A history of gay comics highlights this month’s graphic novels and art-comics

A history of gay comics highlights this month’s graphic novels and art-comics

Because homosexuality was itself an underground culture for centuries (and still is, to a significant extent), gay and lesbian artists have often gravitated to the avant-garde, especially in cinema, where the likes of the Kuchar brothers, Jack Smith, and Kenneth Anger fused their aesthetic with their sexuality. The comics world was slower to open up to gay self-expression, but given how aggressively the first wave of underground cartoonists were busting taboos about sex and drugs, it was only a matter of time before gay artists took advantage of the freedom of the art form, and of the scene. Thanks to the landmark Kitchen Sink series Gay Comix (which debuted in 1980), and the work of skilled, passionate cartoonists like Howard Cruse, Roberta Gregory, Alison Bechdel, and Maurice Vellekoop, the “adult” section of the better comic-book shops in the ’80s and ’90s became as progressive and inclusive in their way as the fine-art world, the theater, and arthouse cinemas.

The Justin Hall-edited compendium No Straight Lines: Four Decades Of Queer Comics (Fantagraphics) attempts the near-impossible task of distilling the modern history of gay, lesbian, and transgendered cartoonists into just over 300 pages, and succeeds by sticking with what a book like this actually can do: serving as what Hall calls “a signpost pointing the way to a unique artistic underground.” Following a heartfelt intro by The Matrix co-director Lana Wachowski (herself transgendered), Hall pens a concise but useful overview of LGBTQ involvement in comics, providing both a general timeline and a survey of subgenres, from gag cartoons to autobiography to fantasy fiction. Then the book gets to the comics themselves, emphasizing shorter pieces arranged in a rough chronology that begins in the era when homosexuals feared criminal prosecution, proceeds through periods of political activism and AIDS, and brings readers up to a more tolerant present-day.

But No Straight Lines isn’t mean to be some “hooray for us” once-over-lightly. Just as pioneering gay underground filmmakers integrated their personalities into their style, so gay alternative cartoonists have worked to make “queer comics” into that unique artistic underground that Hall describes. What makes these stories of a piece isn’t just the common subjects—growing up, coming out, cruising, falling in love—but also the occasional strains of camp, and the raw eroticism. For young people drawn to the LGBTQ community, these comics have been and continue to be like a handbook, helping to foster a sense of belonging while bringing newcomers up to speed. They serve much the same function for straight readers, introducing a world with its own codes—not just socially, but artistically.

Also…

Flemish artist Brecht Evens’ new graphic novel is called The Making Of (Drawn And Quarterly), though it could just as easily share the title of Evens’ previous book: The Wrong Place. The main character in The Making Of is an artist named Peterson, who gets invited to be the featured guest at a small-town arts festival, and quickly discovers that he’s the only real professional amid a motley crew of hobbyists and crazy folk. But Evens doesn’t empathize with Peterson—at least not in the sense of making his hero a likable sad-sack, as some storytellers might have. Evens’ Peterson is a snob and an opportunist who takes advantage of his position as the festival’s star attraction to hit on women and order around his fellow artists, diverting them from their own work so they can help him build a giant papier-mâché garden gnome. The Making Of is a funny book, with rich characters: the gregarious local booster, the meek hanger-on, and even Peterson himself, with his particular way of sounding down-to-earth and enthusiastic while he’s treating other people like rubes. What remains most magnificent about Evens’ work is that he matches his keen insights into human relationships with some of the most beautiful and innovative comics art of the past decade. Evens has his fundamental cartooning skills down. His framing, his sense of perspective, his facial expressions, and all of those other basics are squarely in place. But his open page designs and use of blotchy colors—almost like each figure is an especially fine finger-painting—are unique, and a pleasure to behold. Evens’ talent and vision are right in line; so far, he’s wasting neither. … 

Brecht Evens belongs to a long line of innovative Eurocomics artists, one of whom is Italian Lorenzo Mattotti, who treats each panel like a painting, to be parsed independent of the words inside and around them. In the graphic novel The Crackle Of The Frost (Fantagraphics), the words are by Jorge Zentner, an Argentina-born psychotherapist and writer who here tells a first-person, stream-of-consciousness story about a man named Samuel flying back to confront his pregnant ex-girlfriend. During the journey, Samuel reads a book about an ancient warrior, and his own feelings about commitments and obligations become intertwined with those old legends of conquest, until everything about Samuel’s trip begins to feel epic and fraught with import. The Crackle Of The Frost feels a lot like Ben Katchor’s elliptical comics, mixed with oblique European art films. It’s not an easy book, in other words; it takes some patience and persistence to penetrate. But as always, Mattotti’s art makes this less of a chore. The Crackle Of The Frost has its own atmosphere, which is pleasant to breathe in, even though the people within it are ever-anxious. … 

Famed illustrator Seymour Chwast makes another foray into adapting classic literature in comic-book form with The Odyssey (Bloomsbury USA), rendering Homer’s text in straightforward, even casual language, and drawing it in a style halfway between Golden Age sci-fi comics and a fourth-grade art project. As a reading experience, Chwast’s Odyssey comes up a little short; he turns Homer’s winding, epic tale into a series of quickly dispatched plot points, missing the actual adventure. But as a piece of design, this book is as charming and clever as nearly everything else Chwast touches. The Flash Gordon trappings suit Homer well. In Chwast’s hands, The Odyssey resembles a comic strip etched across the top of a Greek temple. … 

It’s hard not to compare Zeina Abirached’s graphic memoir A Game For Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return (Lerner/Graphic Universe) to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, since Abirached too writes and draws about growing up in a war-torn, locked-down stretch of the Middle East—Beirut, Lebanon, in this case. But the Persepolis comparison doesn’t work against A Game Of Swallows, because while Abirached has a similar style to Satrapi—heavy use of blacks, with cartoony figures carved out in curvy white lines—her approach to the story is quite different. She uses a typical night in Beirut in 1984 as a framework to describe the partitioning of the city, the up-and-down communication, the bombing, and the way her family and neighbors would gather in one room in their apartment building to drink, play games, tell stories, and pass the time. Abirached captures both the constant fear and the sense of community that defined her youth, emphasizing the latter in her warm recollections of the people who helped raise her, and getting across the latter in unusual page designs that show how the togetherness inside that one safe room was fragmented out in the streets. … 

Writer Juan Díaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido’s John Blacksad is just over a decade old, and already feels like a timeless comics creation after only four books. After compiling the first three albums into one big collection, Dark Horse is now offering the fourth—Blacksad: A Silent Hell—as its own book, supplemented by a couple of two-pagers and about 50 pages of Guarnido’s sketches and comments. The main 54-page story follows the cat-eared private detective Blacksad and his weasel pal Weekly to late-’50s New Orleans, where they investigate the disappearance of a drug-addicted jazz musician. The story is classic noir, with goons and shady bosses hounding the heroes, while Canales lays on the hardboiled dialogue. But it’s Guarnido’s art that elevates A Silent Hell. A one-time animator, Guarnido gives his panels a sort of glow, like light through celluloid; and while the mystery in A Silent Hell is strong gumshoe fare, what really stands out are the sun-dappled French Quarter courtyards and hazy nightclubs where Blacksad works the case. … 

One of the best comic-book movie adaptations, the Archie Goodwin-penned, Walter Simonson-drawn Alien: The Illustrated Story (Titan) was first published by Heavy Metal Communications in 1979, back in the days when Heavy Metal magazine was one of the few sources for comics aimed at adults. Goodwin adapted Dan O’Bannon’s script almost verbatim, and Simonson was one of the most exciting artists in comics circa 1979, so he did his longtime collaborator Goodwin’s work justice. But at the time, in the United States at least, a 64-page softcover comic-book story with graphic violence and profanity—not to mention subtle, painterly coloring—was all but unheard of. Alien: The Illustrated Story was another step on the road to legitimizing the graphic novel, and like Alien itself, it holds up well as both a sci-fi thriller and a snapshot of how the genre was maturing at the end of the ’70s. … 

When Dave Stevens died in 2008 at the age of 52, comics fans lamented not just the loss of a great artist, but that the creator of The Rocketeer didn’t finish more stories in his lifetime. Stevens focused more on covers, posters, and commissions, and outside of the Rocketeer comics—which aren’t that large in number, either—he didn’t leave behind much narrative work. The hardcover art book Dave Stevens: Covers & Stories (IDW) fills in a lot of the gaps in Stevens’ professional life. Editor Scott Dunbier, designer Serban Cristescu, and their team of archivists have assembled not just a good-sized chunk of Stevens’ finished drawings and comics, but also sketches and layouts. The result is a real tribute to Stevens’ artistry, and his ability to imbue even a single cover image with the excitement and drama of a full story. And though there’s still not much in the way of actual comics here—just a couple of completed Stevens works and some examples of pages he worked on with other artists—the few full-fledged stories are on par with The Rocketeer, combining movie-star faces and archetypal pulp scenarios in ways that show them through Stevens’ remarkable eyes. … 

Taking an accessible approach to a complicated subject, writer Michael Goodwin and artist Dan E. Burr’s Economix: How Our Economy Works (And Doesn’t Work) (Abrams ComicArts) attempts to encapsulate the entire history of economics, touching on all the major theories as a way of explaining how everything got so disordered. The book has a clear (and undisguised) agenda, but it also has a cogent argument to make, and it helps that Goodwin is so comprehensive, connecting the roots of the current economic crisis to multiple trends in thought and behavior. And Burr’s cartooning is very much in the spirit of other explanatory comics, like the work of Scott McCloud and Larry Gonick. This is a lively, entertaining book, and not entirely despairing about the mess the world faces—because again, historically, change happens.

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