Queering the American Comic Book

Artists draw authentic, untold stories in Chicago’s lively self-publishing scene.

by Chrissy Lee

When Tony Breed was 18, he bought the 1989 anthology Gay Comics, one of few gay- and lesbian-themed cartoon collections available at the time. He kept his purchase a secret. “It’s for sociological purposes,” he assured himself, as he was about to begin his first year at the University of Chicago and not yet ready to acknowledge his sexual orientation. “They’re just comics. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Amid the depictions of gay experiences, ranging from Tom of Finland’s erotic illustrations to political commentary in “Dykes to Watch Out For,” one comic in the anthology stood out to Breed: “Leonard & Larry,” a chronicle of Jewish photographer Leonard and his partner, leather shop owner Larry, a previously divorced father of two. The married couple tackles parenthood, graying beards and later, grandparenthood in dialogue-heavy, sitcom-like illustrations. In reading slices of that remarkably ordinary life, Breed found a way to accept himself.

“It struck me,” he said. “It gave me a way to be gay that I was comfortable with. I didn’t want to go to bathhouses. I have friends who do that, and good for them, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I had it halfway planned in the back of my head that I’d get married, have two kids, and then be gay, like Larry, but I figured out I didn’t need to do that exactly.”

Living in Andersonville with his husband, Breed, now 41, works in IT and volunteer-DJs for Chicago arts-focused CHIRP radio. As a side project, he produces a weekly web comic, “Finn and Charlie are Hitched.” Like Leonard and Larry, Finn and Charlie trudge through the workday, deal with in-laws and squabble about living room feng shui. Through hand-drawn panels, Breed brings to life a monogamously steady – “boring,” even, he added – domesticity that, as a teenager, he didn’t know was acceptable for a gay man to wish for.

The realization that a domestic life was possible for a gay couple highlighted something else important: “Leonard & Larry” and its illustrated peers aren’t “just comics,” despite what 18-year-old Breed had told himself. They are more than images paired with language; they break down stereotypes to communicate real stories about people who otherwise aren’t often heard.

Breed’s Hitched is one among a rich culture of self-published comics that are increasingly featuring LGBT-specific themes and characters. Today, the Chicago independent creator environment is a particularly vibrant place, with hundreds of active artists, art programs offering comics modulesand new resources like the annual Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE), which took place for the second time last June.

ALTERNATIVE STORYTELLING

Comic strips began turning up in newspapers in the nineteenth century. With the creation of figures like Superman in 1938 and the Fantastic Four in the early 1960s, the medium became a fixture in mainstream American culture, touting hyper-masculinity, tales of supernatural heroism and bright capes.

Partially in response to the 1954 formation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which censored mainstream comic books for profanity, violence, sexual innuendo and LGBT themes, an underground comics industry emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Independent publishers, including a number of LGBT artists, flouted social mores by deliberately dealing with many CCA-forbidden topics. The independent comics movement was much like, and often overlapped with, that of the print zine.

Today, the underground and alternative comics industry continues to grow across the United States, though the CCA is now defunct. Comics’ and zines’ nonlinear, “unprofessional” nature has facilitated their development into democratic and creatively flexible media forms, according to Anne Elizabeth Moore, an author and artist based in Chicago. Moore is a founder of Ladydrawers Comics Collective, a feminist group that produces comic books, posters, and other media on themes of economics, race, sexuality and gender.

The technical materials, too, make comics an accessible medium. Edie Fake, 32, a Chicago-based artist and graphic novelist, said for anyone with stories to tell, self-publishing is easy to take up. “You just need pen and paper,” he said, “and if you want to make more, you can Xerox it.”

Fake interacts daily with artists as an organizer of CAKE and resident mini-comics expert atQuimby’s Bookstore, a shop in Wicker Park that sells independently published and small press books, comics and zines. Among them is Fake’s own mini-comic series “Gaylord Phoenix,” now also published through the small press as a graphic novel, which follows a human-like creature called the gaylord phoenix as he explores love, sexual connection and transgender identity.

Artists like Fake who sell their work at Quimby’s range in experience, he said, demonstrating the ease with which an artist can get started: Some are seasoned creators, while others are new to the illustrating and printmaking scene.

With havens like Quimby’s and a deep working-class history, Chicago is home to a uniquely fertile independent comics scene. The city’s openness to self-scrutiny, Moore said, makes it easier for women, transgender people and non-binary artists – those who don’t identify as male or female – to actively produce and distribute their work, whether it’s online, hand-printed or published by a small press company.

“If you have stores like Chicago Comics and Quimby’s, you will be necessarily doing more interesting things in the world,” Moore said in a phone interview. “You get modes of capitalism that support extremely weird and extremely anti-capitalist questions about how culture can work.”

ILLUSTRATING LIVED EXPERIENCES

Rewind two decades, 950 miles away in Rhode Island. Growing up, Jay Fuller spent afternoons making brownies with his sister’s Easy-Bake Oven. He recalls being “extremely jealous” that it was acceptable for his sister to own a toy oven, while boys, he was told, do not play with pink domestic toys.

Now 28 and living in Lakeview, Fuller has curated the self-published web comic “The Boy in Pink Earmuffs” to articulate the “queerness” he remembers feeling at a young age. Shortened as BiPE, the serial web comic follows 10-year-old Danny as he moves to a new neighborhood, where he befriends wide-eyed, outdoorsy JJ.

The story loosely mirrors Fuller’s childhood. Around Danny and JJ’s age, he and a friend dubbed themselves “Super Solvers,” characters from an old edutainment computer game, and ventured around the neighborhood to solve pretend crimes. The pair became “lovey-dovey,” Fuller says, just as Danny and JJ do in BiPE.

Fuller refers to his comic as the “younger version” of Breed’s Hitched. Roughly autobiographical – incidentally, Fuller and Breed both grew up in Rhode Island – both series reproduce authentic moments, confirming experiences outside the neatly packaged, often constrained and archetypal narratives found in the mainstream industry.

“I’m writing something I would have loved to have read at Danny’s age,” Fuller said. “I want kids to feel more comfortable before sexuality even hits. I remember feeling pressure to give a Valentine to my friend who was a girl, but I wished I could give one to my friend who was a boy. I wished I could hold hands with him, give him a kiss on the cheek. I’d probably get beat up for doing that.”

Stories like BiPE and Hitched that avoid prototypical characters and storylines are important for increasingly diverse readerships. Robert Rodi, a Chicago-based comics writer, novelist and literary critic whose work features gay characters and themes, says “it only makes sense” for publishers to acknowledge their audiences. While underground and alternative movements do this well, he said, the mainstream is slower to act.

“The problem I have with mainstream comics is thematically they’re very limited,” Rodi said in a phone interview. “Good versus evil. Everything boils down to good versus evil. Let’s see things that are more complex. People like to read stories that reflect their lives.”

HUMAN QUALITIES

Relating to readers involves more than producing nuanced stories. In their comics, Breed and Fuller narrate situations that make people laugh, nod with recognition or both. In Hitched, for example, a man sits next to Charlie on a plane ride and divulges a few too many personal details.

The first installations of BiPE center on Danny’s iconic earmuffs, which he wears simply because he likes them. Their bright pink color, Fuller says, represents “that feeling you can’t hide something about yourself,” even if there is a social stigma attached to it.

“It kind of plays into being blind in my right eye,” Fuller said, “having that thing you can’t really control and that people look at and make assumptions about. [The earmuffs] are Danny wearing his effeminacy and unusualness on his sleeve.”

Aside from symbolic markers like Danny’s earmuffs, other details make characters more relatable. At CAKE last summer, Breed says, a straight man approached his exhibitor table, ecstatic to meet him in person. “I love that you draw body hair,” the man gushed, referring to the intricate, individual hairs that Breed carefully draws onto each character’s legs, arms and chest.

“It’s true,” said Breed, who recalls being, at first, taken aback by the man’s excitement. “If you look at mainstream comics, [hair] is never there. It’s a little bit creepy – Superman has no body hair, no nipples. Good reason to make your cast as diverse as possible. People like to see themselves in media.”

Still, though, readership isn’t substantial for the genre to enter the mainstream. Neither Breed nor Fuller makes a full living from his series. Since their work is often categorized under the category of “gay comics,” Breed says, readers often disregard them, especially when all LGBT-related comics are grouped together on store shelves and expo rooms. The Small Press Expo, for example, places all LGBT-themed exhibitors in the same section.

“People walk in and think, ‘Oh, I’m in the gay section. This isn’t for me,’” Breed says. “It’s not that they object to our work, it’s just, the way they perceive it, it’s not for them; it’s for someone else.”

Even beyond finding audiences that aren’t specifically looking for gay themes, some artists struggle to gain a readership at all. According to a Ladydrawers survey, 54 percent of comics creators identified themselves as male and 39 percent were female, despite the fact that an equal proportion of men and women sought publishers in 2012. The survey also found that 2 percent of comics creators identified as transgender and 3 percent genderqueer, suggesting a largely unsupportive environment for transgender and non-binary artists.

The scarcity of women, transgender and non-binary people in the actual production of media – not just in character representation – points to larger economic problems, says Moore, who spearheaded the Ladydrawers study. She says on a global scale, non-heteronormative, non-white people are being shut out of our culture and economy.

“It’s appalling,” Moore said, “and totally unacceptable when we live in a ‘democracy.’”

PHYSICAL SPACE

The Ladydrawers’ findings, along with moments like Breed’s encounter with a hair-enthused fan, demonstrate the necessity for organized forums like CAKE for artists, writers and readers alike, LGBT-identified and not. In June, more than 200 creators and guests gathered at Center on Halsted for a weekend of panels, readings, workshops and comics exchanges. Free and open to the public, this was only the expo’s second iteration.

Chicago has long awaited something like CAKE, given the city’s flourishing artistic scene. While zine fests accommodate part of the alternative media space, comics, more of a visual art, deserve an event of its own, Fake said. He is one of the five original expo curators, many of whom help organize Chicago Zine Fest and are independent publishers themselves.

“Omnivorous” discovery is a key element to the expo, Fake said. The organizers work to showcase the diversity of the alternative comics scene, inviting women, transgender individuals, people of color, as well as an assortment of artist types – new and old, abstract silk screeners and creators with tight narratives, Fake said. Exhibitors run the range.

“It’s like a buffet,” Fake said, grinning.

And this buffet, along with the exchanges it facilitates among creators, is CAKE’s ultimate purpose: opening a physical space not only where young artists can display their first work but also where self publishers of all experience levels browse, swap ideas, see reactions and converse with each other.

Many, like Breed and Fuller, talk freely with other creators on Twitter, but the in-person conversation is a welcome change of pace.

“It is the intimate experience of reading something that someone else has done and finding a kinship,” Fake said. “I’ve formed incredibly tight friendships just through trading books. That’s a big part of self-publishing, putting things in conversation with each other, exchanging things, seeing what other people are thinking. It’s really exciting.”

This year, sharing remained an emphasis throughout the weekend. Many exhibitors arrived early in the morning for extra time to meet and trade work with each other before the busy programming schedule began, and throughout the expo, there was a coffee cart that accepted either cash or comics as payment.

For artists, Breed said, that kind of exchange is invaluable. Like a number of CAKE participants, his sales revenue broke even with production and exhibitor costs, demonstrating that self-publishing is not lucrative enough as a full-time occupation. But the intangible rewards of comics creation keep the art form alive. His most valuable earnings from CAKE this year, Breed says, were new friends, an enlarged fan base and a giant stack of unread comics from self-published artists around the country.

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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