The Comics Industry’s Return to Its Queer Roots

Think the comics world is a stranger to LGBTQ voices? Flip through a few classic issues of “Spider-Man” or buy a ticket to the latest “Avengers” movie, and it might seem so.

Most comic “classics” tend to feature a cast of mega-hot characters fitting nicely into cisgender stereotypes.

But comics weren’t always like this.

According to writer and comic book historian Alan Kistler, the “Golden Age of Comics,” the 1930s to the early 1950s, saw several dynamic LGBTQ characters. Wonder Woman and Catwoman have long been hailed as bisexual, and Madam Fatal and Red Tornado were cross-dressing male superheroes.

The comics code

What changed? In the early 1950s, the Comics Code Authority came on the scene, eager to realign the industry with a “code of ethics and standards.”

Quote graphic stating "The basic medium of comics is so punk rock." by Molly Ostertag. pbs rewireCreated based on the research of psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, which was later discovered to be mostly pseudoscience, the CCA prohibited the depiction of sex, nudity, “sexual abnormalities” and “sex perversion,” among other things.

Many gender-bending characters were quickly and quietly cleaned up to comply with “traditional American values.” For example, Wonder Woman left her job in the military to become the editor of a romance advice column.

Though the CCA was generally dismissed by the late 1980s, the damage had been done. For years, comics catered to a narrow audience (i.e. heterosexual males), and the sexual diversity of mainstream characters was dismal at best.

Let’s mix it up

Lately, however, the audience has been widening. Comics and graphic novels had one of highest growth categories in publishing in 2017, especially among women.

In the last several decades, a rising number of indie, small press and self-published groups have been churning out the most colorful array of sexual diversity and inclusivity — beyond just superhero stories.

It’s an exciting time to be in the comics world, says comics author and artist Molly Ostertag.

“Comics had been dominated by superhero comics for so long. There’s all this room to be the first person to make a certain kind of comic. It feels like a new frontier in a new way.”

See and be seen

LGBTQ writers and artists have found comics to be the perfect place to tell their own stories.

“The Witch Boy” by Molly Ostertag

Ostertag wrote her award-winning graphic novel “The Witch Boy” before she came out. The story follows a young boy named Aster as he tries to navigate gender roles in an alternate fantasy universe.

In Aster’s world, girls always grow up to be witches, and boys always grow up to be shapeshifters. Aster, however, discovers he has a knack for spells.

“I really wanted to make a book for kids that was very much about a specific time in your life when you realize that you don’t fit into gender roles,” she said. “I tried to write it from a very specific place of being young and realizing you’re queer in a family that has specific gender roles.”

Terry Blas, the illustrator and writer behind the ongoing webcomic “Briar Hollow,” said LGBTQ voices make for especially compelling coming-of-age tales.

“When you have queer characters who are young in comics, their coming-of-age stories can be more intense… They’re dealing with more than the average high schooler or middle schooler.”

A radical way to tell a story

Another reason comic books are to be a popular platform for marginalized voices?

“The basic medium of comics is so punk rock,” Ostertag said. “It’s so scrappy. All you need is paper and a pencil.”

Because the barrier for entry is so low, it’s one of the only visual mediums that can be told by just one person, she said.

“Comics can be so singularly someone’s individual vision in a way that’s really unique.”

The rise of webcomics

And it’s easier to publish, read and share your story than ever before. Today, one of the main platforms for these stories is webcomics: comic strips published solely online.

Credit: Terry Blas
A panel from “Ghetto Swirl,” Terry Blas’ autobiographical webcomic about growing up biracial, Mormon and gay.

“Make it, put it online, people will find it,” Ostertag said.

A prime example: the webcomic “Check, Please,” which follows a gay hockey player trying to navigate college, received overwhelming support on Kickstarter.

While this story might have seemed niche to publishers 15 years ago, “the internet let us prove that these stories are desired and needed,” Ostertag said.

When Blas published a six-page autobiographical comic, “You Say Latino,” “the Internet freaked out,” he said. “Social media and ease of sharing have made comics a great launching point for stories that resonate with people.”

‘A place for the disenfranchised’

Although this rise in LGBTQ voices has inspired some backlash, it doesn’t seem to be going away.

“There’s a misconception that these voices have been somehow forcing themselves in because it’s suddenly been discovered that diversity and inclusivity sells,” Kistler said. “But…it’s ignorant. Comics have always been a place for the disenfranchised.

“There’s momentum, and I hope it keeps on happening.”

Ostertag’s next graphic novel “The Midwinter Witch” comes out in November.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but a lot of space to make fresh work and prove those stories are wanted.”

Ultimately, she said, “It’s just a really good time to be in comics.”

Featured image courtesy of Molly Ostertag.

Kelsey Yandura

Kelsey Yandura is a freelance writer, editor and journalist based out of wherever the nearest library is (usually Denver).