Exploring the Polity of Comics: Queer Kinship in Gay Comix

Shawn Van Sluys
Illustrations: Ken Krimstein
February 18, 2021

The twenty-fifth piece in our Polity of Literature series:

Few readers enjoy their agency in a polity of literature more completely than does the child holding a comic book. Left alone with “childish things,” the comic book reader is unpoliced and unimproved. You can see it in the glare of resistance they offer, looking out from behind their colourful pages to cast a skeptical glance at the adult question, “what are you reading?” The answer—nothing—is childhood’s mantra of freedom. If the child’s fancy is for mass-market comics, they enter a world shared by millions of other readers who also care passionately, while differing wildly in the sense they make of their favourite stories and characters. The sense that they make is their own, and it will last a lifetime.

As a kid, the editor of ArtsEverywhere, Shawn Van Sluys, read Archie comics, and he made of Jughead, Archie’s wistful and easy-going, asexual friend, a richly imagined boyhood crush. As Shawn matured into his gay teenhood, he brought Jughead along with him, a life-saving fantasy in the homophobic world of Calvinist rural Alberta, where Shawn grew up.

A few months ago Shawn came across a complete collection of a circa 1980s “underground comix” called Gay Comix. Nothing like it had ever reached him in boyhood Alberta, but he recognized at once what it must have meant for the men, whom he calls his “gay ancestry,” to have used these comics as a polity of literature in which to engage the collective questions of gay identity. In this contribution to the Polity of Literature series, Shawn looks at the special features the comics form brings to politics—from speech bubbles to the “mask” of comic faces to the indeterminate empty spaces between panels—and the uses various North American countercultures have made of them. His essay is accompanied by an op-ed, “Gay Ancestry,” and both are illustrated by Ken Krimstein.


Jughead

Comics as a whole were never a big part of my youth. They were incongruous with a Dutch Calvinist rural sensibility and religiosity—God was the only superhero; Satan, the only villain. This was part of a broader prohibitive culture that characterized the religious, rural community in which I grew up: one must live in the world but not be of the world. The restrictions extended to most music other than hymns and Heintje; most books other than the Bible and Robinson Crusoe; most radio other than some conservative talk-shows. Movies, television, and video-games were non-starters. Archie comics were the exception.

To my prepubescent self in the late 1980s, the tattered copies of ‘70s Archie comics were a portal to worlds beyond the prairies of southern Alberta. I longed to have the Riverdale gang’s freedoms—the public school, the malt shop, the baseball field, and especially, Archie’s jalopy. For one whose youth was characterized by prohibitions and restrictions, the comics were charged with the spark of erotic possibility to which such freedoms point. Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe was the most romantic place I could imagine for a first date—to be seen unabashedly in public with winks of approval from Pop Tate, sharing one milkshake with two straws with another boy.

Jughead was the embodiment of this fantasy for me. He lived by his own rules, shirking authority, and with his adorable shrug made delinquency a virtue. With his exceptional intelligence and casual interest in art, history, and literature, even his slothfulness was sexy. But most compelling to me was his detachment from—even repudiation of—romantic or sexual interests, making him the ideal fantasy friend. I could project onto this boyish tabula rasa all of my own desires, most of which were elaborate extensions of the incomplete friendships I had with boys at my school. Those friends, with their sporty, farmboy machismo-in-training, always fell short of offering the intimacy that I longed for—an intimacy that would shed the learned performativity of straight maturation we all knew was key to survival in that community.

I combed through Archie comics for details that would add layers of legitimacy to my interior world. The “S” on Jughead’s sweatshirt was obviously a declaration of his secret passion for me. I scanned every scene and committed them to memory, imagining that in this spot we’d have a wonderful picnic of burgers; and over there we’d sit in the high branches and commiserate about the drudgery of farm labour and the crude masculinity of the church men. As puberty overwhelmed my innocuous fantasies of picnics and shared milkshakes, Jughead my tranquil confidante slowly gave way to Jughead the object of my queer sexual awakening.

How did a comics character, rather than any other literary character, come to mean so much to me? Was it simply the absence of other options or was there something about the comics form itself that opened my erotic attention? And what did my reading of Archie comics, at such a formative age, teach me about a polity of literature?

I count comics as literature—and Archie comics, in particular, as having literary qualities. Mine is not a judgment call about their artistic merit so much as a recognition that new worlds take shape within their pages, and we each can make of them what we will. The founding essay of the Polity of Literature series, “Potatoes or Rice?”, defines literature as “that writing for which every reader has equal authority to make its meanings.” The essay’s anonymous author goes on to say that “Reading offers me contexts and details that frame my belonging, or open up new relationships at the intersection of the world and my imagination.” This was precisely my experience on encountering Archie comics. Entering the polity of literature sited in the pages of Archie, I coloured the world in the lavender hues of my own queerness-in-waiting. This would be my first participation in a polity of literature.

Projecting childhood fantasies onto comics characters is not unusual; for some, this fantasy continues through their entire life. Superheroes are the frequent subject of erotic fixation and self-identification—the muscles bulging out of spandex tights; the ethics of saving everybody, even the villain (even the homos!); the homosocial camaraderie between men; and the secret nature of their undercover, superhero lives. In 2018, the journal American Literature dedicated an entire issue to queer readings of comics. Editors Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz wrote:

…Comics function, to borrow from Sara Ahmed (2006), as queer orientation devices, productively directing readers toward deviant bodies that refuse to be fixed in one image or frame, toward new desires for fantasy worlds that rebel against the constraints of everyday life, and toward new kinds of counterpublic affiliations among readers who identify with the queer, deviant, maladjusted form called comics.”[1]

The deviance of reading Jughead, first as intimate friend to my prepubescent self and, eventually, as my queer lover, wasn’t lost on me. I never imagined that others might be reading Jughead the same way, so it was always surprising later in life when I shared this with other men who either admitted to having found solidarity and companionship in the same projections or could at least identify with the need for it. Finding a world outside my immediate condition was my first understanding of the possibilities inherent in the “counterpublic affiliations among readers.”

Cover art for issue one of "Gay Comix"

Gay Comix #1 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1981) Cover illustration by Rand Holmes; edited by Howard Cruse. Mary Wings, a contributor to Gay Comix #1 and a founder of Wimmen’s Comix, wrote a letter to the editor, which was published in Issue #3. She expresses her dismay at the “genitally oriented” cover art for Issue #1, despite assurances that Gay Comix would be more than just another sexualized comic for gay men. Spotting the drawing of a woman in a red dress in the background of the illustration, she wrote: “Also, any picture, however tiny, of a woman with enormous, impossible breasts that defy gravity is upsetting. It’s so unnecessary, which makes its inclusion insulting.” The art was drawn by Rand Holmes, a straight artist who was part of the overly sexualized, male-dominated realm of comix alongside artists like Robert Crumb, whose mysogynistic work has been much criticized.

Gay Comix

A few months ago, I acquired a complete, archival collection of Gay Comix, an underground series that produced 25 issues of 36 to 48 pages each from 1981 to 1998. My interest was piqued by my discovery[2] that a straight man, Denis Kitchen (founder of Kitchen Sink Press in Wisconsin), sought out a then-closeted comics artist, Howard Cruse, to edit the series. Apparently, Kitchen recognized Cruse’s gay sensibility in the autobiographical suggestiveness of his ongoing cartoon character, Headrack, in Cruse’s regular strip, Barefootz.[3]

At that time, 1980, there were very few, if any, publicly out gay cartoonists. They feared that their careers would be cancelled. Even artists who were publishing in underground comix made their living by drawing for mainstream publishers, such as DC Comics and Marvel; and the underground publishing world, too, could be intolerant of homosexuality. Details of Cruse’s life are scant, but I was intrigued to find bits that mirrored my experience as an unsettled youth in a repressive rural community. As the son of a preacher in Alabama, Cruse’s sexuality was a guarded secret—something he recounts at length in his most celebrated graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby (1995).

“Lesbians and Gay Men Put It On Paper!”—so launched the first issue of Gay Comix, in 1981. Cruse’s editorial note further declared:

The subject is Being Gay. Each artist speaks for himself or herself. No one speaks for any mythical ‘average’ homosexual. No one speaks for the Gay Movement. No one is required to be ‘politically correct’…. In drawing this book, we gay cartoonists would like to affirm that we are here.[4]

Furthermore, Gay Comix was to be a place to find cultural information about gay life; it was not intentionally a tool to advance Gay Liberation, but a space to “express our humanness.” While Cruse saw this as an overtly apolitical editorial stance, he in fact set out a clear framework for a polity sited in Gay Comix.

A rainbow of colours emanate from an open copy of Gay Comix

The series emerged in the latter stages of the underground comix movement, coinciding with a broader shift toward autobiographical and realist narratives.[5] The comics form in Anglo-American literature first evolved from the sociopolitical, satirical cartoons of the late 1800s, blossoming into the superhero comics of the early 20th century. After a decline in readership during and after the Second World War, superheroes resurged in the late 1950s, answered by an underground comix movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, returning to the work of satire but with a hefty dollop of drugs, sex, and transgressive politics, rendered in a raw, raunchy aesthetic. R. Crumb was its exemplary genius. Gay Comix was born in the tailwinds of that exuberant free-for-all, before helping to birth the 1990s “alternative comics” scene that gained broader respect and recognition from the mainstream comics community. The series even changed its name to Gay Comics with Issue #15, in Spring, 1992—a bittersweet token of acceptance that Cruse recounted in a revealing interview a few months before his death in December 2019: “I was never that much into the whole Marvel/DC/superhero form. It seemed artificial to me to pretend that you were engaging in real-world, serious issues when everybody’s wearing costumes and flying through the air and knocking buildings down.”[6] Years later, Jennifer Camper, published regularly in Gay Comix, dubbed Cruse the “Godfather of Queer Comics.”[7]

The origin of Gay Comix also coincided with the first tremors of the HIV/AIDS crisis that would ravage the gay community in the next two decades. As early as the fourth issue in 1984, AIDS emerged as one of the central preoccupations of the series, as the gay community struggled to comprehend its devastation, stigmatization, betrayals, and loss. These dark, engaged comix are a far cry from the Archie of my youth—but they all affirmed the reader’s profane citizenship in a shared space of everyday belonging. Gay Comix sited a humane, egalitarian politics.

Cover art for issue ten of "Gay Comix"

Gay Comix #10 (Bob Ross, Spring 1987) Cover illustration by Peter Keane.

The Comics Code Authority as Human Technique

In North America, staple-bound comic books first became popular in the 1920s, revolutionizing the comics form. From the few panels in a syndicated newspaper strip, comics grew to become multi-page stories with layered plots and complex characters. Tarzan, Batman, and Superman even made it into bound books. The appetite for escapist literature grew in the 1930s, and numerous new superheroes were born. Storylines embraced the fantastical, the dark underworld, and mystical forces, alongside some satirical critique of the socio-political upheavals of the period. That momentum, however, was matched by a growing popular distrust of the medium, accusations of unseriousness, and its denigration as an agent of corruption for innocent, vulnerable children.

In 1954 Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist, published Seduction of the Innocent, a pseudo-scientific study of the psychological and sociological effects of comic books, blaming comics for no less than juvenile delinquency, homosexuality, slothfulness, socialism, un-Americanism, Fascism, anarchism, and other “social rot.” Wertham combined his own textual and visual analysis of the comics (a sort-of New Critical “close reading”)[8] with his largely discredited methodologies of child psychiatry. He also drew on anecdotes of superhero erotic fantasies (especially involving Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman) described by his homosexual male and female patients during therapy sessions. Furthermore, Bart Beaty writes, “Wertham suggested that identification, the emotional aspect of reading, was corrupted by an ongoing confusion in most crime comics between the hero and the villain.”[9] Wertham’s book struck a nerve with parents who were already suspicious of comic books and saw them as a worthless pastime at best and the devil’s instrument at worst. Reacting to public outrage, Senate inquiries in the U.S. and Canada quickly led to a condemnation of the unregulated comics industry, which responded with the creation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 1954.

The CCA was an industry self-regulation scheme to censor comics content. The Comics Magazine Association of America—presided over by John Goldwater, the editor and co-publisher of Archie Comics[10]—drafted the code and enforced it. Besides banning graphic depictions of gore, violence, horror, sexual innuendo, pornography, vampires, zombies, and werewolves, the CCA also banned images and stories that undermined state authority, whether the police, the military, or elected officials. It required “good” to succeed over “evil”—for righteousness, virtue, and morality to vanquish depravity, wickedness, and lasciviousness. Adherence to the code was voluntary, but advertisers boycotted non-compliant publishers; many distributors wouldn’t carry the titles if they didn’t have the CCA’s seal of approval; and comic book stores wouldn’t stock them. Advertising and distribution, of course, were vital to the economic viability of the comics industry.

From the 1970s to the early 2000s, the CCA gradually loosened restrictions, for example allowing some violence. Vampires and werewolves were permitted if they were depicted in the spirit of their literary predecessors, such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Most comics publishers, including Marvel and DC Comics, stopped submitting their books to the CCA by 2001. The only major publisher that continues to adhere to the code, even if they don’t submit their books for official approval, is Archie Comics.

Potatoes or Rice?”, the founding essay in the Polity of Literature series, borrowed a useful concept from Jacques Ellul, a French theologian and sociologist—what Ellul called “human technique.” Ellul describes the ways that expertise, administered through a technocratic state, gradually becomes absorbed into everyday routine, creating norms we carry internally, habits deemed necessary and desirable for the exercise of citizenship within a state. Ellul cites standardized education and psychological counselling as examples. These “human techniques” help bind communities, rendering a sense of belonging in a group through shared norms. Yet, the author writes, “techniques are all problem-based. That is, they begin by identifying a problem which technique can ‘solve’” —and they end by perpetuating the reenactment of the “problem” by inscribing all of us into the drama of “solving” it. The Comics Code Authority is such a technique.

The state, responding to a perceived outcry, identified the problem: the suspected moral potency and corrupting influence of comics. It codified that problem through documentation—albeit sham research[11]—and gave it a veneer of legitimacy through public inquiry. The proposed solution was a form of self-censorship that used established market forces (sell comics or die) to arbitrate public sensibility, corruptibility, and delinquency. The production of all comics became concerned, first and foremost, with appeasing the CCA. The CCA was widely accepted as the arbiter of what should and should not be read; of what could threaten the stability of the state; and of what might and might not fuel a moral decrepitude that, in the charged Cold War atmosphere of the late 1950s, threatened to lay waste to North America’s capitalist and democratic experiments.

As “Potatoes or Rice?” points out, “technique is never a solution to a problem: it is the baroque preservation of whatever problem the technique was putatively meant to solve.” Dr. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent created a problem where none existed. He convincingly used technique—including a misguided psychiatric analysis of children and adults who were seen to be immoral, criminal, or deviant—to imbue comic books with an influencing power for which there had never been any evidence. But the persistence of the CCA for more than 60 years ossified a belief within conservative society that today continues to sabre-rattle at the margins.

As a coda to this history, the intellectual property rights to the Comics Code Authority now are owned by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, established by Denis Kitchen to protect First Amendment rights. Their mandate reads, “We are the first line of defense when authorities intimidate individuals or businesses about the comics they read, make, buy or sell.”[12] A just end to an illegitimate technique.

Scriptural Reading

The assumptions that underlie Dr. Wertham’s alarmist view of comics’ deleterious effect can be traced to what Michel de Certeau (see PoL #22) calls a scriptural system, wherein the reader is asked to passively absorb the meanings that an authoritative writer has scripted. The Bible—the “Holy Scripture” that contains “God’s Word”—is read this way in many branches of Christianity, including the fundamentalist Calvinism with which I grew up. It is no surprise, then, that religious conservatives took up Wertham’s claims without question—they were well-practised in what de Certeau called “scriptural imperialism.” De Certeau disavows the view held by Wertham, that “the public is passive, ‘informed’, processed, marked, and has no historical role.”[13] Furthermore de Certeau writes,

…The idea of producing a society by a “scriptural” system has continued to have as its corollary the conviction that although the public is more or less resistant, it is moulded by (verbal or iconic) writing, that it becomes similar to what it receives, and that it is imprinted by and like the text which is imposed on it.[14]

The “human technique” of the Comics Code Authority—and obscenity laws, to some degree—is founded on the fallacious belief that reading moulds, passively, the conformist individual—and, more nefariously, that the act of reading so-called smut will induce readers to vagrancy, prurience, sexual deviance, violence, and other insatiable appetites. Obscenity laws in Canada and the U.S. go so far as to test for obscenity based on “contemporary community standards.”[15] Scripture comes in many forms.

But many arenas of reading seem to have escaped the determinist foundations of the Comics Code Authority. De Certeau explains how, by pointing to oral communication as a precursor to reading comprehension. In the beginning, de Certeau asserts, readers learn how to decipher the graph (learn the alphabet) and then we learn how to read (comprehend meaning).

From the child to the scientist, reading is preceded and made possible by oral communication, which constitutes the multifarious “authority” that texts almost never cite. It is as though the construction of meanings, which takes the form of an expectation (waiting for something) or an anticipation (making hypotheses) linked to an oral transmission, was the initial block of stone that the decoding of graphic materials progressively sculpted, invalidated, verified, detailed, in order to make way for acts of reading. The graph only shapes and carves the anticipation.[16]

Readers of comics revel in this first education, enjoying a personal alphabet of codes and signals that we pick up in childhood. The cartoon’s speech bubble is a perfect expression of this process. Some of us even read the bubbles out loud, in voices. Reading comics returns us to oral experience, inviting us to enact the dialogue, and thereby activate the political space of writing that is rooted in its oral precedent.

The Life and Death of Underground Comix

In the wake of Dr. Wertham’s comics scare, parents were eager to dispatch the slim, cheaply printed books to the dustbin, as evidence of childish obsessions.[17] Disappointed adult readers found solace in the resurgence of superhero comics in the 1960s (albeit with the Comics Code Authority seal emblazoned on the cover). The many readers who found these desiccated offerings unsatisfying became a nascent, huge audience, thirsty for the groundswell of comics publishing—known as “underground comix”—that would arise in the mid-‘60s to early ‘70s.

“Comix” and “underground comix” meant comics that did not adhere to CCA proscriptions. However, more than just a reaction to censorship by the CCA, comix were a distinct, emerging cultural form. In the 1960s, underground newspapers covering the Civil Rights movement, Gay Liberation, women’s rights and second-wave Feminism, and anti-war activism, were sold in headshops, on street corners, at political clubs, and in alternative bookstores. Most were home to political satire cartoons and jauntily sardonic comics. The Georgia Straight, in Vancouver, was Canada’s most popular underground paper (founded by Dan McLeod, Stan Persky, and others in 1967), and remains a leading source for topics related to drug use, women’s rights, and leftist politics. (Among its occasional features are lists of the best places for outdoor sex in Vancouver.)[18] All-Canadian Beaver Comix (1973) was published by The Georgia Straight, featuring cover art by Rand Holmes, who also illustrated the cover of Gay Comix #1. Cartoonists found a welcome home for their feral graphics in the underground papers, and by the late 1960s, readers’ appetites for the new single-strip comics opened up a market for comix books.

Cover art for issue one of "All Canadian Beaver Comix"

All Canadian Beaver Comix #1 (Georgia Straight, 1973) Cover illustration by Canadian cartoonist, Rand Holmes, who also illustrated the first cover of Gay Comix #1.

While Frank Stack’s The Adventures of Jesus (1962-64) is often acknowledged as the first underground comix, the first widely-read comix anthology (and the first to use the terminal “x”) was Zap Comix #1, created in 1968 by R. Crumb. For six years after that, four small publishers dominated comix production with an avalanche of staple-bound comix: Print Mint, Rip Off Press, Last Gasp (all in San Francisco), and Kitchen Sink Press (Wisconsin). They produced anthologies such as Bijou Funnies, Yellow Dog, Young Lust, Tits ’n’ Clits, Bizarre Sex, Dope Comix, Snarf, It Ain’t Me, Babe, and Wimmen’s Comix (1972-92); and solo-artist features such as Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (Justin Green), Fritz the Cat (R. Crumb), The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (Gilbert Shelton), Feds ’n’ Heads (G. Shelton), Vilany and Vickedness (Art Spiegelman), and The Bunch’s Power Pak Comics (Aline Kominsky-Crumb).

In Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, James Danky and Denis Kitchen explain the explosive growth of the genre from 1967 to 1973:

Unfettered language, graphic depictions of sex, depictions and championing of recreational drug use, and the sometimes extreme violence in comix were alluring liberations for underground artists and readers alike, but it was also the literate choice of words, the unrestricted range of topics, and the wildly idiosyncratic drawing styles that truly distinguished and distanced comix from their predecessors and their contemporary distant cousins on the newsstands.[19]

By 1974, however, several factors had a chilling effect on the underground comix industry. Demand for comix had begun to decline just as publishers were significantly ramping up the number of titles they put out each year. Many went bankrupt. Denis Kitchen attributes this sudden decline to the end of American engagement in the Vietnam War—and the end of the antiwar movement—causing the dominoes of underground culture to fall.[20]

A second factor attacked the comix makers more directly.[21] In 1970 a lower court in New York ruled against R. Crumb’s Zap Comix, finding it in violation of obscenity law. That ruling was upheld in1973 by an appellate court. Alarms went off in the comix publishing community. Three months later the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling and established the Miller Test to determine an obscenity threshold. Ominously, the test criteria left obscenity to be evaluated by “contemporary community standards,” enforced via state laws based on whether or not the work “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”[22] Essentially, the U.S. Supreme Court devolved the definition of obscenity to local authorities who could arbitrarily apply their tests, seize goods, and lay charges. In most states, enforcers would evaluate whether or not the material was intended for “prurient interest;” if the work was intended to satisfy “excessive sexual desire,” it was determined obscene—a subjective task at best! Whereas previously the underground comix had mostly avoided legal questions of obscenity, the Miller Test now made them a target. For cash-starved comic book publishers, these risks had a truly chilling effect.

Robert Crumb liked to remind people that cartoons are “only lines on paper”—he frequently wrote this on the back cover of his titles. The lines he drew were not only sexist, but also racist, violent, and cruel. In this Crumb was not the exception, but among the most skilled exemplars of the comix aesthetic of his time. For example, one of his drawings features a gleeful man lifting an impossibly large-breasted woman by her neck and thrusting her up and down on his enormous hard-on. His depiction of Black women was especially offensive, exaggerating their body shape, emphasizing sexual appetite, and placing them in demeaning roles. In one he drew a Black female slave in Africa, with a white man on safari riding along on her buttocks as if she were a camel.[23] Like it or loathe it, the misogynistic bent of most underground comix surely opened up space for a more progressive alternative. Women who protested these depictions might be told they didn’t have a sense of humour. Gay men might be faced with the reality that unchecked hetero-patriarchal power had congealed not only in the halls of state and corporate authority, but also in the countercultural movements of the day. But their outrage and indignation breathed new life into Feminist struggles and those of Gay Liberation.

As part of second wave Feminism, bookstores began to pop up across North America as places for political organizing and education. By the early ‘70s, bookstores such as Antigone (Tucson, AZ, est. 1973) and Amazon Bookstore Cooperative (Minneapolis, est. 1970) had fast growing circles of women involved in their political organizing. A vast network of feminist infrastructure became known as the Women in Print movement for its support of women’s literary projects.[24] Self-sustaining feminist and queer women’s efforts established an activist presence alongside that of Gay Liberation. Gay bookstores, too, proliferated in the ‘70s, with John Mitzel’s Calamus bookshop in Boston and Jearld Moldenhauer’s Glad Day in Toronto leading the way. The web of interconnected centres of activity became a new avenue of distribution for feminist and gay comic books—sometimes through sales, but often passed hand-to-hand at meetings and readings, such as those by Pat Parker, Angela Davis, and Audre Lord.

In her account of the origins of Wimmen’s Comix in 1972, Trina Robbins attributes its enthusiastic reception in part to a growing reaction against the male-dominated, misogynistic traits of the earlier comix undergrounds.[25] The anti-establishment iconoclasm of the early comix had set the stage for Wimmen’s Comix to exist, but first, taste and politics had to change. With the original comix in decline, publishers found new markets among those active in a progressive politics against the “traditional family values” of the Moral Majority (from 1976 to 1988). This context gave rise to comix about feminism and Gay Liberation, chief among them Wimmen’s Comix (1972-92) and Gay Comix (1981-1998), which were aligned closely with each other.

Cover art for issue one of "Wimmen's Comix"

Wimmen’s Comix #1 (1972).

“The Subject is Being Gay”

Gay Comix was the first comix to centre the everyday lives of gay people, rather than the pornographic lives of muscle studs and bottom-boy twinks (as found in Larry Fuller’s earlier Gay Heartthrobs, 1972-1981). Wimmen’s Comix also experimented with more nuanced takes on everyday experience, with increasing success as the mentorship of Trina Robbins, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Lee Marrs, and others, brought a new generation of comix artists to maturity. In Projections, Jared Gardner credits Wimmen’s Comix with innovating the “personal comix narrative,” a form that blossomed in the graphic novels and memoirs that flourished in the 1990s and into this century.[26] Robbins’ work inspired Cruse’s editorial direction for Gay Comix from the very start. As Cruse wrote, “The subject is Being Gay. Each artist speaks for himself or herself.” The stories are relatable, inviting the reader to laugh with recognition.[27] Gay Comix and Wimmen’s Comix followed parallel publishing trajectories into the ‘90s with many lesbian cartoonists publishing in both.

Cover art for issue three of "Gay Heart Throbs"

Gay Heartthrobs #3 (Inkwell, Summer 1981) Cover illustration by Larry Fuller.

Jared Gardner reminds us that comics have unique capacities. Unlike the “I” of prose, which collapses narrator and subject into one, the space between image and text in drawn comics, “allows the autographer [see Gillian Whitlock’s concept of “autography” as self-drawing, or graphic autobiography.[28]] to be both victim of the trauma and its detached observer.”[29] Autography, then, shifts from a practice of self-revelation toward a collective enterprise. Other features of the comics form also favour collective enterprise, the plurality necessary for politics: the use of panels; the non-specificity of cartoon faces (which, unlike photographs, could be anyone’s face); and the physical presence of the artist in the line-making.

The space between the panels (or windows) of a comic is called the “gutter.” This is the place where the reader’s imagination fills in the narrative blanks from one panel to the next, establishing coherence. Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, offers a useful illustration: in the first panel we see a man with a gun; in the second panel we see a body on the ground and smoke wafting from the gun’s barrel. The reader doesn’t see the gunshot or the body fall, but we close the gap between the panels in our imagination—as McCloud says, we, the readers, shoot the gun. We “mentally construct a continuous, unified reality.”[30] This is called “closure.” It requires a deliberate act by the reader who participates in the action with all her senses. It is by this same mechanism that the reader closes the gaps between the artist’s autography and her own lived experience, fulfilling the collective enterprise beyond mere self-revelation.

Furthermore, the pared-down features of cartoon faces enable us to see ourselves in the characters. McCloud explains that comics’ special capacities for reader-identification gives them an out-sized presence in popular culture: “The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled…an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it!”[31] A key device of the cartoonist, he explains, is to draw the background in more vivid detail than the characters: “One set of lines to see. Another set of lines to be.”[32] The more realistic the facial features, the more readily we other the experience, reading it scripturally or passively, as de Certeau would say, rather than as a collective story in which we play a part.

Finally, the artist’s hand is present on every page of comics. Unlike written texts, which are predominantly typewritten and published in any number of standard fonts, the line-making of comics places the artists’ physicality at the centre of our reading. The artist is there with us, her autography visible and undeniable in both narrative and line-making. Lynda Barry, whose understanding of line is masterful, hints at another dimension of the polity of literature present in comics: “What if the way kids draw—that kind of line that we call ‘childish’—what if that is what a line looks like when someone is having an experience by hand?”[33] The primal immediacy and physicality of experience that the artist expresses in line is shared by the reader. “Consider the drawing as a side effect of something else: a certain state of mind that comes when we gaze with open attention,” writes Barry.[34] De Certeau alludes to this too when he refers to the practice of writing as a “walk” on the “nowhere” of a “blank page.”[35] Or in McCloud’s terminology, it is the intersection of Language and Reality on the Picture Plane.[36]

Autobiography and Reader Participation

I wonder who the readers of Gay Comix were. When new issues arrived, fresh on the stands in gay bookstores and in anonymous brown envelopes to private P.O. boxes, who laid hands on them? As I read the complete archive in sequence, I imagine readers growing up with the comic books, finding worlds within the pages, both familiar and exotic, relatable and distant.

I imagine a young man who, like me or Howard Cruse, shed the religious conservatism of his youth to arrive at college and find an inner circle with whom to live life freely. A friend takes him to a gathering of Gay Liberation activists where he happens upon a copy of Gay Comix #1 lying on the coffee table.

I imagine a portly middle manager of a cardboard company, whose subscription to Gay Comix arrives at his secret P.O. box in rural Saskatchewan. He likes the leather daddy stories and builds up the courage to order a made-to-measure harness, even if he has no public place to wear it.

I imagine a young woman whose boyfriend pressures her to marry. She reads Wimmen’s Comix and Gay Comix at the feminist bookstore in downtown Toronto during her coffee breaks. She pulls out her own sketchbook at times, but won’t share that with anybody.

I imagine an artist whose family has abandoned him upon hearing of his hospitalization with AIDS complications. His lover brings him copies of Gay Comix to distract from the pain and boredom with a few laughs.

Excerpt from “Stick in the Mud” by Lee Marrs (1980) in Gay Comix #1 (1981).

I imagine them reading Lee Marrs’ “Stick in the Mud” (1980), the first comic to appear in Issue #1 of Gay Comix. In her opening lines, Marrs invites the reader to consider her experience: “Some people are destined to be the avant garde of society—hip; with it; far out; in the know; pacesetters on the cutting edge of life! I was always a Stick in the Mud.” A young girl grows up, becomes the prankster mastermind of her high school, dabbles in covert lesbian sex, meets Jack, gets married, divorces, falls in love with a few women who leave her, and then meets Carol. Oh, Carol! In the closing panel of the eight-page story, she and Carol—now middle-aged women—sit in their rocking chairs on the front porch, knitting, and chatting about spending their tax refund. “Life may not be perfect, by my final breakthrough to assertiveness has made me a part of the crowd at last. A crowd of two.”

Excerpt from “Billy Goes Out” by Howard Cruse (1980) in Gay Comix #1 (1981).

I imagine them reading “Billy Goes Out” (1980) by Howard Cruse. Young Billy lives a dull life, but his imagination is vivid. As he gets ready to go clubbing, his mother calls to tell him that his uncle died. Much of the narrative takes place in thought bubbles, in which Billy remembers his uncle’s homophobic invectives. All evening at the club his mind runs through images from the past, even as he turns down potential one-night stands. Having struck-out by night’s end, he ends up at the Grease Gun sex club for some anonymous and unsatisfying release. Back home, regretting his loneliness, he gets into bed and turns off his lamp. His last thought is of his uncle lying in his coffin, saying “Your aunt Mo and I were married for 38 years, Billy, and a lot of it was shit on wheels—but by god, I’ve got somebody to cry at my funeral…”

I imagine them chuckling at Joe Sinardi’s “Mallory: Duck with a Difference” (1981). A duck with sartorial taste enters a night club filled with roosters: “Hmmph! Never fails! Friday again—and the place is full of chicken!!” Of course, the lingo speaks to gay men for whom “chicken” at one point in the evolution of queer language became synonymous with boyish young men.

Five panel comic of a duck trying on different outfits.

Excerpt from “Mallory: Duck with a Difference” by Joe Sinardi (1981) in Gay Comix #2 (1982).

Closure: making something out of nothing

I savoured the pleasure of research during the weeks of writing this essay. I dove deeply into the world of Gay Comix and the history of the undergrounds. I read dozens of graphic novels and memoirs—from Art Spiegelman’s MAUS (1980-1991) to Ken Krimstein’s The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt (2018) and Jason Lutes’ Berlin (2020); from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2007) to Julie Maroh’s Body Music (2017); from Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby (1995) to Chris Ware’s Building Stories (2012). The legacy of the comix, manifest in these works, is the story of an art form that’s found a solid footing within the literary establishment while remaining committed to the experimentation that defined the underground comix of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The American polymath Guy Davenport, who identified first as an illustrator and second as a writer, said in a 1996 collection of his drawings:

Writing and drawing, distinct as they are, must converge in their root-system in the brain. By the time they are being done they retain their origin. They are both making the creation of something out of nothing. Writing is done with words (bringing all the senses, together with memory, into play), dictionaries, notebooks, pencils, a typewriter. The ground is silence, or what silence there is in this world.[37]

This ground of silence is akin to what de Certeau called the “blank page,” a revolutionary space for invention upon which a polity of literature is enacted by writer and reader. Davenport’s exceedingly fine cross-hatching (which he said took him one hour per square inch to draw) and Lynda Barry’s “childish” line-making exist in the same realm of open attention that is the foundation for making something out of nothing. When those lines on a page are then made public, each reader—every profane citizen—validates an egalitarian belonging to the polity arising from what was once silence, a blank page. Scott McCloud wrote, “The dance of the visible and invisible is at the very heart of comics, through the power of closure. Creator and reader are partners in the invisible creating something out of nothing, time and time again.”[38]

Childish fantasy and queer fabulation breathed life into the counterpublics that formed for me within the pages of Archie and Gay Comix. I read them now—as I imagine readers did when the ink was fresh—with erotic attention that gives form to the invisible, and recognition to the lines drawn on a blank page. From Jughead, my first queer pal, to the lines of history drawn in Gay Comix, the polity of literature is where I find my belonging in queer kinship.


Recommended Reading

Graphic Novels:

  • Howard Cruse, Stuck Rubber Baby (1995; reissued by First Second Books, 2020)
  • Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (First Mariner Books, 2007)
  • Julie Maroh, Body Music (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017) – originally published in French

Comics Anthologies:

  • The Complete Wimmen’s Comix, collected in two volumes (Fantagraphics Books, 2016)
  • QU33R, edited by Rob Kirby (Northwest Press, 2014)
  • No Straight Lines: four decades of queer comics, edited by Justin Hall (Fantagraphics Books, 2013)
  • What’s Wrong? Explicit Graphic Interpretations Against Censorship, edited by Robin Fisher (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002)
  • This Is Serious: Canadian Indie Comics, exhibition catalogue, curated by Alana Traficante and Joe Allmann (Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2020)

Comics Studies

  • Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (William Morrow, 1993)
  • Lynda Barry: What It Is (2008), Syllabus (2014), and Making Comics (2019) (Drawn & Quarterly)
  • Jared Gardner, Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling (Stanford University Press, 2012)
  • The Canadian Alternative: Cartoonists, Comics, and Graphic Novels, edited by Dominick Grace and Eric Hoffman (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)
  • Bart Beaty, Comics versus Art (University of Toronto Press, 2012)
  • Bart Beaty, Twelve-Cent Archie (Rutgers University Press, 2015)

All books listed remain in print and can be ordered from your local independent bookstore.


Endnotes

[1] Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz, “Introduction: Queer About Comics” in American Literature, Volume 90, Number 2, Duke University Press, June 2018, 203.

[2] Ryan Cahill, “Gay Comix” in WePresent, https://wepresent.wetransfer.com/story/gay-comix/ (Accessed on February 2, 2021)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Howard Cruse, Gay Comix #1, Kitchen Sink Press, 1981.

[5] Jared Gardner, Projections, Stanford University Press, 2012, 119.

[6] Samantha Puc interviews Howard Cruse, The Beat, June 13, 2019, https://www.comicsbeat.com/howard-cruse-interview/ (Accessed on February 2, 2021).

[7] Justin Hall, “Howard Cruse: 1944-2019” in The Comics Journal online, December 2, 2019, http://www.tcj.com/howard-cruse-1944-2019/ (Accessed on February 2, 2021).

[8] Bart Beaty, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Beaty writes, “Wertham (1948b) defined his approach as an analysis of typical cases: an analysis of comic books, an analysis of the scientific problems involved, an analysis of the methods of the comic book publishers, and an analysis of the practical steps that could be taken to address the findings of these analyses.” (132)

Throughout the book, Beaty refers to Wertham’s interpretations of passages in the comics. For example, Beaty cites Wertham who wrote: “Superman (with the big S on his uniform-we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and `foreign-looking’ people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible.” (137) Beaty also writes that the reading of comics was “part of the general routine work” of his clinic. (137)

[9] Ibid, 139.

[10] Bart Beaty notes in Twelve-Cent Archie (Rutgers University Press, 2015) that Archie Comics rarely included government officials in its storylines to avoid running afoul of the CCA. One story about the corrupt Mayor of Riverdale came close to crossing the line.

[11] Beaty, Wertham, 138.

[12] Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website, http://cbldf.org/f-a-q/ (Accessed on February 2, 2021).

[13] De Certeau, 167.

[14] Ibid.

[15] David L. Hudson, “Obscenity and Pornography” in The First Amendment Encyclopedia, Middle Tennessee State University, https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1004/obscenity-and-pornography (Accessed on February 2, 2021).

[16] De Certeau, 168.

[17] James Danky and Denis Kitchen, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, Abrams ComicArts, 2009, 20.

[18] The Georgia Straight’s parent company, Vancouver Free Press Corp., was acquired by Media Central Corporation Inc. in early 2020 for $1.25 million. Media Central also owns NOW magazine and CannCentral, a cannabis culture magazine.

[19] Danky and Kitchen, 20.

[20] Patrick Rosenkrantz, “The Limited Legacy of Underground Comix” in Underground Classics, edited by James Danky and Denis Kitchen, Abrams ComicArts, 2009, 25.

[21] By the early ‘70s Canada’s comix scene was very small, but the American undergrounds were widely distributed north of the border. In 1992, the Supreme Court of Canada in the Butler pornography case tied “community standards” to the degree of harm the material would cause primarily to women, and the level of artistic merit it attained. (The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/obscenity, accessed on February 2, 2021).

[22] Hudson.

[23] Robert Crumb, Bible of Filth, David Zwirner Books, 2017, 5. Featuring a collection of his work from 1968-86.

[24] Lucy Uprichard, “How Feminist Bookstores Changed History”, September 25, 2018 in https://www.vice.com/en/article/mbw7j3/feminist-bookstores-women-activism-history (Accessed on February 7, 2021).

[25] Trina Robbins, “Wimmen’s Studies” in Underground Classics, edited by James Danky and Denis Kitchen. Abrams ComicArts, 2009, 31.

[26] Gardner locates the shift toward personal narrative to Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972). Art Spiegelman said that without Binky Brown setting this precedent, there would have been no MAUS (1980-1991), the Pulitzer Prize-winning phenomenon.

[27] Gardner, 132.

[28] Ibid 128.

[29] Ibid 131.

[30] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, New York: William Morrow, 1993, 67.

[31] Ibid 36.

[32] Ibid 43.

[33] Lynda Barry, Syllabus, Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2014, 31.

[34] Ibid 22.

[35] De Certeau, 134

[36] McCloud, Understanding, 51.

[37] Guy Davenport, “Introduction” to 50 Drawings, New York: Dim Gray Bar Press and Barry Magid, 1996. Unpaginated. (As accessed on February 2, 2021 at http://www.geocities.ws/chuck_ralston/07_dav-bkpam-50-Drawings.htm).

[38] McCloud, Understanding, 205.

Shawn Van Sluys

Shawn Van Sluys is the Editor-in-Chief of ArtsEverywhere and the Executive Director of Musagetes.

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