Queers and Comics

Just returned from the first-ever Queers and Comics Conference, two jam-packed days of lively panel discussions, brilliant critical analysis, awe-inspiring keynote speeches, and lotsa hot queers - in other words, all of my favorite things!

This event was unreal, y'all - the panelist roster was full of superstars, the programming was remarkably and consistently fascinating (highlights included discussions of health and disability, truth-telling in non-fiction comics, representations of queer characters of color, and several incredible panels stacked with queer comics trailblazers), and Jen Camper and andré carrington deserve five million rounds of applause for making it happen.

The first panel I went to - "Queer Comics, Health, and Dis/Ability" - was made up of participants representing an impressive spectrum of experiences: that of physical disability and that of mood disorder; that of patient and that of caregiver; that of artist and that of medical professional. Nearly every panel I attended was characterized by a similar diversity of perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds, which made for rich discussion of complex topics.

MK Czerwiec

MK Czerwiec

Rupert Kinnard

Rupert Kinnard

Despite the unique attitudes, circumstances, styles, and priorities of the various conference participants,  the dialogues I witnessed were always respectful and thoughtful. Sasha Steinberg and Clark Stoeckley, two panelists for "Telling the Truth is a Revolutionary Act: Queer Non-Fiction Comics," approach rendering non-fiction stories in very different ways: Clark "draws it as (he) sees it," while Sasha crafts settings "as the characters see them," not as they might exist in a photograph. But while these artists utilize the historical record differently, they share the the common goal of translating real events in a way that honors the multiplicity of subjective experiences involved.

 

Notions of subjectivity arose again in "This Is What I Look Like: Creating Queer Characters of Color," with every panelist speaking to the challenges of balancing and reconciling marginalized identities while also recovering from trauma, enduring constant microaggressions in the professional sphere, and finding ways to transmit personal stories without being tokenized. These panelists, all young cartoonists, were incredibly energetic and dynamic, and their enthusiasm for their work was contagious.

My favorite moments of the conference, though, were the reunions of older generations of queer cartoonists. The Howard Cruse/Alison Bechdel conversation was one of the more charming encounters I've witnessed in a long while, and the gathering of so many Gay Comix(cs) creators, editors, and publishers onstage in the auditorium took my breath away: what an incredible assembly of talent, determination, and spirit!

The "Pioneers of Queer Women's Comics" panel in particular was both entertaining and highly edifying (and not just because we learned that Trina Robbins once lost a pair of panties in San Francisco). I felt properly schooled, sitting there in the audience before those four women who broke so much new ground so fearlessly more than four decades ago: "The world was so different then" Mary Wings told us all. "I didn't hear the word 'lesbian' til I was 19, and I came out when I was 21. You can't imagine how different the world was."

In her keynote, Alison Bechdel also spoke of the changes she's witnessed in the comics industry as popular culture has become less and less hostile to queer identities, and of her ambivalence towards some of those shifting attitudes. This tension between assimilation and acceptance was a consistent theme throughout the conference: Yetta Howard noted in "Pedagogical and Theoretical Approaches to Queer Comics" that as gay comics have become increasingly accepted by the mainstream, creators have invested accordingly in "a polite form of queerness," more palatable to a broader audience but also non-representative of the many ways of imagining queer difference.

So how do we continue to cultivate spaces where the limitless potentialities of queer identity might be explored? Perhaps with conferences much like this one, as Alison suggested during her Q&A; or maybe by collecting and publishing and re-examining the work produced by some of the early pioneers. At a minimum, as Mary Wings noted during her panel, we have to continue creating queer comics:

"Keep telling these stories. You are as essential now as we were then."