In celebration of Pride month, we are excited to present a Q & A with Caitlin McGurk, Assistant Professor and Associate Curator for Outreach in the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Caitlin was the 2020 recipient of the University Libraries’ Research Excellence award, for her research studying the early history of lesbian comic strip characters. You can read the full article here.
Your research addresses a gap in scholarly study of LGBTQ comics and cartoon art – mainstream U.S. newspaper comic strips. Why do you think such a widespread and consumed medium has been so under researched in terms of LGBTQ characters?
I can think of a few reasons why this might be. One big one is the general assumption that there just wouldn’t be any queerness in these early American strips, so why go digging for it? When we think newspaper comics, we often think of sitting around the breakfast table, or being sprawled out on the carpet flipping through them for a laugh. It has generally been believed that comics are a lower art-form, whose main purpose is to entertain. This is an unfortunate stereotype, not at all helped by the root of the word “comics”. In reality though, from the earliest days of the form in the late 1800s, comics have been political, experimental and very often commenting on or capturing aspects of all classes of society that few other kinds of visual art had ever done before. Gender and sexuality is definitely one of those themes, as has been particularly studied closely with Krazy Kat, a long-running strip that on its surface appears to be about a cat that is in love with a mouse, but deeper down was exploring gender identity and race. However, there’s a second reason that there hasn’t been much research into this area, and it’s one that reaffirms my pride in working for the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum: it is extremely difficult to access complete runs of comic strips in order to study them. In the 1960s when microfilm and microfiche was all the rage in libraries across the United States and beyond, a major focus of this early digitization process was newspaper collections. Often times, the comic sections were not included in what got microfilmed. And when they were microfilmed, similar photographs in the newspaper, the contrast was so poor that the comics could hardly be read. Once thousands of these historic newspapers were microfilmed, the physical objects were thrown in the trash. The entire field of comic strips owes a great debt to a man named Bill Blackbeard who realized what a mistake this was early on, and spent his life collecting these discarded newspapers from libraries in order to save the comics section and attempt to preserve this history. He did a very good job of it, and his collection now resides at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, totaling 2.5 million comic strips, making us the best institution for the study of this form. For more information on the microfilming of comics and Bill Blackbeards counter-efforts, check out Jenny Robb’s 2009 article, Bill Blackbeard: The Collector who Rescued the Comics. Since few comic strips have ever been collected and republished for a modern audience, this kind of archival in-person research at BICLM is often necessary in order to unearth such treasures.
What were some of the challenges you faced in researching a topic that has been historically overlooked? Is there any advice you would give to researchers in similar situations?
I would say the greatest challenge I faced – and this is probably not unusual for humanities research – is wanting to make sure I wasn’t overly interpreting the artist’s work, intent or identity. In all three of the comic strips that I studied for the article (Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, Terry and the Pirates and Brenda Starr, Reporter), at no point does the artist come right out and say “She’s gay! This character is a lesbian!” because to do so would have been a death sentence for the strip, let alone a massive controversy. Keep in mind these characters arrived on the scene between 1903-1940, not a particularly open-minded time in America. At one point Brenda Starr, Reporter was dropped by a number of newspapers simply because Dale Messick drew a belly-button on Brenda, which was considered far too racy. So to get back to my point, there is a certain level of interpretation necessary to understand these characters as queer. It is pretty obvious of course, but still, it can make a person uneasy to state a claim about someone else’s creation without that person being around to verify it. I was so lucky that I was able to interview Dale Messick’s daughter (aptly named Starr), who confirmed what I believed about her mother’s intent with the character Hank O’Hair. I suppose if I had to give advice on that balance between interpretation/assumption and hard facts, I would recommend that researchers tread with caution and respect for the creator, not make blanket statements and do their homework. It can be so tempting to project what we want to see in art, and not what is actually there. Since scholars are in a privileged position of writing history, it is so important to do so with a healthy level of emotional/personal distance from the topic.
In analyzing Milton Caniff’s lesbian character in Terry and the Pirates – Sanjak – you caution against reading the inclusion of the character as progressive due to Caniff’s reliance on negative stereotypes. You provide some passages from fan correspondence praising the character and urging Caniff to not make her a villain. What was your reaction to seeing positive responses to a character considered taboo in the 1930s?
Not unlike most cartoon art researchers, I absolutely love reading correspondence. There is something so thrilling about imagining the personality behind the handwriting, and the passion and motivation that it takes to inspire someone to sit down and write a letter to a cartoonist. I was so happy to see those letters to Caniff about Sanjak, and at a time when there was basically no representation of lesbians in mainstream culture, any representation (even a negative stereotype) could have been impactful to see. I’m using the word “impactful” and not “exciting” or “positive” because it’s also very likely that reading Sanjak further embedded a sense of self-loathing in, for example, a closeted reader. However, she clearly had some cheerleaders in the audience, as indicated by those letters.
Conversely, the lesbian character Hank O’Hare in the comic strip Brenda Starr, Reporter defied stereotypes and was considered groundbreaking. In your research you talk about the negative response from some fans and pressure from both fans and (potentially) editors to have the character conform to a more conservative lifestyle of heterosexual marriage and children. If this strip were still running today, do you think author Dale Messick would have editorial freedom to present Hank as an openly lesbian character in mainstream newspapers?
Yes, I do, primarily thanks to artists like Lynn Johnston and Garry Trudeau, who introduced gay characters into their comic strips (For Better or For Worse, Doonesbury) in the 1970s and 1990s. Even for those two artists, the choice to do so was met with much controversy, but the strips prevailed. I would like to think that the same would be the case for Hank O’Hair in Brenda Starr, as we see more LGBTQ representation in comics now than ever before.
In the earlier comic strips you analyzed where LGBT representation is more subtle, do you think the majority of people understood the subtext and read the characters as lesbian at the time? How has the passage of time and additional perspective changed the interpretation (if at all)?
In the case of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, the subtext may have either been lost on readers who interpreted the characters to just be “crazy” (which is how the strip ends, as they are hauled to an asylum), or as a joke on close female friendships. Either way, compared to Terry and the Pirates and Brenda Starr, Reporter, Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye was so short-lived that it probably was not given all that much thought. The creator, who I have estimated to be George Frink, went on to create much more successful and long running strips with Circus Solly and Slim Jim and the Force.
Most of the characters you analyzed appear to be white women of middle to upper-class standing. When do we start to see lesbian characters with intersectional identities emerge in mainstream comics?
Some might say that we still haven’t, at least not in mainstream comics. Cartoon art has always been a very white and very male field unfortunately, and that has only recently started to shift. Barbara Brandon-Croft became the first African American woman to have a nationally syndicated comic strip with characters from diverse backgrounds in mainstream newspapers in 1991, and remained the only one until the past year when Bianca Xunise and Christina “Steenz” Stewart entered the mainstream with Six Chicks and Heart of the City, respectively. In alternative newspapers, comic strips have included queer characters of all races in series like Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” and Rupert Kinnard’s “Cathartic Comics.”
You mention that newspaper comics are oftentimes a bellwether of the opinions and perspectives of a wide array of people at the time. Contextually speaking, what sort of societal or political issues/events were going on at the time the strips were running that may have impacted the portrayal of the characters you analyzed?
I think that the lack of transparency about the identities of these characters says plenty about the time-period and what would have been acceptable or not. However, each individual strip is tapping into some bigger notions from the time. For Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, it would be the awareness of what were called Boston Marriages, romantic but non-sexual relationships between woman. For Sanjak, in Terry and the Pirates, she is physically coded as the embodiment of a new (for that era) gender-bending stereotype that one might have heard about in Europe at clubs like Le Monocle (and to that end, even donned a monocle.) Caniff’s work also takes a lot of inspiration from cinema of the time, in which queer themes were occasionally explored. I think in the case of Brenda Starr and Hank O’Hair, they are both examples in contrast of women entering the workforce. Hank being the mannish working-woman stereotype, and Brenda being (supposedly) more of a regular gal in a role that was more commonly held by men, which is what made her so unique.
Was there anything you uncovered in your research that you found surprising or unexpected?
I think the most surprising part was just how much more there is left to discover in comics scholarship, and that even for comic strips as massively popular as Brenda Starr, so little had been written. And I don’t mean written about queerness, but written about the strip in general! I find this to be equally frustrating and exciting. Frustrating because it can be difficult to find sources, but exciting because it makes you realize just how much untapped potential there is in this field.