Questioning Labels In LGBTQ Comics

The gay comics and creators panel at New York Comic Con went beyond the standard Gay Comics 101 discussion to a nuanced discussion of what it means for comics to be queer and, for that matter, what it means when people label their sexuality -- culminating with former "Wonder Woman" artist/writer Phil Jimenez leaning over the mic and asking the audience how they felt about labeling themselves that way.

J.D. Biersdorfer, production editor for the New York Times Book Review, moderated the panel, which bore the unwieldy title "New York TimesOUT and GeeksOUT Presents LGBT in Comics." Besides Jimenez, the panelists included Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie ("Young Avengers"), Noelle Stevenson ("Lumberjanes," "Nimona"), Annie Mok ("Screentests"), and Luciano Vecchio ("Marvel Infinite Comics Ultimate Spider-Man").

The panel began with a discussion of what sets these creators' work apart, with Gillen and McKelvie discussing the Young Avengers, whom Biersdorfer called "the first ever mainstream all queer superhero team." Gillen said the way it was done was important. "The last thing we wanted to do was a press release," he said. "That wasn't why we were doing it. The take home message is you can get away with a lot more than you think you can."

Mok spoke of "straight mechanics" versus "gay mechanics" in comics, pivoting off the work of game developer Merritt Kopas's ideas about "queering" playing games. "When I think of straight mechanics in comics I think about traditional use of media, traditional use of time," Mok said. On the other hand, "queering" comics means "pushing back against this idea that art should be seamless, which creates this high barrier to entry, that things should be perfect in order to be able to make something." As examples, she brought up punk, zines and artists such as Cathy G. Johnson and Sam Alden who are making "scrappier, messier things." "For me, this breaks down these barriers to entry and talks about the surface plane on the page in this different way that breaks apart, to a degree, this idea that when you look at a comic, you are looking through a window and everything is seamlessly integrated," she said.

Other creators took a more general view of the way some comics veer from the mainstream. In the case of BOOM! Studios' "Lumberjanes," writer Noelle Stevenson said, "It was great to have three whole issues without any male characters at all in them, and for every girl character at this camp to be so different from each other, and to show all the different ways that it is possible to be female, and to be friends and to have strengths and have adventures."

In a similar vein, Vecchio later mentioned his love of the animated cartoon "Avatar." "Even if it doesn't touch the LBGT things directly, it's an audacious cartoon that provides good, anti-patriarchal main characters," he said. "Both the male and female characters, Avatar and Korra, are not the mainstream; they offer a different way of being male or female."

Biersdorfer asked Jimenez why he had once described Wonder Woman as "the ultimate queer character" and what the obstacles were to a Wonder Woman movie or TV show.

"When I use the word 'queer' in relation to Wonder Woman, I use the word in the broadest sense -- which means anti assimilationist, a defiantly anti-normal female in a world that defined it as male," said Jimenez. "I think of her as the ultimate other." Or at least, that's how he viewed the original Wonder Woman, who was created in 1941. "The character was originally created as a figure of sexual power, of sexual freedom, I'm not going to say defiantly anti-war but certainly anti-war, anti-patriarchy, and the version that we have now is exactly the 180 degree opposite," he said. "She absolutely embodies patriarchal norms that sustain male-driven superhero comics." Because Wonder Woman was written for the most part by men -- himself included -- she changed as the writers tried to figure out what they thought about women, and there is no consistent version of the character.

"For me, the vision that I want to see -- I'm not sure is commercially viable or people think is commercially viable -- which is much closer to her original iteration, is that queer version, kind of crazy, fun-loving, spirited, up for the challenge, not necessarily garbed head to toe in Spartan gladiatorial gear," Jimenez said. "I know that's popular, and it looks great on an action figure, but I feel like that ground has been covered by other characters and what she best symbolizes and represents is a hard sell." He once told a movie executive that the most important love story in "Wonder Woman" is not romantic but familial, the story of a mother and daughter. "She said I could never sell that story in Hollywood," he said. "There is no way that they would ever make a $100 million action movie with a love story about a mom and a daughter. And then of course 'Brave' came out. And then of course 'Frozen' came out, and its primary love story is familial, sisterly." "Brave" is about a girl on a quest to rescue her mother; "Frozen" is about a girl trying to save her sister. "It just strikes me that the way they approach women, the way they think about power, the way they think about money and the way they think about appealing to men, I think, stymies the creation of that character," he said.

Jimenez also had plenty to say about representation in comics, particularly gay creators advocating for gay characters. "I often wonder if the 'others' in mainstream comics look like they come to things with an agenda," he said. "Like, if you're the straight guy that's writing gay guys, [it's] cool, but if you're the gay guy writing gay guys, suddenly [people say], 'Whoa! What are you bringing to the table?' There's definitely a different tenor to it. And I think you see it also with people of color trying to introduce characters of color. It comes with a whole different set of politics and this feeling of agenda, whereas if the white guy is doing it, they are just being cool and inclusive and agenda-less." Nonetheless, he had high praise for Marvel: "I am stunned at what advocates they are for diversity," he said.

Later in the panel, Mok touched on that question, pointing to Morgan M. Page's response to Ariel Schrag's "Adam" and the fact that books by cis authors sell in the thousands while those by trans creators sell in the hundreds. There is a paucity of women, people of color and trans creators at the corporate publishers, she said: "Representation is definitely important, but the bigger issue is who is getting paid, where is the money going to?"

"I have only been working in mainstream comics about five years, and it seems to be more welcoming to us, so it might just be a generational shift," said Gillen. When Biersdorfer pointed out that there is a large potential audience for such books, Gillen responded, "I think the audience thing is true, but you should do it because it's right. Artists should show as many different things about the world as possible, and the more diverse art, the better art."

During the question-and-answer session, an audience member referred to the number of states where courts had set aside bans on same-sex marriage, asking if that emboldened them to push their stories further.

In fact, Jimenez said, "One of the things I'm really interested in seeing is less marriage in comics." He pointed out that Marvel DC, and Archie were all quick to marry off their gay characters. "Partly, I think, in their heads they were pushing the envelope but also I think to quickly neuter them, to say, 'Look, they are good, they are acceptable, they are heteronormative -- they are just like you!' For me, pushing the envelope would be to defy those norms and continue to put out characters that are not just like them and are still pretty awesome anyway."

As the question and answer session was winding down, Jimenez turned the tables and asked the audience a series of questions. First, he asked them to raise their hands if they identify as something other than straight. Almost every hand in the room went up.

"Do you have a label for yourself -- gay, bisexual, or otherwise?" he asked.

This time, fewer hands went up.

"I'm really fascinated in this discourse about identity and how we choose to label ourselves and hierarchy of identity," he said, "particularly when it comes to experience -- do you see yourself as male first, as female, as an ethnic background or a religious background or a sexual background? I always find that in discussions about well, why do I have to label my sexuality, most people don't have problems labeling anything else. They kind of accept what they are, but for some reason zoning in on that makes them uncomfortable. So my last question is for those of you who label yourself, gay, straight, or other, are you comfortable with that?"

Even fewer hands went up.

"And how many of you would prefer no label at all?"

Only a scant sprinkling of hands went up this time, and one audience member commented, "Some people have a lot of trouble with the other things as well. Like, I'm not binary, so for me, male or female, I don't know."

"One of the things I'm always fascinated about on these panels particularly is the notion of the labels from which we start," Jimenez said. "I'm always wondering if we're even on the same page when it comes to what we are identifying and what we are talking about... My experience is that young people are far more comfortable without labels or living in a binary world than older people."

"I think the breaking down of the binary in the first place in comics is something that needs to happen severely and has been a long time coming," said Stevenson. "I feel like a lot of us aren't on the same page in some ways when we have this conversation [about gender and sexuality], because if we still are holding up the idea of the binary, for example Wonder Woman -- we want her to be strong, so we want her to have a sword, we want her to cut people's heads off -- why are we holding up this standard which has been coded as male in comics? The point is that binary itself is what is harming us and what is holding us back and is causing us to have a lot of characters that are not living up to their potential."

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