Reading ‘Queer About Comics’ Requires Stepping Out of the Mainstream

Queer About Comics
Ramzi Fawaz and Darieck Scott eds.
Duke University Press
June 2018

The connection between queerness and comics is not always overt but it is prevalent. At least according to the American Literature special issue, Queer About Comics. The quarterly is comprised of close-readings of an array of graphic mediums demonstrating the definite interconnection between queer and comic studies. Whether implicit or apparent, Queer About Comics sees graphic novels and comics as ripe with the social and aesthetic signals common in queer culture. The contributors use superhero narratives, grassroots and independent comics, feminist narratives, and popular LGBTQ artist-writers to centralize the theories representing and conceptualizing sexuality, desire, and intimacy. Despite being insufferably academic due to the reliance on convoluted language, Queer About Comics establishes an important marker widening the discussions informing cultural, literary, and queer theory.

Queer About Comics begins with André Carrington‘s “Desiring Blackness: A Queer Orientation to Marvel’s Black Panther, 1998–2016”. As the opening argument, Carrington deftly provokes readers to consider the dynamics between superheroes, race and the realities constructed from those discourses. Carrington utilizes the Black Panther comics by authors Christopher Priest (1998–2003) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (2016) to substantiate his deconstruction of queer relationships and the rendering of blackness as a source of desire. More so, Carrington adroitly incorporates deliberation of colonization alongside racial consciousness’ impact on desire. Carrington’s essay flawlessly demonstrates the collection’s aim in developing the scholarship contending that comics construct visual theories.

Jessica Q. Stark‘s examination of the Nancy serial comic suggests that queer adorability complicates individual and national narratives of identification. Yet the strength of Stark’s essay is her analysis of Nancy’s subversion of nationalistic identity and US historical narratives. Stark contends the “Nancy figure disrupts familiar emblems by inserting her own hypercommodified presence in otherwise ‘sacred’ nationalistic territories” (331). A similar disruption of acceptability is undertaken in “‘Flesh-to-Flesh Contact’: Marvel Comics’ Rogue and the Queer Feminist Imagination”. Author Anthony Michael D’Agostino suggests the Marvel X-Men character Rogue represents the erotic risks and affective pleasure of “the superhero figure’s unique effectiveness in analyzing difference” (252). Both authors centralize queer subjectivity as resistors of normativity.

Much as Stark and D’Agostino understand their respective comics as denaturalizing dominant narratives, Yetta Howard also contextualizes “queer comics’ aesthetics [as] a critical meditation on the concept of age itself” (287). The essay “Unsuitable for Children? Adult-erated Age in Underground Graphic Narratives” is a radical reading of the graphic medium’s ability to redefine the conformations of adulthood and childhood. Howard specifically unpacks the space between childhood trauma and problematic narratives aligning adulthood with recovery. As Stark and D’Agostino see their subjects’ queerness as directly impacting social and political narratives, Howard’s argument also rejects the monolithic while destabilizing linear identification.

The impetus for Queer About Comics stems from a schism in the current scholarship connecting queer theory and comics. The authors do not deny the ubiquity of comic and queer scholarship. Rather, they see this collection as mutually constitutive, an “insight into the ways that the comic book medium’s visual structures not only lend themselves to questions of sexuality and sexual identity but have also taken shape historically in response to transformations in the history of sexuality” (199). Readers are expected to have a deep knowledge of the genres’ history and the cultural importance of the discussed mediums. A wider context examining the mediums’ histories beyond the introductory overview would be helpful in situating the individual essays. More so, the audience for Queer About Comics is clearly other academics who are willing and able to wade through the jargon-heavy analysis. A foundation in queer theory is necessary to decode the more complicated theoretical approaches. The WordPress for Duke University Press provides a helpful reading list to expand readers’ understanding of the theory.

Surprisingly the collection lacks review of gay male and transgender characters. Whereas Alison Bechdel, whose oeuvre is undeniably important to queer comics, is considered twice: Kate McCullough‘s “‘The Complexity of Loss Itself’: The Comics Form and Fun Home’s Queer Reparative Temporality” and Margaret Galvan‘s “The Lesbian Norman Rockwell: Alison Bechdel and Queer Grassroots Networks”. Yet gay male and transgender narratives are resoundingly underrepresented. As early as its first year in print, The Advocate featured single panel cartoons showcasing gay male characters while Howard Cruse‘s contribution to the queer comics is also overlooked. Tom of Finland is briefly mentioned in the introduction while homoerotic fetish art is also excluded. Seemingly, Rebecca Wanzo‘s read of Alan Moore’s Lost Girls “The Normative Broken: Melinda Gebbie, Feminist Comix, and Child Sexuality Temporalities” makes room for consideration of the pornographic alongside the blockbuster, serial, and indie comic forms. Yet the editors miss the opportunity to follow through with Wanzo’s suggestion. Perhaps the absent discussion of gay male and transgender characters only concertizes Queer About Comics‘ objective: the representation of queerness in comics is synonymous with issues of visibility and erasure.

Queer About Comics is essential in understanding the overlap between queerness and graphic literature. Complicating the queer comic canon, the essays challenge readers to consume their preferred graphic work with a lens informed by queer theory while denaturalizing cultural, political, and sexual norms.

RATING 6 / 10