Be Gay, Do Comics

The Nib compiles approximately fifty webcomics (many of which were previously published on from forty creators on a wide variety of LGBTQ+-related topics into this Kickstarter-backed anthology. The comics run the gamut from one-page funnies to ten-plus-page detailed glimpses into queer history. Associate Editor Matt Lubchansky’s introduction explains the origin of the title’s source, the phrase “Be Gay, Do Crime.” Lubchansky also discusses the significance of comics as a means to express queer identity in a singularly accessible manner.

Some of the most interesting comics in the anthology serve to educate readers about various aspects of the queer experience. These include histories, cultural and national disparities in treatments of queer people, and procedures like embryo adoption and securing birth control as an asexual person. One historical highlight is The Life of Gad Beck, written by Dorian Alexander, which details gay Jewish Beck’s resistance under Nazi Germany. Levi Hastings’ gorgeous illustrations are rendered in black, white, and pale blue, with thick outlines (there is no art tool information in the book, but it looks like Hastings used oil pastels). Another particularly informative contribution is Sam Wallman’s A Covert Gaze at Conservative Gays, an illuminating piece about historical and contemporary right-wing activism among queer people. At first glance, Wallman’s panelless comic closely resembles a infographic by a Mad Magazine artist; Al Jaffee comes to mind. But this black, white, and pink comic strikes a perfect balance between discussing “gay supervillains” like Milo Yiannopolous and more sympathetic conservatives like gun advocates in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Kazimir Lee’s What’s It Like to Raise Kids in Malaysia When You’re LGBT? is another interesting piece which details political perspectives and individual experiences of queer people in Malaysia. The standout art is reminiscent of a mid-20th century picture book; the full-color illustrations are predominantly in earthy reds, pinks, yellows, and browns, and there are minimal outlines in the characters’ block-like head and body shapes.

The anthology balances its drier informational pieces with funny one-page strips and relatable memoirs. A memoir highlight is Dancing with Pride by Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer) and is about eir experience in a folk dancing class where dancers are assigned different roles based on their perceived genders. The simple illustrations appear to be in pencil and watercolor, and feature a page where the dancers are lined up in order so their shirts make a rainbow, a very subtle and sweet nod to queerness in non-queer spaces. Another moving piece is written by Sarah Mirk and details activist Pidgeon Pagonis’s experience as an intersex child. The piece, Gender Isn’t Binary and Neither Is Anatomy, is illustrated by Archie Bongiovanni (A Quick & Easy Guide to Pronouns, Grease Bats).  A couple laugh-out-loud funny highlights include Joey Alison Sayers’s The Final Reveal, in which the extremes of gender reveal parties are spoofed, and Shelby Criswell’s Astrological Signs as Classic Queer Haircuts

As is always the case when I read comic anthologies, there were pieces that didn’t resonate as well with me as those I’ve named above. Rather than specify them, I will argue that it is because this book features something for every reader. If a piece didn’t resonate with me, it is sure to resonate with someone else. The queer representation is so varied, with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, nonbinary, intersex, and ace representation, and with countless intersectional queer identities, that I am confident every queer reader will find something to relate to in this book. Due to its array of art styles and queer representations, I would particularly recommend Be Gay, Do Comics for fans of Iron Circus’s anthologies, like FTL, Y’all, Smut Peddler, and The Sleep of Reason.

Be Gay, Do Comics
Edited by Matt Bors
ISBN: 9781684057771
IDW, 2020

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Intersex, Nonbinary, Trans
Creator Highlights: Black, Filipino-American, Puerto Rican Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans

Rad Erwank and Conspiracy Dog

Lukasz Kowalczuk joins illustrator Jack Teagle to create a humorous tale of survival. This 48-page, quick read comic is full of sciience fiction action. The story starts off with our brash hero, Rad Erwank, as a deadbeat, in every sense. He has abandoned his child, stopped saving his planet and instead spends his days intoxicated and angry. When his planet is invaded by enemy aliens, his former sidekick kicks his butt into gear, though not without difficulty.

The second section of this comic is an edition of the Conspiracy Dog comic series by Kek-W and illustrated by Kowalczuk. These two creators have such similar styles that you would think it’s the same author writing both. Conspiracy Dog features funny moments that are relevant to today’s high-tech society. For example, Kek-W pokes fun at friends hanging out but conversing through their cell phones, so engrossed in their own device’s screens that they may as well just be at their own homes.

These are humorous adult stories that don’t have a lot of complexity or depth. The simple drawing style fits the quick read nature of this comic. The bulk of the humor is political, so prepare for lots of Soviet and socialist slang like Reds and Ruskies. A classic story of “socialism is evil and must be stopped.” It feels like it’s written for an older American audience who want to make fun of the social changes that are occurring in society due to modern technology, while continuing to poke fun at the same old dynamic that we see in many movies and books: America is good, Russia is bad.

This book isn’t for the faint of heart. There is a lot of profanity, alcohol, smoking, drug usage, rude gestures, and negative representation; including the use of defamatory language about gay people. This book could be enjoyed by readers at a public library, however I wouldn’t recommend adding it to a school library collection. There is good humor and a couple of fun short stories to enjoy but for more mature audiences to appreciate.

Rad Erwank & Conspiracy Dog
By Lukasz Kowalczuk and Kek-W
Art by Jack Teagle and Lukasz Kowalczuk
ISBN: 9781681486048
Alternative Comics, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 15+

Browse for more like this title
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)

No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics

NSLCoverThis mammoth omnibus collects forty years of LGBT comics in 300 pages. Organized in three main sections – “Comics Come Out,” “File Under Queer,” and “A New Millenium” – Hall has distilled hundreds of comics down to this definitive collection. While most of the comics included are excerpt from larger works, they do not lose anything in the editing process. Here we can trace the evolution of attitudes towards LGBT people as seen through their eyes.

I feel it’s important to state upfront that I am a straight woman. I can see that where one is coming from, one’s background, is going to effect one’s interpretation of these comics. Maybe that’s an obvious truth, but it is one that needs to be said, nonetheless. Maybe it’s that, while reading this collection, I feel my straightness. That is, I feel my lack of cultural understanding of LGBT life. I’m sure that LGBT people will read this anthology and find something different – they may find hope or courage in stories of the struggle. Most of these comics are fairly political, as can be expected for comics that began when being gay was still subversive.

The comics I most enjoyed were the ones that show how we are all the same, rather than different: the comics about settling for empty sex but really wanting a deeper connection; the ones that show how frustrating it can be to have to hide who you are, or at least important parts of yourself; the ones that show feelings of alienation and ultimately redemption. These are universal truths that everyone can relate to.

The art is varied, as can be expected when many different authors are represented, although most are line drawings, as the majority of these works are comics and not from longer graphic novels with their greater opportunity for artistic expression.

Hall has put together a slightly overwhelming collection, covering a huge range of experiences. I found the lack of introductions to the different strips a little jarring. They all run into one another. While there is a table of contents and a well written introduction, conclusion, and list of further readings at the end, I would have liked a little more history and context for each individual strip, rather than having them all run together.

No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics
by Justin Hall, ed.
ISBN: 978-160699506
Fantagraphics, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

TCAF 2012 Handouts

For those lucky folks who attended TCAF this past weekend and attended the two panels I participated in but unfortunately left without our useful handouts, here they are, conveniently downloadable in PDF.

From the Friday TCAF Librarian and Educator Day panel I presented, Graphic Novels in the Public Library 101/201, here are the handouts chock full of librarian strategies, core lists, and resources.

Librarians Communities and Resources TCAF 2012 (PDF)

Subject and Curriculum Connections Dec 2011 (PDF)

For those of you who attended or were curious about our Sunday Gay for You? Yaoi and Yuri Manga for GBLTQ Readers panel The whole panel was great fun and very informative, because the panelists were the most awesome Leyla Aker, Christopher Butcher (who took time out of running the entire show to be on our panel!), and Snow Wildsmith and because the audience, as expected, was ace.  Here is our updated handout of recommended titles for GBLTQ readers.  Please note that the yuri recommendations were updated by the indefatigable expert Erica Friedman, even though she could not be with us on the panel.

Gay for You TCAF 2012 (PDF)


Rainy Day Recess: the complete Steven’s Comics

Rainy Day RecessSteven is a regular kid and these comics are little stories, vignettes really, of Steven’s life from the early ‘80s. He is upset when his parents fight, wants the latest superhero doll, draws his own comics, and likes to play with his friends. And also, is trying to figure out what being gay means in a world that does not accept it.

Kelly does a good job telling the story from a kid’s point of view. That is, sometimes authors feel the need to either ascribe knowledge to a kid beyond their years or to have narration describing for the adult reader what the kid protagonist sees. Kelly does neither. When Steven sleeps over at his friend’s house, he is thrilled that his friend wants to drool over Donny Osmond and try on his big sister’s dresses. He doesn’t think “this is very non-conventional for a male in our early 1980’s culture. I wonder what this means.” He’s just thrilled to find a kindred spirit.

Steven often narrates the comics for you. That is, he breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the reader, like a kid giving you a tour of their house. It’s often what he doesn’t say that is telling. One comic has Steven talking to you:

“Hi! Today we’re making stuff out of newspapers. Comics work best. Christopher made this lovely hat. Tish decorated her new bike with streamers. And I made this beanstalk baton for our parade! C’mon Patches Pals!”

In the background, Steven is wearing a t-shirt that reads Girl with 100 Heads and holding the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, Christopher is using a Brenda Starr comic for his hat, Tish has on a Bionic Woman t-shirt, and a boy is peeking over the fence at Steven with a little heart coming off of him.

These are a series of autobiographical comics that Kelly drew in the ‘90s. He does have some commentary about the comics, which helps place them in time and explains their sequence a little. They were originally published sporadically, and this collection has them all in the same place for the first time. While the stories are all self contained, you do follow Steven’s life. And because of that, it leaves you wanting more. You see Stephen struggling to figure out who he is and also what is going on in his very dysfunctional family. And then, the comic stops. This is a short collection that leaves you wanting more.

Given that it is a comic that deals with being gay, I would have to recommend it for teens, although I think middle-schoolers could handle it. (No sex, no violence, family fights.)

Rainy Day Recess: the complete Steven’s Comics
by David Kelly
ISBN: 978-098459402
Northwest Press, 2011
Publisher Age Rating: (teen and up)

Wait…is that a guy or a girl? Do I care? Manga and all its fun, if confusing, qualities

At long last I’m posting a new piece of “news” here, and it’s on a topic I’ve been considering for some while now. As promised, long ago, I have finally delved into the world of manga, or Japanese print comics, and as predicted by many far and wide, I am now a full-fledged fan of the sub-format (it’s not really a subgenre, is it?). Teens, we know, love them. Many many adults love them. Piles of people watch anime on both the Cartoon Network and the newer Anime Network (which I am now addicted to due to sneaky Comcast Cable’s On Demand feature…argh!).

However, working as a librarian, there are a number of things about manga that are just different from Western comics, and these are things we should all pay attention to when selecting them for our friends or our community (if you’re a librarian or teacher).

One caveat before I go — this is in NO WAY meant to discourage people from buying manga! It’s wonderful, complicated, beautiful stuff, and I would be very disappointed if this column makes anyone so anxious about them that they won’t buy any. That is not the point. The point for me is to fill you all in on some prevalent differences in these comics from Western ones so you can make informed buying decisions.

Why is there an eye in the middle of my fight scene?
One of the most interesting visual aspects to manga, for me, and why I really love it’s style, is that in manga, emotion is key. Realism, not so much. So, while in an American comic, if the two leads of a story are having an intense conversation, this might be shown by expressions, the progression of position through panels, and mood-signalling colors. In manga, they instead break apart the panels into a star-like formation, with the central image focused on the two speakers while on one side is a close up of a glaring eye and the other shows a clenched fist in someone’s lap. These close-ups, very like when a director in a film cuts to something to let you know its important, signal emotional beats within a scene. This can be true even in establishing a setting — while in Batman they might give you a two page spread of a room, in manga they’ll give you one general shot and a lot of little varied views of objects and furniture to show you how it all fits together as well as to provide movement on the page. This kind of progression can be really confusing for the first-time reader — especially when you’re also starting to read right to left in traditionally printed books. Take the time to savor it — it’s a unique way of telling a story, much more cinematic, and can make the story that much deeper.

Dinners on one side and Pickles and Eggs on the other
Pardon my bad euphemisms, but one of the biggest cultural differences between manga and Western comics is the attitude toward nudity. Basically, no one in Japanese comics seems to particularly give a hoot, whereas Western creators and audiences are more prudish. In comics aimed at teens, if the situation would logically produce nudity — taking a bath, changing your clothes, or even (gasp!) groping and making out — in manga there will be nudity. In Western comics there will be convenient drapery and ferns. Unless a manga is specifically intended for adults (and sometimes not even then), it will not have genitalia of either variety — the same goes for Western adult comics. One of the more popular series for teenage girls, Mars, is a melodrama focusing on the relationship between bad boy Rei and good girl Kira. When I began reading the series, everyone kept asking me with copious winks and nudges, “Have you gotten to volume 10!?” When I finally got there — yup, they has sex. Nudity galore, but none of it gratuitous, and all of it extremely sweet, in keeping with the romance of the book. It was quite obvious what was going on, but in the spirit of great YA romances, it was all about the sensation and emotion, not the graphic depiction.

Wow, that guy is really hot! Or is…she?
As many have observed from simply glancing through manga, it has its own visual style. Known stereotypically for disproportionately huge eyes and the similar beauty of both male and female characters, manga is in fact fairly varied though certain visual cues remain the same. One of the more intriguing aspects, to a Western audience, is the extreme fluidity of gender and thus gender roles. Boys may magically become girls, girls may disguise themselves as boys (and vice versa), and boys may play up their girly side to spook a friend. A lot of this gender play comes under the heading of humor — embarrasment and physical slapstick are favorite devices of comedy in manga, and thus if people are switching gender, the embarrasment (say of being in a fight and, poof!, you’re a girl, as in Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2) is racheted up a notch. In the comedic strain, these gender switches usually don’t affect sexuality and are more frustrating giggle moments than serious sexuality issues. You’re a lot more likely in manga to spend an entire story believing someone is one gender and then suddenly finding out they’re the other (or even that they have no gender). The style of manga blurs the distinctions between the genders more or less depending on the art — protagonists tend to be beautiful, and in some comics more than others, the only difference between the girls and boys may be hairstyle. Although, as anyone who’s read them knows, hairstyles are extremely important in identifying characters in manga and anime anyway.

On the other hand, the definitions of sexuality are much more free, and so there are a number of same-sex crushes, some of which actually become relationships and some of which don’t. You’re much more likely to run into a gay, lesbian, or bisexual character in manga, and drag queens seem to pop up left and right. These characters are particularly present in shoujo manga, which to some readers (like me) is refreshing.

You’re also more likely to find characters acting gay in order to prove something — i.e. the main hearthrob’s best friend may pretend to have a crush on him, and go through hinting and confessing, just to test the main lead’s devotion to his girl. It’s difficult to picture American teens going to quite those lengths, and so you can see the patterns of departure from our expectations.

On a related note, I’ve noticed that recently one of the popular manga subgenres in Japan is now breaking in to the U.S. market, though I wonder if many librarians or parents know what it is they’re looking at. There is a large section of shoujo manga that is considered shonen-ai, which literally translates as “boys’ love”. Yup, these comics feature romances between teenage boys or men, in various levels of explicitness, and they’re written by women for women and girls. There are various theories as to why these titles are created and appeal to their target audiences (see the article at the end of this post), but in the end these stories are a homoerotic version of the straight teen romances such as Mars and Kare Kano. Also note, though, that these titles also often include the wilting flower/dominant hero set-up that is common in straight romances (see the section below) — so that one half of the couple needs to be convinced to start a relationship while the other half can be forceful (to put it mildly) in their pursuit of love and sex. As with any genre, some are better than others, and some are aimed at teens while others go a bit further and are more appropriate for adults. Some common titles you might hear talk of include Demon Diary, a Korean title, FAKE, and Pet Shop of Horrors.

You’d never see Jean Grey take that!
One of the odder, and more subtle, issues that appears in manga is the relative passivity of girls. Now, don’t get me wrong — the comics coming out of Japan are well known for casting girls in wonderful hero roles (like in Sailor Moon, Inu-Yasha, etc.), and these same heroines don’t wilt away when a man walks by, losing all their power and good sense, nor are they uber-sexual vixens who titilate with their skimpy outfits and posed fights. This is still (sadly) often more than could be said for Western superhero comics. On the other hand, in comics aimed at girls, known as shoujo manga, the girls, while on the surface very strong, do often end up the weaker-willed, swoony type who need to be rescued by the pretty boys populating these stories. These stories are often romances, and as we all know from romance novels, it’s not like this isn’t a common trope. Most of the time, this is done as a character trait and not in an offensively ninny-esque way, but occasionally it does blend over into a more frightening message for girls, especially when it turns to matters of harrassment and consent. Girls are subjected to some fairly intense (to Western audiences) sexual harassment, and more often than not, they’re told to shrug it off, and they do. Sometimes it’s just teasing, which we all know happens among American teens, but sometimes it also goes a bit farther toward assault and even the threat of rape. For a lot of female readers wanting the empowerment many of these comics promise, this kind of incident can sour the feeling, and the story. This is another simple difference in Japanese culture — harrassment is perceived and treated differently there, and this is reflected in the comics, so be aware that this kind of “let it slide” message may appear from time to time. There are some great titles out there — like Boys Over Flowers — that happily buck the meek-girl trend and have a truly strong heroine at the center of a romantic story, so make sure you seek those out if you’re curious.

To me, all these issues illuminate why teens seem to prefer manga to Western comics — they’re more complicated, often with deeper questions at their hearts. In terms of shoujo manga, they echo teen romance truthfully and don’t shy away from actual issues (like sex, peer pressure, and sexual intimidation). All of these differences make them appealing to teens, and Western comics writers would do well to learn from the appeal (and many creators already have).For more info on these topics, check out the following great articles that illuminated a lot of this stuff for me:

Why do Anime and Manga characters look the way they do?
from Sequential Tart

Why Are Japanese Girls’ Comics full of Boys Bonking?
from Cult Media — this article is a bit more academic, but sheds some light on where shonen-ai trends come from

And, as always, check out Gilles Poitras’ fabulous site about everything related to manga and anime:

Gay Superheroes? Gay issues in comic plots? Um, wow.

It’s funny what comics have to do to get in the news lately. I am, of course, terribly excited when any comics-related news makes it into the mainstream media, and always pleased to see comic art recognized as a medium for all sorts of stories, even stories that readers of say, The New York Times, can get into.This last week’s NYT featured an article on an upcoming story arc in DC Comics’ Green Lantern focusing on gay-bashing, the first time a major plotline in a mainstream comic has involved gay issues so blatantly. I applaud the writers and creators for going ahead with this storyline, for getting it published, and managing to wrangle the public’s attention, for a few minutes at least, and direct them toward the importance comics can have. I can only hope that this kind of story will reach a lot of people, including those inside the comics industry, who need a push toward tolerating, hopefully accepting, and at the very least acknowledging gay people as a part of their community.

(stepping up on my soapbox for a minute)
You see, a great part of what I read for, look for, and hope for in all media aimed at teens are a plethora of examples of humanity, from role models to villains, without any hedging or compromising on the part of creators to reflect the world we live in. This, of course, includes graphic novels. Yes, superheroes do not exist in the world, but they can throw our own prejudices, glories, and virtues back at us, and they should. They must, or else why do we care?

Now, for a broad and thus necessarily steretypical statement: the comics industry does not always do so well in its representation of a lot of people, most notably women and the gay community. I’ve long noted rumblings that the industry itself is both misogynistic and homophobic, and I can’t claim to know the industry intimately enough to say either one is true. For one thing, “the industry” is rather a broad term, rather like “they.”

I can see, in the work printed, that as with any other medium, comics have a ways to go toward providing an array of female characters with the same diversity they give their male characters. Even titles I really enjoy, such as Scion, have most of their female characters wandering around in armor that exposes rather more than would be necessary or practical on the battlefield. At least one of the female warriors did don armor that was appropriately glamorous and workable without being pin-up material — little victories.

In the same vein, comics have even further to go toward representing gay people at all. Lesbians seem to be more acceptable, while gay men are generally avoided (this should not be surprising when you consider that the industry is dominated by men and in America, for whatever reason, straight men are stereotypically paranoid about gay men). In the past, if these characters existed at all, they were, like in times of yore in the film industry and within literature, either terminally single or killed off. T’was a sad state of affairs, to say the least.

Then along came The Authority, penned by maverick Warren Ellis. In The Authority, Ellis features Apollo and Midnighter, two men, two superheroes, who also happen to be in love. And, miracle of miracles, there’s just no big deal about it. No compatriot is taught the valuable lesson of acceptance, nor does the couple wrangle with their place in the world or the morality of their love. Nor are they particularly outstanding role models — their threshold for violence alone makes both rather less golden than their ancestors Superman and Batman. They’re just there, living their lives, and no one blinks an eye. It’s refreshing, in any medium, to see fully realized main characters who are also, incidentally, gay.

Sadly, we still don’t live in a world where that’s the usual case. To my mind, The Authority broke down the door by having gay superheroes. Perhaps it did all start, as some claim, with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink joke among the creators, but what’s on the page is what matters most. The existence of those two crossed a major line. Now, with the Green Lantern tale, we’re going to the next step by showing the reality too many minorities have to live with. I say we encourage everyone to continue the trend. Heck, getting some more ethnic minorities in there would be nice.

image credits: The Authority created by Warren Ellis and Brian Hitch, copyright Wildstorm/DC Comics 2000