Confessions of a Comic Book Geek
Grae Hancock writes about how comic books offered role models, challenges and windows into alternative lives as she came to terms with her sexuality.
Sandman: Game of You, Neil Gaiman (Click images to enlarge)
I came out as a comic book geek long before I came out as bisexual although the two facets of myself have long existed together. Looking back, I suspect it was an issue of accessibility, that very particular, slow, pre-internet kind of access. Even now as I write this, at a friend’s flat in London I feel more gay because I’m in London. I’m connected to the lives of other gay people; they become the typical rather than the carefully scheduled and poorly attended gay club night of back home. As I became aware of my sexuality I wasn’t able to immerse myself in a gay culture, there just wasn’t much of any kind of scene in the sleepy Home Counties. Oddly enough, there was a comic shop. So through comics I began to experience something of an LGBT community, one that offered me role models, challenges and windows into alternative lives. What follows is a few of the significant comics in my life with, in varying degrees of insight, the lessons they have taught me.
The first one, Chasing Amy by Kevin Smith (1997), is a bit of a cheat because it’s a film, albeit a film about sexuality and comics. Each of the characters is passionately involved with comics, either as creators or consumers and the film is bookended by comic book conventions.
Alyssa, a confident, successful comic writer in her own right is introduced as a lesbian and for me, was the first gay woman I had seen depicted on screen. At last, I was introduced to the possibility that a woman might fancy me back! Although in love with and eventually in a relationship with Alyssa, Holden struggles to reconcile her sexual past and fluidity with his (false) ideal of being the only man she has slept with. Smith taught me a number of things:
- Bisexuality exists. There are other people who have feelings for both men and women and a name for how I felt. Recently I read Blue is the Warmest Colour by Julie Maroh (2013) and wondered if having access to a coming-out story, even one as tragic as Clem’s, would have helped me sort my own feelings out sooner. Probably not, after all a queer life is one of continual tiny ‘comings out’ but I’m glad I live in a world where such a book exists.
- Films frequently present these characters as untrustworthy and dispassionate.
- Sadly real-life people often have a problem with bisexuality. Specifically, discussing one’s sexual fluidity with one’s current boyfriend, isn’t always met with calm acceptance. Perhaps it is best to keep quiet. This lesson took me more than a decade to even begin to unlearn.
In a rather lovely attempt to show that he was ‘ok’ with my new-found sexuality my boyfriend at the time bought me the first volume of Charm School by Elizabeth Watasin (2000). That relationship came to an inevitable end but I still have the copy and will (when funds allow) hoover up the digital re-release. Featuring a faerie, a witch and a vampire (each sexy in their own right) and beautifully drawn with equal parts paranormal drama and lesbian romance. The Charm School series is set in Little Salem where androgynous biker vampire Dean and sexy witch Bunny struggle to keep their relationship together in the face of the charismatic and sexually confident faerie Fairer Than. Here I learnt that:
- Gay relationships grapple with the same emotions as straight relationships. Looking back, this is a huge duh! but without this I would have assumed, based on Willow and Tara (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that a key feature of any future relationships with women would be magic.
- Lesbians come in all shapes and sizes. Whilst I was never going to rock the biker chic as well as Dean I was at least reassured that being masculine of centre could be attractive.
Soon after reading Charm School I found Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1989-1996) series and most significantly, Desire of the Endless. Spanning the genders and also representing neither, Desire is beautifully rendered and for me, an elegant expression of the presence of attractive qualities across the gender spectrum. Desire is somewhat short-changed in terms of storylines and page time but their existence alone was enough for me. It is also worth dipping into A Game of You for Gaiman’s most queer-Sandman volume. Since then I have always enjoyed a little gender-fluidity in my comics, most recently perfectly expressed in the Adventure Time gender-swap episode and comic spin-off Fionna and Cake (Natasha Allegri 2013). A television cartoon with supporting comic books, the series lifts my heart with its delightfully idiosyncratic BMO and gentle nods toward a past relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline. If you haven’t yet made space for Adventure Time in your life, go away and do it now.
Any review of queer comics would be incomplete, heretical even, without a mention of Alison Bechdel. She is perhaps best known for Dykes to Watch Out For (1987-2008) but I came to her backwards, through Are You My Mother? (2012) and then Fun Home (2006).
In each of her books, Bechdel describes the lives and interactions of characters for whom their sexuality is at times the focus of discussion and at others part of the background. The stories layer narrative in a way that deepens the dialogue between Bechdel and the significant people in her life and the stories are at the same time gently familiar and challenging. Are You My Mother especially reassured me that:
- Being gay is part of my life but not the whole of it.
- I am very lucky to have the mother that I do.
- Anxious, circular internal monologues become cool once rendered into graphic novel form.
Whilst the same themes appear in the comics I read then and now, it would be disingenuous of me to ignore the role of the internet in my comic consumption. For example, Erica Moen’s ohjoysextoy.com is so much more than just reviews of sex toys – though this is also really important! A sex-positive web comic, in ohjoy Moen presents a queer slice of her sex life with her husband Matthew. She not only frankly discusses techniques and toys but also honestly negotiates life with a queer sexual history. Through Moen I found reassurance that sex and play weren’t subject to rigid binary opposition; there is no such thing as gay or straight sex. Finding her work just as I got into my sexual stride in my thirties was a revelation and helped exorcise so many heteronormative sexual ghosts that had taken up residence in my mind without me even realising it. ohjoy updates weekly and as there are often guest artists, is also a great place to get hooked on new comic writers.
Most recently I have inhaled Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges. That’s how I consume comics, I scoff them, binge on them. Novels provide my daily sustenance, meagre, functional meals that I eek out over the week. In comparison, comics are treat feasts usually for the weekend and guzzled in a single sitting. Like Bechdel, Georges reassures me that I am living an appropriate gay adult life and one where, as I move through my thirties it is common to be preoccupied with ideas of family and a desire to understand how your family past shapes the woman you have become. Whilst there aren’t (as far as I know) any secrets as big in my family as that of Georges’ father, I can relate to the process of retelling and renegotiating family history as you grow up. For example, between my brother and I, the strong values of equality instilled in us by our parents have become part of our secret dissection of our bisexuality.
Each time I encounter a new comic and add a voice to my community I’m glad that such stories exist in a medium that is becoming more and more accessible. Comics are experiencing a renaissance, and new audiences are being drawn in through film adaptations. It is possible to become a fan of a much-loved series or discover a new indie writer on your own and slowly but surely LGBT voices are making themselves heard and hopefully creating new communities to support those discovering their sexuality.