Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gashouse, Gacy, and Gay Awareness -- My Evolution

I learned the facts of life, so to speak, the way most people my age did back in the ‘70s. When we were in fifth grade, the school system scheduled a once-a-week, four-session “Family Living” class with a professional sex-ed teacher. Girls were separated from boys for the Big Lesson, and within the safe confines of our own gender we ultimately learned what goes where to create the miracle of life.

I must confess that I already had a pretty good idea about the birds and the bees before Family Living class. No one told me formally. I just picked it up via intellectual osmosis (mostly from reading Greek myths) combined with some good old-fashioned guess work. Family Living class simply confirmed what I already suspected. By the time I was twelve years old, then, I was operating with a pretty good early-adolescent understanding of human sexuality. At least as far as heterosexuality goes…

As I’ve written previously, I watched A LOT of TV when I was young. In fact, I still do. Back in the ‘70s, if kids wanted to watch TV they had to be content with their parents’ viewing tastes. Typical households only had one television, which was duly controlled by mom and dad. Back then, it wouldn’t have mattered if the kids had their own set anyway. All television programming in primetime was aimed at adults. Remember, the 1970s was long before the advent of cable television and myriad TV channels devoted solely to kids’ programming. Up until the 1990s, children themselves were not even considered a viable marketing demographic during the evening primetime viewing hours.

Thus, as a kid, I regularly watched shows that today’s tweens and teens would never even deign to try, e.g. Medical Center, Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, Barnaby Jones. Two such dramas, Marcus Welby, M.D. and Kojak, were regular episodic staples in the Kozak household. In the space of one year, circa 1975-76, both these programs aired controversial episodes concerning human sexuality that dovetailed almost precisely with my formal sex education in Family Living class.

In 1975, Marcus Welby, M.D. got the ball rolling with an episode called “The Outrage.” In this story, a high school teacher, played by Edward Winter, is caught molesting a male student. The abuse comes to light because the student’s injuries from the encounter require surgery, which is where Dr. Welby and his team enter the story. Needless to say, I had a hundred questions after the episode concluded, questions my parents deflected with a hasty “It’s a very complicated matter. You’ll learn all about it in Family Living.” Of course, I knew what Family Living was because my older siblings had gone through the course years before. So I kept my questions to myself and filed them away for future reference.

Before being enlightened in Family Living, however, Kojak aired a similarly themed episode, “A Need to Know,” that further confused my nascent, naive understanding of human sexuality. In this episode, Telly Savalas & Co. hunted down a foreign diplomat accused of molesting boys and then hiding behind his diplomatic immunity to avoid prosecution. Once again, questions poured forth at the episode’s end. And once more, my parents deflected those questions with the promise that all would be explained in Family Living.

Well, it wasn’t. Nothing was explained regarding homosexuality or pedophilia whatsoever. I even tried asking questions based upon what I’d seen on Welby and Kojak. No go. The sex-ed teacher, a very nice, patient woman named Mary Ward, explained that I really needed to discuss such matters with my parents. She did offer some advice, however, which was the same advice we heard every year during the North Olmsted Police Department’s annual visit to Coe School, i.e. “Don’t Take Candy from Strangers.”

I never did return to my parents with questions regarding what I’d seen on Marcus Welby and Kojak. Instead, I turned back to the first place I’d learned about human sexuality, Greek myths. In the space of a few short years, I suddenly grasped the truer, deeper meanings of mythic relationships such as Ganymede and Zeus, Hyacinth and Apollo, Heracles and Hylas, and even Achilles and Patroclus. Given my rudimentary knowledge of coital mechanics, I quickly realized that two males could easily approximate heterosexual coupling.

With my sudden epiphany regarding homosexuality, I quickly answered my own nagging questions regarding the plots I’d seen portrayed on TV. Alongside the heterosexual world existed a homosexual world. Bad people existed in this homosexual world, and they committed sex crimes against innocent, unsuspecting males. I was scared to death, just as most kids my age must be when first encountering the reality of homosexuality devoid of any rational perspective or societal context.

My burgeoning homophobia remained fairly dormant for the next few years. In fact, I repressed my fears to such a point that I barely even allowed myself to ruminate on the existence of homosexuals. Unlike every other troubling teenage neurosis over which I obsessed, my issues with same-sex molestation and rape never entered into the stories I created for the Trademark Universe. All that changed, however, when I learned about John Wayne Gacy.

1980 found me in high school. In a previous blog, “Todd Harper, a.k.a. the Battling Buckshot,” I discussed rebooting and retconning the character Buckshot. I also mentioned the character of Don McHale, a child-killer befriended by teenaged Todd Harper while both were serving time in prison for murder. It was this same Don McHale that recruited Harper into Darius Kilhausen’s experimental inmate “rehabilitation” program. Kilhausen’s “treatment,” as it turns out, was actually the beginning of Götterdämmerung, the army of genetically re-engineered sociopaths and murderers commonly known in the Trademark Universe as “hybrids.”

Among these hybrids, Don McHale took the name Gashouse. Through Kilhausen’s biomechanical re-engineering, McHale acquired the ability to generate and control all manner of gasses, from plain old oxygen to deadly sarin. Needless to say, Gashouse’s abilities, combined with his sadistic lust for death, made him one of Götterdämmerung’s most deadly soldiers. Readers of Worlds Apart see evidence of McHale’s horrific propensity for mass murder in the opening pages, as he gleefully kills hundreds of innocent bystanders during the Trishy Tanaka hostage crisis.

So what does all this have to do with serial killer John Wayne Gacy?

Well, when I first created Don McHale in the early ‘80s, stories of John Wayne Gacy’s savage murders had already run their course through the morning papers and evening newscasts. Viewing the stories with a teenager’s penchant for the perverse, Gacy’s grisly crimes of homosexual rape, torture, and murder reignited the dormant homophobia I’d been submerging for several years. The fact that his victims were predominantly teenaged males like myself only further convinced me that homosexual serial killers like Gacy posed a very real threat to boys my age and myself personally.

The character of Don McHale, as I first imagined him, represented my adolescent attempt to understand not only the character of killers like Gacy, but perhaps even more importantly their motives. I read everything I could find on Gacy in addition to numerous other “boy killers” chronicled in the criminology and true-crime books I found at the Cleveland Public Library. One particularly graphic article in a sociology journal related the experiences of convicted child molesters being victimized by other inmates while in prison. In this study, I first learned of the hierarchy among prisoners that exists on the Inside. In a few short weeks, I considered myself an expert on such deviants. Finally willing to confront my fears of homosexuality and same-sex rape, I plunged headlong into incorporating a Gacy-like criminal into the Trademark Universe.

Enter Don McHale, a.k.a. Gashouse. Like Gacy, McHale was an upstanding family man in his community, the “last guy anyone would ever think” could be a sexual sadist, sodomizer, and serial killer. In prison, however, McHale lived the life of a constant target, continually being victimized by fellow inmates incensed with a self-righteous sense of prison justice. As McHale’s relationship with Todd Harper grew, I explicitly referred to his homosexual lust for the teenager. When I added the character of Robby Prentice (later to become Buzzcock), I made it quite clear that McHale and Prentice were engaged in a homosexual relationship, a situation which both disturbed and disgusted Todd Harper.

When the inmates in Kilhausen’s program escaped from confinement and formed Götterdämmerung, Gashouse went back to serial-killing young men in his spare time. Now working with superpowers, Gashouse’s grisly crimes became even more ghastly. Whenever heroes like the Protectors, Vendetta, or Wolf faced Gashouse, the stories had a tendency to visit the darkest corners of my teenaged mind.

Years later, as I met, socialized with, and befriended gay men at OU, I actually became ashamed of my immature, ignorant, hysterical depiction of Gashouse as a representative of all homosexual males. During my “Buckshot, the College Years” stories, I made a conscious effort to realistically and positively portray the gay men and gay culture I regularly encountered. In one story arc, Buckshot met and teamed up with an openly gay superhero named Bulwark, who despite the slings and arrows of American society went on to lead the reformed superteam United Front.

Of course, Gashouse made numerous appearances during Buckshot’s collegiate career. Enlightened or not, I wasn’t about to kill off one of my best super-baddies, especially when he figured so prominently in Buckshot’s backstory. Gashouse’s villainy changed, however.

No longer was Don McHale’s evil a product of his homosexual lust. Rather, he existed -- like John Wayne Gacy -- as an evil man who simply happened to be homosexual. My new portrayal focused on Gashouse’s pathological self-hatred caused by society’s virulent homophobia, a self-loathing he then turned outward on his young male victims. Years later, when another homosexual serial killer emerged -- Jeffrey Dahmer -- elements of Dahmer’s personality and crimes also worked their way into Gashouse’s character.

To this day, I still rank Gashouse as one of my most complicated and original creations. When I first conceived of Worlds Apart lo those many years ago, Gashouse’s opening foray against Flurry and Hellfield became the first small scene crafted in my original draft. In many respects, the growth of Gashouse’s character mirrors the growth of my own.

1 comment:

Lyz said...

Mark - I'm going to share this post with my students in my post WWII-present history of sexuality and pop culture course. One note, however, teenagers were first identified as a target market in the 1950s. While they weren't marketed to in the same way they were in the 80s and 90s, hip teen products and activities (the hula hoop - a 60s phenomenon and drive up restaurants like A&W) were sites where young people could "practice" consumption and living middle class life.

Totally funny that you bring up these show, as I write on 70s-90s pop culture (dissertation, which I'm defending on 9/11 is titled "Generation X and the Invention of a Third Feminist Wave") and I address "Maude" and the two part abortion episode. So many GenXers remember getting an inkling of what abortion was from that episode.