Queer comics

Last night I was stoked to be on a panel discussing queer comics at Gay’s The Word bookshop in London. Dream gig or what?! I’m going to share here my answers to the questions that Dr. Christine “Xine” Yao (of PhDivas podcast) asked me and Eleanor Crewes (author of the excellent The Times I Knew I Was Gay).

What was your relationship to comics as a child? Right now?

As a kid comics were where I escaped. I spent all my pocket money every Saturday on Beano and Topper and a bag of sherbet lemons. Later I was bought girl’s comics specifically which were full of stories of brave orphans and best friendships.  While kid’s comics all had boys as the title characters, the girls in those comics like Minnie the Minx and Beryl the Peril were at least naughty like the boys. Girls comics were basically a tutorial in normative femininity – being for others and self sacrificing if you wanted to be popular and, later, to get a boyfriend. Luckily I also got into horror comics which offered something different, with ones like Misty particularly aimed at girls.

Needless to say there were no queer or non-binary characters in those kinds of comics back then. Although check out No Straight Lines to read about the underground queer comics that were happening in the 1970s and 80s when I was sadly too young to know about them.

Now my relationship to other people’s comics is mostly re-reading my favourites when I’m looking for comfort, so I was keen to hear more about newer queer comics at the event (more on that at the end of this post).

I’m also creating comics a lot myself as a way of figuring my own stuff out and communicating ideas simply to others. For example, my experience of trans is one of plurality so I’ve created a comic zine about how people can explore that idea as well as the first of a series of comics where I imagine my team of selves helping each other where they’re stuck. It’s great to be able to create basic comics myself, and to illustrate my books with these, as well as working with a proper illustrator – Jules Scheele – on our Icon graphic guides: Queer and Gender.

Are there characters or story arcs about queer characters or issues that stand out to you? Influences on your work?

I got into more indie comics when I was at university. Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise and Tim Barela’s Leonard and Larry were important ones – dealing with lesbian, bi, and gay people respectively. I love how Bechdel’s particularly moved with the times incorporating more trans characters and other kinds of diversity as the series progressed.

Bechdel went on to focus on memoir of course with Fun Home and Are You My Mother. That’s always really spoken to me, and is the kind of comic I make myself. Most queer graphic memoirs also explore therapeutic or mental health themes – Marbles and Calling Dr Laura – are other good examples. I also love Lynda Barry who mixes graphic memoir with guides to writing comics and weaves race and class into her work more explicitly than many.

What are your thoughts about queer representation in the indie versus big comics houses like DC, Marvel?

I haven’t read the DC or Marvel comics but I watch most of the movies – which are probably behind the comics in representation I know. To be honest they’re still pretty disappointing on inclusion of women (the first female titular heroes being so recent) and really poor on queerness, race, and disability. The X Men particularly disappoints me given that the whole thing is a meditation on the civil rights and gay rights movements: violent vs peaceful protest, radical vs assimilationist approaches, etc. Mutants clearly have much in common with queers in terms of how they are treated, so why don’t the creators learn from this?

I do find X Men and superheroes and villains useful for my writing on gender though. Lately I’ve been thinking about trans and queer people as time travellers, shapeshifters and shifters of space, holding super powers which could help save the world, which is a pretty useful approach at a time when there is such a rise in queerphobia and transphobia.

I’d recommend my co-author Alex Iantaffi’s podcast Gender Stories where they interview their daughter on gender representation in superhero movies and comics.

Since comics tend to be thought of as an American form what would you want people to know about UK comics?

That they exist. Particularly that we’re maybe at the forefront in creating critical comics about sex, gender and mental health.

The non fiction stuff out of the US and other countries is often fairly accepting of normative understandings of these topics whereas many UK creators are writing on madness in ways that critique cultural messages and mental health systems, as a few of us explored in some special issues of Asylum magazine a few years back. Jules and I are trying to write in similar ways on sex and gender.

What is distinctive about the medium in portraying queerness?

There’s something about the way comics communicate feeling – in a way that words alone can struggle to convey. Reading – and creating – them can be a very embodied experience forging a sense of connection between creator and reader through the experience described. I’m thinking of Hyperbole and a Half and how well that gets across the experience of depression for example.

There’s also something about the history of humour and lightness in comics which can make them a particularly engaging way to take in information. Readers certainly comment that Queer made queer activism and theory accessible and enjoyable to people who had struggled to wrap their heads around it in the past.

What issues are raised about how queerness is made visible (limits of racial representation, femme invisibility) and how have you seen comics engage or perpetrate these issues?

I think a long running series like Dykes to Watch Out For (as with its non-comic counterpart Tales of the City) can address these kinds of issues in a way that doesn’t happen in one-off comics. It’s still wearying that mainstream comic producers baulk at altering main characters to get a better spread of representation.

With Queer and Gender Jules and I had sensitivity readers check out the books particularly for areas we had less expertise or lived experience of ourselves. I also tried to ensure that I spent some time addressing the invisibility of race and class in queer theory and feminism, and bringing in the voices of queer people of colour and women of colour specifically, as well as representing diversity in the imagined readers of the books (who we follow through each book). We were able to tackle femmephobia specifically in the content of both books, and the graphic nature of the medium helped us to visualise this in ways words alone would have struggled to capture.

What queer comics should I read now?

Like I said I haven’t been very up to date on queer graphic books of late so I treated myself to several in my favourite genres at the event, particularly those that had a more intersectional feel. I’m now working my way through and loving them. There are also good lists of new queer comics here and here.

I also bought Eleanor’s awesome The Times I Knew I Was Gay, and MJ Wallace’s Bi The Way (a rare bi memoir comic which was really good to see).

More on comics

You can read more of my thoughts on comics and mental health in an article here (just scroll down). I’m keynoting the Graphic Medicine conference on comics, queer and mental health soon too.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).