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Review of The LGBTQ+ Comics Studies Reader eds. Alison Halsall and Jonathan Warren

By Paul Noguerol, University of Connecticut

Halsall, Alison, and Jonathan Warren, editors. The LGBTQ+ Comics Studies Reader: Critical Openings, Future Directions. University Press of Mississippi, 2022.

The LGBTQ+ Comics Studies Reader, a recent addition to comics scholarship, aims to create an intersectional framework for LGBTQ+ comics criticism. This field is an often unrecognized one, evidence of which is the fact that an online search only provides one other relevant result in this subarea of research: Scott and Fawaz’s Queer about Comics award-winning special issue of American Literature magazine, an excellent forerunner for Halsall and Warren’s collection. Both books utilize Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s now-classic formulation of queerness as an “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” (8) as a starting point. However, each of these collections uses a different approach to further develop what an “open mesh” might look like in praxis. Unlike Queer About Comics, which mostly explored theoretical and experimental possibilities of reading comics through a queer lens, The LGBTQ+ Comics Studies Reader focuses on promoting a diversified, multidisciplinary approach to LGBTQ+ comics. It questions how these comics provide space for representation, self-discovery, activism, and community building. Notably, it expands the traditional definition of queerness, emphasizing a global perspective and a range of connections among queer lived experiences.

For that reason, between its articles and interviews, the contributors to Halsall and Warren’s collection span a wide range of works from different origins. They provide an overview of the history of American queer comics, but also include Canadian, Indian and Middle-Eastern works, intersections between French comics and Japanese manga, as well as German-language productions. Remarkably, they even include passages that make visible for American academia some artistic expressions that are not commonly addressed, like Two Spirit Indigenous-Queer viewpoints or Spanish-language queer comic books. 

Those intersectional and diverse contributions align with the book’s updated conception of queerness that addresses how different queer experiences and notions around the world can intersect and connect thematically. Thus, these articles open the possibility of an expansion of research on LGBTQ+ comics to countries, cultures, and markets unexplored by American academia, and allow us to delve into different ways of being queer that are not often addressed. The book acts as an introduction for newcomers, opening discussions and presenting the “future directions” that are indicated in the title. However, it is also a valuable contribution for more experienced scholars and researchers in the field, since its articles bring to light a corpus of the most relevant LGBTQ+ comics in America and other countries as well as highlight characteristics worthy of further analysis. 

The LGBTQ+ Comics Studies Reader is also paradigmatic in that it brings together and calls attention towards various research subfields, such as graphic medicine, collective memory, comics pedagogy and the relation between comics and activism through a thematic and comparative analysis of queer comics. It touches on topics related to the queer experience in comics (such as AIDS, queer pregnancy, BDSM and spirituality), and, in addition, it applies a theoretical framework for in-depth analyses of LGBTQ+ comics in general. The selection of the articles is narrow and well-devised. All works draw to a greater or lesser extent from the approach of cultural studies, especially from the subfield of Queer Studies that focuses on representation of queer identity in art. 

Although this book covers the appropriation or revalorization of mainstream comic books through a queer lens and praises the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in graphic narratives, the selection is primarily centered on the spread and analysis of “comics that presaged, emerged from, and were influenced by the underground and alternative comics scenes of the mid-1960s and after, their critical openings, their provocative current iterations, and their future directions” (4). Even when it recognizes valuable popular works such as Gabby Riveras’s take on Afro-Caribbean superhero America Chavez, the editors pointed out that the mainstream comic book’s “profit-driven” narratives of the major companies have taken decades to include openly queer characters. 

For that reason, the collection celebrates the alternative scene, emphasizing how LGBTQ+ and queer positive authors have flourished for decades without being constrained by the censorship of the Comics Code, the requirements of corporate style manuals, or the need to make business profits. Mainstream comics are the subject of only one of the articles, “Reading Comics Queerly,” by Jonathan Warren. Warren offers a personal account of his self-discovery of sexuality through non explicitly queer comics and a reflection about queer potentialities in early cartoons that are capable of being read as LGBTQ+ representations even when they are not created by LGBTQ authors, like Crazy Kat, Little Orphan Annie, and Archie.

However, even when most of the articles are about underground or niche productions, the value of mainstream comics is addressed in the book’s introduction, which takes into account the importance of comic books in the spread of queer literacy, in particular the discovery of self-knowing queer experiences of the readers. This shows how the accessibility and availability of mainstream comics provided for years spaces for representation and self-identification for LGBTQ+ and queer readers when alternative comics were not easy to reach and when LGBTQ+ authors did not have enough opportunities to tell their stories.

The importance of reading comics queerly, even when they are not created by queer authors, is also addressed in the conversation with Ramzi Fawaz that takes place in Chapter 5. It is an appealing interview where Fawaz explains his idea of queer comics not as reflections of reality but as creations that expand the reader’s imagination about desire and intimacy, thereby allowing the possibility of constituting alternative nonhegemonic social relations.

One of the most notable aspects of this anthology is its structure. The book is divided into four sections, each one including a complete introduction about the area of interest and a brief summary of the articles that comprise it. Sections are separated from one another by interviews between a scholar and an author or reproductions of mostly previously unpublished works by the artists who contributed to this volume: Alison Bechdel, Jennifer Camper, and Justin Hall. The placement of the articles alongside informal conversations and comic book examples allows the reader to establish links between the different materials included.

The first section, “Queer in Common,” explores how LGBTQ+ comics empower queer communities by visualizing their experiences, fostering connections, and forming strong alliances in the face of recent increases in homophobic and reactionary discourse. 

The most notable chapter in this section, by Michelle Ann Abate, addresses how rage-fueled activism within the LGBTQ+ liberation movements connects different experiences of oppression under a similar emotion of fury. It examines how American lesbian cartoonists in the 1990s used cartoon rage as a means of expressing their stance against injustice. This opposition was embodied by angry lesbian heroines such as Diane DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan and Roberta Gregory’s Bitchy Butch. By doing so, these works displace the comic’s register from the historical characterization as funny works and reposition it as platforms for rage. She connects these figures to the Greco-Roman mythological figure of the Erinyes, in order to embrace the importance of anger in LGBTQ+ communities since the beginning of the movement in the Stonewall riots. 

In the second section, titled “Global Crossings and Intersections,” the analysis centers on international works. The included articles focused on how regional nuances impact the visibility and recognition of queer communities across diverse cultures and also highlight the emergence of a transnational network of LGBTQ+ comic readers. This section transitions from a localized exploration to a more comparative and transnational approach in its final article. Notably, it includes Hochreiter, Rauchenbacher, and Serle’s research on German-language LGBTQ+ comics. Drawing on Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of the “third space,” the authors explore how comics create an interactive realm between mainstream discourse, archival contexts, power dynamics, gender binaries, and other dichotomies. For instance, Hochreiter, Rauchenbacher, and Serle delve into the German-Argentine graphic novel Fußnoten by Nacha Vollenweider, where formal and structural elements reflect the intersectional identity of the protagonist, an Argentine lesbian residing in Hamburg.

But the chapter that expresses more explicitly the idea of transnational networks is Edmond (Edo) Ernest Dit Alban’s study of the interaction between Japanese gay erotic manga and the French underground scene in the spread of European-Japanese magazine Dokkun in Tokyo and Paris. It is an account of the relationship between these two dissimilar markets: the non-official but massively distributed gay fanzine scene in Japan and the limited but mainstream circulation in France. Furthermore, the article explores the relationship between two contrasting cultures: the impact of conservative Japanese tradition on manga, particularly in its subversion through erotic expressions, and the liberal experimentation found in European alternative comics. The article approaches the interactions between two divergent cultural systems and highlights the impact of these dynamics of international trans-local circulation of gay magazines in the so-called LGBTQ+ boom in Japan in the late 2010s which introduced a new vocabulary of social rights and equality into amateur gay manga.

The third section of the book, titled “Resilience: Becoming Queer,” delves into the concept of resilience within the LGBTQ+ experience. Rather than merely normalizing queerness and coming out, the chapters celebrate the fulfillment and pride that constitute the core of queer resistance. The section begins with a conversation between renowned scholar Hillary Chute and Justin Hall. Hall is a comics intellectual, porn actor, activist, editor of the influential anthology “No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Gay Comics,” and curator of the world’s first LGBTQ+ comics exhibition at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. In their informal dialogue, they discuss the significance of teaching comics in universities, including comics with pornographic content. They also highlight underrated artists and works, such as Howard Cruise’s groundbreaking graphic novel “Stuck Rubber Baby,” which originated from Gay Comix magazine.

Matthew Cheney’s opening chapter analyzes Cruise’s work beyond “Stuck Rubber Baby,” exploring “Wendel,” a serialized story published in Gay Comix magazine. Both narratives indirectly address the struggles faced by gay individuals during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1990s. Cheney emphasizes the regenerative power of active solidarity within graphic storytelling, reinforcing the importance of comics as a catalyst for queer activism and the creation of spaces for LGBTQ+ solidarity.

The last section, “Seen/Scene: Discovery, Visibility, Community,” is about how specific and shared queer comics appearing in similar contexts and with similar characteristics contribute to shaping particular queer scenes. All the articles cover a corpus of two or more primary sources that share geographical origin and distribution modes. The introduction recalls Allison Bechdel and her most acclaimed work Fun Home, and presents a variety of articles that inspect works that help make queerness visible in a more theoretically loaded vein. remus jackson’s article, for instance, examines two transmasculine autobiographical comic self-published zines, higu rose’s Tittychop Boobslash and Victor Martins’s You don’t have to be afraid of me. jackson focuses on how those works take advantage of the comics form to represent new marginalized masculinities not in conflict with hegemonic masculinity but rather with cisgender identity constructions. This process reveals new forms of queerness that exist beyond the traditional binary notions of transgenderism, which often view gender transition as a fixed stage. It identifies a form of masculinity that neither conforms to nor rejects traditional definitions, allowing it to be visually expressive without needing strict definition.

The LGBTQ+ Comics Studies Reader is an indispensable and necessary book that recognizes the effort of queer scholars and artists in different career stages and different places, thereby constituting a tribute to the history of LGBTQ+ comics and scholarship in America and around the world.  It also opens up space for further research about an expanding field that is a vital form of resistance against the growth of conservative and anti-civil right movements worldwide. The book is a starting point for a broader exploration of LGBTQ+ comics and it leaves an open door for further scholarship in areas like graphic medicine, community building and collective memory. Hopefully, the particularly international scope of this book sets a strong precedent for further exploration of spaces like Latin America, Africa, and similarly unexplored areas of comic research outside the United States. 

 

Works Cited

Scott, Darieck, and Ramzi Fawaz. “Queer about Comics.” American Literature, vol. 90, no. 2, June 2018. 

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Duke University Press, 1993.

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