire between two men or male beings, cannot be disguised as gender-transgressive; it is therefore more dangerous, and less amenable to jokes. Therefore, it was extremely rare: only sixteen strips, or 1.9% of the total, featured expressions of homoerotic desire by characters not specifically identified as gay. When it did appear, the characters immediately recognized the danger. For instance, in Soup to Nutz, Andrew gazes in open-mouthed awe at the body of a muscular superhero, then quickly realizes that he “should not” experience such desire, and tells himself that he is awed only by the heroic exploits.
Homoerotic desire more often appeared in tacit form, as a homophobic rejection of the implication of desire. In a Foxtrot strip, teenage Peter is horrified to discover that he is wearing the same shirt as the nerd Morton Goldthwait, and orders him to take it off. Morton refuses to do so for less than $5.00. The next panel shows Morton swaying like an exotic dancer, unbuttoning his shirt as Peter holds out the money and cries “Take it off! Take it off!” Then, realizing that the scene looks like an expression of homoerotic desire, Peter shouts “Put it back on! Put it back on!”
The danger implicit in homoerotic desire is more salient for heterosexual men than for women; consequently, it appears in 4.7% of strips by male cartoonists and no strips by female cartoonists. The age of the title also made a significant difference: homoerotic desire appeared in no strips from titles appearing before 1980, 1.8% of strips from titles appearing between 1980 and 1997, and 3.6% of recent strips. Perhaps, the danger is more recognizable in early titles.
Like homoromance, homoerotic desire can appear without deliberate authorial intent, so it was dispersed across every genre except Elderly. However, it was most common in strips from Single Woman (11.5%) and Single Man titles (3.1%), which paradoxically are the titles most likely to depict hetero-erotic desire (29.2% and 17.5%, respectively).
The comic strip is the shortest of media genres, two or three panels of line drawings and a few words of dialogue that culminate in a sight gag, punch line, or wry observation. There is little room for character development, complex plots and subplots, or detailed settings. The seeming simplicity of the genre has deterred critics from recognizing its importance; it has not received the extensive interest of comic books, graphic novels, and manga (Roberts; Padva), and the studies that exist tend to concentrate on the heavily illustrated, dialogue-heavy sequential strips from the early part of the twentieth-century, such as Li’l Abner and Little Orphan Annie (Bogardus; Harvey).
However, the sheer longevity of the comic strip gives it as much power in shaping attitudes and behavior as more elaborate genres of mass culture. Consumers who read a newspaper comic strip every day for ten years have read the word count equivalent of a medium-sized novel, and they have been exposed with the characters and their world 3,650 times, much more often than the most beloved of movies or television series. Through constant repetition, the comic strip becomes a touchstone of the familiar, an evocation of what life is like or should be like, that carries over into other aspects of the everyday.
Thus, comic strips can and often do engage in an important work of holding a mirror to societal anxieties, critiquing normative ideologies, and effecting social change (Coleman 22; Dussere 135; Lule 77). Although only a few gay male characters appear in newspaper comic strips, and gay/bisexual women, transgendered people, and LGBT people of color are completely absent, gay references, homoromance, and homoerotic desire result in gay content in about 10% of the strips in the sample. The gay content is largely presented with anxiety and nervous laughter, as a means of challenging, discomforting, and humiliating ostensibly heterosexual men. However, the laughter itself breaks the silence, tacitly acknowledging the existence of same-sex desire, behavior, romance, and identity in a world where it is assumed not to exist.