By Joe Palmer
The year is 1980, the start of the “Me” decade. Movie goers that year had their pick of films such as Raging Bull, Airplane, American Gigolo, Popeye, The Shining, Xanadu, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Blue Lagoon, and the original Friday the 13th. Christopher Cross, Bette Midler, Pat Benatar, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb all won Grammy awards for their music. Punk and new wave in its various manifestations were in force to act as an alternative and counterbalance to the Top 40 and disco. People watched Magnum, P.I., 60 Minutes, Little House on the Prairie, The Dukes of Hazard, and in the fall everyone wondered who shot J.R. on Dallas. The debut of MTV is a year away still. Jimmy Carter was President, Americans were held hostage in Iran, and on November 4th, Americans elected former actor Ronald Reagan as their new President. The HIV virus was just beginning to make its presence known.
1980 was a year that marked a big change in my life. That change came on June 14th. This was the day I’d moved from my central Illinois hometown of 16,000 people to Chicago. In my hometown of Lincoln it seemed everyone had a German last name, worked as a farmer or in a factory, got stinking drunk on a Friday night and sobered up enough for church on Sunday, and, of course, was heterosexual. Attending church was my madatory obligation in those days. News of the Stonewall Riots four years before had yet to make it to me, so I naїvely and successfully set off to find gay men to date around 1977. It wasn’t too long before I’d found a man whom I thought was the true love of my life, and it was he who persuaded me that we should move to Chicago. Imagine my shock and euphoria when I experienced my first Gay Pride Parade that also fell on my birthday that year two weeks later!
One day while wandering I came across the comic book on a newstand a few blocks from my first apartment in Chicago. This comic was unlike any I’d ever seen before since my fascination with the medium began as a nine-year old in 1967. Yes, I’m that old. The comic in question was the first issue of GAY COMIX with a September cover date. Only a year before had I met through a friend of my then boyfriend another gay man who read comics; Kevin had a very cynical attitude and it wasn’t long before we stopped trying to talk about comics. In my nervously excited hands there was proof of at least a small handful of gay people who appreciated comics. Finding these stories was a big step out of a second closet.
Some – many – of you know about Jim Shooter’s infamous Hulk story that included a scene in which Bruce Banner is nearly raped in a YMCA shower by two men was published with an October date. Now I must admit to forgettingwhich of these two comics I first read. The Hulk story will be looked at another time.
After thumbing through the pages at the news stand, I paid the $1.50 price – expensive on a weekly take home pay of $120 – and walked the few blocks home, and dove into the stories. Inside the two color covers were stories by Howard Cruse, who also edited the title, Lee Mars, Roberta Gregory, Billy Fugate, Kurt Erichsen, Mary Wings, Demian, and Theo Bogart. Rand Holmes drew the front cover and Roberta Gregory did the back. There wasn’t a Perez, Wolfman, Thomas, Swan, Ordway, O’Neil, Byrne or Claremont in the lot of them. Nor were any of the stories include any of the elements of super heroes, mystery, horror, war, spy, western or sci-fi comics, all of which I was familiar with. Since I’d had little exposure to other styles of art outside of the comic book standards of the day I audaciously decided that the artists, with Howard Cruse as an exception, were amateurish.
The book was still fascinating to me simply because of the idea behind it: gays and lesbians telling stories about themselves. Aside from “Saboteur” which had an activist bent, every story was about the search for acceptance or love. Lee Marr’s “Stick in the Mud” was about the late blooming lesbian Sue who after a failed marriage and a string of disastrous dates finds her soul mate. Billy Fugate’s “Fallout” is a critical look at stereotypical gay culture while his one page short, “Found a Reason”, is a tender look at two senior men in a committed relationship. Roberta Gregory’s “Reunion” focuses on a small group of women negotiating their paths in life through a series of relationships and their personal affirmations to become the person they’ve always wanted to be. In “Billy Goes Out”, Cruse poignantly relates Billy’s attempts to move on with his life after the death of his lover. It became my favorite story in the anthology because it spoke of the capacities to hope and love. Mary Wings’ “A Visit from Mom” recounts a lesbian daughter’s sudden realization of the true nature of her elderly mother’s fifteen year relationship with her best friend. Theo Bogart’s full page illustration of a doting and perhaps intentionally oblivious mother delivering hot drinks to her son’s room while he and a friend indulge in a little masturbation.
As I mentioned above, the most important and empowering aspect for me of GAY COMIX #1 was the potential for gay people to use this medium to tell stories about themselves. Of course, this was something I could do in my own life though on an extremely personal level. It made me aware that I could reject being pigeon holed within the gay community and certainly society at large, and instead could make my own choices. But that’s another story that is being written still. Go write and tell yours.