My Fabulous Evening
On Thursday night, while much of America was presumably watching the 90-minute Will & Grace, I was spending quality time with some why-aren't-they-ready-for-prime-time? real-life gays, lesbians and supporters at the LBGT Community Center attending OffCenter's presentation of a "Drawing Closer: Queer Representations and the Comics" panel. This was sort of the follow-up to the Denise Sudell-moderated "Gays in Comics: Crossfire" panel at the San Diego Con this year, which was kinda-sorta-but-not-really inspired (okay, depending on whom you talk to) by my "Writing the Other" panel at Heroes Con last year. Writer/artist Phil Jimenez, who sat on both panels, was on this as well, along with DC Comics editor and cartoonist Joan Hilty (the premier speaker at Friends of Lulu-New York's "Women and Comics" series this year), writer Ivan Velez Jr., cartoonist Jennifer Camper (who I dearly hope does a FoL-NY "WaC" discussion in '03!), Sequential Tart columnist Denise Sudell, and writer/artist Howard Cruse.
Joan deftly moderated the panel, starting off by recommending the work of Ariel Schrag, who'd been scheduled to attend but couldn't make it. All the panelists got to recommend their own work as well, but didn't have the benefit of hypertext like I do. So, going 'round the table, Joan's doing Bitter Girl over at Planet Q; Ivan's stories can be found in Tales of the Closet; Howard's latest graphic novel is Wendell All Together and he'll also be doing Barefootz Online at Serializer.net; Jennifer had copies of Rude Girls and Dangerous Women and subGURLZ with her; Phil mentioned that, after two years on Wonder Woman at DC he's moving on to New X-Men at Marvel as well as a fascinating-sounding book for Vertigo (to probably debut in '94) called OtherWorld; and Denise talked a bit about her Tart culture columns, including "Queer Characters: Hook 'Em Up, Then Shoot 'Em Down" and "Queer Characters, Revisited: Hook 'Em Up, Then Cancel Their Book." Joan mentioned she was pleased with the gender balance of the panel, as well as the fact that panelists covered the mainstream/indie spectrum, and regretted that Ariel couldn't make it to contribute a more youthful perspective.
Speaking of which, Joan's first round-table question was "How did comics influence your identity growing up and coming out?" Jennifer mentioned a crush she'd harbored on the women in the Li'l Abner comic strip - "The brunettes, not the blondes!" - while Phil told a touching story about how he'd wished he could be the only little boy on Paradise Island ("Wonder Woman's little brother") because of the qualities he'd admired in Diana and her Amazonian sisters, and Ivan blushed a bit as he recalled his reaction as a 3-year-old to Hercules movies. "In what ways," Joan asked everyone, "do you approach your current work through a 'queer filter'?" Howard noted, "I think it gives an artist more power when they draw on themselves." The discussion drifted towards how the Big Two mainstream (i.e., primarily superhero) comic book companies, Marvel and DC, deal with gay characters in their books, and a panelist observed that as a rule today's fans-cum-editors seemed to have a distinct lack of interest in rocking any social boats: "I don't think they care about what's going on in the world outside their editorial collective." Joan analogized the mainstream vs. independent treatment to "Will & Grace versus Queer as Folk" (I didn't have a chance to ask if she meant the British version or the American one). She noted that in comics, just as in most forms of mass entertainment "there's always subtext, both in the way you take it in and how you draw it," which led to amusing remarks about the gay subtext in the '60s Batman TV show, Wertham be damned (although personally I've always found Bewitched to be the gay-not-so-subtext TV show of that era). Also touched on briefly was the disturbing trend of censorship coming from within the gay corporate press as it's become more homo-genized (Denise's word, my dash) and seeks to almost desexualize its comic strip contributions; according to Jennifer, even established cartoonists like Alison Bechdel have been subjected to snippage.
Points were raised that mainstream comics has yet to establish a leading superhero gay character, with the exception of Wildstorm's team book The Authority (where the relationship of Apollo and Midnighter has varied in its portrayal from touching to mocking depending on the creative team), and when supporting gay characters take the spotlight and their sexual orientation isn't the focus of the book, often the words "gay" or "lesbian" aren't even mentioned (as in the miniseries Metropolis SCU, which featured an otherwise comprehensive look at Maggie Sawyer's life). It seemed that two opposing desires were in play simultaneously - clearly gay-identified protagonists but at the same time plots that weren't structured around those characters' gayness, or didn't treat them as stereotypes. Reminded me of a lot of discussions I've had about female characters in comics. :) Thing is, just as there are women in real life who are top-heavy or dress provocatively (i.e., who use sex as power), there are gays in real life who embody what many consider stereotypes. After the talk, Phil told me about how a gay couple who appeared in Wonder Woman were based on actual acquaintances of his, just as I'm sure Jack in Will & Grace must be based on actual men who, as Stan the Man might say, flount their fabulous flamboyance.
So it seems to me that, rather than just decry the overabundance of stereotypes (which does need to be discussed, as too much of any one thing - be it genre or a type of characterization - leads to an imbalance and the narrowing of storytelling possibilities), what's called for is more. More of everything. More experimentation, more reaching out to writers and artists who bring different life experiences to the table, more editors with different experiences (Joan noted that the Green Lantern gay-bashing storyline that's received much press of late was helmed in large measure by editor Bob Schreck, who identifies as bisexual), more people telling their stories (and being able to make a living doing so!). Joan asked about the future of comics, how it can appeal to young gay readers. Jennifer's response was that "People have to think there's a possibility for them to tell their stories," and Howard noted that "The industry as it exists is vastly underrating the appeal of the medium." Between mainstream and indie comics, and thanks to the relative cheapness of printing and particularly of self-publishing via the Internet, I think there's more variety out there than there has ever been. So I think everyone came away with a very positive view of things to come.
Undoubtedly the full transcript of this panel will appear sooner or later at Sequential Tart; I noticed both Denise and Phil brought tape recorders. I wouldn't be surprised if a review appears in Rich Watson's "A View from the Cheap Seats" column either, as Rich was in the audience, as was NYC Comic Book Museum director David Gabriel (NYC-area folks might like to take in the NYCCBM's free "Comic Books Fight AIDS" event on World AIDS Awareness Day), the vivacious Martha Thomases, former PR director at DC Comics, who introduced me to Howard's boyfriend Ed Sedarbaum (featured in "I Have To Live With This Guy!"), and Ed Douglas and Marc Wilkofsky from the Friends of Lulu National Board. It was enough to inspire me to plan my next storytelling panel at Heroes Con '03, which I'm hoping to co-moderate with Denise (with Phil as a panelist), so maybe we can have FoL and the Gay League co-sponsor. My tentative idea and title, pending approval from Shelton Drumm and of course Denise and Phil, is "From The Inside, Out: Characterization and Constraints." I'm open to suggestions on questions fitting within this purposely-broadly-named topic, and I'd also love to hear from industry pros who'd like to be on the panel (again, pending permission, yadda yadda). And if someone can tell me how they fixed it so Harry Connick, who presumably has a career, won't be a regular as Grace's new hubby (since Rob only saw the first hour of W&G), I'd greatly appreciate it.