The second weekend in May, I attended the Toronto Comic Arts Festival for the third time. For those who are unfamiliar, TCAF is one of the largest alternative comics festivals in the world. Each year over 20,000 people attend to buy and sell graphic novels, mini-comics, and zines. TCAF is also, in my opinion, one of the most incidentally queer events I’ve ever gone to.
There were several panels focusing on Queer representation in comics, and many more where queer creators were involved, including myself. The question arose a few times: What is it about comics that attracts so many queer people?
The evidence was all around me. Even in the few years I had attended since 2015 I had seen a palpable rise in the number of queer creators present and spotlighted in what is essentially a crucible for the indie comics scene as a whole. In earlier days, there used to be a section of the second floor of the event space that was playfully referred to as “Gay-soline Alley” (after Gasoline Alley
) where queer creators could be found. Now there are so many that is no longer possible or necessary. TCAF is richly seasoned with queerness.
[T]here are as many stories as there are human beings willing to tell them.
So I began to look at myself: What drew me to comics? I have always been a quiet person. In most group settings I have to repeat myself to be heard. Growing up, I was constantly being told to “speak up” and “stop mumbling” by family members which incidentally, had the opposite effect. I quit speaking. I stopped trying to be heard.
My parents were very conservative. They strictly limited what I was allowed to watch or look at on the Internet and whom I could hang out with outside of school. I often turned to reading and drawing as a way to spend my time. My sketchbook and library card were my best friends. I loved drawing. When I was drawing, no one could swoop in and overwhelm me or judge me. It was just me, being myself. It was peaceful. I felt a similar way when reading. When I discovered that my library stocked graphic novels, my life was changed forever.
Comics felt different, special. I would see stories told without the perceived stuffiness of the books I was required to read in school. They were irreverent and didn’t shy away from self-deprecation. The language they used was colloquial, the stories ranging from mundane to fantastic. But, above all, they were often the stories of outcasts, underdogs, and introverts.
I grew up in rural Kansas. I always felt like I was a little weird. In comics, I found folks who also felt that way, and they could write entire books about it and they were published. The first comic that really made me want to start writing for myself was Ghost World
by Daniel Clowes. I saw myself in Enid, a creative person who was being abandoned by her norm-seeking best friend, Rebecca. I also saw something essentially queer in her exclusive friendship with Rebecca. Enid didn’t like boys and got jealous of anything Rebecca did without her. This story felt like it could have been about me at that time, even if it was subtext.
When I started creating works for myself I found the thing I wanted to write about the most was my identity. My senior year of high school, I drew an allegorical comic that has long since been lost that was about the stages of disbelief, grief, fear, and acceptance I went through coming to terms with my sexuality. It won a Scholastic Art and Writing award in 2009. It was a super strange story. A sort of Inferno
-esque narrative. I’m not sure if anyone but me knew what it was about, but it helped me. I came out officially later that year. At that point in time drawing and writing were the only place I felt safe being myself. My sketchbook comics felt securely intimate and expansively infinite at once. Comics helped me find my sense of humor, a way to communicate with friends, and it helped me come to terms with being gay. I still view comics as an essential part of how I process the world.
Comics were the place I could talk and people wanted to listen. Comics were how I could finally speak up and be heard not only by others, but by myself. I could say the things I needed to, feelings I’d kept hidden. I’ve heard of comics being referred to as therapeutic for many. Kabi Nagata’s comic My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness
is a great example of comics as medicine.
Nothing is too gay for comics. Comics implores you to make it gayer.
But what of comics as a platform for storytelling? Why are so many queer voices represented here and not elsewhere? In my opinion, comics are one of the only forms of popular media that hold the creator and the audience in equal esteem. Popular media seems to be obsessed with optimal audience reception. Risks seem to be taken only after they have been market tested into oblivion. Unfortunately, this often means downplaying queer experience, making us the gay best friend and calling it representation, thus forcing queer viewers into the dark realms of subtext, metanarrative, and headcanon. It is my opinion that “optimal consumption” is not anyone’s heart-of-hearts creative vision. It often involves skewing the truth, or retelling the same narrative over and over because it has worked in the past. It is built to keep the outcome as profitable as possible without any perceived content risks, real or otherwise.
This roadblock is not found in comics publishing. Comics understands there are as many stories as there are human beings willing to tell them. On an individual level, a person can create whatever work they please in the medium because there is a low barrier for entry. All you need is time and a pen. Once the work is completed and released via the internet, or a xerox machine, the voracious comics audience will find it and places like TCAF will give you a table for 20K+ people to peruse. I went for the first time when I was in undergrad with only three self-published zines on my table and people actually bought them. Comics are the least elitist and exclusionary art form and its audience is more hungry for new voices and perspectives than any other media I’ve encountered. This makes it a perfect incubator for queer creators to thrive. Nothing is too gay for comics. Comics implores you to make it gayer.
In regards to traditional publishing, there are more and more indie publishers popping up each year, and it is likely one of them will vibe with you and want to publish your story. Comics publishing is often fearless and understands that a work is a sort of ambassador that gains traction only once it is allowed to exist. Small comics publishers all the way up to major ones publish queer stories. For instance, First Second, an imprint of Macmillan (one of the “Big 5”), had several YA works with queer themes debut at TCAF this year, including Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me
by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, Bloom
by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau, and The Breakaways
by Cathy C. Johnson. Penguin Random House recently announced an imprint called Random House Graphic headed by longtime queer comics publishing champion, Gina Gagliano. I hope this year is only the tip of the iceberg. Comics publishers, even massive ones, see the value in an individual’s vision and experiences not given space in other popular media. They also understand that the audience will see it too.
A commonly quoted altruism says that the universal is achieved through the particular and comics is living proof of that. Like cells reforming the body every seven years, change is made from the minute to the massive. The scene is always looking forward, looking to what is next. And now with more and more films being made based on graphic novels, this openness may change other forms of media as well.
To me, queerness is not only an identity, it is also a willingness to reinvent the wheel so that you can get your cart up and moving. It is often as defined by an openness for courageous experimentation and reimagining as much as anything else. Comics are not just pictures in boxes with gags anymore. They have been reinventing themselves too, time and time again for the better. They can be as rich in meaning as literature and as beautiful and challenging as any work of fine art. It is no wonder that these two should meet and proliferate compelling fruit.
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Kelsey Wroten is Brooklyn-based illustrator and cartoonist. Her graphic novel Cannonball
is available now through Uncivilized Books. She has appeared in many publications including The New Yorker
, The New York Times
, Vice, and many more.