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No Straight Lines
A Collection of Queer Comics (3 of 3)

By

[You can read part 1 of the No Straight Lines series here, and part 2 of the series here.]

Queer cartooning encompasses some of the best and most interesting comics of the last four decades, with creators tackling complex issues of identity and a changing society with intelligence, humor, and imagination. No Straight Lines, the new book published by Fantagraphics and edited by Justin Hall, celebrates this vibrant artistic underground by collecting four decades of excellent stories that can be enjoyed by all.

Justin Hall will be talking about and signing books in the Bay Area:
July 19th, 7-9pm, The Cartoon Art Museum
July 26th, 7:30-9:30pm, Castro Books Inc
July 28th, 7:30-9:30pm, Pegasus books

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A NEW MILLENIUM: TRANS CREATORS, WEBCOMICS, AND STEPPING OUT OF THE GHETTO

By the turn of the millennium, LGBTQ identity consciousness had further evolved, and a new wave of openly transgender cartoonists, as well as cisgender artists interested in dealing with trans issues, emerged. While there had been a rare smattering of trans stories published earlier, it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that creators such as Gina Kamentsky, Dylan Edwards, and Tristan Crane (the latter of whose graphic novel How Loathsome, created with artist Ted Naifeh, was nominated for a 2004 GLAAD media award) created what is proving to be one of the most dynamic segments of queer comics.

Trans creators face similar challenges of visibility and representation today that lesbian, bisexual, and gay artists did back in the 1970’s, and they are using the language of comics to define themselves in much the same way. “I’m creating comics now for the little girl I was then,” says Christine Smith, creator of the all-ages strip The Princess, “and presenting a young, trans girl in a normalized, non-pathological fashion.” This is an act of artistic courage and community analogous to that of Mary Wings, who had not heard the word “lesbian” until she was 19 and created Come Out Comix in 1973 to help other young women in that same predicament.

Along with a more sophisticated and complex idea of queerness, the new millennium saw technology once again change the cultural landscape, with easily accessible computers and the internet creating new possibilities of cheap publication, interactivity, and community. Printed zines and mini-comics began an evolution, continuing to this day, into more hand-crafted art objects, with blogs and webcomics emerging as the preeminent means for fast, direct work. Queer cartoonists, along with the rest of the comics world, started producing work and connecting with fans online.

“Having my strip up every week gives me regular feedback from fans,” says Tony Breed of the webcomic Finn and Charlie Are Hitched. “It helps me decide where to go with my characters and story lines.” Comics’ unusual legacy of printed letter columns has dovetailed into something even quicker and more interactive. This has profound implications for queer cartoonists, who have a special impetus to develop community around their work, and is used to good effect by webcartoonists such as Mysh, an Israeli artist who can reach an international audience without having to leave his country by putting his English-language, haiku comics up on the web.

Prism Comics is at the center of this new reality. Created in 2003 by Charles “Zan” Christensen and grown out of Andy Mangels’ groundbreaking Out in Comics, Prism is a non-profit organization supporting LGBTQ comics, creators, and fans. Prism hosts a website (prismcomics.org) with creator profiles and news, provides grants for queer comics, and publishes an annual Guide To LGBT Comics. Other queer comics websites such as the Gay League (gayleague.com) and Fanboys of the Universe (fanboysoftheuniverse.com) have emerged as well, using the internet to create virtual, queer, creative communities.

As online opportunities are opening up, the traditional queer media ghetto formed by the gay and lesbian newspapers, bookstores, and publishers is coming unraveled under pressure from online media and sales, a poor publishing climate, and increasing acceptance of queer stories in the mainstream. The formerly safe and cozy ghetto is no longer able to nurture queer cartoonists as it has in the past; on the other hand, there are opportunities now for creators to reach wider markets. LGBTQ comics that were well established in the queer media ghetto have begun to make inroads into the comics mainstream and beyond.

This broadening of audience must come with a broadening of material. As Bitter Girl creator Joan Hilty says, “If I just write about coming out, the bar scene, and queer politics I’ll die of boredom. … Over the last 40 years we’ve become so much more assimilated as a group that we’ve got both the blessing and the curse of needing to go beyond that source material now.” Cartoonists such as the prolific Paige Braddock (Jane’s World) and Tim Fish (Cavalcade of Boys) are among those adjusting well to this new reality by creating humorous, character-driven comics with primarily queer characters that appeal to both queer and straight audiences.

The career of Alison Bechdel illustrates this trend perfectly: in 2006 she released the superlative graphic novel Fun Home, which deals with her relationship with her closeted father who may or may not have committed suicide. Fun Home was a cross-over success, garnering a mainstream publisher and named Time Magazine’s Best Book of the Year. This recognition would have been impossible at the beginning of her career when comics weren’t taken seriously as a medium and queer stories were dismissed by the mainstream; conversely, it would be impossible to make a living with Dykes To Watch Out For now, with the closure of so many of the gay newspapers that supported the weekly strip.

“When I started out,” says Bechdel, “my books were ‘lesbian comics.’  Then they started being seen as simply ‘comics.’” In 2004 the Alternative Press Expo, the largest independent comics convention in the U.S., brought Bechdel in as a guest of honor.  After over two decades of making her strip, it was the first comic book convention she had ever attended or been invited to, as well as the first year that A.P.E. had a Queer Cartoonists panel and Prism Comics had a booth. The queers had arrived.

One of Prism’s major functions is creating an LGBTQ presence at comics conventions, by providing a booth where queer comics creators can sell their work and by hosting panels. Conventions are a growing business; they provide an experience that stores or online sales cannot by creating a social event where fans can interact with the creators and each other. Bent Con, which started in 2010 as a small group of gay male cartoonists in 2010 hawking their wares in the abandoned former Mr. S Leather store in Los Angeles, grew the next year into a small, queer version of Comic-Con, and promises to continue expanding. Creating LGBTQ convention experiences will certainly be part of the new paradigm for queer comics as traditional retail spaces collapse.

Whatever new venues open up, LGBTQ comics will survive, as they have for four decades, despite the odds. As Jennifer Camper, veteran dyke cartoonist and editor of the Juicy Mother anthology, says, “There have always been a number of us making stuff [and] we all had our own ways of doing it. We’ve always created our own templates.” It is precisely this scrappy attitude that guided the early lesbian comic books, the gay strips, and the queer zine anthologies. It will guide the LGBTQ graphic novels, comic books, and webcomics of the future. With so little real money in the comics medium, every creation is a personal labor of love, with all the splendid, messy diversity of artistry and business plans that that implies.

Queer comics will survive, and they will prosper. They will continue to document the changing realities of the LGBTQ experience; they will comment on everything from our bad hairstyles to our choices in one-night stands, from our courage facing illness to our need for community, from our attempts to achieve marriage rights to our dubious taste in music, from revolution to the freedom to live a mundane life. Queer creators will continue to hold up a fractured, funhouse mirror in which we LGBTQ people can view ourselves and allow others to see us as well. This is the role of the artist and storyteller, the truth teller and spinner of tall tales.

The future is bright, queer, and full of comics.