The Rise of Queer Comics


Arts & Culture

Gay Comix no. 1, ed. Howard Cruse, cover by Rand Holmes, 1980.


The fastest-growing area in comics right now may be, broadly speaking, queer comics—comics that feature in some way the lives, whether real or imagined, of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer) characters. Queer comics are one of the most vibrant areas of contemporary comics, fueled in large part by the runaway success of Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic—the story of a gay girl and her closeted, ultimately suicidal gay father that was adapted to be a Broadway musical of the same title, and went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2015. Gayness used to be a public accusation leveled at comics to discredit the medium: in the 1950s, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman, were suspected to be gay, and therefore a negative influence. Dr. Fredric Wertham wrote in his influential book on comics that the former represent “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together,” and for the latter, “the homosexual connotation of the Wonder Woman type of story is psychologically unmistakable … For girls she is a morbid ideal.” The infamous 1954 Comics Code, inspired by Wertham’s study, banned “sex perversion or any inference to same”—a clear reference to homosexuality. But today gay comics are an ever-expanding feature of the field, marking a new era of self-expression. Comics used to be read paranoically as gay code; in contemporary comics queer identity is openly announced.

The excitement around queer comics, from readers and creators both, is rising steadily. Justin Hall’s compendium No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics, an edited collection, sold out its first print run in 2012. Two cult classic graphic novels from the nineties, the artist and activist David Wojnarowicz’s Seven Miles a Second and literary critic and writer Samuel Delany’s Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York (both collaborations with illustrators), were reissued in deluxe editions in 2013 for new readerships. And 2015 marked the creation of the first annual comics convention to focus on queer culture: Flame Con. New York City’s Flame Con describes itself as “a two-day comics, arts, and entertainment expo showcasing creators and celebrities from all corners of LGBTQ geek fandom,” and specifies “geeks of all types are invited to attend and celebrate the diversity and creativity of queer geekdom and LGBTQ contributions to pop culture.” Most significantly, however, the range and volume of queer comics appearing right now demonstrates how forcefully the realities and details of gay life can get expressed and visualized in comics. Diverse comics about all sorts of aspects of queer experience flourish online, in the direct and censorship-free zone of webcomics. And in the world of print, we see an outpouring of distinct genres of comics that explore and address queerness. Among the artists creating this work, Bechdel has shown most powerfully how comics can be a space for sophisticated storytelling about the complexities and joy of queer life.

Alison Bechdel’s first published installment of Dykes to Watch Out For in Womanews, 1983.

Bechdel was influential long before Fun Home, which was published when she was forty-five. Bechdel’s hugely important and popular syndicated comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which chronicles the everyday lives of a diverse group of mostly gay friends and lovers, began in 1983 and ran for twenty-six years; it changed comics culture and broader queer culture definitively. The guide Dyke Strippers: Lesbian Cartoonists from A to Z is even dedicated to Bechdel. The film director Lana Wachowski, of the Matrix franchise (and a trans gay woman), wrote recently that although she was a fan of mainstream comics as a kid, and later the work of Robert Crumb, “It wasn’t until I discovered Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For that I really understood what I was looking for, a queer world with stories and characters that I could recognize, that I could laugh with and care about.”

Sydney and Mo in Bechdel’s story “Sense and Sensuality,” part of Dykes to Watch Out For and collected in Hot, Throbbing Dykes to Watch Out For (Ithaca: Firebrand), 1997.

The history of gay comics, however, doesn’t start with Bechdel. It has roots that go back at least to the underground comix movement of the 1960s and ’70s—and even earlier, too, if one considers classic comic-strip characters like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, one of the most celebrated characters in the history of comics. Krazy Kat (1913–1944) which debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, featured a famous love triangle: The mouse, Ignatz, hates the cat, Krazy. Krazy, however, passionately loves Ignatz; even though the mouse throws bricks at Krazy’s head, they are received affectionately. Offissa Pupp, a dog, adores Krazy and hates Ignatz as a result. Krazy is androgynous, a “kat” with a fluid gender that seems to shift and is never actually meant to be conclusively verified (sometimes the narration refers to Krazy as a “he”; largely, however, Krazy has been interpreted as female, including by superfan E. E. cummings). In an exchange from a 1915 Krazy Kat daily strip, Krazy complains, “I don’t know if I should take a husband or a wife,” to which the indifferent Ignatz responds, “Take care,” and hurls a brick. That a syndicated strip published in a mainstream Hearst paper—Hearst adored the strip’s artistic merit and gave Herriman a lifetime contract—had such a conspicuously “genderqueer” star at its center indicates that queer comics, even if not hailed as such, have been lurking in plain sight for over a hundred years, at least. We might even consider queerness part of the DNA of comics.

Other newspaper strips have featured openly gay characters, some controversially. Garry Trudeau’s topical and political Doonesbury also introduced an openly gay character in 1976—early for mainstream comics. Readers first meet the character Andy Lippincott in a law library as the object of a female crush. In the Doonesbury storyline, after a yearlong battle, he dies of AIDS in 1990, an event that helped bring discussions about the disease into a wide number of homes. Andy is the only fictional character to be included on the real-life AIDS Quilt. (He later appears to longtime character Mark Slackmeyer in a dream to tell Mark that Mark is in fact gay, causing him to come out of the closet.) And Matt Groening’s Life in Hell, which ran for thirty-five years starting in the late 1970s, featured the always-together characters Akbar and Jeff. Akbar and Jeff—also early and prominent gay characters who eventually became well-known in popular culture—are identical-looking men in fezzes and Charlie Brown–style shirts who initially were introduced by Groening as “brothers, or lovers, or both” but were soon acknowledged as gay.

Asked by a fanzine in 1987 if his characters had ever elicited a homophobic reaction, Groening replied yes. “The main reaction was when I first acknowledged that either of these characters could possibly be gay, some people who had been following the strip for years and had feelings about gays were very, very upset, which made me very, very happy.” (When Groening ended Life in Hell, a tribute poster was assembled; Alison Bechdel’s contribution was a fitting Akbar and Jeff tribute strip about the multivalent word “gay.”) The newspaper strip For Better or For Worse, by Lynn Johnston, about a suburban family with three kids who age in real time, introduced one of its characters, Lawrence—a friend of the family’s son—as gay. In 1993, when Lawrence came out, For Better or For Worse was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. The backlash was so intense that today Johnston devotes a portion of her website to explaining it under the heading “Lawrence’s Story.” It may be hard to remember or imagine just how unusual sensitive gay content was for the “funny pages” of mainstream newspapers even twenty-five years ago, but within a week, nineteen papers had canceled For Better or For Worse outright, many more had suspended the strip, and Johnston went on to receive over 2,500 personal letters (in the days before email, no less), including death threats. “I learned that the comics page is a powerful communicator,” Johnston writes on her website. “I learned that our work is taken seriously.”

These widely popular strips, which each came at gayness from a different angle, provided important early examples of gay representation in comic strips. But the gay or queer characters they featured were secondary characters. It wasn’t until the underground comics movement, starting in the early 1970s, that gay comics as a self-conscious genre took root. In the underground, comics was reinvented as a medium for self-expression. It follows that the underground was also where political, identity-based comics were first developed, bolstered by the energy of the left-wing counterculture’s attention to disenfranchised voices—and also by women cartoonists’ reactions to what they perceived as the overly straight, overly male first wave of underground cartoonists. The comic book Wimmen’s Comix, run by a collective of female cartoonists, developed as a platform specifically for women in 1972. And their debut issue (which is also where Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s comics first saw print) featured a three-page story about lesbianism, “Sandy Comes Out,” by Trina Robbins, a guiding force in the Wimmen’s Comix Collective. The story, about a young woman coming out and joining a “gay/hippie commune,” was framed as a “true life” comic about a friend of the artist (unidentified as such in the story, that friend was Sandra Crumb, Robert Crumb’s sister.)

Diane DiMassa, panels from Hothead Paisan, 1993. Reprinted in The Complete Hothead Paisan (San Francisco: Cleis Press), 1999.

While Wimmen’s Comix, and other feminist comics titles, acted as a corrective to the male-dominated underground comics scene, they were thin on gay content and gay authors. The perceived heterosexism of feminist underground comics inspired Mary Wings, then twenty-four, to self-publish the first full-length lesbian comic book, Come Out Comix, in 1973—a groundbreaking, stand-alone title that paved the way for queer comics of all different kinds to claim a place in the field. The underground inspired that kind of creative practice: if you perceived a gap, you could fill it yourself. Soon thereafter, Wimmen’s Comix published its first lesbian contribution by an actual lesbian, Roberta Gregory’s “Modern Romance”—also, like Wings’s comic book, a coming-out story (Gregory would later go on to publish the hilarious comic book Naughty Bits during the 1990s, starring the character Bitchy Bitch, and a spin-off collection, Bitchy Butch: The World’s Angriest Dyke). Wings followed up in 1976 with another comic book, Dyke Shorts. The work coming out of the underground was substantial, and personal, claiming space for nuanced stories that previously hadn’t found expression in comics—or in most other media. When Bechdel started drawing her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1983, “there was already such a thing as a lesbian cartoonist,” she notes. “I didn’t have to invent it, or fight for it, or suffer over it. I just did it.”

Comics about gay men were slower to form, although the artist known as Tom of Finland, and his drawings of well-endowed muscle men, were significant to gay culture starting in the 1950s, along with plenty of other homoerotic fetish drawings and pornography. There were some gay-themed single-panel gag cartoons in the burgeoning gay press, like Joe Johnson’s campy “Miss Thing” and “Big Dick,” which appeared in The Advocate starting in the late 1960s. The country’s oldest LGBT-interest magazine, founded in 1967, The Advocate has always featured cartoons and comics as a form reflecting, however humorously, on gay life. And Rupert Kinnard’s Cathartic Comics, an early version of which first appeared in his college paper in 1977 before later migrating to multiple alternative weeklies, notably featured the first continuing African American gay characters in comic strips—the Brown Bomber, a man, and Diva Touché Flambé, a woman. But the central figure in gay comics is surely Howard Cruse, a respected cartoonist raised in Alabama who began an underground comic strip, Barefootz (the titular character was always barefoot), in 1971. Five years into its publication, the strip’s character Headrack came out as gay. Cruse knew this choice would mark his own public coming out, and though he struggled with the decision to draw gay content, he was encouraged ultimately by Mary Wings to take the leap into that subject matter. “Gravy on Gay,” in which Headrack comes out, is a story whose central plot point Cruse described as “an explosion of long-repressed liberationist fury.”

Alison Bechdel, the only double-spread in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (New York: Houghton Mifflin). © 2006 Alison Bechdel. All rights reserved.

Cruse became the founding editor of the field-defining comic book Gay Comix, published by the underground press Kitchen Sink starting in 1980. It may have taken longer than other underground titles to coalesce, but its significance has been enormous. (And it lasted eighteen years, longer than most underground publications, excluding Wimmen’s Comix, which lasted twenty years.) Gay Comix aimed for inclusivity and to consolidate queer underground comics. It came with the tagline “Lesbians and Gay Men Put It on Paper!” Its first cover, by Rand Holmes, hilariously features a man walking down the street, stuck in a literal closet, ogling another man in shorts eating a hot dog. In Gay Comix, Cruse crucially frames comics as an uncensored art form in which stereotypes and expectations can be overthrown in favor of particularity and range. “In this comic book you’ll find work by lesbians, gay men, and bisexual human beings. The subject is Being Gay,” he wrote in the editor’s note. “Each artist speaks for himself or herself. No one speaks for any mythical ‘average’ homosexual. No one is required to be ‘politically correct.’ ” For Alison Bechdel, discovering the first issue of Gay Comix was the single biggest event that sealed her fate as a cartoonist. “I’d been out as a lesbian for a couple of years, [but] the notion of cartoons about being gay had never crossed my mind. It was like, ‘Oh, man! You can do cartoons about your own real life being a gay person.’ ”


From Why Comics? Published with permission of Harper. Copyright © 2017 by Hillary Chute.

Hillary Chute is an expert on comics and graphic narratives. She is the author of Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics, Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists, and Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form.