Note From The President, Cerebus 149, August 1991Copyright 1991 Dave Sim
"Oscar Wilde a summing up" continues.
When Ger and I were over in Coventry, England for a convention a couple of years back, the Oscar character had made his first appearance in Jaka's Story. The convention (through no fault of the organizers) had turned out a good deal smaller than they had expected. It was still one of the best cons I've attended. I saw Neil Gaiman there. The theatre company who were co-sponsors of the event did a wonderful adaptation of Alan Moore's Brought to Light as a one-man play. Quite a trip it was sitting next to Alan as the dramatisation unfolded, the entire room silent enough to hear a pin drop.
In the middle of the second day, one of the organizers brought a small package to the table where I was signing autographs and doing a few sketches. He told me it had arrived in the post, c/o the convention, addressed to me. It contained a short complimentary note and a copy of a book by a Mr. Neil Bartlett entitled Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde. The back cover copy I was as follows:
"Sitting up reading late at night, the author reflects on the links between the homosexual life of the 1980's and his counterparts of a centuty ago, between gay lives today and those of Oscar Wilde, his friends, lovers and acquaintances. Many books have been written about Oscar Wilde. Who Was That Man? is unique - the acting out of a love-hate relationship between Wilde and a gay Londoner of today"
In actual fact, the book was a good deal more interesting than that, I sat up all night reading it. Bartlett, for his own edification, had researched a history of homosexuality in Engiand, emphasizing the period between the Boulton and Park scandal of 1871 and the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895; a period, incidentally, when the word 'homosexual' did not yet exist as a noun. It is a long, torturous Iexplanation of 'gay-ness' for want of a better term. As I was reading it I kept thinking 'I understand what he's saying: Which was a bit odd, because I am definitely in the 'squeamish' category when it comes to male homosexuality. My gorge rises; a profound sense of disgust sweeps over me at explicit descriptions. Why, then, did I feel so certain that I understood what he was saying?
I think it's because the comic book world is so very like his descriptions of the gay world.
Both are things you are supposed to out-grow; which most do out-grow. I mean boys will be boys and hard-ons will be hard-ons, but once you hit puberty there are a certain number of things you are supposed to put away; permanently. The first two or three years of senior public and high school, when all my friends gave up comic books, I became an object of ridicule and great suspicion because, not only had I not given them up, they became even more important to me than ever before. I met a guy named Max Southall the summer between senior public and high I school who had a beautiful collection of Batman, Detective and World's Finest, mint runs of Justice League from no. 1 up, Flash from 105 up, including the Showcase appearances.
I started grade nine at the same high school as Max and was crushed when he ignored me in the halls. I understood that grade twelve guys didn't associate with grade nine guys, but I still felt a great loss that we couldn't spend our lunch-hours discussing the "new look" Batman versus the "old-look" Batman.
It wasn't just the age difference. It was the shame; the dirty little secret; of still reading comic books in high school.
The invisibility. When Bartlett speaks of the invisibility of the gay community, it is as valid a description of the comics world as you could hope to find. We, too, have a secret language which identifies us, one to the other. Attending the 1940's segment of the Brant County Museum's exhibit on Canadian comics, I overheard Ross Mendies (one of the Canadian Whites' artis/writers) mention Dave McKean. My ears pricked up as I poured myself a coffee. Then he said, "And that guy who drew Stray Toasters." I tumed around and just blurted out "Sienkiewicz Bill Sienkiewicz. He's one of my best friends." An instant rapport was formed with someone twenty years my senior and we jabbered away at each other for half an hour without taking a breath. Foster, Robbins, Caniff, Raymond, Prentice.
Think how exotic our language is; how exotic it gets. A language intelligible to half a million (at most) on a continent of two hundred and sixty million.
"Man on a Rampage", CC, Beck, Gaines, Barks.
Fine tune it.
Pepper Potts, Baxter Building, Steve Trevor, Wally West.
Finer and finer.
Marvel Mystery, "Master Race", Brave and Bold, Haunted Tank, Zeta Beam, Detective 27, Tales of Suspense 39, Showcase 4, Kandor.
And yet we're invisible. We have our places we hang out together where the air hangs heavy with the verbal short-hand and we feel at home. Back out in the street we could be anyone. Nothing identifies us as comic book people; unless we choose our own form of 'drag'; a white lightning bolt on a black t-shirt, a happy face with a smear of blood on it.
The major difference, of course, is that the ridicule and the embarrassment and the shame we face, while it varies from conversation to conversation, from person to person, at least stops at mere embarrassment. Imagine what it must be like to have something at the core of your existence; something so essentially you (as comic books have been for me since I was seven) that not only causes you acute embarrassment through your school years, that not only sets you apart from "normal" people, but which, for hundreds of years, if discovered, could guarantee you a lengthy jail term, a severe beating, possible death, the loss of everything you hold dear, the enmity of family and friends.
No matter how repellant the thought of homosexuality is to me, to you, or to society, it is irrefutable that it is a significant part of the human condition - a good deal more significant and ubiquitous than, say, comic book fans who are adults - it always has been and it always will be. It is what many people are. Not what they "choose to be." Not what they "have reduced themselves to." It is neither an addiction, nor a character flaw, nor a disease.
It's like reading comic books past the age of thirteen.
Only it's about a thousand times more common.
To the fellow who sent me Who Was That Man; mentioning in his letter that he was attending the convention; obviously fearful of my heterosexual misunderstanding and/or wrath. Next time please introduce yourself.
I owe you a great deal.
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