THE WORLD’S FIRST gay comic strip was arguably Harry Chess: That Man from A.U.N.T.I.E., which first appeared in the Philadelphia homophile publication Drum from 1965 to ’66. The strip pits the hirsute pectorals of protagonist Harry Chess, secret agent #0068 7/8 of the Agents’ Undercover Network to Investigate Evil (A.U.N.T.I.E.), and his muscular but monosyllabic teenage “assistant” Mickey Muscle, against a series of colorfully evil and sexually naughty nemeses. Although its title was inspired by the 1964-68 television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the strip was a campy and (homo)sexually explicit spoof of the larger international espionage genre with its futuristic gadgets, shadowy acronymic organizations, and morally ambiguous secret agents whose exploits were regularly punctuated by gratuitous sexual encounters. But more than just another example of the mock-Bond phenomenon, Harry Chess demonstrates the important role of popular visual culture in the mid-1960s emergence of a gay liberationist sensibility in the U.S.
Harry Chess resulted from a fundamental shift in priorities and tactics within the Philadelphia-based Janus Society, one of a number of homophile organizations on the Eastern seaboard. In 1963 Janus elected as its president Clark P. Polak, a candidate who was openly critical of the organization’s past leadership, and promised a more structured, business-like organization with a strong community presence. But beyond organizational reform, Polak rejected the Janus Society’s strategies, which tended toward accommodation and assimilation, in favor of a gay-centered and sex-affirmative politics. In a 1966 Drum editorial, he described earlier homophile activists as “a group of Aunt Marys who have exchanged whatever vigorous defense of homosexual rights there may be for a hyper-conformist we-must-impress-the-straights-that-we-are-as-butch-as-they-are stance. It is a sell-out.”