- KC CouncilorKC CouncilorDepartment of Communication, Southern Connecticut State University
Queer comics have been a staple of LGBTQIA+ culture, from independent and underground comics beginning in the late 1960s to web comics in the current digital age. Comics are a uniquely queer art form, as comics scholar Hillary Chute has argued, consistently marginalized in the art world. Queer comics have also principally been produced by and for queer audiences, with mainstream recognition not being their primary goal. This marginalization has, in some sense, been a benefit, as these comics have not been captive to the pressures of capitalist aesthetics. This makes queer comics a rich historical archive for understanding queer life and queer communities. Collections of queer comics from the late 1960s and onward have recently been published, making large archives of work widely available. The Queer Zine Archive Project online also houses a large volume of underground and self-published material.
There are some affordances inherent to the medium of comics which make it a distinctly powerful medium for queer self-expression and representation. In comics, the passage of time is represented through the space of the page, which makes complex expressions of queer temporality possible. The form is also quite intimate, particularly hand-drawn comics, which retain their original form rather than being translated into type. The reader plays a significant role in the construction of meaning in comics, as what happens between panels in the “gutter” (and is thus not pictured) is as much a part of the story as what is pictured within the panels. In addition to the value of reading queer stories in comic form, incorporating making comics and other creative practices into pedagogy is a powerful way to engage in queer worldmaking.
- Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)
- Communication and Culture
- Mass Communication
Queer theory is inseparable from queer culture. This article focuses on one aspect of queer culture: comics. The meanings and uses of the term “queer” emerge from both inside and outside the academy. And as the article “Queer Perspectives in Communication Studies” has documented, “more often than not, political and cultural developments outside academia informed” queer scholars and intellectuals. Queer scholars are themselves members of queer communities, influenced by the creative expression, joys, and struggles of those communities. This influence is clear when the focus of scholarship is on queer cultural production, but it is present and operating in the background even when scholarship is more conceptual or theoretical. As Fawaz (2019) claimed, “Queerness as a form of deviation from prescribed gender and sexual norms is a literal part of the sequential logic of comics” (p. 593).
It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive history of queer comics, as this is an important task which has been taken up by other cartoonists and scholars (Chute, 2017; Hall, 2013). This article analyzes the particular affordances of comics as a medium of communication that make it especially potent for telling queer stories and challenging the status quo. I use the term affordance to describe that which the form of comics, specifically, makes possible. This study speaks to studies of community archives, zines and DIY media cultures, visual rhetoric, queer autoethnography, and queer feminist pedagogy. The focus of this article is comics made by queer cartoonists for queer audiences, and the examples used in the analysis just scratch the surface of the depth and breadth of queer comics. In addition to those that are widely circulated and belonging to an evolving canon of queer comics, there are scores of comics in notebooks, stashed in drawers, scratched on bathroom stall doors, and circulated among friends. There are underground comics in volunteer-run queer and zine archives, including the Queer Zine Archive Project in the United States and the Queer Zine Library in the United Kingdom, some digitized, some not. This article does not reflect non-English-language scholarship, an important direction for future study, as queer comics are created internationally and transnationally in a wide variety of contexts.
The medium of comics, particularly in the form of self-published zines, offers what Licona (2012) called “a technology of potentially transformative recording, which can produce, promote, and/or reveal diverse community and grassroots literacies” (p. 19). However, this radical potentiality does not diminish the fact that comics have had a largely White creator and reader base, which is also reflected in scholarship about comics. Recently, this has been shifting, with scholar-artists like John Jennings, whose graphic novel adaptations of Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Parable of the Sower have been widely popular, and whose book The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of the Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art (2015), coedited with Frances Gateward, offers a collection of essays on Blackness in comics. Writer Ta-Nehesi Coates has authored the Marvel comic Black Panther since 2016, and Gabby Rivera wrote the Marvel comic book America that ran from 2017 to 2018, featuring queer Latina superhero America Chavez. Still, as Howard and Jackson (2013) noted, “oftentimes comics tell a story about white heroes and minority villains, white victors and minority losers, white protagonists and perhaps a minority sidekick” (p. 2). The underlying messages within comics, like many other forms of media, have been based in “white patriarchal universalism” (Howard & Jackson, 2013, p. 2), which is also heteronormative. Comics in the United States have been nearly synonymous with the superhero genre, which, as Gateward and Jennings (2015) argued, does not utilize the potency and power of the form. The radical, queer, anti-racist potential of the comics form, which this article seeks to uplift, cannot be considered outside comics’ historical reinforcement of White patriarchal norms.
The Comic Form
Comics have no set definition, but most often, the singular term “comics” describes pictures and words that together create a narrative—though there are exceptions to this, like Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel The Arrival, from 2006. Comics have been defined as sequential art, where the passage of time is marked through visual space on the page. Eisner (1985), in his landmark work Comics and Sequential Art, called comics “a means of creative expression, a distinct discipline, an art and literary form that deals with the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea” (p. 5). From Sunday newspaper comics sections to comic books, the medium has historically been considered a “low” art form, one that is cheaply made and easily reproducible. Comics do not require expensive equipment to produce—at their most simple, pen and paper.
With comics, readers can control the pace and direction of their consumption of images, which is unique among sequential, visual forms, and important for readers from marginalized communities. Does one read the words or pictures first? They may choose. Kuttner et al. (2017) wrote that “Different readers approach them in different ways, and may alter their approach depending on how a particular page is structures. Viewing a comic is a cyclical process—a back and forth between seeing and reading, with image informing text and text informing image” (p. 398). In film, for example, viewers are at the mercy of the filmmaker’s editing and pacing, while “time in the static form of comics unfolds in space, allowing the reader to experience it at a much more individual pace” (Kuttner et al., 2017, p. 400).
Comics are typically made up of frames, known as panels, on the page, and the space, called the gutter, between them. Chute (2010) wrote, “the effect of the gutter, the rich empty space between the selected moments that direct our interpretation, is for the reader to project causality in these gaps that exist between the punctual moments of the frames” (p. 8). Comics artists use the gutter as innuendo, allowing the reader to imagine what is happening between and beyond what is pictured in the panels. This absence, McCloud (1994) noted, is unique to the medium: “what’s between the panels is the only element of comics that is not duplicated in any other medium” (p. 13). Gardner (2006) wrote that “comics do open up (inevitably and necessarily) a space for the reader to pause, between the panels, and make meaning out of what she sees and reads” (p. 791). Serving as “collaborative texts between the imagination of the author/artist and the imagination of the reader who must complete the narrative” (Gardner, 2006, p. 800). Chute (2010) argued that the form of comics enables a feminist ethic, in which the reader controls their experiences with the images on the page, something that is particularly important with stories of trauma. They may look, close the book, and then look again—read quickly, read slowly, read again and again.
While comics are popularly associated with humor, there are many creators of comics who deal with more serious and complex issues. Comics are not just for kids, and they are not just funny. Art Spiegelman (1996) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his graphic novel Maus, in which he narrated his family’s experience of the Holocaust and his relationship with his father. Many, if not most, comics outside the superhero realm today do deal with serious subjects, and not necessarily without humor. The Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival, A Comics Anthology by Noomin (2019) is a collection of works by 64 noted comics artists that won the 2020 Eisner Award for Best Anthology. Rendering serious stories as comics allows authors to utilize a rich multimodal vocabulary, and the form also broaden the story’s readership.
While “serious comics” have gone mainstream, there is also a long history of independent, underground, and self-published comics, which continues today. Comics are a cultural medium that emerges from earlier forms of media, offering powerful modes to tell stories and address significant issues. “Zines are cheaply made printed forms of expression on any subject. . . . Zines are not a new idea. They have been around under different names (chapbooks, pamphlets, flyers). People with independent ideas have been getting their word out since there were printing presses” (Todd & Watson, 2006, p. 12). The advent of the widely available photocopier in the 1970s, and now, of course, the internet, made it possible for people to create their own comics and reproduce and circulate them inexpensively, which enabled the creation of radical and queer zine cultures. The ability to self-publish content without the approval of mainstream cultural institutions was critical in maintaining and creating community without conforming to social norms of respectability—something impossible for queer-identified people anyway. Zines are countercultural (Licona, 2012) and counterpublic (Brouwer, 2005), resisting dominant modes of communication and commerce. Often, zines are given away, traded, or sold for a small fee, with the foremost goal of creating community, not profit. Not all zines are comics, and, of course, not all zines are queer, though, as Sender (2020) argued, “they can embody metaphors for queer productivity: the importance of self-representation while making do with what we have” (p. 136). While some queer comics have gone mainstream, their most significant potential is in the world of self-publishing, independent, and small presses, where the aim is not so much widespread acclaim as it is queer affirmation, community- and world-building.
Comics In and As Scholarship
In the field of communication, comics have been taken up by some scholars, particularly in the areas of visual rhetoric and health communication (Cox, 2016; King, 2017; Palczewski, 2005). Eisner (1985), examining the medium of comics, wrote that it was “an ‘art of communication’ more than simply an application of art” and that “comics communicate in a ‘language’ that relies on a visual experience common to both creator and audience” (pp. 6 and 7). Comics have long been considered artifacts worthy of analysis by historians, literature and cultural studies scholars (Chute, 2010, 2014, 2017; Eisner, 1985; Fawaz, 2016). Entire journals are dedicated to their study, including the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, The Comics Journal, The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, and ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. Graphic medicine, which encompasses comics about experiences of illness, health care, and caregiving, has become its own field, many of its practitioners also scholars, health care, and public health professionals (see Czerwiec et al., 2015; Green, 2010; Williams, 2014). The Annals of Internal Medicine, one of the most widely cited journals in the world, began publishing comics monthly in 2015. Within the field of communication, a special issue dedicated to graphic medicine in Health Communication 32(5) was published in 2017. Comics studies scholars in communication often publish their work in journals from other disciplines, including pop culture, media studies, literature, and visual arts journals.
In contrast to scholarship about comics, scholarship done in comic form is less prevalent, though gaining some traction. Ebony Flowers (2017a) and Nick Sousanis (2015) both published their dissertations in comics form, and Sousanis’ Unflattening was then published by Harvard University Press in 2015. Popular history texts have been published as comics, notably A People’s History of American Empire: A Graphic Adaptation by Howard Zinn et al. (2008) and the March trilogy by John Lewis (2013, 2015, 2016) about the civil rights movement. Journalist and cartoonist Joe Sacco has reported on some of the world’s great conflicts—including Palestine, Bosnia, indigenous North America, and Iraq—in the form of comics. Scholarly comics, what Kuttner et al. (2017) called “comics-based research,” has been published in journals including the Annals of Internal Medicine, Qualitative Inquiry, the Harvard Educational Review, Women’s Studies in Communication, Teachers College Record, and QED, not to mention in online spaces.
A growing number of scholars have begun to do scholarship in comic form, which is a challenge to text-primary academia (Councilor, 2018, 2019; Flowers, 2017a, 2017b; Sousanis, 2015). Anthropologist Katz creates comic field notes, which she has published in their original comic form. Describing the reasoning behind doing so, Katz (2013) wrote, “Rather than a single monographic narrative that airbrushes—when it does not obscure entirely—what it means to be ‘in the field’ in an embodied way, written in the sanctioned language of social science, which can make it all seem straightforward, clean and deliberate, these other records exposed the anxiety, discomfort, muddied thinking, bafflements, exquisite joys, and stunning beauty of doing research” (p. 768). They are untranslated into typeset text, maintaining their embodied and complex form, from the content itself to the shaky pen lines that compose it. In their study of bisexuality and bi erasure, Berbary and Guzman (2018) represented their data in comics “because they have a long history in queer culture for being politically educative, creative, social justice-oriented contributions that bring previously silenced lived experiences of LGBTQ individuals to the forefront of popular social culture through an accessible, relatable, contextualized, and easily distributed genre” (p. 481). They model a queer form of scholarship, telling the stories of bisexual women, and doing so in a hybrid scholarly–comics format, as well as through the creation of a zine for popular distribution. Their academic research article and community zine project are a dual-authored partnership between a bisexual-identified scholar and a queer cartoonist. This kind of project prompts the question: How might scholarship produced in comic form queer academic writing in ways that keep the material body present? The sections to follow will elaborate on the presence and potentiality of the body in queer comics.
Often in colloquial speech, queer is used to describe LGBTQIA+ identities, or non-normative sexualities and gender identities. Queer is also defined outside of identity, as a verb rather than a noun. Barker and Scheele (2016) wrote that “queering is something we do rather than something we are (or are not)” (p. 14). Gumbs (2016) has defined queer as “that which fundamentally transforms our state of being and the possibilities for life. That which is queer is that which does not reproduce the status quo” (p. 115). In this article, “queer” is used in both of these ways—as a verb, to queer, as in to challenge the status quo, and as a descriptor of LGBTQIA+ content and creators.
Cartoonist and comics scholar Hall (2013) has defined queer comics as “comic books, strips, graphic novels, and webcomics that deal with LGBTQ themes from an insider’s perspective . . . queer comics have been primarily created for their own communities, and they have been neither interested in, nor able to gain, a wider market” (Editor’s note). This definition of comics differs from those about queer subjects by straight artists for straight audiences, which have historically been fetishistic and reductive (Scott & Kirkpatrick, 2015). While it is important for LGBTQIA+ characters to be represented within mainstream comics and other forms of media, “it falls to queer comics to dissect queer identities and examine in more profound ways the queer experience” (Hall, 2013, Editor’s note). Queer self-representation through comics is an important corrective to stereotyping and erasure in dominant media. Queer cartoonists create characters and stories that represent themselves and their communities as valid, believable, and real. Fawaz (2019) wrote that “Comics is a medium in which anything that can be drawn can be believed” (p. 589), making it an essential medium for queer worldmaking.
There are some key dialectics within the study of queer comics that will be elaborated on throughout this article. The first is the function of queer comics anthologies which offers important visibility for diverse creators and stories while also decontextualizing the origins of that work. There are many more graphic artists than there are single-authored graphic works, especially when it comes to queer comics; therefore, anthologies play a key role in introducing readers to more artists telling more kinds of stories. At the same time, especially for comics that were syndicated in local or independent publications, an active reading community was part of what kept that strip in print; sometimes the actual content of a strip was created in response to or in relation to that reading community. Like listening to a song plucked from an album and included on a “Best of” collection, it is possible to enjoy a piece and discover a new artist, even if that first encounter is devoid of original context. The second tension centers around the derivation of meaning in comics. On the one hand, the creator’s agency and individuality are paramount to comics—especially in hand-drawn, hand-lettered work. The author’s presence is felt through the style of drawing, writing, shading, color, narration, even the shape of a nose. On the other hand, as some scholars have argued, the author ought to be decentered in favor of the queer reading community that takes up the comic(s). Certainly, one of the most important features of comics is the active role readers must take in the meaning-making process, and queer communities often take up cultural artifacts in ways for which they were not originally intended, which raised an important question: How has this comic been taken up by and circulated within a community in a particular time and place? This article does not resolve these tensions, but it expands on them as important areas of inquiry. The following section takes up the role of the reader in meaning making.
More than with other visual art forms, the reader of comics plays an active role in constructing meaning and in the pace and direction of their reading. Comics scholar Køhlert (2019) noted that “the multimodal hybridity of the comics form—consisting, as it does, of multiple overlapping, independent, and often competing verbal and visual codes—creates a distinctively unstable and decentered reading experience that enables the drawn performance of the autobiographical self as a site of ideological struggle” (p. 4). He argued that, in autobiographical comics, the author renders themselves over and over throughout, the sequential form meaning that the self is not singular and not stable. In each panel, the character is drawn anew, and the reader is invited to identify with the multiply drawn self. This decentered reading experience means that comics are a particularly powerful form of media for marginalized communities, allowing audiences to read themselves into the pages in complex and diverse ways. Johnson (2018) argued that comics are powerful because they are enthymematic, but this quality also makes the form unstable: “It is the radical contingency of closure, not its universality, that makes the medium of comics so generative” (p. 6). The reader fills in the gaps—the literal gaps of what is called the “gutter,” the space between panels. Comics, in other words, force readers to be highly active in the meaning-making process, and it is this—not universally relatable characters or storylines—that makes the form powerful.
Comics are well-suited for queer stories because the medium allows for an intimacy between author and reader. The thought bubble allows the reader to experience a character’s inner world, and comics make it possible to read oneself into the story. The way comics are read, Chaney (2011) wrote, “as a pleasurable alternative to high seriousness, also affords occasions for reader identification with characters and situations that solicit our autobiographical intimacy” (p. 125). This intimacy is particularly significant for queer readers, those who do not see their lived experience reflected in mainstream culture. As Chaney (2011) said, “Representation of the artist’s face in particular . . . may serve as an icon that elicits identifications with our own image, thereby changing the reader-viewer experience” (p. 125). The reader thus co-creates the story, reading their own on top of or alongside the printed comic. As Chute (2010) explained, “what feels so intimate about comics is that it looks like what it is; handwriting is an irreducible part of its instantiation” (p. 11). Although comics are reproduced through print, they are not translated into type, but remain in their original form. The lines and shapes the creator made on the page are visible. “There is an intimacy to reading handwritten marks on the printed page, an intimacy that works in tandem with the sometimes visceral effects of presenting ‘private’ images” (Chute, 2010, p. 10). Lewkowich and Jacobs (2019) wrote about the reparative psychic work the reader of comics does, particularly through the unique affordance of the gutter:
Rather than simply a blank canvas, upon which the reader projects unconscious thoughts, the gutter functions as a liminal space between the concerted influence of multiple aesthetic forces. It is therefore a powerfully persuasive textual gap that, due to its structural indeterminacy—an emptiness that will be, must be filled, but not with anything that can ever be fully or safely predicted—may lead readers to question where the text ends and where they themselves begin. (pp. 25–26)
The gutter is a narrative tool for the creator, and it calls forth the reader’s participation like a call and response.
While much of comics studies has, like literary studies, embraced and lifted up a canon by focusing on a set of individual authors, queer comics are both products and reflections of their reading communities. Galvan (2018) theorized queer comics in ways that “shift our focus from canons to the collective practices that shape the production and circulation of queer comics art” (p. 409). She argued that Alison Bechdel’s early publishing in New York feminist newspaper WomaNews and her fans’ engagement with the strip shaped her work, examining “the visual theorizing that her comics perform in dialogue with grassroots networks” (p. 408). Anthologies including Gay Comix (1980–1998), Strip AIDS USA (1988), Dyke Strippers (1995), Juicy Mother (2005), Juicy Mother 2 (2007), No Straight Lines (2013), QU33R (2014), and Alphabet (2016) have collected queer strips and made them available to readers, but in doing so, removed them from their original grassroots publication contexts. Galvan’s methodological intervention here is crucial, urging scholars to decenter the individual and foreground the collectivity—the rich context and grassroots network in which any queer single-authored work comes to be. Rhetorical field methods—like participant observation, ethnography, and interviewing—which are embodied and focused on lived experience, offer important approaches to these rich, emergent communities. Anyone who seeks to fully understand a particular artist or strip must attend to the context out of which that artist emerged, how the work circulated, and how reading communities have taken it up.
Comics offer the ability to capture subtle moments, which is very important for queer-identified people because that kind of representation is healing to create and validating to read. Squier (2018) wrote that “Comics have a remarkable ability to embrace and reveal experiential ambivalence and complexity because of their multilayered, visual and verbal, linear and looping narrative capacity” (p. 208). Hatfield (2009) has called comics “the art of tensions.” The kinds of tensions queer people encounter in daily life, the complexities and ambivalences that take place in an instant, are powerfully represented through comics. Two of the most basic comics-making tools that enable this simultaneity are the thought bubble and the speech bubble, which enable the cartoonist to depict what a character is thinking and saying (or not saying) at once within a single frame. In comics, time unfolds across space on the page, which means the form allows for microaggressions to be slowed down, shown from multiple angles, and yet still “gotten” by a reader in a moment. As Johnson (2018) explained, “If one of the unique affordances of comics is the capacity to depict embodiment over time, closely related is the power of comics to depict the complexity of emotions at a single moment” (p. 11).
Queer and Trans Self-Representation
The act of self-representation is an important one for queer cartoonists. El Refaie (2012) wrote that the “requirement to produce multiple drawn versions of one’s self necessarily involves an intense engagement with embodied aspects of identity” (p. 51). In a comics essay, Councilor (2018) demonstrated this intense engagement with his own embodied identity—importantly without processing through verbal language—that led to his gender transition (figure 1). Comics can be aspirational in this way as well—cartoonists can render their gendered selves without being mediated through medical or social institutions—drawing a squarer jaw, wider hips, clothing that they may not feel comfortable wearing in public. There is the freedom, too, to depict futures that have not yet been realized, to build new, queer worlds. This can be accomplished through other art forms, of course, but it is difficult to match the potency, accessibility, and immediacy of comics. Fawaz (2016) explained, “As a low-tech visual form requiring only pencil and paper, comics allow for the visual depiction of extraordinary scales of existence and embodiment without the need for costly technical special effects” (p. 17). Comics offer the tools for queer and trans people to author and shape their own identities.
The affective component of drawing oneself and others in scenes that unfold through time requires the artist to inhabit, and thus come to understand, each of these elements. Flowers (2017b) argued that “Comic making calls attention to movement and affect in an imaginative form of dwelling. By making comics I put myself in a unique and precarious position to experience a liveliness . . . that carries over into the finished comic. Comics making uniquely requires (re)imagining lived experience through inhabitation” (p. 31). Alison Bechdel famously dressed up as all of the characters in creating her memoirs, taking photographs and then drawing from them. While she quite literally inhabited her characters through dress, posture, and facial expression, this inhabitation happens through the cartoonist’s act of drawing on the page. Comics journalist Joe Sacco has said that “drawing is a weird thing because you just inhabit everything you draw. And that means you sort of have to appreciate holding up a bat to hit some-one over the head. You have to appreciate holding up your arm to stop the bat. And you kind of have to go through the motions of it so you can get the shoulders right as it turns up. . . . When you’re drawing, you can’t put yourself out of it. To get it better you have to be in it. Drawing is harder than hearing it. Drawing is a lot harder than being there” (as quoted in Wilson, 2013, pp. 151–152).
The embodied engagement inherent to the form makes it important for healing and representing the complexities and evolutions of identity, from aging and exploring sexuality to transitioning one’s gender. Køhlert (2019) wrote,
the comics form’s sequential nature makes it exceptionally well equipped for the task of representing marginalized selves, because no single image is ever made to stand in for the totality of identity. By visually performing changing and often confrontational selves throughout the pages of their comics, artists can take control of representation and insist on establishing new ways of experiencing and seeing subjectivities and/or bodies marked by the various cultural discourses of gender, trauma, homosexuality, and disability. (pp. 158–159)
Trauma and struggle are common structural and interpersonal experiences for queer and trans people and are often powerfully rendered in comics. Queer self-representation leads to far more nuanced portrayals of queer lives. Cartoonists like Gillman (2020) use comics to express both the pain and confusion of growing up in a world where there were not available representations for who they were and to create those representations. In their comic “Witch Camp,” Gillman (2020) wrote, “I’m a queer, nonbinary person, and always have been. I didn’t always know it, though. Growing up in a community where words like ‘queer’ and ‘nonbinary’ are never talked about, can make it seem like queer, nonbinary people simply don’t exist. Except for that persistent, nagging feeling that something’s ‘wrong’ with you” (p. 212). In the images alongside this narration, the narrator as a young person is getting out of the car with a dinosaur on their shirt and nervous look on their face, the Christian camp building looming large in the background; at the same time, a group of girls with Christian fish on their shirts whispers about the narrator, “I don’t think that is a girl!” While the text of the comic does not identify the camp as Christian, the repeated drawings of Christian symbols makes this immediately clear. This representation captures the way people experience the world—context rendered through signs, symbols, feelings, and observations that are often not expressed through written or spoken language.
As a growing number of queer cartoonists shares their stories, they provide roadmaps for young queers—names for their strong and perhaps amorphous feelings, role models, and identities to try on. Like Gillman, Brager (2020) also expressed confusion about growing up with minimal queer and trans representation. Their comic “LiveJournal Made Me Gay” begins with the text, “Was your adolescent experience as confusing as mine was? I didn’t recognize myself in anything I encountered. Most of the ideas I had about queer and trans people came from surreptitiously watching TV in my parents’ basement. I kept my finger on the power button just in case” (p. 169). In the first panel, Brager depicts Queer as Folk on the TV surrounded by a dark background. A person in a ponytail and glasses has their face up to the screen, finger on the power button, open journal in front of them. It can be quite confusing to understand your developing gendered and sexual self when you cannot recognize yourself in any representations, leaving you to piece together a sense of self using minimal clues (figure 2).
In “When You’re Invisible in Pop Culture,” Bianca Xunise and Sage Coffey (2020) rendered their conversation about queer visibility in popular culture as a comic, allowing them to nonverbally cite other media texts, like Mulan and Goofy. The cartoonists’ characters begin the strip in the roles of talk show host and guest, then during the conversation, move seamlessly through wildly different settings. They discuss having to piece together their identities, often identifying with the outcast or even evil characters. Sage asks whether Bianca sees herself more in older movies or more recent ones, and Bianca responds, “Honestly I’m on the fence. I see myself here and there but I’ve yet to see a full version of myself. That’s why I write comics” (Xunise & Coffey, 2020, p. 111). A few panels later, Bianca explains, “Often I feel like I have to piece myself together through film and TV” (Xunise & Coffey, 2020, p. 112). She sees herself represented in Moonlight, but mostly through race—a partial reflection of who she is (figures 3 and 4).
Bianca and Sage speak to futurity, asking, “What are your hopes for our media?” Sage, now laying on the talk show desk, says, “A big thing for me is just having a sincere nonbinary character on screen. I cannot think of a single nonbinary character from a film other than Benedict Cumberbatch’s joke character in Zoolander 2.” Bianca responds, “Yikes.” Sage continues, “Also, trans stories that aren’t about transitioning and whose identities aren’t used as some twist or act of betrayal. Just give me someone who’s trans and living their life. They can have conflict, sure but going back to what you said, there just needs to be more than one narrative for these characters!” As the comic concludes, the two characters talk about continuing to hope for representation before the final panel, which is a parody image of themselves within the Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes “That’s all folks” circle. The comic is not an expression of hope, however, as much as it is a creation of what they are calling for in the piece. They are calling out their exclusion in the same breath (or brushstroke) as they are writing themselves in. This strip demonstrates the power of comics as a way to write yourself in, to create futures, to imagine, to see oneself and be seen. As their characters shapeshift through the comic, they take of the visual cues—of Goofy, for example—to literally show how they see themselves in media portrayals. In this way, they use the 2D form of comics to cite the visual language of popular culture texts, to queer their representations, and to make a case for the importance of widely available queer stories by queer artists (figure 5).
Queer Spatiality and Temporality
Comics have been compared to music, the panels representing beats. Eisner (1985) explained, “In music or the other forms of auditory communication where rhythm or ‘beat’ is achieved, this is done with actual lengths of time. In graphics, the experience is conveyed by the use of illusions and symbols and their arrangement” (p. 26). Brown (2013) pointed out that “while this is true for comics, it is also true of music when represented graphically, as notation must also represent timing and rhythm via space” (n.p.). Lynda Barry is one of many cartoonists who makes this comparison: “Comics are more like music to me than like plain old reading, and music changes the more you hear it because there are so many elements—from lyrics to melody to rhythm to duration in time” (as quoted in Spurgeon, 2008). What the many queer comics anthologies do is effectively create mixtapes, bringing together strips like songs from different decades, genres, and contexts—slow songs and fast, sexy songs and sad ones, bringing together A-sides and B-sides to new readers. Queer comic anthologies can help contemporary queer readers better understand the mindset of those living through the early days of the AIDS crisis, or gay life, dating, and hookup culture before the advent of the internet.
The spatial nature of comics allows for the expression of queerness, which, as Ahmed (2006) rightly noted, is itself “a spatial term, which then gets translated into a sexual term, a term for a twisted sexuality that does not follow a ‘straight line,’ a sexuality that is bent and crooked” (p. 67). Fawaz (2019) argued that comics is “an art form that constantly asks how sequential visual panels unfolding in space might formally be like the embodied experience of transitioning between genders, like the psychic disorientation of racial double consciousness, like the temporal reality of aging or moving between states of physical ability and disability” (p. 592). The form, then, lends itself to an embodied experience both for author and audience. Cartoonists use visual cue like panel size and shape to speed up or slow down the passage of time across the space of the page. They can merge two temporalities into a single frame, sweep back and forth between past, present, and future. And, importantly, they can set the terms of those timelines and re-orient the story.
Comics are well suited to the nonlinear, nonchronological nature of images, something cartoonist Barry has spoken and written much about:
In our heads we have it that we’re rolling into the future. There’s this feeling that there’s a chronological order to things because there’s an order to the years, and there is an order to our cell division from the time we’re a little embryo until we’re dust again. But I think the past has no order whatsoever. We think of time, or the past, as moving from one point to another. If you think of these images, they can move every which way, so you don’t know they’re coming to you.(as quoted in Chute, 2014, p. 77)
The study of trauma has shown that for the body, the recollection of traumatic memory is not remembering the past, but experiencing the present. Freeman (2010) has described queer time as “nonsequential,” which might seem to put queer time at odds with the common definition of comics as sequential art. Panels unfold in sequence, which can also function as resistance to sequence. Comics rely on the reader’s understanding of the passage of time. Even if the panels on a page are placed in chronological order, a reader may move through the comic in a nonlinear fashion, circling their eye around the page, looping forward and backward throughout the book. They may read it queerly.
Halberstam (2005) wrote that one component of queer time is that it is “about the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing” (p. 2). It is precisely the temporal affordances of comics that makes the form so well-suited for queer stories: exploring and representing the potentialities of queer lives lived on queer time. In comics and in life, queers push back on what Freeman (2010) called chrononormativity, “the use of time to organize individual human bodies toward maximum productivity” (p. 3), synchronizing the behaviors of whole populations around the clock in service of wage work, and state and economic functions. McCullough (2018) argued that Bechdel’s Fun Home is a particularly potent example of the reparative queer worldmaking possible in the comics form: “the queer temporal openings inherent in the comics form provide a generative medium for queer world making and a potentially reparative one at that; comics’ unique combination of the visual and textual allows for the articulation of aspects of a queered temporality that cannot be achieved by other solely visual or textual forms” (p. 378).
Comics allow for cartoonists to speak to one another through recreating others’ visual languages, and, in this way, images can travel through time and space, from one cartoonist to another. There are many ways that cartoonists cite and speak to one another in their comics, among them crossover character references, book reviews, and copying an artist’s style. Jeff Keane, the cartoonist who took over his father, Bil Keane’s long-running weekly strip Family Circus, drew cartoonist and avowed fan Lynda Barry into the circle in 2017; he created a character of Lynda in the iconic style of the strip but with enough markers of Barry’s own iconic look that her fans would recognize the crossover. Trans cartoonist Dylan Edwards has drawn a comic about Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in which he draws himself reading the book in addition to recreating one of her panels as he considers how books with bigger publishers are subject to more scrutiny and censure.
In a 2019 piece, cartoonist Nicole J. Georges depicts her interview with Bechdel as a comic. The two cartoonists’ characters begin outside of the house where Bechdel grew up, a funeral home and the setting for her 2006 memoir Fun Home. Georges uses teal, echoing the color of Fun Home’s cover and the interior ink wash, and cites Bechdel’s text by redrawing one of her panels in Bechdel’s style (figure 6). Bechdel’s character explains that she hoped writing the book would help heal her family, that they would finally talk about her father’s homosexuality and his suicide. In the second panel, as the two characters begin to walk, Bechdel explains that it didn’t. Instead, it was met with critique by her mother about small details, which Georges depicts in the copied panel where Bechdel’s mother says, “you got the wallpaper wrong.” In the following panels, Bechdel explains that what did bring healing was the experience of watching Fun Home as a musical with her brothers and crying together, when it debuted on Broadway in 2015. This queer story, told first in comics, changed form, was told on stage and in song, and now reflected on by another queer cartoonist in an interview. As Georges’ comic continues, she explains that Bechdel supported her in the writing process of her own graphic memoir, Calling Dr. Laura, particularly about “betraying an instilled family creed of burying all shame.” At this point, the two authors are sharing a blanket on the beach. Georges says, “That’s why I draw, I think. I didn’t feel seen, so I had to reflect my own experience back,” to which Bechdel replies, “That’s it!” (figure 7).
Georges begins the strip outside of Bechdel’s childhood home in rural central Pennsylvania, then as the characters walk, they end up at the beach. While there’s no explicit signification for what beach this is, it is quite possible that it represents the California coast, one of the places where Georges lives and works. They discuss not being seen as children, and the power in authoring their own experiences to validate them. Georges merges her memoir and Bechdel’s in a single panel, showing each of them as a child (figure 8). Depicting each child in the visual language of the cartoonist, Georges merges two different moments in time and space into the space of a single panel; this narrative choice is highly complex, yet a seamless move in comic form, a fleeting moment in which these queer children, lonely and unheard in their real lives, get to share a space on this page as their adult selves get to do. The piece exemplifies queer community in comics, as Bechdel’s work and support enabled Georges to create and share her graphic memoir. They represent two generations of queer cartoonists. In the final panel of the strip, Georges says, “I’ve come to think of my creative family as my extended family,” representing the common queer kinship practice of chosen family. Bechdel echoes her, saying “for many years, the Dykes to Watch Out For characters were sort of my family.” The interview and Georges’ creative visual interpretation of it demonstrate the importance of queer self-representation, and the potential for healing familial trauma through comics.
Georges’ comic interview is a reparative text, according to Sedgwick (1997), demonstrating the affordance of comics to visit and own painful pasts and create new potential futures.
Comics in the Classroom as Queer Feminist Pedagogy
Many comics are being adopted as texts for study in high school and college classrooms, particularly graphic memoirs and graphic histories. Expanding encounters with comics has the potential to increase student engagement in learning through both reading and creating comics. As the readership of comics continues to grow in print and online, so will the reach of queer comics, thus expanding their impact. In addition to having students read comics, however, having them draw by hand offers radical potential as a queer feminist pedagogy. Queer media scholar Sender (2020) has adopted creative practices in her classroom, having students create weekly handmade zine pages instead of written reflections. She wrote,
I want the class to consider what it takes to make a queer world through the kinds of disorientation that creative work requires (being outside our comfort zone, being wrong-footed), to continue to engage theoretically while shifting our locus of perspective. . . . Queer experience shows us that once we wrench ourselves, or are wrenched sometimes unwillingly, from the well-trodden path, the normative groove, everything becomes reimaginable.(Sender, 2020, p. 134)
Sender’s account shows that queer worldmaking is a hands-on, messy, and often disorienting practice. It does not happen through traditional analytical modes of reading texts and writing papers. In classrooms, teachers can create the space for inquiry that is multimodal and complex, giving students the embodied experience of creative engagement toward building new futures.
Hand-producing comics interrupts the typical modes through which students produce academic work (Morrison & Chilcoat, 2002). Sealey-Morris (2015) wrote, “Comics-making, however, is a labor-intensive production, physically and mentally. Encouraging students to produce comics as essays is another means of encouraging students to slow down, to consider the power of their rhetorical productions, and to own their authorship in a more palpable way than typing glowing dots onto a screen” (p. 48). Drawing by hand offers no delete button, no copy and paste, and fundamentally changes the pace at which they are processing and representing ideas. Much of 21st-century academic work—and life—takes place in front of a computer, a tablet, or a phone. Asking students to create material objects rather than digital files requires a multidimensional understanding of the material.
A return to material embodiment can expand the audiences and impact of comics that reflect and share stories of queer lived experiences. The expansion of queer stories by queer cartoonists in mainstream media is important, but might also come with increased scrutiny and pressure to adhere to heteronormative social norms. The queerest and most important comics may be those that are seen only by their creators, or only shared within communities. No matter the scope of their circulation, comics is a powerful means of representing oneself and one’s community, of telling queer stories, and building new worlds. Muñoz (2009) wrote that queerness is “a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present” (p. 1), and artists are the visionaries at the vanguard of queer worldmaking. Comics are spaces for building and expanding queer utopias (Fawaz et al., 2017). As Cardell (2014) wrote, “Comics literally enable new ways of seeing, new ways of being seen, and new ways of representing the self” (p. 121). In a world that is increasingly in crisis, new ways of seeing and new ways of being in relation to one another are precisely what we need.
In addition to the notable pedagogical opportunities for using comics in the classroom and scholarship in comics form, there are a number of directions for research on queer comics. While the interdisciplinary field of comics studies is vibrant and longstanding, there are two significant areas that are underdeveloped, particularly within the field of communication. Certainly, comics provide rich archives for case studies of particular political, cultural, and rhetorical events—political cartoons, public health comics, and newspaper strips provide valuable artifacts for study. Comics are important historical archives for queer communities and increasingly widespread in popular culture globally. More centrally, however, communication scholars have important perspectives and theories with which to analyze comics as a unique form of communication in which image and text are inextricably linked. What might visual communication scholars, who have focused predominantly on the function of images in public discourse, bring to the table in analyses of comics? How might we build on communication studies of other “low” or underground art forms like graffiti, zines, and tattoos, particularly in relation to queer and other marginalized communities? How do comics as an iterative form relate to gender performativity and embodiment? As comics continue to grow in popularity and cultural status, their functions will diversify, and their influence will grow. As is already happening, there will become an increasingly dominant canon of graphic narratives, which will make it important for scholars to pay attention to comics in queer networks and local contexts. There will be increasingly diverse queer representations, making comics an important site for liberatory self and community representation and the continued expansion of gender identities and sexual orientations. In short, queer comics as a multimodal form offer many opportunities for communication scholars in advancing research in the field, engaging students in the classroom, and extending scholarship to new audiences.
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