Now It Can Be Read! Leonard and Larry
Here's part two in my occasional series of "reviews that never saw print." This time out it's the most recent and final collection of the Leonard and Larry comic strip, "How Real Men Do It."
“Leonard & Larry 4: How Real Men Do It” by Tim Barela Palliard Press $12.95
It’s a little something I like to call the “Philadelphia” syndrome.
Every so often, Hollywood gets on its moral high horse and comes out with a major motion picture dealing with some important topic like anti-Semitism (“Gentlemen’s Agreement”), interracial dating (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) and AIDS (“Philadelphia”). Such films are usually hailed as stellar achievements -- pinnacles of the art form. They sweep up all the awards and everyone pats himself or herself on the back, feeling that their job has been done.
It’s only years later, in the cold, harsh eye of hindsight, that one can see how anemic and unworthy of merit such works actually were. Perhaps at the time they were considered praiseworthy for their mere existence; that they discussed in a frank and open manner things one didn’t bring up at the sewing circle. The fact remains, however, that as works of art they are supremely lacking. They simply don’t stand the test of time.
Which is as good a place as any to start talking about “How Men Do It,” the latest and apparently final collection of strips from the popular gay comic strip “Leonard and Larry.” In its own way, “Leonard and Larry” could be seen as daring in its depiction of homosexual wedded bliss and dull domesticity. The mere fact that it focused on the mundane, day to day aspects of a gay couple’s life, not very subtly underscoring that homosexual couples go through the same sorts of relationship and family problems as heterosexuals do, was no doubt a breath of fresh air to many in the gay community, and I wonder if some of its popularity wasn’t due to the fact that, apart from one or two other strips, it was the only thing of its kind around.
Now, with the arrival of “Will and Grace,” “Queer Eye” and on and on until the gay culture has taken on a hip cache in the public’s imagination, the temptation to ask if a strip like “Leonard and Larry” is in danger of becoming archaic is almost irresistible. Of course, all you have to do is pick up a newspaper to know that, if anything, “Leonard and Larry” has its finger on the pulse of America’s culture wars. Still, the question remains: Is the strip more noteworthy for what it says than how it says it?
Fear not though, the news is pretty good. Thankfully, the strip manages to pull itself out of the one-note mire and more often than not offers a funny and lively look at a gay couple and their extended family. It’s “For Better or For Worse” with a slightly narrower demographic.
A lot of the strip’s strengths are due to Barela’s skills as a cartoonist. Barela displays an extremely tight, clean line with which he’s able to wring a number of amusing facial contortions from his rather large cast of characters. He’s also a pretty good draftsman, though it’s often hard to tell as the text usually leaves little room for more than talking heads (more on that later). As a writer, Barela’s ear for dialogue manages to make what would otherwise come across as one-note political tirades sound – if not fresh – at least like they’re coming out of the mouths of the characters and not the author. He seems thankfully desperate to avoid creating cookie-cutter comic strip people so that each individual has their own quirks and behavior that seems ingrained rather than put-upon.
Which is not to say that the book doesn’t have problems. Barela is, to put it mildly, a wordy cartoonist. His characters have the habit spewing off about some such topic or another ad nauseum, to the point where they’re barely able to fit in the panel beyond a mere head and shoulders. Suffice it to say that this is not a strip for those comic formalists out there.
Also, Barela’s fetish for hairy, burly men tends to get in the way as almost every character seems to possess either one or both of the above traits, making it difficult to tell the players apart without a scorecard. (Those who are familiar with the strip will undoubtedly have less trouble.) Though a talented cartoonist, Barela seems to rely too easily on a few quick shorthand tropes over and over again (he seems unable to draw more than two different types of noses for example).
So yes, “Leonard & Larry” is an amusing, if somewhat slight, strip that will no doubt continue to amuse readers should it find an audience in the future. However, while I’m listing negatives, let me voice one concern that “Real Men,” as well as other, similar (and by similar I don’t mean gay, thank you) comics raise for me. I understand the desire, nay, the need to portray right-wing fundamentalists as idiots and insensitive clods who are too busy spouting off their extremist values to realize how foolish they are, but I often wonder if doing so doesn’t play right into their hands.
The thing is, these people, however twisted and bigoted their opinions may be, are genuine in their beliefs. They might contain a feverous self-righteousness and piety that can be frightening at times, but I wouldn’t be calling them all morons (at least, not all of them). Their opinions may be offensive, but these aren’t necessarily ignorant high-school dropouts we’re dealing with here. It may be emotionally satisfying to get a cheap and easy laugh at these peoples’ expenses, but while you’re doing that, they’re getting elected to the school board and getting ready to lower the boom on you.