by Ansley Burtch, Britney Megnath, Brooke Tymoniewicz, Julia Whisenhunt, and Margaret Galvan
Introduction: Queer Comics Histories
by Margaret Galvan
The history of queer comics is defined by its unique, independent publishing practices. Across the twentieth century and continuing in the present day, LGBTQ+ cartoonists innovate comics by making their own spaces for creative expression and community building. Whenever I teach “Queer Comics,” I begin with cartoonists who were representing gay subcultures before the Stonewall Riots catalyzed queer liberation movements, then move forward in time to show how queer comics and activism co-evolved, building off recovery work that cartoonists like Robert Triptow, Andy Mangels, and Justin Hall have done to make queer comics history visible. Teaching twentieth century queer comics is no easy feat as many of them were produced through grassroots networks in small print runs, are often out-of-print today, and are now more often found in special collections in archives than on library or bookstore shelves. To facilitate teaching these comics, I’ve spent the past several years building a collection of more than a thousand rare LGBTQ+ comics by visiting independent comics shops and bookstores, contacting individual artists, and tracking down publications through online retailers.
While such comics are fiercely remembered in their communities, they are often nearly forgotten in a larger cultural context and virtually invisible online. To involve students in remediating this absence, I partnered with Wiki Education in teaching students how to edit and add content to Wikipedia. Though Gay Comix (1980-1998) is a foundational comics series and community gathering space that brought together over a hundred LGBTQ+ cartoonists from disparate publishing contexts and geographies, almost half of the contributors weren’t recognized on Wikipedia when I began this assignment just a few years ago. Today, the situation is improved, thanks to my students and the work of others like Jason A. Quest, a gay cartoonist and avid Wikipedia editor who has created and improved Wikipedia entries for dozens of cartoonists.
For the major assignment in my “Queer Comics” class, I generated a detailed list of queer cartoonists active in the 1980s and 1990s who either weren’t on Wikipedia or had a very minimal presence, and students chose a page to build or improve. Gay Comix contributors served as the initial center of gravity for the assignment, but I started to include other contemporaneous artists as I learned about them and collected their work. To help facilitate students’ research, I put together a list of relevant online resources including digitized editions of Mangels’ Out in Comics (1999-2002) series, got the library to purchase and place reference books like Triptow’s Gay Comics (1989), Roz Warren’s Dyke Strippers (1995), and Hall’s No Straight Lines (2012) on course reserves, and shared comics from my personal collection. Students were inspired by the public-facing nature of the project. They dug deep and were savvy in tracking down information, scouring search engines and social media alike, for traces of their artists in the past and present.
In the most recent iteration of the project, four students made contact with their artists and interviewed them about their comics, asking questions over email, social media, or Zoom in order to gather more information for their Wikipedia entries. When I learned of these extracurricular exchanges that had enriched my students’ research and yielded new insights into these artists’ oeuvres, I proposed that we seek to publish them and independently worked with the students in the following semester to compile and edit their feature articles and formal interviews. The four artists covered in the following pieces hail from that larger world around Gay Comix and circulated comics in grassroots LGBTQ+ newspapers, self-published zines, and even made their own imprints to host new constellations of artists. Their contributions highlighted in these pieces show how LGBTQ+ artists thrived in their own publishing subcultures, many of which are almost completely off the radar of comics studies since the artists produced work through grassroots publishing spheres that don’t often intersect with the mainstream and alternative comics industries. My students’ pieces detail the important work that these artists did and how their work still resonates today.
We begin with Hope Barrett, a Canadian cartoonist whom I knew as the editor of OH…, a magazine that she created and edited over the course of twenty-two issues, from 1992-1998, which featured comics by and about bisexual and lesbian women. Ansley Burtch, in talking with Barrett over email, learned more not only about OH…, but also about Barrett’s whole career as she generously spoke of comics not easily available elsewhere. Barrett’s contributions to cartooning have largely flown under the radar, so Burtch’s interview with Barrett importantly documents the work of an undersung creator.
Next, we move onto N. Leigh Dunlap, a cartoonist who had an award-winning and well-beloved comics strip that ran in The Washington Blade, a major LGBTQ+ newspaper, from 1985-1995. Britney Megnath’s piece, informed by her conversations with Dunlap, not only discusses the impact of Dunlap’s Morgan Calabrese comic strips, which featured gay and lesbian characters, but also reflects on Dunlap’s artistic career after she left the cartooning sphere in the 1990s. Megnath contextualizes the impact of the strip in its time and how its insights still matter to our contemporary moment.
Then, we hear from Rebecca Gordon, one of the editors of a West Coast grassroots newspaper, Lesbian Contradiction (LesCon), which was notable in just how many cartoonists it published, including in five dedicated cartoon issues over the ten years of the newspaper’s existence from 1983-1994. In Brooke Tymoniewicz’s wide-ranging interview with her, which was conducted over Zoom, Gordon shares anecdotes about the publication as a whole, providing insights into how this grassroots format supported the development of cartoonists. As with the previous pieces, scattered throughout are examples of key comics that appeared in the publication, including Gordon’s own work.
Lastly, we jump into the world of self-published zines where cartoonists, who were often young individuals just beginning their artistic careers, innovated and shared comics, particularly in the early 1990s when the riot grrrl and queercore movements embraced zines as an uncensored DIY format. As a teen in the UK, Sina Shamsavari created comics in his own self-published and collaborative zines and also published work in compilation comics zines put together by other cartoonists both in the UK and abroad, including in the US. In this piece based on her conversations with him, Julia Whisenhunt traces the development of his comics across the 1990s and into the 2000s, making visible works that are not easily accessible today since they were independently circulated in small print runs and never recollected by a more major publisher. In recent years, Shamsavari has written scholarship about this period of queer cartooning, recovering the legacy of contemporaneous creators, but it is time that his own work be further recognized.
Interview with Hope Barrett
by Ansley Burtch
Over the few months that I had the pleasure of corresponding with Hope Barrett, I learned why she refers to herself as a “megalomaniac.” She remained impressively busy from the mid-1980s, when she graduated from Curtin University in the UK, and returned to Hong Kong. She interviewed film stars there as a young reporter in the late 1980s—I had the privilege of reading a clipping of one interview she did with Pierce Brosnan as he filmed Noble House in 1985. She published Crisis: Chinatoon Tales in 1991, a political comic anthology on the Tiananmen Square protest and massacre of 1989. She started OH… magazine in 1992, an influential comics magazine, which included artwork and interviews from some of the most important queer artists of the time; and she opened up a comics shop around that time, too. From 2011 to 2015, she self-published nineteen books through her company B Publications. I don’t know if Barrett was obsessed with her own power, but her power certainly becomes clear when one considers all that she accomplished in her life. In November 2022, I conducted an interview with her via email about OH… magazine.
OH… Her Comic Quarterly was the brainchild of Hope Barrett, who created, contributed to, edited, and self-published the comics magazine. It featured stories written by women, many of which contained queer themes. OH… ran from October 1992 to April 1998, during which time twenty-two issues were published. Notable contributors to the magazine included Leanne Franson, Joan Hilty, Roberta Gregory, and later in the publication’s history, when Barrett opened up submissions for men as well, Robert Kirby. Editorial notes throughout appear in square brackets.
Ansley Burtch: Hope, when you created OH…, what was your vision for the magazine? Was there a mission there?
Hope Barrett: So, the short answer would be “No.” There was no mission statement beyond seeing what other cartoonists were working on and interested in contributing. I think I only asked for something different three times. Maybe five… What I did want to establish was a publication that actually paid.
We started with $50 per page, offering two currencies: Canadian for Canadian cartoonists and U.S. dollars for contributors outside of Canada. Unfortunately, these rates had to be reduced over time because Inland Book Distribution filed for Chapter 11 [bankruptcy] right about the time OH… was starting to look for wider circulation, so this meant they took a lot of product, didn’t pay for it, and returned unsold products damaged by cutting them up or punching holes in them. So, again, no revenue, and no opportunity to re-sell the product. It is the most wasteful thing about the publishing industry and why I learned to love comic distributors: with the latter there are no returns and you get paid. All of the onus to sell is on the comic store owner. As someone who had a comic store during OH…’s run, being stuck with inventory that doesn’t sell definitely sucks, but as a publisher I appreciated not having all the expense of content, printing, and shipping returned as waste.
AB: How did you become a comics artist? Was this always what you imagined yourself doing? What led up to it in your life and career?
HB: I think we all start out as cartoonists as children and depending on how much you are encouraged, you continue doing it because it is a moment (hour or day) that gives real comfort and joy. One of the first books I remember treasuring and reading on my own over and over was Hergé’s The Castafiore Emerald (1962) (which I still have). The other was Uderzo and Goscinny’s Asterix the Gladiator (1962). My father probably understood my fascination with comics from the way I would rummage through his Saturday newspaper for the cartoon page. Li’l Abner (1934-1977) was especially beautiful, though the storyline was mainly incoherent to me. I feel flattered that this was the same ‘criticism’ a reader of OH… levelled at Agent Street ^_^. [Agent Street was the titular character in Barrett’s series which appeared in OH…]
Around sixteen [in 1978 or 1979], I decided there were three things that I wanted to be as an adult. In order of priority it was, first, film director (because… the Oscars… and I had recently produced a lip-synced version of Jesus Christ Superstar with a group of boarders, which, after weeks of practice, ended up getting all in the production a neato special supper from our audience of one: the headmistress). Second, famous author (à la Jackie Collins because who needs love when you can be just rich and famous? Interpret that as you will…) Third, cartoonist.
After graduating university [in 1984] and finding no one actually hires people without some work experience, I left the UK for Hong Kong where [I had] family and, fortunately for me, The Hong Kong Standard was hiring recent graduates en masse so they could figure out who to wean out after three months. This ended up being my ‘author’ job. I supplemented my reporter’s income by selling the Managing Editor on a (weekly) comic strip I titled “St. Hilda’s.” While I had managed to get other strip work published previously, Myopia and Joanna [the main characters in “St. Hilda’s,”] actually made real money and so that was something quite amazing to me. The brandy orange sauce on top was being stopped by people in the office who wanted to discuss how Myopia or Joanna made them feel, like they were real.
AB: Which of your works are you the proudest of having created? Are there any you don’t look back on fondly?
HB: Art is the reverse of biology. Your first ‘child’ does not get all the good genes but shows how much there is left to mature and improve. Some of the illustrations for my high school history assignments were better than some of my first ‘comics.’ Most of my favorite works are in my ‘unpublished’ file. I think the pinnacle was “The House of Kwan” (1988) which predates Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Netflix’s Bling Empire (2021) by some three decades. The father’s name was Ellis and now that I think about it: he was built a little like Gomez Addams. I submitted the strip to the Hong Kong Tatler, but it made the editor itchy and scratchy. I reworked one of the characters into a single panel cartoon for Deneuve (now Curve) [a prominent lesbian magazine published in the US].
While ridding myself of files a few years back, I rediscovered some older work that made me smile. I do like the ‘character’ of Cryllex Pane that I created and gifted my Father to promote his plastics business, which I made very annoying but ‘helpful.’ It was interesting to see the idea copied years later in the same newspaper by a different cartoonist and company.
If success is measured by how much money you get paid for doing something, then Spray—inspired by the death of a huge cockroach—goes to the top of the list. It was also a weekly and I managed to get a full page for its short run in the South China Morning Post’s “TV & Entertainment Times”. You wouldn’t think cockroaches could be something people identify with but one co-worker actually confronted me loudly in the office, wanting to know if the storyline was about her marriage, even though the relationship depicted was obviously generic. If a reader connects with your work, is it because you are good or the individual interpreting it is always putting themselves in the center of a story?
[Agent] Street gets on the list because some twenty years on, I am still getting the occasional stranger writing to me to ask for back issues of OH… And you, an entire generation removed from when she was first created, are actually studying her. This makes my heart very full.
AB: What led up to the creation of OH…? How did it differ from the work you had created before that, and was the work you were doing before that, such as St. Hilda’s and Spray, building up to it?
HB: OH… was entirely speculative when the teaser for submissions was first sent out. Neither contributors or readers were a certainty. However, nothing ventured; nothing gained. When three pages arrived in the mail from Joan Hilty featuring the lovelorn Immola (with one day left before the deadline cut off), I knew OH… was going to be something special.
AB: When you first started to publish OH…, why did you make the choice to limit submissions to women?
HB: A year or so before conceiving OH… I had completed the political anthology Crisis: Chinatoon Tales (1991): all of the cartoonists available and willing to contribute were male. I had no problem with that because their eloquence in telling a story without words is exactly what cartooning should be but… at a certain point, you wonder: if I am drawing, surely, there must be others like me out there.
I had of course collected comics by Claire Bretécher, Posy Simmonds, Lynn Johnston, and Cathy Guisewite, as well as Sandra Boynton who made all her characters either cats or hippos.
My own effort to come up with something was given a shot of adrenaline by New Victoria Publishers’ Claudia Lamperti, who offered book publication, pending review of a completed draft. I worked on Tara King for three months (having landed in Canada where I fell head over heels with the city of Victoria and was taking my mother’s advice to cool my ardor by actually seeing what living day-to-day would be like). Since I was working in a vacuum, the manuscript was rejected with no edits offered. The two objections I remember were (a) my characters did not appear to have any money concerns and (b) their living quarters were too clean. Huh. Later, when Naiad’s Barbara Grier made a similar offer upon receiving OH…’s teaser, I just opted to say “Thanks, but no thanks.” [Naiad Press was a publisher of lesbian literature based out of Tallahassee, Florida.]
It’s been many years so I actually don’t remember how I ended up finding the Lesbian Cartoonists’ Network (LCN) but its coordinator, Brandie Erisman (not a cartoonist and now an old friend), was instrumental in getting OH… started. She had the magic list and actively encouraged me to get a flyer together which she would send out. This is how OH… got its American contributors.
AB: You included some notes from one reader (who was a man) in the first few issues begging you to publish his work, which I found hilariously groveling. Those issues also discuss other publications at the time which asked women whether they were lesbians before publishing them. What made you decide not to do the same?
HB: The politically incorrect answer to this is that I felt my job was to assess the art and storyline, not vet who my contributor was sleeping with. Many of OH…’s contributors and readers were still exploring who they wanted to be. Myself included. Why would I limit what readers could discover on this shared journey?
It’s mind-boggling how inclusion has become a huge exercise in who we need to exclude: family who are not one hundred percent supportive—out; people who don’t use the appropriate labels (as if Literature majors really have no idea what ‘they/them’ means)—shamed; people who are not prepared to call themselves gay or lesbian—why not? How can we be inclusive if we deliberately exclude a large sector of the population? How can we have fulfilling relationships if we cannot make peace with the people who nurtured us when we couldn’t care for ourselves? So, as you noted: we let Tom have his voice but when it came to actual content, I got to exercise my editorial and publishing chops. I included work that I normally would not read because it’s always good to be challenged. I would never have read Richard Brautigan’s The Hawkline Monster (1974) if it was not part of my Literature class and I would have missed out on something quite brilliant.
I also simply never received work from the likes of Alison Bechdel or Jennifer Camper. Was really hoping to hear from N. Leigh Dunlap who did Morgan Calabresé: The Movie, but it never happened.
AB: In OH…, your drawings featured on the covers and in your Agent Street series have a distinctive (and beautiful) style. The way you draw the eyes and noses in particular reminds me of drawing styles common in manga. How do you define your own style? Can you name any artists or genres which influence it?
HB: I would say my style is ‘fluid and unfinished.’ Every comic I have read or cartoon I have watched has influenced me to some degree, from Harvey Comics’ Richie Rich to the hilarious anime All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku. I do love drawing eyes because it is the first thing I study when I meet someone new and decide how the conversation will go. Hair is also a lot of fun for me, because it is not rigid. I did go through a phase where I wanted to draw like Ryoichi Ikegami, who illustrated the Crying Freeman series. His art is truly breathtaking. However, I discovered what I already knew: I haven’t the patience to do detailed work. I did have a period where I really enjoyed inking in the evening while listening to late night radio, but that stopped with the arrival of kids and their philosophy on what expensive ink pens truly are for: in the main, instruments to create black splotches on white shirts (mine of course).
Let me close by expressing my appreciation to you, and the University of Florida, for your interest in comics and allowing a whole new generation to discover OH…
Ed. Note: Following an illness, Hope Elizabeth Barrett passed away on March 4, 2023. This interview about her career stands as a tribute to her important work.
Interview with N. Leigh Dunlap
by Britney Megnath
On October 16, 2022, I met with cartoonist N. Leigh Dunlap to speak with her about her comics and artistic career. She is best known for her Morgan Calabrese comic strip, which follows the character of a young, hot-tempered lesbian. Morgan Calabrese appeared in the Washington Blade, the oldest LGBTQ+ newspaper in the country, from 1985-1995. Dunlap’s comics characterized ongoing changes within the queer community and embodied viewpoints centered around LGBTQ+ matters, AIDS, workplace discrimination, and Reagan-era politics. In addition to the strips in the Washington Blade, Dunlap published two books centered around the character of Morgan Calabrese; Morgan Calabrese: The Movie was published in 1987, and the second, Run That Sucker at Six!: the Second Morgan Calabrese Collection, was published in 1989. Her second collection was nominated for the 2nd Lambda Literary Award under the humor category. Dunlap’s cartoons are notable for their use of humor that still incorporates an important political undertone. Her suggestive sketches are open to interpretation and are meant to prompt reactions from the reader. Her cartooning style can be described as minimalist, forcing the reader to more heavily engage with the text. Dunlap’s work is important in that it contributed to the visibility and power of the gay community at the time.
Dunlap’s works have lasting importance in that she worked to depict both homosexual men and women, which is a practice that was not common of the time. This caused some publishing issues, however, as feminist places didn’t want her books because they had gay men. Dunlap expressed that she depicted what was happening in her world. There was a lot to fight against at the time, she explained, and that most of her life has revolved around fighting for something. To her, cartooning was commentary, and most of the time her comics were funny. Dunlap’s character, Morgan, has even been called the “lesbian hero of the 90s.” Reviews of Dunlap’s work have appreciated that her cartoons are able to retain a soft and cutesy element while still addressing politically sensitive issues of the time. She worked to make readers think harder about their own viewpoints on various issues that were politically relevant at the time. In doing so, Dunlap played an important role in stimulating social change.
I was interested in knowing what Dunlap’s favorite artistic sphere is, considering she was involved in so much. She stated that she was always interested in everything, but the thing that she always loved the most was acting. She engaged in it a bit in college and afterwards. She was most committed to cartooning, however. She enjoyed her time working for The Washington Blade very much. Explaining how her time with the magazine began, she stated that she began as a managing editor for Au Courant News Weekly. She started off doing just a couple things for social commentary. The character Morgan Calabrese came to her fully formed, and she began self-syndicating. The first paper to buy it was The Washington Blade. For nine years, she published weekly strips, equating to four strips per month. Along the way, she published some of these strips in books. We spoke about challenges she encountered in publishing. She said when she got the first book published, she still did not know that much. She explained that for small independent publishers, it was hard to get their books into distribution or into stores. This is why she left New Victoria Publishers, which had published her first book. St. Martin’s Press was better established, and she was introduced to it by cartoonist Nicole Hollander. Her two books represent about two to three years of strips.
These days, Dunlap is primarily a portraitist, having laid down her pencil because she felt like she was losing her sense of humor. She also realized that fame and fortune was not her destiny. Instead, she turned to paid graphic design and worked several service jobs. For the past year and a half, her primary focus has been pet portraits.
Overall, one of Dunlap’s main goals was to get people to care about gay characters in cartoons. When people read cartoons during Sunday breakfast, Dunlap wanted them to regard gay characters in the same way that they regard straight people. 40 years ago, she says, it was hard to make progress or persuade people. She knows it is still hard today, but through her works she wished for the LGBTQ+ sphere to be normalized.
Interview with Rebecca Gordon
by Brooke Tymoniewicz
Lesbian Contradiction: A Journal of Irreverent Feminism (1982-1994), also known as LesCon, was a West Coast grassroots periodical taking placing within the context of the Feminist Sex Wars. The publication provided a safe space for female discussion on controversial topics within its content through a mixture of editorial and cartoons. While enrolled in Queer Comics, I first came across LesCon in a list of possible topics to create a Wikipedia entry for. Studying both literature and media, I naturally gravitated towards the publication, and it did not disappoint. I felt LesCon’s relevancy and ability to empower, and developed a keen interest in its execution, content, and context. This curiosity drove me to research, find, and coordinate an interview with one of LesCon’s founders and editors, Rebecca Gordon.
Brooke Tymoniewicz: What is the origin story of Lesbian Contradiction (LesCon)? What brought forth the idea of the periodical? How did you as an editor go about creating the compilation of content?
Rebecca Gordon: Betty Johanna and Jane Meyerding were best friends in Seattle. Jan and I were partners, who had just gotten together in 1979, and the paper started in 1982. So, Jan knew Betty through work that they had done with an organization called the Catholic Worker, which was started by Dorothy Day. And Jan was actually the editor of their newspaper, which used to sell for a penny a copy and was also called the Catholic Worker. She did that for a number of years, and she also traveled around the country and did stories on organizations like the United Farm Workers for the paper. She and Betty had met through pacifist circles. Betty and Janey were antiwar activists up in Seattle. They had both worked on a local lesbian paper, a women’s paper in Seattle for a number of years, so they had that experience. Jan had the Catholic Worker experience. When I lived in Portland, Oregon, I worked for the women’s bookstore there and ran their little newsletter that was called Ragtimes because it came out monthly like being “on the rag.” That’s where I’d done editorial stuff. But it’s not like we went to school to be journalists or anything like that. We were just four women.
Now, to say something about why we made [LesCon] at the time and why the subtitle. So, it’s Lesbian Contradiction: A Journal of Irreverent Feminism, and the paper emerged during the moment of the Sex Wars in the women’s movement. This whole issue that developed within lesbian culture and the women’s movement about what kind of sexual expression was legitimate, was feminist, was appropriate, should be allowed to flourish, should be allowed to be expressed. We were in the process of throwing people out of the feminist movement as if we had all the answers at a time when (which is something I think we said in our first issue) we felt like we were still putting together the questions. So, what we wanted was a space where women could learn to argue with each other to, disagree with each other, without throwing each other out of a movement. At the time in the ‘80s, there was just this sense that there was a risk that the movement was starting to constrain thinking and to think in grooves. And, for me personally, the experience of feminism and what it did is it broke the world wide open for me. And suddenly there was a different way of looking at everything, and I was not ready to have that clamped down and constrained into a little ball. I wanted it to be an entire universe, because I felt like when you took seriously the idea that women matter and that our lives, our human lives, really count, everything was up for grabs. And I didn’t want to put things back in boxes too soon or maybe ever. And so that’s for me what LesCon was about.
BT: Were there any roadblocks that came along the way in pursuing and creating LesCon, such as being in two separate locations, obtaining content, etc.?
RG: Well, we were all working. Jan was in a construction company with other women. They were doing remodeling and jacking up houses and pouring foundations and that kind of stuff. I was working in general office work and then bookkeeping. But, that was in the days when you could do that kind of work under the radar… And in those days rent was cheap enough, even in San Francisco, that you could work part-time or two-thirds time and still have time in your life to do your activism and to do other things. And that just isn’t true anymore. And I look at students that I know now who are graduating with this huge load of debt. And the idea that they would work part-time so they can devote their lives to their political work is just not even conceivable. It was a very different time. But all my life and all of Jan’s life and also [the lives of] Betty and Janey, we have been activists in one way or another and in one fight or another. So, LesCon was kind of an extension of that.
One of the ways that we advertised [LesCon] was we would go to events like Pride or in 1987 there was what was then the biggest civil rights march that had ever happened in the US which was the March on Washington for lesbian and gay rights. That was where the Dyke March was born. It was the night before the big march and we all met at Dupont Circle (I grew up in DC so I knew DC) and marched down, like thousands and thousands of dykes. There were all these gay men on the sides cheering us because of all the support that they had felt from the lesbian community in response to the AIDS crisis. So, we went, and we handed out copies [of LesCon] there.
We would send it for free to people who were out of work, and we would get letters from them saying, “I have a job now so here’s $25,” which was a lot of money in those days. And I think it had a loyal readership. It wasn’t big. I think at the most we would do like 2000 copies a run. And so we were printed on what’s called a web press, which is the kind of press that’s used for newsprint. And basically on a web press, the prints are just getting to be good at about 2000 copies. And what we’d have to do is go to newspapers, like weekly papers, on their off day. And for years we would drive down to Gilroy and do it at the Gilroy Press, and then we found a local printer in San Francisco that would do it. And then in Washington they had to take the ferry with the originals over to, I think, Bremerton, Washington, and there was a printer there. So they’d get on the ferry and go to Bremerton and have it printed and then they come back with, you know, all these tight string bundles of LesCon and mail it out. And the reason we came up with LesCon was because the very first mailing we did actually use the whole name of the paper, Lesbian Contradiction in the return address on the manila envelopes we mailed it in. And we heard back from people that they didn’t necessarily want that arriving at their mailbox for everybody to see. So, we literally sent things out in a plain brown envelope. And we had subscribers all over. We had a subscriber in Bahrain. We had a subscriber in Lebanon, our friend Tina Naccach, who appeared in the very first issue. So we had people in Latin America, and we had a number of subscribers in jails and prisons.
And I remember one day at San Francisco Pride, we were handing out LesCon. And I gave one to this woman, and she said I have to tell you, “I just got out of Alderson Federal Prison, and you can never stop publishing this, because you don’t know how many women see my copy of LesCon and how it gets passed around in the prison.” And that’s the other thing, Janey and Betty had done a lot of work with women in jail and prison and a lot of prisoner support work. So, they were very committed to making sure that it was available to women who were locked up. And occasionally we would get our stuff rejected by prisons. It’s usually because one of the comics was too raunchy and had too much sex in it. There’s one comic I remember in particular by Jacki Randall that’s hilarious (Figure 1). It’s these women who are having sex, and one woman is going down on the other. And her thought balloon shows she is thinking about the mortgage or paying the rent or she’s thinking about the groceries, and she’s thinking about all of this. And then, finally, she’s thinking come on, come on, come on. And, finally, her partner comes and she says, “you know I was right there with you, Babe, the whole time.” Well, that one got rejected by the prisons.
BT: Why did the editorial team choose to have graphics or cartoons be such a large part of this publication?
RG: It was a very conscious decision. Also, like I said, we were very committed to never reproducing an artist’s work except exactly as it was given to us. And I remember one time, there’s a feminist periodical, I’m sure you’ve heard of, off our backs, from Washington, DC. It was basically the newspaper of the radical women’s movement, radical liberation movement. It had a lot of important theoretical articles and it published for years and years. One year, one month off our backs came out and on the cover was a graphic that we had published in the last LesCon. They had taken it, and they had altered the background to it. I mean it wasn’t even the artist’s work (Figure 2). And they had never even asked us. I mean we weren’t copyrighted or anything, but we were furious. We wrote to them, and we said, “How could you do this? How could you…? And you didn’t even, you know, ask the artist’s permission; you didn’t keep the integrity of the artwork; you just reproduced it…” Basically it’s a mashup. It was a mashup before mashups were a thing. And then they wrote back. They apologized, but they said, “You know look we just sort of feel like anything that women are producing, it’s for all of us. And we should be able to use it.” And this is an attitude that did develop later as it became so much easier to take stuff from the Internet using computers. Right, like they had to literally cut it out with an X-Acto knife and put it on a different background. We were absolutely flabbergasted when we saw that. We just could not believe that they had done it. And they at the same time could not believe that we were upset about it. So, it was a really interesting interaction.
But, I’m trying to think about how we first decided to publish comics. I think we just started getting submissions, and then we decided to do an all cartoon or an all graphic issue. We did five cartoon issues. They were really, really popular. The level of professionalism of the comics varied a whole lot. They communicated in a different way than just an article.
One of the other decisions that we made at the same time that we decided we were going to do a lot of artwork was that we weren’t going to publish poetry, and the reason why is we would have been inundated. And so, I just knew that if we ever published poetry how full our mailboxes would be and that we’d never be able to get articles. And getting articles was not easy because women were not used to writing pieces that were not just personal narrative but were actually argument or discussion or exposition in a different way. And one of the things about the comics is that they allowed people who wouldn’t sit down and write an article to express a complex or a funny idea in a way that was really accessible.
One of the first cartoons we ever published was probably Spike Punk Dyke by Michele Lloyd (Figure 3). She was 18 or 19 when we first met her. In the comic Spike has arrived at the bus station in San Francisco and she’s come from a little town. She’s wearing her leather jacket and she got studs on it and the crew cut. And she has to pee, so she goes into the women’s bathroom. And the women say, “You’re in the wrong bathroom.” And she’s like, “I’m a woman.” “No, you’re in the wrong bathroom! The old lady’s right, you’re in the wrong bathroom.” Then, they push her out to the bathroom and across the hall she sees a bathroom labeled “Dykes.” And she’s like, “Oh, I was in the wrong bathroom.” “Welcome to San Francisco, Spike” is what it said. And Michele is incredibly talented, I mean so talented. She did draw Spike Punk Dyke for us a couple of times and some larger cartoons for us like a whole page for our cartoon issues. And I think the fact that her work appeared there encouraged other people to feel like they also wanted to have that as a venue… She’s like an Alison Bechdel that no one has ever really heard of.
BT: Do you believe the Feminist Sex Wars of the late 1970s and early 1980s (feminist debates revolving around issues regarding sexuality and sexual activity) had a direct effect on the content written in your periodical?
RG: Absolutely, I actually drew a cartoon about it (Figure 4). It was like this sexuality scale. It went from vanilla to chocolate or something and there was like boot licking and then ass licking. And I’m like the person is licking the butt of a donkey and the boot was saying, “No, no, it’s the buckle.” Anyway yeah, so yeah, it definitely affected our content. I think in a way that we managed actually not to hurt each other very much. And it was at a time when people were really being hurt.
One of the other things that I want to say about LesCon is that we published a wide range of writers, writers who were professional writers and writers who were really just on the edge of written literacy. And we wanted to make it a space where everybody’s voice could be expressed in drawing or in writing, in a way that was really respectful. So we never changed a comma in somebody’s article. If we had a problem or a question even about spelling. We would go back to the author and say “you know most people spell this word this way. Is it okay if we change it?” And they would write back and say yes. And over and over authors would say, “It’s so important to me how respectfully you treated the work.”
BT: Why did LesCon end up coming to an end in publication?
RG: Why did we end up coming to an end? Right, we were busy. I mean it was the Central America Solidarity Movement and immigrant rights; other political issues. Yeah, we stopped in 1994. It was killed by the 187 campaign. So that’s exactly what happened. So 187 was a ballot proposition passed by California voters to make it illegal at any level of California government to provide services to undocumented immigrants. That meant the public schools. It meant public health. It also would have outlawed bilingual services by government offices. It basically said if you don’t have papers, you can’t get any services in California. Even though the voters passed it, the courts threw most of the measures out as unconstitutional. But Pete Wilson, the Republican who was running for governor at the time, made it the keystone of his campaign. And the ads against it were just horrible. You can find them online. The headline and the voiceover said, “And they just keep coming” and it’s this picture of these waves of dirty brown immigrants coming across the border.
Jan was running the field campaign against 187 in Northern California and I was helping out with it. And so I was working full time and working on the campaign, and I had a full-time job, and we just didn’t have time for LesCon. So, it’s you know, LesCon died, but in the process other things happened. And so, I’m not sad about the ending of it. We had always told each other that we wouldn’t try to resuscitate LesCon with heroic measures. We had a really good run, and we didn’t keep doing it past the point where it was worth doing.
Interview with Sina Shamsavari
By Julia Whisenhunt
Sina Shamsavari, also known as Sina Sparrow and Sina Evil in different communities, has done a lot to further the recognition of queer people in artistic media, through his illustration and painting, but most importantly, in his comics. Shamsavari’s work in the underground queer comics industry was vital to the queer community and contributed to the 1990s queer punk movement in the UK. His comics expressed political and social messages that had themes differing from more mainstream gay and lesbian comics, and normalized being queer during a time when LGBTQ+ people were ostracized and looked down upon. As a self-published author, Shamsavari was able to publish comics without facing the potential censorship of big publishing companies, making his comics able to freely discuss issues important to queer communities.
I had the honor of interviewing Shamsavari, whose email I discovered through researching his Sparrow alias. During our call, he was very informative about his older publications, and answered questions surrounding why he started drawing comics. Shamsavari stated during the interview that he wanted to start publishing comics as an outlet to vent his thoughts and feelings, and was also inspired by other cartoonists like Robert Kirby, who edited the early Strange Looking Exile comics zine (1991-1994) as well as the Boy Trouble comics zine (1994-2000) that Shamsavari contributed comics to. Kirby also published his own autobiographical comics that fulfilled the same purpose as Shamsavari’s work—to normalize queer culture. He also discussed his other inspirations, including feminist cartoonist Trina Robbins, and was very humble about the impact he believed he had on the queer community.
No matter how much Shamsavari tried to humbly downplay his contributions, the fact of the matter is—Shamsavari’s comics were something that brought the queer community together and helped many to feel more comfortable with their sexualities. His 1990s zines, such as Concerned Müthers (1993-1995) and BoyCrazyBoy (1993-1997), helped fellow queer teens and people who were not out feel like there was someone in their corner, and to know that they were not alone in their struggles and problems. His comics made queer issues seem like everyday issues that heterosexual people have, and made queer culture seem not so foreign.
For instance, Concerned Müthers was marketed towards “queer teens and straight mates” and was very influential with the young queer community. Concerned Müthers was a compilation zine (aka a compzine), which assembled of submissions created by members of the queer community. Zines like this served as a tool to bring people together under a united front of comics for and by queer people.
Shamsavari was also noted in the queer community for his most acclaimed, mostly autobiographical comics zine, BoyCrazyBoy, which took a very humorous tone while addressing the real thoughts, troubles, and experiences of a queer man in the 1990s. Each strip has its own humorous message to it, and in its own funny way, held a lot of influence over the queer community. His comics legitimized being queer in the 1990s and normalized having crushes on people of the same sex by showing the everyday circumstances of a normal, queer man. He looked and acted just like everyone else, except for liking people of the same sex.
Starting in the late 1990s, Shamsavari published a queer superhero series called Atomic Love under the name Sina Evil. It gained a lot of traction in the queer superhero comic community for being bold, openly sexual, and proud. It empowered the community, for queer superheroes years ago were few and far in-between.
Previously suppressed out of fear of being beaten, and not able to express their identities through actions, clothing, and more, the queer community turned to underground queer punk zines that empowered and help them to construct a space of sexual expression. Comics, such as Shamsavari’s, helped the queer community to articulate identities different from the heterosexual norm. This new representation defeated misconceptions about queer people and relationships by showing autobiographical comic, not of a queer outlier, but of a normal person who just happened to be queer. His work showed that queer people were just like anyone else, which was especially important during the 1990s and 2000s when being queer was not widely accepted.
Conclusion: Teaching Queer Comics Today
by Margaret Galvan
All together, these interviews illuminate the rich world of queer cartooning that deserves greater critical attention. In recent years, there’s been an uptick of scholarship focused on LGBTQ+ comics, including in the “Queer about Comics” issue of American Literature (2018) and the “Lesbian Content and Queer Female Characters in Comics” issue of Journal of Lesbian Studies (2018) and most recently in The LGBTQ+ Comics Studies Reader (2022). All of these publications help recover the legacy of creators who have been overlooked and give contemporaneous creators their due. In my own scholarship, which has been published in these volumes and elsewhere, I draw upon grassroots queer and queer-adjacent archives to recover the memory of queer cartoonists in the hopes that it will inspire new generations of artists. I started developing my own collection to support both research and teaching and be able to share with my students what I had first seen in the archives. Recent projects of queer digitization have opened up the field of possibilities even further by making accessible the grassroots publishing spaces where queer cartoonists flourished. Comics proliferate across major digitization projects like the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP), Reveal Digital’s Independent Voices, and Gale’s Archives of Sexuality, and also in smaller digitization projects focused on individual grassroots publications. These digitized sources show students how the comics operated in communities and gives them a better sense of the role these comics played in representing queer lives.