Beyond Bechdel: A Brief History of Queer Comics

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

We here at Panels are taking some much needed time off; in the meantime, we’re revisiting some favorite old posts from the last 6 months! We’ll see you back on July 11 with all new posts for your enjoyment.

This post originally ran on May 5, 2016.
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We’re in the midst of a golden era for queer comics. Just today, I’ve read a one-shot about wearing the hijab as a genderfluid Muslim, the latest instalment of a webcomic about queer 1950s teen gangs, and a kids’ comic about gay space rocks, all without moving from my desk. However, you wouldn’t know it from looking at the big publishers, where LGBTQ+ folks remain as underrepresented as ever, both as creators and characters.

Queer comics have always run parallel to the mainstream, typically published in gay newspapers and magazines or underground zines. This means that, beyond the work of those few creators that have managed to break out into the mainstream consciousness like Alison Bechdel or Ralf König, the story of the queer comics scene is largely unknown. However, the queer comics we read today are standing on the shoulders of forty years of fascinating history.

Tom of Finland XXL

Arguably, Touko Laaksonen – better known as Tom of Finland – was the first gay cartoonist. His homoerotic fetish art was sold on the underground market across Europe in the mid-forties, and reached America in the pages of Physique Pictorial in 1957. The loosening of America’s obscenity laws in sixties allowed Laaksonen’s work to become both more explicit and widely shared, earning the attention of mainstream gay communities and, in later years, the straight art world. He died in 1991, but remains the most influential creator of gay erotica in the world – his work has even been featured on a set of stamps.

Queer comics were, however, born in earnest in the late sixties. The gay newspapers and magazines that flourished alongside the gay rights movement sparked by the Stonewall riots of 1969 brought gag strips like Joe Johnson’s Miss Thing and Big Dick, Sean’s Gayer Than Strange and A. Jay’s Harry Chess: That Man From A.U.N.T.I.E. At the same time in San Fransisco, the underground comix scene was exploding. Free of the restrictions of the Comics Code, creators could explore sexuality and other adult themes in a way impossible in the mainstream.

The early comix scene was dominated by straight men, whose work was often couched in misogyny and homophobia. The most prominent exception was Trina Robbins, who assembled It Ain’t Me, Babe Comix – the first all-female comix anthology – in 1970; two years later, she joined with a number of other women creators to create the Wimmen’s Comix collective. It was for the anthology’s first issue that Robbins produced “Sandy Comes Out”, a landmark in being a comic about a lesbian that was neither derogatory or erotic.

Wimmen's Comix Issue 7

However, Robbins was herself straight. Mary Wings was inspired to create her own comic with an authentic lesbian voice as a response, and in 1973 created Come Out Comix using the photocopier in the basement of a local radical women’s karate school. More LGBTQ+ created comix like Gay Heartthrobs and Dynamite Damsels followed. The success of these books led underground publisher Kitchen Sink Press to release Gay Comix #1 in 1980, an anthology series that would form the backbone of the LGBTQ+ comics scene until its end in 1998.

Throughout the seventies, gay newspapers’ queer comic strips had been growing away from their initial gag-a-day format, and they saw their height in the early eighties. Rupert Kinnard’s Cathartic Comics featured comics’ first continuing queer African-American characters, Howard Cruse’s Wendel gave comics its first ongoing, intimate look at a gay couple and Alison Bechdel’s iconic Dykes to Watch Out For began in 1983.

Dykes to Watch Out For - Alison Bechdel

1983 also saw the first cases of HIV/AIDS, followed shortly by a fierce homophobic backlash. Queer comics of the eighties document a community fighting for survival –sometimes with the medium itself as a weapon, in benefit comics like Strip AIDS and Strip AIDS USA. The era is also a testament to the decade’s punk and DIY ethos, seeing a glut of queer zines and mini-comics produced on now freely-available photocopiers. Almost anyone could be a comics creator, and that included LGBTQ+ folk outside mainstream gay and lesbian culture.

Queercore (initially known as ‘homocore’) launched with the zine J.D.s in 1985, a movement that aligned itself with third-wave feminism and the riot grrrl scene by rejecting the gender binary and assimilation. Throughout the rest of the eighties and nineties, self-published comics would continue to reject mainstream gay culture as they explored complex queer identities in books like Rebel Girl and Boy Trouble. It was during this period that explicitly gay and lesbian characters began to appear in mainstream superhero comics, with Northstar coming out as gay in 1992’s Alpha Flight #106.

Northstar Coming Out

The rise of webcomics and increasing interest in queer stories in the early 2000s allowed the queer comics world to expand even further. The work of trans creators such as Tristan Crane and Gina Kamentsky increasingly began to be recognised, and webcomics like Dylan Edwards’ The Outfield looked at mainstream topics from a queer point of view. In 2003, the non-profit Prism Comics was created to support LGBTQ+ comics, creators and readers. Three years later, this success was only underlined by the literary world embracing Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home. Queer comics had made it.

In 2016, queer comics are bigger than they’ve ever been. Queer creators and characters are achieving unprecedented success in both mainstream and alternative comics. We have queer publishing houses and queer comic-cons. The queer comics scene is flourishing, with social media and crowdfunding sites making it easier than ever for LGBTQ+ creators to publish anything from their first comic to professional standard graphic novels.

With this success has come a realisation of the importance of recognising queer comics history. However, with many of even the most influential queer comics out of print, largely forgotten or otherwise inaccessible, this can often be difficult. Luckily, Fantagraphics have been doing great work over the past five years collecting and republishing historical queer comics, recently releasing The Complete Wimmen’s Comix and the invaluable collection No Straight Lines. And in Berlin, the Schwules Museum* is currently hosting ‘SuperQueeroes – Our LGBTI* Comic Book Heroes and Heroines’, Europe’s first exhibition entirely focused on queer comics.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of queer comics here; I haven’t even touched on the long and storied history of queer erotica, manga or European comics. But as we continue to fight for better LGBTQ+ representation in comics, it’s good to remember that we’ve always been here – and we always will be.

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