By: Mark Fitzgerald
Mainstream newspapers are not ready for openly gay cartoonists
who syndicate their works about gay characters, but neither
are gay cartoonists eager to draw for a mainstream audience sp.
ALISON BECHDEL says she was flattered when Universal Press Syndicate asked if she would be interested in becoming the first openly gay cartoonist syndicated to mainstream newspapers.
“I was very excited to get that offer from them,” Bechdel said in a telephone interview from her Vermont studio.
But Bechdel adds she knew from the start she would not fit in the funny pages of what editors and publisher still call “family” newspapers.
For one thing, there was the title of the strip that runs in dozens of gay-oriented newspapers and magazines: “Dykes To Watch Out For.”
“The title would have to go [to appeal to] a mainstream audience,” Universal editor Lee Salem said, telling the story of the syndicate’s courting of Bechdel at a seminar at the recent National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association conference.
“And it couldn’t be too political. And of the four or six characters, two could be lesbians for the mainstream press but they would have to be non-partisan,” Salem added.
That would be, to put it mildly, a big change in “Dykes To Watch Out For.” Consider a recent strip, for instance. Four regular characters attempt to rendezvous at the International Dyke March during this summer’s Gay Games in New York City. Amid a throng including topless women and one wearing a phallus, the characters encounter former lovers ? and an ex-nun who says she has changed her name to “Frankie” and who carries a picket sign that says “Mary was a dyke.”
“I’m not interested in writing for a mainstream audience,” Bechdel said. “I’m really happy. I can draw naked people. I can write about politics.” Newspaper comic pages, she said, are not ready for that.
“I mean, papers are still suspending episodes of Doonesbury,” Bechdel said. “I’m not interested in making those kinds of compromises.”
Indeed, newspaper comics lag far behind other parts of popular culture in accepting gay or lesbian characters.
From Roseanne to Melrose Place, gay and lesbian characters are regulars on prime-time television.
But there is no openly gay or lesbian cartoonist producing strips for newspapers.
And gay characters in strips are rare ? and controversial.
When Lynn Johnston wrote a story line for her For Better or For Worse strip that concerned a gay teenager’s “coming out,” Universal received 6,000 letters ? 80% of them opposing the story line, Salem said.
“In today’s newspapers, editors don’t want complaints and they grow up thinking the comic section is for kids ? so that’s why you don’t see comics that even push the envelope,” Salem told the NLGJA conference.
“We get far more responses to lifestyle questions than we do with legal or political issues,” Salem added. “You can say that Vice President Quayle bought cocaine in college [as Gary Trudeau implied in a Doonesbury strip] and get fewer complaints than when [For Better or For Worse teenage character] Lawrence says, ‘I’m gay.’ “
Given that environment, it is probably not surprising that gay artists are not clamoring to start a gay-oriented strip aimed at mainstream papers.
“What we need to find is the Jackie Robinson of gay cartoonists,” Eric Orner told the NLGJA conference.
But Orner, whose Ethan Green strip runs in dozens of gay papers, said that cartoonist won’t be him.
“I think the reason I haven’t [submitted work to a syndicate] is I want to write a strip about being gay, or at least how I see being gay, and I want it to be accepted and I don’t think it would be the way I do it now,” Orner said.
For one thing, while Orner’s title character is a kind of lovable loser Everyman, he is a gay Everyman and much of the humor is mined from the specifics of gay life.
Orner’s strip has no recurring “straight” character and while there is little nudity, the themes are adult.
“I see Eric’s cartoons,” said Universal’s Salem, “and there are two men in bed with their torsos bare and legs sticking out with just a sheet over them.
“Well, we couldn’t [publish] that with a male and a female,” he said.
But while Orner himself is not interested in doing a mainstream comic, he says he can imagine what that strip will look like.
“I can envision the kind of strip it would be. It would be about domesticity . . . about the kind of tiffs you have with your lover over what setting the toaster should be on,” Orner said.
“I imagine it would be like a lot of the African-American strips,” said Bechdel. “Like Jump Start, which is a nice strip but all the characters are kind of assimilated.
“The strip would be about straight and gay people living together, maybe. Well, I don’t know, but it just wouldn’t have any controversy.”
?(“I’m not interested in writing for a mainstream audience. I’m really happy. I can draw naked people. I can write about politics.” Newspaper comic pages are not ready for that, cartoonist Alison Bechdel said.) [Photo & Caption]
?( When Lynn Johnston (left) wrote a story line for her For Better or For Worse strip that concerned a gay teenager’s “coming out,” Universal Press Syndicate received 6,000 letters- 80% of them opposing the story line, according to editor Lee Salem (right).) [Photo & Caption]
?( A portion of a “Dykes To Watch Out For” strip by Bechdel.) [Photo & Caption]