Chances are you remember the first slur someone used about your sexuality – and your race, ethnicity, and gender. For me the word was “sissy”, a relatively mild word compared to words frequently used today. The first time I heard it was when I was five or six and the word was spoken by a beloved relative as a warning to my mother: “You had better cut those apron strings or you’ll have a sissy on your hands.” A few short months before I had the realization that something was fundamentally different about me and that this mysterious thing had to stay a secret so standing by my mother’s side and hearing the word sent me into a mental panic because I suddenly had a word for what my secret was even though I didn’t know what it meant.
I recently came across “sissy” used not once but three times in a early Batman story titled Payment In Full. The story was published in Batman #11 (June-July 1942) and is reprinted in Batman: The Dark Knight Arhives volume 3 and Batman Chronicles volume 6. Here’s the synopsis for this story written by Bill Finger with Bob Kane as artist. The focus is on the different life paths of two men, Joe Dolan and Lee Benson, who both grew up in a poor section of Gotham. As a child, Lee is drawn small and weak while wearing new clothes. On the other hand, Joe is tough and aggressive with patched clothes and a whoopee cap like Jughead’s. Hard to believe the hats were once really popular!
As you can see in the image here Joe calls Lee a sissy and moments later he heroically pushes Lee out of the oncoming truck’s path and is hurt in the process. Maybe he isn’t such a tough kid at heart? The two boys become fast friends as a handy plot device with Joe even apologizing to Lee for calling him a sissy. Once out of the hospital Joe also protects Lee from other neighborhood bullies.
However, their paths begin to diverge as they become adults. Lee studies to become a lawyer and eventually becomes District Attorney while Joe turns first to petty crime then joins a gang to rob banks, and is turned over to police after being caught by Batman and Robin. Benson is conflicted over prosecuting Dolan because he literally owes his life to Dolan and Dolan intends to call in that favor. Except while sitting in a jail cell Dolan hatches a hairbrained escape plan that only works in Golden Age comics and so he’s off to an old sewer tunnel hideout which Benson conveniently knows about and shares with Batman and Robin. Benson leads the Dynamic Duo to the tunnel. A surprised and angry Dolan shoots and wounds Benson. In the confusion Dolan escapes the hideout and hijacks a car by threatening the life of the woman driving it. Wacky hijinx ensue with Batman, Robin, and Benson stealing another car and hotly pursuing Dolan and the understandably distraught woman who crashes her car into railing at the foot of a bridge. In manic desperation, Dolan runs onto the bridge and then jumps into the river in one last escape attempt which is an idiotic idea because he passes out on impact with the water! And who dives in to rescue Dolan? Not Batman. Not Robin. Why, old friend Lee! Dolan angrily mocks Benson for being a sissy — for being sentimental and loyal to their childhood bond even as he threatens to crush him with a rock. A well aimed piece of driftwood thrown by Robin acts as distraction so Batman can deliver a swift left hook! Thank god for driftwood, right?
Benson’s actions in Dolan’s case receives the attention of political movers and shakers who decide they want to nominate Benson as their candidate to run in the upcoming governor’s race. The last we see of Dolan he’s regretting his decisions while being led by prison guards down a hallway to an electric chair. Bruce pontificates to Dick about crime rotting people from the inside out in the closing panel and fade out.
Bill Finger certainly had to be aware of the word’s meanings. It had first come into use in the US around 1840 to 1850 as a diminutive of sister and by the 1880s the meaning had come to include a coward or a man who didn’t gender conform or was suspected to be gay. By the 1930s, according to Wikipedia, sissy was the most damning slur a male could be called. That claim seems a bit exaggerated to me. Regardless, the word was widely known and used as a perjorative in everyday language. Even by 1940 Hollywood had a history of using actors like Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, and Peter Lorre in effeminate male roles either as comedic relief or villains. While Finger didn’t face outside censorship like movie studios under the Hays Code at the time or as later comics publishers would with the creation of the Comics Code Authority, he was still subject to contemporary social standards which deemed positive portrayals of LGBT people taboo.
Did Finger intend to write a positive story featuring a coded gay man who is judged on his character rather than stereotyped as a villain or court jester because of his sexuality? We’ll never know for certain. I’d like to think that he did.