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Comic Strips and Cartoons  
 
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Comic strips and graphic books have only recently been acknowledged as a serious art form, but in both mainstream and underground culture, they have served for decades as a powerful tool of satire and humor; and in their representation of glbtq people, they also serve as a barometer of shifting attitudes toward gay subcultures. Comic strips remain an important contribution of the alternative print media to popular culture.

Today numerous comic artists create strips, books, collections, and graphic novels that are available through both mainstream and underground channels in both printed and electronic media. Nearly every gay and lesbian newspaper features at least one comic strip that chronicles the joys and pain, the dilemmas and delights of daily life for ordinary glbtq people.

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Censorship and the Emergence of Gay Comics

In the 1950s, most forms of media were subject to severe censorship that included specific regulations against the depiction of homosexuality. It comes as no surprise, then, that comic books were affected by this kind of censorship.

The adoption of the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s ensured that the state of queers in the funny papers would not advance beyond what it had been in the 1930s and 1940s--when representation was limited to the occasional offensive stereotype in mainstream comics such as Dick Tracy or Terry and the Pirates.

The Code, established in the aftermath of United States Senate hearings examining comics as a cause of juvenile delinquency, reflected the era's attitude toward homosexuality and effectively barred the portrayal of overtly gay characters in mainstream comics.

Gay and lesbian readers continued to speculate about the real relationship between Batman and Robin and between Wonder Woman and her Amazons, but the creators and distributors of these strips were prohibited from developing those relationships.

This prohibition did not stop Tom of Finland from creating his sexually explicit gay male comics in the 1940s and later circulating them in the gay underground and privately among friends. Nor did it prevent Drum magazine from running a humorous erotic comic strip, a satire of James Bond-style espionage tales--called "Harry Chess: That Man from A.U.N.T.I.E.," by A. Jay--pen name of Al Shapiro--in the 1960s.

Joe Johnson's similarly campy strips Miss Thing and Big Dick were soon run in The Advocate, until that newsmagazine undoubtedly concluded that they presented gay men in too stereotypical a manner for a gay venue that was growing increasingly serious and respectable. But if any characters in commercial strips were gay, no one was supposed to know about it.

Comics from Stonewall to the 1980s

The Code's grip loosened considerably as gay liberation flourished alongside women's liberation. Tired of the lack of authentic lesbian representation in both mainstream and feminist comics, Mary Wings produced the first overtly lesbian book Come Out Comix in 1972.

Roberta Gregory then came out as a lesbian cartoonist in 1974 via Wimmin's Comix, which had until then published only the work of straight women and their (perhaps misguided) visions of what lesbianism entailed. Two years later, Gregory self-published her lesbian comic book Dynamite Damsels, which reached a national audience. That same year heralded an underground gay male anthology called Gay Heart Throbs, published by Larry Fuller.

Men continued to produce gay comics in larger numbers than women through the 1970s and early 1980s. One of the distinguishing features of Christopher Street, perhaps the most sophisticated of gay publications in the 1970s, was its intelligent and often hilarious cartoons, many of them by Rick Fiala, who also created cartoons under the names "Lublin" and "Bertram Dusk." Fiala's cartoons captured with great wit and elan the complexities of gay and lesbian urban life in the years before AIDS.

Rupert Kinnard, an African-American gay male artist, created a strip called Cathartic Comics in 1977, which appeared in the newspaper of his alma mater, Iowa's Cornell College. His characters Brown Bomber and Diva Touché Flambé made history as comics' first out, queer Black characters.

That year also introduced gay character Mark Slackmeyer in Garry Trudeau's syndicated Doonesbury strip. A flaming liberal, Slackmeyer is in a relationship with a die-hard conservative. Another Doonesbury character, Andy Lippincott, who came out in the strip in 1976, died of AIDS in 1991.

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Wendel (left) and Ollie from the Howard Cruse comic strip Wendel.
  
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