For time is the longest distance between two places.
– Tennessee Williams
There’s a lot to be said about learning from history.
It’s been nearly a year since the man pretending to be our “President” took office, and it’s been a damn long year. We’ve anticipated some of the worst, like last week’s vote in the Senate to further divide the economic bounties of the wealthiest 1% from the remainders seeing themselves get poorer. Some of it we’ve fought against, repeatedly, and won, like the transgender ban on the military. While others, like the Muslim ban at our borders, we’re still fighting. The repeal of healthcare for all Americans (and in particular, children via the now-expired CHIP program) is one we’ve lost — at what will be a devastating cost.
For queer people in the United States, the dangers in the coming year are very high. Our civil liberties are being challenged at every level, and left undefended by a Department of Justice that wants to see us once again unprotected in the workforce. Our ability to be educated is at risk, with all protections under Title IX being rescinded. And our economic and consumer equality is under attack at two fronts: through the likely removal of net neutrality protections and the challenge currently being considered by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court to our right to be treated equally through commerce (Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission).
In the comics community too, we’re seeing a pervasive backlash in certain quarters to anything beyond the traditional straight white male imperative — queerness included. The idea that diversity is a barrier to quality narrative, not a prerequisite, garners far more attention than it should, despite its inability to sustain critical analysis with any intellectual coherence.
Despite this increasingly hostile environment for queer visibility, the first week of 2018 brings us something notable: a visitation of queer history in the form of Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles.
Published by DC Comics and penned by a writer increasingly known for his critically-acclaimed, satirical takes with books like Prez and The Flintstones, Mark Russell, Exit Stage Left sets Hanna-Barbera’s pink cat with a lisp into the life of a mid-twentieth century playwright and closeted gay man … err, cat. Illustrated by Mike Feehan (pencils), Mark Morales (inks), Paul Mounts (colors), and Dave Sharpe (letters), Snagglepuss might just be the oddest book to hit the stands in years.
And it also might be one of the most important.
Tennessee Williams: The Man Behind the Meow
Discussing the reinvention of Snagglepuss as a gay, Southern, gothic playwright, Russell specifically calls out Tennessee Williams — author of The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — as inspiration for this early-1950s set six-issue mini-series starring the not-so-subtle queer cartoon.
In discussing Snagglepuss with the outlet HiloBrow, Mark Russell opines,
I envision him like a tragic Tennessee Williams figure; Huckleberry Hound is sort of a William Faulkner guy, they’re in New York in the 1950s, Marlon Brando shows up, Dorothy Parker, these socialites of New York from that era come and go …
it’s natural to present it in a context where everybody knows, but it’s still closeted. And dealing with the cultural scene of the 1950s, especially on Broadway, where everybody’s gay, or is working with someone who’s gay, but nobody can talk about it — and what it’s like to have to try to create culture out of silence.
It’s a startlingly apt connection to make as Hilton Als, in describing the tenor of John Lahr’s biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, says,
The playwright’s backstage dramas with his lovers, agent, family, and so on, always equalled what was on stage; indeed, there was not much of a difference to Williams.
Amid an increasingly conservative post World War II America, made only more restrictive by the national policies of Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Tennessee Williams bucked back against the trend through his work in the burgeoning theater scene, expressing what he couldn’t verbally through the stage. As Als concludes, “The world was correct, pious, duplicitous … and Williams wanted to queer the world.“
WIlliams’ own story is one of a child brought up in a culturally repressive Mississippi pre-World War I, having been raised by a cold, prim mother and a womanizing father who sexually abused Tennessee’s sister Rose. Neither Tennessee nor his brother would have any sexual experiences until well into adulthood, with an adolescence marked by their mother’s stage-level delivery of the pain and evils of sinfulness.
It’s a delivery that would mirror (appropriately in reverse) Tennessee Williams’ own effusiveness through theater, as Als relates:
His writing was the bridge he tried to build between his besmirched, original-sin self—the self that loved the temporary pleasures of sex, but no doubt considered it “dirty”—and the self that sought purification in a world other than this one.
Even in the first few preview pages of Exit Stage Left, we begin to see this exact sense from Snagglepuss himself about the divisions between public and private — divisions many queer people, myself include, take for granted as unnecessary in the modern age. Rather, it’s an openness of behavior and space that we may need to defend more strenuously in the coming months and years.
The Spaces We Inhabited
1953 was a full 16 years before the most famous queer space in American history would have its moment of revolt, but queer spaces had been a facet in American life for as long as there was an America.
In his 1997 volume Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire, Aaron Betsky describes the state of queer bars post-World War II (and indeed, in many locations today), as openness about sexual identity became less acceptable in the mainstream quarters it sought out in the 1920s and 30s:
Queer bars revel in anonymous structures, often on the outskirts of what are considered acceptable neighborhoods … the only thing that distinguished many gay bars until the 1970s was a sign that announced a name. The only way queer men often know to go to such a space is through an invisible spatial network, that of rumor and hearsay… the entrance is often in the rear, to allow a greater degree of anonymity.
We see almost immediately that Snagglepuss retreats from the light to the relatively cloaked comfort of the queer bar in Greenwich Village. Russell, Feehan, and particularly colorist Mounts render the space with a brightness we don’t often associate with these pre-Stonewall speakeasies, choosing instead to juxtapose a shadowy darkness on the exterior of the space. This association of the oppressive shadow with the outside world and delirious lightness inside this space where one could be free to be oneself both in speech and in gesture is a savvy choice. It underscores the vitality that these bars have had in queer communities when overarching culture is not as permissive.
There is also an intelligence behind making the queer bar as space of personal story, as so much of LGBT history is now understood and embraced as a first-person narration. To hear of conditions closely outside the United States — that would in fact, mirror police action in New York City in the late sixties — as told in first person within the confines of a distinctly queer space is important and reflective of what would end up being a major part of our ability to pass on knowledge, history, and grace.
Sadly, this is not the only important moment in queer history we end up seeing depicted in Exit Stage Left.
McCarthyism and The Lavender Scare
The particular cultural touchpoint of Exit Stage Left is the June 1953 execution of the Rosenbergs following their conviction for conspiracy to commit espionage. It’s telling, of course, that the public post-horrors of World War II would be so demanding of consequence when reports of collusion with the very same nation fall on deaf Republican ears in 2017.
The Rosenbergs were only two of thousands of those targeted by the rising strength of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), first convened in 1938, but achieving its height of hysteria in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Of note for the story of Snagglepuss is not one, but two very particular targets sought out for exposure: the Hollywood elite as Communist sympathizer and the homosexual as Communist target for blackmail — the latter becoming known colloquially (and somewhat appropriately in this context) as the Lavender Scare.
The idea of the homosexual as security risk — and thus, important to root out of the government — is of course an extrapolation of the open secret nature of the Closet, and a particularly cruel application of its tenets. Rather than acknowledge one’s queer identity and thus render its usefulness as blackmail moot, the course of action taken by the HUAC is to remove anyone it suspected of homosexuality (already de facto acknowledging it) with as much public humiliation and desire to ruin lives as possible.
It was in fact only two months before the events of Exit Stage Left that President Eisenhower signed into law Executive Order 10450, banning lesbian and gay workers from federal positions. While not often discussed with as much clarity as the attack on supposed Communist sympathizers, the actions taken between 1947 and 1961 surrounding the homosexuality of federal employees far outweighed those of Communist Party memberships in number.
Today, Jewish homosexual Frank Kameny is remembered as one of the most significant figures in the modern gay rights movement because of his public resistance to being fired from his position as U.S. Army astronomer in 1957 for being a homosexual. Kameny appealed his firing, an unheard of action in the 1950s for the target of a homosexual purge, and was in fact, the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation in American court history.
As Beth Sherouse explains in an overview of 1950s queer action for the Human Rights Campaign,
Ironically, this government persecution of gay men and lesbians brought more visibility to LGBT people, which led them to seek each other out and form communities and political consciousness.
The Rise of Queer Organizing
It’s easy to overlook the 1950s Snagglepuss is inhabiting in Exit Stage Left as being pre-conception for the queer rights movement in the United States, but the precursors for later strong and defining action, from the Stonewall riots through ACT-UP in the 1980s to the LGBT rights movement today began with organizing against the threats posed by HUAC, the Lavender Scare, and queer identity driven underground.
Founded in late 1950 by former George Wallace campaign worker and homosexual Howard Hay in New York City, the Mattachine Society (named after a masked, French, secret fraternity of the medieval era) was meant to organize queer men with tactics used by Communist party organizations at the time, in order to fight for gay acceptance (even self-acceptance) and rights. These tactics are described as such:
With the McCarthy hunts in full swing secrecy was of the utmost importance to preserve their careers and in their thinking safety as well. They rarely met in the same place two times in a row. They used aliases and code words to identify members. Some reports say there was even an honest to goodness secret handshake or hand sign to identify one another.
What began as an organization of masked individuals grew into an outspoken advocacy group by the mid-1960s, joining together with the Daughters of Bilitis, a queer female-focused parallel organization founded in 1955 in San Francisco. Post-Stonewall riots, both organizations were seen as a less-revolutionary path for queer visibility, but there’s no denial that their earliest of advocacy work during the time we see recorded in Exit Stage Left was a critical moment for our community’s history.
The Attack on Comic Books and Queerness
More metatextually, Exit Stage Left can’t be understood without some context of what made the early 1950s so dangerous for expression in comic books. Right-wing pundits throw around the word censorship so flagrantly in discussing comic books in the early twenty-first century, but without any thorough grounding in terms of what really went on in this industry over 60 years ago.
Often referenced, the 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent by Doctor Frederic Wertham took an in-depth look at the supposed deviancy of comic books in an era marked by two very particular phenomena: a backlash against entertainment media by the HUAC and an infinitely wider distribution of comic books than we have seen in decades. Wertham’s methodologies were suspect, with research purposefully subverted and conflated to match his forgone conclusions about violence and, in particular, male queerness and female sexuality.
And the latter focuses are what specifically gets lost in much of the discussion of Wertham and the subsequent backlash against comic book content in the mid-1950s. An enormous focus was placed by the author on the partnership of Batman and Robin, with Wertham noting:
“Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Grayson. Bruce is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. … [I]t is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” For this reason, “only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his younger friend ‘Robin.’ “
But as Slate columnist Jeet Heer surmises in his book review of David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America:
“the Caped Crusader was irresistibly attractive to young readers whose sexuality was already inclined away from heterosexuality. But for many of us today, that’s an argument in favor of Batman. Isn’t it good for gay kids to have a role model like the Dark Knight? And the element of causality is worth keeping in mind: Batman didn’t make readers gay; gayness made Batman attractive to readers.”
Ultimately, the arrival of the Comics Code Authority — a self-regulating organization for the comic book industry proposed as an alternative to both government regulation and Wertham’s own suggestion of labeling — dominated the creative environment in one form or another for over fifty years. DC Comics, in fact, was the last to abandon its stamp of approval in January 2011, a full 57 years after it first arrived on the scene.
It was far from a bang, but a whimper of leaving behind an always-already false sense of purity that no longer had any cultural juice behind its anti-queer and anti-woman agenda. Sadly, its memory is still referenced today as a specter of intolerance rather than as a prime example of intolerance’s use of censorship to subjugate so-called “non-normative” voices.
The Paradox of Tolerance
Despite the current histrionics of modern day artists like Kaare Williams and Patrick Zircher, the reality of what constitutes censorship for the white straight male worldview is utter nonsense. Their comparison of recent consumer backlash against egregiously racist and queer-phobic material such as Howard Chaykin’s Divided States of America to the massive attempts to squash any non-normative expression in comic books in the 1950s is telling.
It speaks of a conflation of anti-Muslim hysteria and anti-transgender speech with pro-queer and pro-feminist content that Frederic Wertham was seeking to eliminate. It is a disingenuous parallel that posits a very dangerous belief: that intolerance of racialized and sexualized imagery and speech is as dangerous as the racism and sexual abuse it portrays.
This is pointedly false, and repeatedly comes from the mouths of those who are never at risk of experiencing either.
The rise of intolerant speech and action in Eastern Europe from the early 1930s through to the end of World War II served as a profound example of what happens when a culture normalizes the “both sides” mentality we see sweeping through America in 2017. The paradox of tolerance, as first posed by Austrian philosopher Karl Popper in his 1945 tome The Open Society and Its Enemies, is sums it up succinctly as such:
Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.
This is not an academic position: we see its very real effects every day as anti-semitic, anti-queer, anti-Black, anti-Latinx, and anti-Muslim positions achieve normalcy in popular media through a lens of 24 hour news and desire by those with privilege to let “both sides” have their say. We see an entire political party — from elected officials to twitterati pundits (and yes, more than a few comic book creators) ready to hand wave the rights of those it deems less important than their own dominance.
For some, it could be simply an inability to see past their own nose in terms of the danger. White straight men literally have nothing to lose by letting white supremacist, sexist, and queerphobic material proliferate without substantial challenge. How could they ever know what the burden is for those it targets?
The weight it adds to our daily experience of the world.
If we are to take anything from these first few pages of Exit Stage Left, it’s that we have had a freedom of movement and thought and desire that generations before us could only dream of. And that it’s all at risk when we begin to see history repeating itself.
Tennessee Williams, Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, and all of Snagglepuss’s queer antecedents are telling us through history that nothing is safe if we don’t fight for it. Nothing is ours if we don’t continually speak up on our own behalf. And that resistance to intolerance is more necessary than ever — in comics, in our elected officials, in our daily lives. We can not let the distance of time and the deliberate diminishment and twisting of memory lead us down the same paths our forbearers already scraped and crawled — for us.
We must remember. We must speak up.
And fight, even.
See the first look preview of Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles here.