Dorothy Heartbern is one of several characters mentioned in an article titled “Gay History: Mickey Mouse, Homophobe” written by Tim Alderman. Heartbern is a one off character created by Will Eisner for a Spirit story simply titled “Dorothy Heartbern.” Eisner’s plot is a simple one that hinges on the vanity of Ellen Dolan, the Spirit’s girlfriend, who is concerned about losing face among her circle of dilettante friends after she promised to bring her boyfriend to a gala event who refuses to attend because it’s beneath him. While sulking on the sofa Ellen overhears Dorothy Heartbern’s “Romance Rescuer” advice radio program and decides to visit the radio station to consult Heartbern face to face. Thirty minutes later Ellen in “big Karen mode” barges past the reception desk and into Heartbern’s office only to be shocked to find a man inside. This isn’t just any man either as he instantly blurts out: “Why! I’m Miss Heartbern! Oh…oh, fudge! I’ve told you…Please, oh please, don’t tell on me! It’d be just too terrifying!”
After noticing the man’s physical resemblance to her boyfriend, Ellen seizes the opportunity to persuade him to accompany her to the event while impersonating the Spirit. He relents to Ellen rather risking his secret of being the popular host revealed which would ruin his career and personal life just as it did for many gay men at the time. The scenes which follow of a few of Ellen’s friends fawning over the impersonator. Eisner uses phrases like “revolting”, “too dashing”, “ducky”, “how thrilling”, and “you brute” (all of which are in bold lettering) coupled with exaggerated gestures meant to indicate effeminacy to make it clear to even the most unaware reader that the character is a pansy, sissy, or nancy boy” in the same stereotypical fashion as a number of male character roles in Hollywood movies typical for the time period. Please watch History of Homosexuality On Film and LGBT Film History: The Early Years.
Eisner creates plenty of “slapstick” moments to which he subjects Dorothy with a socialite being extorted by gangsters to whom she owes money agreeing to look the other way as the gangsters attempt to rob the other party guests. The “comedy of errors” doubles when the Spirit appears at the gala after a change of heart.
Radio programs were a major source of both news and entertainment for Americans throughout the first half of the 20th century. Eisner may have been inspired by the idea of romance advice radio programs being broadcasted at the time or a long forgotten incident. While neither Ellen nor the Spirit disparage Dorothy the character can only exist as comedic relief at best. At this time the Spirit stories appeared as a special supplement to the Sunday cartoon section of subscribing newspapers and countless children and adults would have read it, thus either reinforcing their views of gay men or teaching them how to identify and treat them or, in instances of queer people reading the story, possibly leading to eye rolling and sighs.
Eisner did not give the character a name other than “Dorothy Heartburn.” The Grand Comics Database credits Joe Kubert as the colorist for this story.
Dorothy Heartbern first appeared in The Spirit #67, released/syndicated by the Register and Tribune Syndicate in newspapers dated September 7th, 1941. It is reprinted in The Spirit Archives volume 3 published by DC Comics in December, 2000.
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