Denny O’Neil, Jerry Grandenetti, and Berni Wrightson created Nightmaster in 1969, taking rock musician Jim Rook and putting him into the role of a confused hero in a sword and sorcery setting in the land of Myrra for Showcase #82 – 84. Despite the stories and art exciting my 11 year old self, a lot of years passed since I’d even flipped through the issues. My curiosity was piqued while reading Wikipedia’s “LGBT Themes In Comics “article by a brief reference made to a “fat man who seems to be a closet homosexual gay basher”. Was this a rare example of a gay character appearing in the Silver Age?
The scene makes me think O’Neil was injecting his idea of Marvel-style realism. Rook is lead singer and guitarist for the Electric Band Aid (or “The Electrics” as the name appears on the instruments) and the band is playing their last night of a two week gig in an East Village bar. The crowded audience is full of young women with a few men in the background. Rook sports a white turtleneck under a purple jacket, pink or lavender and black striped pants and short black boots and the other three band members, along with piano, and drums are counter-culture candy colored. When the concert ends a bunch of women rush Jim headlong toward a dressing room. Inside Jim’s girlfriend Janet Jones, mod in her own stylish way, is about to kiss him before being interrupted by a knock on the door. Rook opens it to find three men eager to heckle and harass the singer. As you can see, the guy with the bow tie starts right up with homophobic insults, somewhat amazing given the fact this comic bears the Comics Code Authority approval seal on the cover. Then again, Mike Sekowsky got his thinly veiled lesbian gang “Them!” approved this same year in Wonder Woman #185. And doesn’t the art by Grandenetti and inked by Dick Giordano remind you of Sekowsky?
Chairs and more punches thrown, a door is broken, Rook sends bow tie guy flying before being tackling and pushing him into the drum. Police car sirens wail and Janet pleads with Jim to leave before they arrive, scolding Jim for not being able to control his temper, not for his sake, but out of concern that her parents won’t let them marry otherwise. Thank god he says something. That’s the last we see of our anonymous Silver Age bigot, and it’s the last Jim and Janet see of the East Village till the end of the story because the glaring plot device calls on them to enter a mysterious and vacant storefront from where they’re magically transported to Myrra.
But back to our bigot. Sure, we’re all aware that some (maybe a lot) homophobic bigots are indeed deeply closeted and self-loathing homosexuals. The rumors surrounding Bishop Eddie Long have been in the news for a week or so now. How horrible, if true, that such attitudes and repressive measures resulted in predatory behavior. Here are the reasons I believe our fictional guy isn’t closeted. The story is cover dated May 1969. Three years previously John Lennon made a very controversial statement when they said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. Hippies had moved into the Haight Ashbury area of San Francisco and brought along their idea of free love, and yes, some “Hair Fairies” as transgender people were often referred to at the time, had had enough and rioted at Compton’s Caferteria. Young adults protested the Vietnam war while men were drafted and sent half a world away. Labeling liberals as “pinkos”, a word coined by Time in 1925 became widespread during the McCarthy paranoia of the 1950s and was adapted to “commie pinko fag” a decade later as a derogatory phrase for hippies or anyone who was anti-establishment. On the other hand, it was also common to for hippies to use “fascists” as a slur. Rook is decidedly among the counter culture of the time, just as these other three are very much symbolic of the establishment, if only for O’Neil as shown when he has Rook exclaim “You think because I don’t look like a bank manager I’m weak — because I favor peace I’m a coward…fair prey for bullies?” and ending with “…You’re going to learn that real men don’t have to prove themselves by shoving people around…”
Homophobic bigot? Absolutely! Closeted and self-loathing though? I say no. What do you think? I wonder if Denny O’Neil remembers.