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Are newspapers ready for gay comic characters?

AfterElton.com, a blog providing news and commentary on gay men in entertainment, has a three page write-up on the topic of gay characters on the comic page starting with Lynn Johnston’s 1993 For Better or For Worse story-line about the Lawrence character coming out of the closet up to a recent subtle reference to a gay fireman in Greg Evan’s Luann strip in March of this year. The article’s author interviewed the above mentioned Lynn and Greg along with Brooke McEldowney of 9 Chickweed Lane, Universal Press Syndicate president Lee Salem and Washington Post Writers Group Comics Editor Amy Lago and Seattle Post-Intelligencer Assistant Managing Editor, Janet Grimley, for their take on the issue of homosexual characters in American newspapers.

“It’s a conservative business,” Salem says. “At this time, we may not be able to sell [a ‘gay’ strip]. I can’t say you can read on the comics page what you see on television. It’s a different art form, a more conservative medium.”

Salem says that gay characters and storylines have Universal Press Syndicate’s full support – but the reality seems to be that only applies when they’re coming from established, lucrative cartoonists like Gary Trudeau and Lynn Johnston, who they’d be absolutely crazy to alienate.

Meanwhile, over at the Washington Post Writers Group, Lago admits, “When I get a strip [for consideration], one of the first things I look at is why might a [daily newspaper] editor turn this down.” A gay character would be a red flag, she says, though, “I wouldn’t reject it out of hand. But would it be funny enough to carry in enough newspapers [to make it financially viable]?”

It’s not the sort of talk that lends itself to creative risk-taking on the part of cartoonists. On the contrary, it’s a subtle form of censorship. And cartoonists are getting the message loud and clear.

“And so the conservatism goes on,” says Luann’s Greg Evans. “For Better Or For Worse is a huge strip with tremendous popularity and power. Most of us tenuously hang onto our meager client list, ever fearful of drops. This tends to drive the boldness from our writing. I hate to admit it, but in the end it simply comes down to paying the bills.”

The end of the story has spoilers regarding upcoming story-lines in For Better or For Worse and 9 Chickweed Lane.

Community Comments

#1 Matt Bors
May/19/2008
@ 10:00 am

If we allow gay characters on the comic pages the next step is animals. Talking animals.

#2 Brian Fies
May/19/2008
@ 10:05 am

Nice article, which would have benefitted from a look at “Jane’s World” by Paige Braddock from two perspectives: how it was picked up by United Media, and how it never took off in newspapers. I wonder if syndicates point to it as a “see, we told you it wouldn’t work” example.

It’s a chicken-egg argument, but I think the issue lies less with syndicates than their editor clients at thousands of newspapers who don’t pay attention to the comics, probably don’t read them, and heaven help the cartoonist who slips something by and draws a half-dozen letters from outraged subscribers. I give the syndicates some credit for knowing their clients; why would they promote a product they know their clients won’t buy?

#3 Wiley Miller
May/19/2008
@ 10:16 am

Why are editors afraid of happy cartoon characters?

#4 josh shalek
May/19/2008
@ 10:24 am

People will accept a gay character if the strip is well-written and doesn’t bash the reader over the head with it. I don’t think a strip called “It’s a New Gay Character, Charlie Brown!” will do well. Good writing is good writing, no matter the orientation of the characters.

Or am I being incredibly naive?

#5 Rick Stromoski
May/19/2008
@ 10:39 am

My strip’s character Andrew has what one would describe as a very effeminate personality…plays with Barbies, breaks into spontaneous show tunes, dresses up with his sister babs and sucks at sports. But he’s comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t mind his sissiness. A strip I did a while back describes this issue perfectly.

Andrew and his older brother watching cartoons.

Audio from TV set-

“YOU LEAVE MY FRIEND ALONE!!”

“A GHOST!!”

Royboy- That’s ridiculous. Who would be afraid of Casper?
He’s such a sissy.

Andrew- Some people are deathly afraid of sissies.

#6 Corey Pandolph
May/19/2008
@ 11:08 am

Every one of my characters are gay.

They just don’t know it yet.

#7 murdoch matthew
May/19/2008
@ 11:24 am

I look at “The Meaning of Lila” everyday on the Internet. It usually features Boyd, a gay guy, sitting around at work dishing with Lila and admiring men. Stereotypes, yes, and Boyd is as dateless as Will, but there’s no apologies for who he is.

#8 Wiley Miller
May/19/2008
@ 11:35 am

Since no one in syndication does material involving sexual activity, why would it matter if a character is “gay” or not? And how would we know any given character is “gay” unless the cartoonist goes out of his or her way to say so? It’s not like we’re doing material for Playboy here.

#9 Garey Mckee
May/19/2008
@ 12:52 pm

Sadly, I think the only type of openly gay character that people would generally respond to in a comic strip would be an over the top caricature exploiting all the gay stereo types. Kind of like Jack from Will & Grace.

#10 Mike Lester
May/19/2008
@ 1:20 pm

Jesus H. Christ!!! Are you people nuts???
“Sadly”?
“Give syndicates credit?”
If this isn’t the most pandering, wholesale degrading hucksterism of a segment of society, I’ve never seen it. Wiley’s right: how would you know? Why would it matter? Would gay characters be less or more stereotyped afterwards?

Patronization is not the path to equality. Neither is Affirmative Action.

#11 Garey Mckee
May/19/2008
@ 1:28 pm

Yes, I said “SADLY.” I actually tend to agree with you, Mike and with Wiley. How would one even know, or why would it even be relevant if a character was gay or not. I think at it’s heart it’s a non issue. But I’m saying that it’s the stereo types that get put center stage in media, and especially in cartoons.

#12 Dawn Douglass
May/19/2008
@ 3:23 pm

Some of you might recall that in old black and white movies if there was a black person at all, they were very stereotyped. Black women were Aunt Jamima types and black men were the doppy, bumbling scaredy cat. Both were highly exaggerated and used for comic relief.

Now update to the past decade or two. How are gay men portrayed on TV? It’s very similar to the way black men were depicted.

Seems to me that “gay men in entertainment” aren’t doing so well on any medium.

#13 Dave Krainacker
May/19/2008
@ 3:27 pm

One of the main characters in “The Meaning of Lila” is gay, as is Isaac from “Clear Blue Water”. Also Edda’s roommate in “9 Chickweed Lane”. All of these characters have their own flair and humor independant of their sexuality. (Especially Isaac, who often embodies some sort of superhero for the strip.) As for “Jane’s World”, I think it may have failed because the story lines are often confused. I still try to read it everyday, but often have a hard time following what is happening.
Do we need a strip with only gay characters? So long as it’s funny, witty and engaging, I’ll be a fan. Would it catch on? Hard to say in today’s world.
But sexuality, like race, religion or any of a number of other “isms” shouldn’t really matter in the comics.

#14 Garey Mckee
May/19/2008
@ 3:52 pm

Dawn, I guess that was the point I was trying to make.

#15 JGM
May/19/2008
@ 5:22 pm

Dawn is right. The media always shows gays as being “flamers” or “over the top”. Most gay people are just regulars folks. It’s a “cop out”. It’s easy to stereotype characters (in general), not so easy to just write compelling characters.

Ellen seems “do okay” as a gay media mogul.
She is funny and people like her.

I think as more “well written” gay characters emerge in the media things will get better over time. I think gays, blacks, hispanics, jews, indians, asians, etc… will alWAYS get “dissed” by the media.

This is one reason the media (TV, newspapers, dead tree comics(everything except “the Internets”) is having trouble keeping viewership.

People don’t like to watch “themselves” get “dissed” by the “media”.

“Gay” themed media seems to do better on cable. Unfortanatly we cartoonist don’t have a “cable” like alternative ($an$ webcomic$).

I think this article just shows how limiting “dead tree comics” are for anyone who wants to “think outside of the box”.

#16 Malc McGookin
May/19/2008
@ 5:41 pm

It should be don’t ask don’t tell, surely?

If a strip concerns itself with social issues and a character’s sexuality is pertinent to the storyline or plot, then the character’s sexuality should not even be an issue, it’s a legitimate part of the story.

However, if a writer is so determined to wedge in an irrelevant item regarding someone’s sexuality that it stands out like a dog’s cojones, that is not only bad writing, it’s agenda-setting and as such a total annoyance.

There’s no NEED to man the ramparts or stand as advocate for gays in the comics. The art form and the profession have many bigger problems to contend with.

#17 Dave Brousseau
May/19/2008
@ 7:01 pm

I agree with a lot of what’s been said, with one notable exception: Being gay isn’t just a matter of “sexual activity.” More to the point, it’s about who we love, and while there are lots of syndicated strips that *do* deal with *that* subject, almost all of them do so from a straight perspective. I think that’s another reason Doonesbury and FBOFW can “get away with” having gay characters – their stories are told gradually but matter-of-factly, tastefully, and with relevance to the larger story. Couldn’t other strips do the same?

Now, all of that said, I’ve been drawing a weekly gay comic syndicated to gay newspapers for about 12 years, and, while I do sometimes find it frustrating to have a limited audience, I also like being able to use adult innuendoes and stereotypes when necessary, without fear of angering my editors. I could try my hand at safer, more easily sellable material, but a famous cartoonist once gave me good advice: Write what you know.

#18 Malc McGookin
May/20/2008
@ 12:48 am

Dave,
I developed a strip about a little girl, so the “write what you know” angle is ok up to a point.
Basically, if you are a human, write about humans, even if they are wearing animal skins. Garfield is not about a cat.

Whether your characters are gay or not isn’t the point. Adult cartoons have limited markets no matter what the sexual orientation of the characters. Yes, gay themes will be harder to get across to a mainstream audience- even the young and hip can be prejudiced – but the strip that I (a straight man) created about a large bisexual woman wasn’t going to feature in the Poughkeepsie Bugle either.

#19 Rick Stromoski
May/20/2008
@ 9:24 am

â?¥â?¥â?¥â?¥Dawn is right. The media always shows gays as being â??flamersâ? or â??over the topâ?. Most gay people are just regulars folks. Itâ??s a â??cop outâ?. Itâ??s easy to stereotype characters (in general), not so easy to just write compelling characters.

There’s a movement within the gay community to downplay the stereotypical “gay ” fem character and a bit of a backlash against it. An interesting podcast form NPR This American Life adresses this issue…

http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=46

#20 Bill Kellogg
May/20/2008
@ 5:12 pm

Personally, I like Matt’s answer best from comment number 1. That said, I think it’s sad that this discussion even matters to editors, but it does.

Editors frequently tell me that the next strip they pick up has to have some ethnic diversity to which I respond, “all of the animals in Tundra are black, hispanic, oriental or gay. You just can’t tell because of the fur.” That argument hasn’t worked for me yet though.

I was under the impression that comics were supposed to be funny and offer the readers a break from the often harsh reality of everyday life. Editors should judge a strip by whether it is funny, interesting or thought provoking, not by the charactors color or whether or not they are gay. If a strip is funny, interesting or thought provoking, who cares about the race or sexual preference of the charactors?

I am pretty isolated from the real world up here in Alaska, but are there really readers that are upset because there isn’t enough diversity when it comes to race or sexuality in the comics section?

#21 Elizabeth Davis
September/22/2011
@ 11:43 am

I write and illustrate a comic strip that has been published in several “alternative” Papers. It is a gay comic strip and has been jugded on it’s merit. At one point United Features wanted to test it by publishing it for 1 year online with an agreement by me not to make it avalable to any other publication online and hard copy. I did not take the offer. Till this day my strip has not been picked up by a major syndicate though along with my rejection letters I always find a little note from the Editor stating how well written and funny the strip is and how brave I am and that I shouldnt give up submitting it. Unfortunately folks in the Newspaper world conservatism is the thing and though now we have so many Gay rights in effect more so than we did before the Newspaper world has not caught up, it is at least 40 years behind! Too Bad !

#22 Frank Mariani
September/22/2011
@ 12:11 pm

If you want funny gay stereotypes (OMG! can it be done???), check out Frank and Steve in Mark Buford’s SCARY GARY. They fit into Mark’s crazy world perfectly and he never forces the humor. Frank and Steve just happen to have green skin. And there is nothing wrong with that.

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