SDCC: Creating Unique Gay Characters in Alternative Comics

Hopey, Julio, Oaf, and Skim are a diverse group with one thing in common: they are all gay characters featured in alternative comics and graphic novels. On Friday at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the characters took center stage -- together with their creators -- in the panel titled "Hopey, Julio, Oaf, Skim, and Beyond."

Christopher Butcher, a retailer, commentator, and co-founder of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, moderated the panel, which featured four creators: Mariko Tamaki, the writer of "Skim," the story of a high school girl who becomes enamored of her teacher, and "This One Summer," which won an Eisner award later that evening; Ed Luce, the creator of "Wuvable Oaf," the story of the romantic life of a large, hairy former pro wrestler; and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, the brothers responsible for "Love and Rockets." Jaime is the creator of the characters Maggie and Hopey, who appear in "Love and Rockets"; their stories were later collected into the "Locas" graphic novels. Gilbert's standalone graphic novel "Julio's Day" chronicles the life of a gay man who lives to be 100 but never comes out.

"Alternative comics honestly used to be a little hostile toward queer characters," Butcher said as the discussion began. "It was the natural development and natural appearance of gay and lesbian characters in 'Love and Rockets' that opened people's eyes to the fact that comics didn't have to be this straight, cis, male, white thing -- that anyone could make comics. And I think the Hernandez brothers deserve an incredible amount of thanks for bringing so many characters out of the closet and onto the page."

Butcher then asked the brothers Hernandez how they came to incorporate gay characters into their stories.

"The short answer is we just did it because we wanted to," said Jaime. "When we did 'Love and Rockets,' we just put in stuff that we were seeing in our real lives but not on TV or even movies, and it was kind of like, well, we're going to show this, and we weren't afraid that someone was going to arrest us or anything because we were just starting out and we had nowhere to fall. This was the right thing to do. It was just as simple as that."

"I remember in the early days we had Maggie and Hopey," said Gilbert, "and [Jaime] portrayed them as he did, but there wasn't any specific reference to them being together as lovers. And he kept getting a lot of pressure, but most of it was more like, 'They're not gay, are they? Please don't let them be gay,' and Jaime said 'Sorry! You just tipped me over that way!'"

"Sometimes the response makes me make the otherwise decision," Jaime said.

Butcher described Gilbert's most recent comic, "Blubber," as "a real exploration of sex and sexuality in the world, in the animal kingdom, that is just nuts," adding, "I really liked it a lot."

Of "Blubber," Gilbert said, "I will use reality to shock people. By 'reality,' I mean a bunch of animals having sex, but at the same time it is still based on the natural animal world. A lot of animals do have homosexual sex, they are sadistic to one another. Some animals, like the shrike, this bird grabs onto a mouse and spikes it to a tree so it will bleed to death. It doesn't need to do that." Still, he said, "a lot of the things that are going to bother people are really commonplace things, but they are just not explored in comics and movies."

Butcher next turned to Tamaki and her comic "Skim." "'Skim' actually deals with a lot of stuff that people don't want you talking about, like teenage lesbian Wiccan-ism and getting it on with your teacher, maybe, in a weird and inappropriate relationship," he said. "This is stuff that may have popped up in your actual life, and it's not the sort of squeaky clean representation that people want -- but maybe that's what alternative comics is?"

"A lot of teachers have asked me if the scene where Skim kisses her teacher is a dream sequence," Tamaki said. "And that's like a safety valve. It's like, 'Well, this is a dream,' it's like 'Wizard of Oz,' and you're like, 'No, it's not a dream for me, but if that's what lets you sleep at night, then OK, it's a dream. That's cool for me."

Tamaki and her cousin, Jillian Tamaki, collaborated not only on "Skim" but also on "This One Summer," which was published by First Second -- a publisher that Tamaki noted has never told her, "You can't say this."

"'This One Summer' has one scene where two girls talk about the existence of oral sex, which I see as a personal public service," she said. "When we handed that in, I had this thought that maybe they will say something, but they were like 'That's great! Looks good!' We have had this sheltered experience in the YA publishing world, which might seem kind of strange, that we have had no bars on what we are supposed to be doing."

Luce was in his 30s when he started making comics, he said, which gave him a different vantage point. "I had this wealth of other material to look at, to say 'What am I not seeing that I want to see that I can put out in the world?'" he said. "Wuvable Oaf" depicts the experiences of older gay men and different body types, such as bears (large, hairy men). "I'm glad that the specificity of people's experiences is being now talked about," he said. "I don't like the term 'post gay' -- we are definitely not living in a post gay world -- but I am really into hearing the personal stories. The stories are getting more personal, and that's what excites me."

"I love the idea that we are all talking about being old," said Butcher, bringing the conversation back to Maggie and Hopey and the most recent stories, where the pair -- now in their 50s -- meet again. "I am not those people, and I am not in my 50s, but that was so, so real and so, so resonant," said Butcher. "Are these people you know that you are infusing into the stories of Maggie?"

"I have been doing them so long, they are the people," said Jaime. "When Maggie sees Hopey, I know exactly how she feels. This story I'm doing right now is Maggie trying to figure out what boundaries she has with Hopey now that they are both with different people, and she's kind of like, 'We used to play around, can we still play around? Are we not supposed to play around?' You always see Maggie's thoughts; you don't always see Hopey's thoughts. That's the way the characters are written. Maggie is getting frustrated, and I'm just learning all this stuff about what Maggie is thinking about their relationship while they are together. 'What do we do? Do we cheat like we used to do? We used to be able to cheat. Wait, we're this old now -- we are not supposed to cheat. But dammit, let's cheat!' So many things are going through Maggie's head. This one is hard to write, because she is going back and forth. And it's fun as well, because I'm still learning about her as these situations come up.

"My wife is bisexual, and she tells me stories [about] her relationships," continued Jaime. "I knew her back as a punk rocker in the early 80s, before we got together 20 years later. I know a lot about her life and what she has gone through, who she was with and this and that and coming out and [being] afraid to come out, things like that... So I just watch her go through life and I try to put it in my characters, just little things."

Gilbert's "Julio's Day," now published as a graphic novel by Fantagraphics, started out as short stories in "Love and Rockets." It's the story of a man who lives to be 100 but never acknowledges that he is gay. "The original Julio character is really repressed," said Gilbert. "He comes from the old world; he's a meek kind of guy, he never admits that he is gay. He's in love with his childhood friend who is a heterosexual boy. They grew up together, but he never expresses it." When he is 100 years old, his nephew -- also named Julio, also gay, but much more comfortable with his sexuality -- says "Why don't you come out? You're 100 years old! Nobody's going to do anything to you!" Gilbert likened Julio's refusal to come out to his mother's refusal to drink a glass of wine. "She's like 'No no no no, I don't want to get drunk!'" he said. "I'm like, 'Mom, get drunk! You're 85!' I kind of based it on that."

Butcher then raised the question of format: "When 'Love and Rockets' stopped being issues, when it went to an annual format, that really was the end of an era for all of alternative comics," he said "I personally think the alternative comics shift into graphic novels has really helped queer stories." For instance, he said, Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" and the Hernandez brothers' own work were taken more seriously when they were published as graphic novels rather than serial comics.

Tamaki said she likes longer form work because it gives her time to really develop a character. "The first iteration of a graphic novel is you just putting all the characters out there, and then the editing process is figuring out these silences -- where you can fit in silences and what you can do with silence, and where you have a character who's maybe falling off," she said.

"I enjoy doing the single one-off issues, which are all about me trying to present a story that hasn't been told before, whether in queer comics or comics in general," said Luce. "Like, two gay men stalk Kerry King from Slayer to give him their demo tape, or the wrestling story where the wrestler beats up on another guy and apologizes the whole time because he's such a fan of that wrestler." The other aspect is that heavy metal fans actually buy the Kerry King comic because he is in it. "It's really a secret delivery system for a queer crush comic," he said. "Having it all bundled in [a graphic novel], the response has been great, but I don't get to stealth deliver some of the queer content that I can on a standalone story."

The Hernandez brothers had mixed feelings about graphic novels versus serialized comics. "I've written some of the most satisfying stories I have in years because I have had the space," said Jaime. "The downside is I live with the story for a year and I am constantly second guessing myself. I think a couple of months later it's old and used up and I have to rewrite it and I start to rewrite it when I go 'They haven't even seen this! How can it be old?' It's kind of wearing on me psychologically."

"Same here," said Gilbert. "I find myself in the same trap all the time: I want to do shorter stories and then they start to get longer. All by themselves. So I can't control it either way. That's one of the reasons I did 'Blubber' for now, because 'Love and Rockets' takes a year." And, like Jaime, he finds himself making too many changes over the course of that year.

One of the strengths of alternative comics is that they can be transgressive, Butcher said, and he asked how the creators' transgressive books had been received.

"This One Summer" ran into some issues with school librarians after it was named a Caldecott Honor book -- the first graphic novel to be recognized in this way, Tamaki said. The award typically goes to picture books, and many librarians order all the honor books for their elementary school libraries. "So I think we had some people were upset because it wasn't a picture book because they were expecting a different book," she said.

Luce said he had no trouble at all from the heavy metal fans. "I think a lot of that has to do with this identification with a queer male body that is a little closer to their actual bodies -- I say 'they,' I'm referring to straight guys -- where they see a body being celebrated and appreciated on its aesthetic merits that is closer to their own rather than Channing Tatum's body, let's say. They feel more of a physical affinity with the Oaf because they don't look like Channing Tatum, and it doesn't matter that it's a queer body. They are identifying with gay men in a way they haven't before, and it's okay. I feel like I'm almost creating a space for straight men to look at gay men's bodies and appreciate them -- and have a bit more fluid sexuality if it comes to that."

In fact, he said, "I feel like there's a shift going on in a lot of queer comics, where they are being picked up more and more by people you wouldn't think would buy them, because the identification is there, and they are actually curious about some of the gory details of queer life."

"You had queer characters in the mid-80s," Butcher said to the Hernandez brothers. "That was not a good time for gay people. What was the feedback like then, and has it changed?"

"I just remember positive," said Jaime, except for the pressure to have Maggie and Hopey be straight.

Gilbert pointed out that having two women making love is usually acceptable to most people, but two men are not; this particularly shows up in movie ratings. "Right away there's a chip on my shoulder when I hear stuff like that," he said. "The reason we have it in our comics is because we can. Luckily, we have a reputation. A lot of times, if people thought [the creators] were gay, they were told they have an agenda. We don't have an agenda. We are just artists. We can do what we want in our comic. That's a luxury for us, actually. As creative people, as artists, we want to have that push forward. It sounds like an agenda, but it's really not. It's more like just getting deeper and deeper, really."

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