Creators Explain Why Queer Comics Aren't What They Used To Be

The sense at the "Queering Comics" panel at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival was that LBGTQ comics have come a long way in the past ten years -- but plenty of challenges remain for creators.

Charles "Zan" Christensen, publisher of Northwest Press, moderated the panel, which included Melanie Gillman ("As the Crow Flies"), Elisha Lim ("100 Butches," "100 Crushes"), Mariko Tamaki ("Skim," "This One Summer"), and Chip Kidd, who is a book designer for Knopf, editor at large of graphic novels at Pantheon, and designed the North American edition of "The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame" and the manga anthology "Massive." (Note: Gillman and Lim both prefer to be referred to by the pronoun "they.")

Christensen, who has been moderating queer-comics panels for over ten years, started the discussion by talking about how things have changed in that time. "Originally it was all about discrimination and struggles and problems and bad actors, and all kinds of things like that," he said, "but these days the conversation has become much more nuanced. The questions and the discussions we are having are much more complicated, and they are much less about being the victims or an oppressed minority, less about being marginalized and isolated, and more about where we are trying to explore, what we say as comics creators." He asked the panelists for their take.

"I think I wanted to write a queer love story because I hadn't ever seen any queer love stories," said Tamaki. "I grew up when there would be, like, one gay person on '90210.'"

"The lone one, with no possibility of romance," Christensen added.

"And he has a crush on Brandon, and Brandon's OK with it!" Tamaki said. "I grew up in that era, and I think that I have been very lucky in that it's never come up as an issue." In fact, she said, the opposite has happened, with publishers have come to her looking for LGBT content. "I think sometimes, now, it's just a given that I'm going to write that -- I think I don't have to have that conversation now, because people just assume. If I wrote a super-straight love story, I would get a note. I also think that's the industry I'm working with, Groundwood Books and First Second, where you're not really going to get a pushback."

Lim, who makes short claymation films, said that the movies about that aspect of their personality are the most welcome at film festivals. "I find [people] are much more attracted to that, and that's maybe about that fascination, maybe that fetishization," Lim said.

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"What are the positives and negatives of that?" Christensen asked. "Maybe you get invited to things more, maybe you get the better consideration to be included in something? Has it been a negative experience, ever?"

"I say that tokenization is the lesser of two evils," replied Lim. "I would rather you just stick me in there than not have me at all and not have this conversation at all."

"Because then you are there. And you can speak," said Christensen.

"Yeah, I have been at indy film festivals or on art jury panels where I'm the one person that is trans or uses the pronoun 'they,'" Lim continued. "I'm like, 'I'm glad this is happening! It's kinda weird, everyone in the room is a little uncomfortable, but I'm glad it's happening.'"

"I think that things are changing, too, because people who are out are editing and are publishers," Tamaki said. "I think there are more smaller publishers out there that are looking for queer work, and there are people with the specific agenda of, 'I want to publish queer stories.' I definitely feel like you walk into the room and they're like, 'You're the reason I'm here.'"

Gillman spoke enthusiastically about webcomics as a medium that "removes all the gatekeepers." "The great thing about this self publishing movement is that anyone who wants to make comics can throw them up on the Internet, and there is going to be a market for it," they said. "The Internet is a big enough place that someone is going to want to read whatever it is you are putting out there, which has been a huge advantage for queer creators in particular, because there has been such a hunger still for queer media, and people have been driven more and more to online sources because that's where they are finding it these days. I get a lot of e-mails, especially from teenagers who approach me about my story and say, 'Hey -- thank you for writing this, because this is telling a side of my experiences that I really have not been able to find in any sort of mainstream venue as of yet.'"

The conversation shifted to Kidd and the manga anthology "Massive." Japanese publishers digitally blur out genitalia, he said, so the North American edition of "Massive" will be the first time the full work will be seen, uncensored. On the other hand, he was doing a book signing in Happy Harbor Comics in Edmonton, Alberta, and an employee came up to him to tell him how much she liked "The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame." "I said, 'Thank you! I can't help noticing it's not here in the store,' and they said, 'Yeah, we're not allowed to have it.' Edmonton! What the fuck is that? It gets stopped at customs. That's pathetic. So we're not done yet."

It happens in the U.S. as well -- iBooks published the first three chapters of John Macy's new book, "Fearful Hunter," but they rejected the collected edition. "It was like the Voltron of gay porn -- they could not deal with it," Christensen said. "So it's everywhere, this kind of pushback, like, 'You should be ashamed of what you are doing; you can still do it, but you should feel guilty about it.' I'm like, 'No, I don't want to.'"

Kidd spoke of asking editor Anne Ishii if one of the creators in "Massive" would be visiting the U.S. in the fall in connection with the book. "She said 'Probably not, because he's really worried. He doesn't want anybody to know what he looks like, because he has a day job,'" said Kidd. "That's pretty serious stuff. How do we change that? I have no idea, but we are publishing the book."

"In terms of how things are, for queer content in general in comics and in the broader culture, do you see the trajectory headed in the right direction?" Christensen asked.

Tamaki recalled being at Teen Book Con in Houston, Texas: "This one kid was standing in the back the whole time and he raised his had, this 15 year old boy, and he said 'Is there some sexual tension between the two characters at the end of the book, these two girls? I read it and it seemed to be a relationship there that was more than just friends.' ... it's a really subtle thing. The possibility that this girl might be gay is there but it is not explicit, and for this 15 year old boy in Houston, Texas, to ask me about it, that's gotta be a milestone."

"I feel like there's these weird bubbles," she continued. When "Skim" made the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) top ten list, a Christian organization wrote that YALSA had a gay agenda. "That's so great to think that the librarians have a gay agenda!" she said. "I wait for pushback, and I don't get it. Especially with boys; I wait for it, and it doesn't happen. I think there is definitely a move forward."

Lim was more pessimistic. "The difference between me last year being in the audience [at TCAF] and me being up here is that I got published, and I think in those terms, that's a crisis right now," they said, pointing to the decline in the book retail business. "This is the third publishing house that tried me out. The first two folded. The difference between me coming to TCAF and being on a panel at TCAF is dying, so I think there is a bigger crisis. Especially if you're queer, you're in a niche, and a lot of people told me, 'You're too much of a risk.'"

In response to an audience question about queer representation, Tamaki said she had never written a book in which someone says "I'm a lesbian." "When I started reading books about lesbians, I used to hate them," she said. "Every book about a lesbian, first she would say she was a lesbian and cry, and then she would go and every woman she met who was also a lesbian, she would get to sleep with them, which is like -- that's not my experience. I have always tried to find this fine line of that queer experience without necessarily always having to do it in a traditional way, but I also recognize sometimes, and people have said to me, 'It should be more queer; it should be that your characters are like, '"I'm gay," because that needs to be said more.'"

"Or showing it in a way that's really unambiguous," Christensen said. "There are so many terms and so many words and so many labels, but when you are showing somebody's life and show it completely, I think that really gets to the core. People see themselves in that."

"I love exploring transgender identity in comics," said Lim. "I talk a lot about my trans identity, and I really respect what Mariko is saying about not hitting it on the nose, but instead of talking about Trans 101, this person has this genitalia, which would be incredibly boring, what I try to do is talk about my crushes, talk about my stories, and talk about how hard and resentful I felt when someone asked me to call them by the pronoun [they]. I was like, 'You jerk! You high maintenance jerk.! I was so mad about it... I hope that I do both, which is show you what a person who identifies with the pronoun 'they' looks like and tell you a very personal story about how it felt to me to engage with that pronoun."

Lim also spoke of trying to write a story about their experiences in a convent school in Singapore. "I really wanted to be faithful to that experience, and I realized there there's no way that I can really look back with the lens I have now and be faithful to it," they said. "But what I tried to get across instead, and I hope this is something universal within queer narratives, whether it's zombies on another planet or whatever, is arousal. And I think that for me is the queer moment."

Toward the end of the panel, the question of making a living came up. "You always have to have another job," Tamaki said. "If you think about how much money you make off a book, it's not a salary, it's a payment for a piece of art.... Generally speaking, at the best of times, books pay for themselves. They don't pay for much else. The thing I hope for is to have enough money to keep reading books." And that's not a given; Christensen and Kidd discussed comics that cost more to produce than they could sell for.

Gillman had a different, more optimistic take. "One of the really interesting things that has started happening in the past year is that Patreon has really taken off," they said. "It seems to be indicative that there's a culture among, not cartoonists, but among readers of cartoonists, where they are recognizing that, 'Oh, these people are doing this great service for me and I'm getting so much value out of it and they are making nothing. They are working at Starbucks. Let me give you $5 a month, let me put it in your pocket,' and I don't need to ask for much more."

Tamaki pointed to Kickstarter as a very direct exchange with readers. "With Kickstarters, they are essentially saying, 'This is how much money I need to make this book. If you give me this much money, I'll make this book.' It's become much more demand. And it behooves you to pay attention to your fans: You are directly beholden to your fans because they are directly paying you for your work, which is a really great thing."

"Most books aren't just about gender; they are about gender and culture and class and all these things," Tamaki said in response to a question about using comics as a way to discuss and be an activist for queer agendas. "I don't write the politics, but I know there is politics in everything I write, and I think it's a really interesting thing to spur the conversation. Especially coming from a queer place, and there are all these people who are not from a queer place, and it's like, 'Welcome to my country. This is the status quo for me. What do you think?'"

"I love putting radical politics I my comics as much as possible," Lim said, "and the way I approach it is through storytelling." Lim made a short film about being a lesbian at 13 and it was censored in Singapore. "I know from my childhood, going to this Catholic school was one of the coziest havens of queerness I have experienced," they said. "Maybe a lot of my people wouldn't know that in these more regimented countries there are still these pockets of sheer pleasure and comfort and joy for queers, so telling my story, that is my way of expressing something that is radical and political."

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