Bright Lights Film Journal

Queer Cartoons at the 1998 San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival

“Ooh, Batman, it hurts!”

Cartoons have always been a rich repository of queer subtext. How else to explain all those too-close buddies and their serious lack of female companionship? (The big joke about Superman is that he’s more devoted to his “pal” Jimmy Olsen than to poor, frustrated Lois Lane.) Then there’s the endless parade of children without parents or with questionable origins – who exactly is Swee’ Pea’s mother in those Popeye cartoons? Or his father, for that matter? And what about all those cartoons where the adults – parents – appear only in fragmented form, unseen past the knee? You’d almost think functioning heterosexual – and human reproduction – didn’t exist.

Since cartoons are well positioned to ridicule and even repudiate tedious hetero norms, the idea of “queer cartoons” seems almost redundant. Why bother when the mainstream culture offers without blinking a pair of “superheroes” like Batman and Robin living happily in what looks homosexual wedded bliss? Simple: dragging subtext to the surface can be fun, as this year’s exceptional Queer Cartoons II program in the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival shows

The Ambiguously Gay Duo, directed by J. J. Sedelmaier, are “Ace” and “Gary,” two muscular costumed queen crime-fighters who drive a giant pink dick-mobile. In the first episode, “Queen of Terror,” the two battle an evil space seductress who fails to get a rise from the boys. In the second episode, “Safety Tips,” Ace and Gary thoughtfully show three teenage boys how to cross the street (holding hands) and shower (holding hands), and how to plug in a lamp (Ace positions himself behind Gary as if ready for butt-fucking). The teens stand in for puzzled straight audiences, arguing over whether or not the duo are “fruits” and looking appalled when the two sashay arm in arm across the street.

More cartoon-based fun comes in Lewis Klahr’s masterful Pony Glass, about Superman’s best buddy, Jimmy Olsen. In paper cut-outs Klahr transforms the tormented redhead into an Ed Wood lookalike cocksucker, complete with various wigs, bras, and panties; puts him on both top and bottom in hardcore sex footage; and has him enact a series of sexually charged psychodramas set in 1950s comic-book environments. Pony Glass is a perfect argument for reintroducing shorts to regular theatrical exhibition.

Not all the shorts in this program are based on cartoon characters. Many of them use another childhood standby, the doll, for their critique. Hazel Grian’s Baby-Cue corrals every imaginable doll from the last few decades – Barbies, kewpies, Betsy-Wetsys – into a series of increasingly bizarre settings. Giant, blank-faced dolls with dirty faces lumber like mini-Godzillas through gaudy, eerie landscapes made of M&M houses, stampeding herds of “My Pretty Ponies,” and doll parts roasting on spits. More camp than queer, Baby-Cue is a disturbing look at the dark side of these allegedly innocent toys.

In Corky Quackenbush’s Switch Your Ride, an assortment of violent or victimized Barbies and Kens do just that. While Ken defends their dream home against a drunken intruder-doll, Barbie runs off with her Harley-riding, shaved-head, leather-clad girlfriend. By the end of the film’s two minutes, Ken and his male friend have paired off too. The same director’s Sex Toy Story amusingly recounts the fight between an animated dildo, whip, blow-up doll, and leather mask over which one is their mistress’ favorite. Both films showcase Quackenbush’s sophisticated use of state-of-the-art Pixar-style animation.

One of the most ambitious films in this program is yet another doll, this time the hapless title character in Todd Downing’s Dirty Baby Does Fire Island. It’s more like Fire Island Does Dirty Baby, as this pitiful dime-store doll with a permanently shocked expression and frantically fast movements encounters one terrifying queer tableau after another, from muscular half-naked weightlifters to coke-snorting queens to naked, sweating faggots fucking in bed. The comic-pathetic Dirty Baby occupies the same psychic space as Saturday Night Live‘s Mr. Bill; her horrified reactions and desperate movements as she gets drenched in coke dust or stoned from a rolling bottle of poppers are just as wondrous to behold.