Coming-out narratives have always comprised a core theme for queer comics and they show no sign of abating. Nor should they — their importance transcends simply narrative qualities. Two decades ago, Jen Bacon observed (in a 1998 article for the journal World Englishes) that “As stories about rhetorical selves, coming out narratives may also serve political functions”, especially in terms of identity management and community building.
In a society which, for all its progress, remains heavily heteronormative, coming out often remains a fraught process. While coming-out experiences are shaped by a wide range of individualized factors, popular culture continues to exert a strong influence on how the coming-out process plays out. There’s no shortage of studies on the topic, such as this 2014 report in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health, which emphasized the significance of ‘new media’ on identity development and coming-out processes for queer youth; in particular the impact of YouTube videos and other social media in shaping individuals’ expectations and experiences of coming-out.
Comics may not be a ‘new media’, but they are an important form of media and the recent explosive growth in popularity of comics and graphic novels means that they too play an important role in shaping popular perceptions of queer identity. Hillary Chute, writing in the 11 December 2017 edition of The Paris Review, flagged queer comics as “the fastest growing area in comics right now.”
Coming-out narratives comprised some of the earliest iterations of queer comics. Early examples, as noted by Chute, include Lynn Johnston’s For Better or ror Worse — a serialized comic strip carried in hundreds of mainstream newspapers — which featured a 1993 story arc on a male secondary character who comes out as gay (at least 19 papers purportedly cancelled the strip in retaliation). More than two decades earlier, the Wimmen’s Comix anthology featured Trina Robbins’ story “Sandy Comes Out” about a lesbian coming out experience (based on the real-life experience of Sandra Crumb, cartoonist Robert Crumb’s sister). In 1973, Mary Wings launched Come Out Comix. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
But times change, and with them the experience of coming out in a still largely heteronormative world. Coming-out stories retain their importance; the experience’s shifting nuances and emerging societal challenges mean contemporary coming-out narratives will always speak more clearly to contemporary readers. There’s no shortage of examples out there, but here are three contemporary examples from international comics artists who continue to carry the flame proudly.
My Brother’s Husband
My Brother’s Husband is a refreshingly straightforward and endearing manga. It’s the work of Gengoroh Tagame, and represents a remarkable departure from his usual fare. Tagame made a name for himself as a producer of gay men’s erotica, including S&M-themed material. He’s also credited with having popularized larger, muscular men in Japanese gay men’s erotica, diversifying the more traditional bishonen (a slighter, more androgynous look) imagery. With My Brother’s Husband, however, he’s produced a family-friendly, overpoweringly kawaii (cute) manga, one that’s entertaining as well as profoundly educational.
The action surrounds Taichi-san, a middle-aged single father (divorced) who is raising his young daughter Kana. Taichi-san’s twin brother, Ryuichi, left Japan ten years ago after coming out as gay, an event which led the brothers to drift apart from each other (Taichi, as it turns out, didn’t know how to respond to his brother’s coming out). Ryuichi moved to Canada, where he wound up marrying Mike Flanagan, a large hulk of a Canadian. Ryuichi has recently died and his husband Mike comes to Japan on a personal mission to visit his deceased husband’s homeland and meet his family.
It’s a set-up rife for all sorts of potential drama, and in the hands of a less-skilled manga artist might have turned into an awful effort to exploit the situation for its humorous potential. Tagame, who has been out himself since the mid-’90s, uses this set-up to produce a brilliant educational tool, tackling many of the deeply ingrained stereotypes and prejudices sure to be prevalent among readers both in Japan and elsewhere.
Taichi-san is a good person, one who struggles to be open-minded even while this requires him to interrogate and challenge many of his own deeply ingrained prejudices. His daughter, Kana, provides the innocent voice which makes this self-examination possible. Childish and uninhibited, she asks the questions adults are too afraid or awkward to ask; nothing is out of bounds for her. When she detects hesitation, awkwardness, or contradiction in the response of the adults around her, she’s quick to recognize it and call it out. Her quick and easy acceptance of the fact she had a gay uncle, and her growing love for Uncle Mike, is counterpoised against the awkward burden of memories and guilt that her father must struggle with. He finds it difficult to take the two men’s marriage seriously, to treat Mike as an actual relative, and to confront his own painful memory of his brother’s coming out. Mike’s gentleness and perseverance slowly wins him over, after which he is forced to confront the prejudices and bigotry of others in their neighbors and friends circles.
My Brother’s Husband is an educational manga par excellence, but it’s the characters that drive it forward. Kana is realistic as an innocent, childish young girl, who’s over-the-moon to discover she has a big hairy Canadian uncle, and promptly insists on showing him off to all her friends. Taichi-san epitomizes the well-intentioned ally, who wants to do the right thing — both for himself, the education of his daughter, and the memory of his brother — but simply doesn’t know what the right thing is in the various circumstances he faces. He’s full of prejudice and ignorance, but he struggles to confront it, courageously and honestly. He emerges, through the author’s careful construction, as the ally par excellence. Mike, foreign to Japanese culture, struggles to honour his husband’s family and culture while also gently and insistently drawing boundaries between what he will accept (as cultural difference) and what he won’t (as bigotry and discrimination). The story as a whole is emotionally authentic and deeply compelling.
The cultural confrontations are powerful as well, and help to underscore the often arbitrary nature of cultural values. Why is gay marriage permitted in one place, and not in another? Why are hugs suitable expressions of endearment in one culture, yet not in another? Why is one form of employment considered admirable in one country, yet shameful in another? Tagame uses the manga to educate about Japanese culture, but there’s also a larger message here about cultural relativity and the arbitrariness of dominant social mores and values; a message which is made possible by the childish and universalizing innocence of Kana, who asks the questions adults are often too inhibited and afraid to ask.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is one of the most unabashedly and unflinchingly honest personal accounts to hit the written page. The autobiographical narrative of Nagata Kabi, it explores her struggle for self-awareness and self-love. Kabi dropped out of university in her first year and struggled with a range of mental illness: depression, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts. She loses her first job at a bakery and can’t find steady employment. The only thing she vaguely loves is making manga — but despite one initial publication, she can’t seem to make a viable career in that field, either. She lives at home, and her parents’ expectations weigh heavy on her. She knows that she’s lesbian, but has never had a sexual relationship, or even a romantic encounter. She doesn’t have any friends. Huddled under the covers, glued to the Internet, one day she finds a lesbian escort agency. She realizes that this is a way she can enact the sexual identity that calls to her. She holds off for some time, but the mere knowledge that it’s a possibility helps renew her ability and desire to live.
Finally, she takes the plunge — rationalizing as she does so that if nothing else, it’ll give her material for her manga. This certainly turns out to be the case — the experience opens up as many difficulties, challenges, and doubts as it does possibility. But she recognizes that if she is to produce from her own hand the deeply personal and authentic manga that she loves to read, she needs to be honest in telling her story — and so she is. The resulting manga proves to be a hit beyond her wildest expectations. She still doesn’t have friends or romantic relationships, but at least she’s started to feel that in telling her story through manga, she’s found the thing she most yearned for all along — a place to belong, a thing to do that matters. Despite its dealing with heavy topics — depression, loneliness, suicide — the overall message is an uplifting one, and its unabashedly honest authenticity makes it easily relatable to the average reader.
Her account also offers a powerful and positive portrayal of sex workers. Her first (and second, as she explores in a bonus chapter for the English edition) sexual experience is with a lesbian escort agency, and the sex worker’s kindness and empathy played a huge role in her positive (albeit also challenging and difficult) experience.
Her parting chapter’s worth of advice — love yourself, and do what you love — rings with the power and personal honesty of her own experience, so honestly captured and explored. It’s impossible not to shed tears while reading this work; Nagata’s unflinching honesty is courageous, but the reason it resonates is because it parses experiences many of her readers have, but have never been able to give voice to. Nagata gave voice to her experience and that has allowed her readers to realize they are not alone.
Flavia Biondi’s Generations is the classic gay coming-out story, but skillfully modernized and cast in a European setting. The protagonist Matteo is a young gay man in his early 20s. Originally from a small town in rural Italy, he left home as soon as he was old enough and moved to big-city Milan in pursuit of love (and to escape from his father’s angry homophobic rejection). Now, three years later, he slinks back home: single, unemployed, with no future prospects or plan in life. He hopes to move in with his grandmother while figuring out his next move, but discovers that three aunts and a cousin have already moved in with her. Nevertheless family is family, declares the grandmother in defiant opposition to the house’s other residents, and offers him an indefinite stay on her sofa.
The setting is ardently contemporary: a broken economy, poor unemployed youth, poverty forcing extended families back under one roof together. The setting, so casually depicted, makes the story authentic and relatable as well. There’s nothing really new about this tale, but it’s good to see it modernized and placed in a contemporary setting. There’s a sort of message implicit in the bleak backdrop: in a world without much hope for the future, in which youth find it tougher than ever to find a place for themselves, it is the inner self, and our relations with others, which are among the few things we can actually exert some control over. Professional futures are bust, and employment options few, but we can still determine how we engage with the people and community around us.
Family plays an important role here; hence the book’s title. Matteo finds himself embraced by some of his relatives; rejected by others. Most of them struggle to find common ground. It is that process, that struggle, which forms the crux of the tale; the slow and gradual terms under which differing generations and identities learn to live together and even take pleasure in each other’s company. Not everyone can be won over, but life overall can become meaningful and tolerant. Matteo himself, having now accepted his gay identity, learns to see the unexpected virtues of a quiet and out-of-the-way town that he only ever found stifling and boring while growing up. Again, in a world where we feel increasingly helpless to effect change, it is the intimate relations we have — with family, with neighbours and community, with the village square and the forests beyond — that allow us to play an active role in shaping something, even if it is only our personal relationship with these people and places.
Biondi’s storytelling is compelling and the story is sweet and endearing. While it has its share of heavy and dark moments, the overall message is a heartwarming one. Matteo learns, through his life’s alternating ups and downs and from four generations of relatives, that “there’s no such thing as a total failure. Mistakes make up our baggage, just like joy and memories… if it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t understand. I wouldn’t be here today.”
Culture clashes, loneliness, austerity economics, generational strife — the comics artists of today are doing a first-rate job of putting the coming out experience in its persistently complex contemporary context and in keeping their narrative at the forefront of popular culture.