SDCC: Gays in Comics XXVII Takes on the Issues

While Marvel Studios was closing out Saturday at Comic-Con International in San Diego by making big noise in Hall H, another panel in a not-as-huge-but-still-huge room drew a sizable and passionate audience. The Gays In Comics panel -- the 27th one to take place in the con's history -- united fans from all across the LGBT spectrum under a common love of the medium. Second time moderator Roger Klorese (Prism Comics) was joined behind the lead podium by Shannon Watters, senior editor at BOOM! Studios. The panel consisted of Graham Kolbeins (creator of MASSIVE, a line of gay manga-inspired clothing), Noelle Stevenson (creator, "Nimona"; writer, "Lumberjanes"), James Tynion IV (writer, "Batman Eternal"), Emily Carroll (creator, "Through the Woods") and Sean Z. (founder, Bent-Con).

The panel kicked off with Klorese asking about the panelists first published work, and if they would go back and change it to include more LGBT content. "The first comic I did was an adaptation of a Grimm's fairy tale called 'The Hare's Bride' in 2010," said Carroll. "I published it on LiveJournal, and I wouldn't change that -- I'd still publish it on LiveJournal."

"My first published work hasn't been published on paper yet, but I consider it to be my webcomic 'Nimona,'" replied Stevenson. "That will be published next year, actually, so I'm super excited about that. I think I would go back and change it if I could, because when I was writing it I had two characters that I very much thought of as gay, but I didn't make it clear enough at the beginning of the comic. Now I'm so frustrated when people don't notice or believe me when I tell them they're gay. I wish I could have at least made that clear."

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"My first published work was 'The Passion of Gengorah Tagame,' so I don't know if there's any way to make that any gayer than it is," replied Kolbeins, speaking of his translated collection of gay erotic manga by artist Gengorah Tagame. "Before I was doing that, I was doing an art blog that was sort of like, all-purpose. I talked about everything from sculpture to installation art, and what I was interested in most was gay manga, and I just was wondering why it wasn't here and why no one was talking about it in English or translating it officially."

Moderator Watters posed a question to the panel, asking if they ever foresee a time when mainstream culture will be so well-versed in LGBT issues that there will no longer be a need for specifically queer comics culture. "I think it's still necessary," answered Sean Z. "There's always going to be a need for anyone, regardless of what their walk of life is, they want to see themselves in the things that they love. As far as I'm concerned, as someone who also creates and is creating more, I want to make sure that the things that I enjoy are reflected in the experience of the work."

"That was the thing I was always frustrated with," added Tynion. "I didn't see my journey in the kinds of media that I was taking in day to day. When I did, it didn't really relate to me because it felt like it was from a different era. Coming out was a very different experience for me in high school than I feel like it had been for the people who were writing those stories."

Stevenson wants there to be a diverse offering of LGBT comics, a goal she's actively pursing with "Lumberjanes," and not ones that only focus on tragedies. "I get really tired of the stories that are like, this is how hard and tragic it is. Sometimes I just want a story where some of the issues that we have to deal with in the real world, maybe these characters don't have to deal with them. It's a little bit of a wish fulfillment and it's a little bit of a fantasy. I think it's very important to see stories like that. You do have to see stories that deal with real world stuff, but it's also fine to have like a fantasy, something that is shiny and you can escape for a little bit."

When asked how they go about creating queer characters in their comics, Carroll admitted that she has one hard and fast rule for when and where to insert diverse characters. "It depends on whether or not I'm going to make a horror comic, like I usually do, or -- I've done a few romances. My happy romance stories are always, always gay characters. And my horror comics... they're always straight people." Judging by the laughter and applause, the audience agreed with that rule.

The panelists then discussed how their sexuality works its way into the comics they create, either indirectly or directly. Tynion, who made his big breakthrough in DC Comics' high-profile line of Batman comics, has an evolving feeling about this topic. "It's something that I've been very conscious of, just the fact that I work on such a major scale in the mainstream, working on the Batman line. It's a place where at the beginning I did feel a need to sort of repress myself, [and] pull out a more masculine character. Batman's pure masculinity -- there are moments when you want to put yourself in there, but is it appropriate for me to put myself into a licensed character who isn't designed to be this. It's stopped mattering, at a certain point; it stopped being something that I worried about. The more you are yourself, it bleeds into your work regardless what you're thinking of and how many times you debate against it -- I'm not sure what you could point to specifically that comes from my queerness, but my queerness affects everything I write, so it does."

"I write about comics and I make documentaries about artists," said Kolbeins. "I feel like in the past four or five years it's become really important for me to sort of infuse everything I do with queerness and exploration of sexuality and sexual identity, just because... you know, YOLO."

Moderator Klorese mentioned panelist Sean Z.'s Bent-Con as a place to really explore and discuss the issues touched upon during the panel in even further depth. "It's great, because when we have the non-queer person that comes to [Bent-Con], a lot of times when they hear LGBT they assume it's only sex. When they come to the show, nine times out of ten they're surprised that there's all this other stuff. There's the funny books, the fantasy adventure, there's the romance -- it's not all relegated to being self-defined by who we're attracted to."

Stevenson applauded this diverse representation of queer identity, speaking from her own experience as a child identifying most with androgynous, asexual and aromatic characters. "There are so many ways to be queer, and a lot of queer people are not necessarily sexual people. We live in a very sexualized world in a lot of ways, and that's something I never identified with -- I think it's important to show all the different aspects of characters, a character's life and their world and their way of just existing. Just only associating queer characters with being sexualized is not a fair or accurate representation. Everyone has more depth than that."

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Trans representation in mainstream comics came up later during the question and answer portion of the panel, with the panelists acknowledging comics' less than stellar track record in the area. "Honestly, I think that in the last couple of decades there's almost been a regression instead of a progression," said Tynion. "I think the '80s era of Vertigo, in particular, actually is very good at addressing trans issues in a way that seems way beyond what we're seeing right now. It's very matter of fact. These characters are part of their respective worlds, and there's so little of that right now. Obviously 'Batgirl' has a key character in her cast, but I think that that's one of the biggest issues out there right now."

Tynion talked about how even though he was out in his personal life, he had to come out again after hitting it big as a professional comic book writer. "I've been open about my sexuality since I was in 8th grade," he said. "Then I started getting into the comics industry, and the thing is, in that time I was predominantly seeing women, so when I was in these professional settings, everyone just assumed me to be straight. Because I was just getting my start and having a lot of personal paranoia about it, I let people assume that. That started weighing on me. Even though I wasn't out there lying about it, and I had close friends in the industry who knew, but the more you allow someone to assume something about yourself, the more it feels like lying. Then they ask if you're dating someone, and you start playing the pronoun game."

Before he could write his Tumblr post coming out to the comic book industry, though, Tynion felt he owed it to one writer to break the news before hand. "I have an incredibly close relationship with ['Batman' writer] Scott Snyder, who had been my teacher about six years ago, and for whatever reason that was the one semester in college I didn't write non-fiction about being a gay high schooler. So he was the only one of my writing teachers who I had never come out to -- so I was like, I have to tell Scott before [I write the post], and Scott did not -- he was like, the most, the nicest guy about it. It was just like, you have to be like, 'I'm calling you because I need to talk to you about something.' And it was just like, 'okay, James, it's two in the morning, what is it?' 'Scott, I'm bi.' And he was like, 'Yeah, I kinda figured that out.'"

About his time at DC Comics since coming out, Tynion had nothing but positive things to say. "It's nice when the prejudice you believe is out there just isn't. That is an incredibly empowering feeling."

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