Few oppressed minorities have histories with such a clear demarcation line between then and now as the gay rights movement does with the 1969 Stonewall riots. As Justin Hall, the editor of Fantagraphics’ No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics, puts it, “Stonewall was the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement and modern gay culture in a lot of ways. It was the first time that gay people stood up against police and institutions and said we want to be visible and we don’t want to hide in the shadows anymore.” The book will be released this month.
Gay Pride parades are now held annually all over the world towards the end of June to commemorate the era of social change that Stonewall ushered in. Now, with No Straight Lines, the most definitive collection of queer comics to date, Hall and Fantagraphics have made the voluminous but largely hidden history of LBGT (lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, transgender) comics finally visible as well.
“Most oppressed minorities are ethnic minorities so they can pass down their histories through families and that’s not true for queers,” Hall said, “our history is not in the textbooks, it’s always hidden so we have a real problem teaching the next generation about queer history.”
In his lengthy, detailed introduction to the collection, Hall explains that while there was a wealth of gay male erotic comics by artists such as Touko Laaksonen (who went by the pen name of Tom of Finland) in underground circulation from the late 1950’s on, queer literary comics did not emerge as a sub-genre until after Stonewall. It wasn’t until a sense of community emerged and gay newspapers and bookstores started popping up in New York and other coastal cities, along with the lively underground comix scene in San Francisco, that queer comics had the proper venues and means of distribution which allowed them to flourish.
He points to Trina Robbins’ Sandy Comes Out as the first literary (by which he means non-pornographic) comic that offered gay people a representation of themselves that validated, as opposed to degraded, their experience. After reading Sandy Comes Out, Mary Wings, a lesbian writer and cartoonist, was inspired to make Come Out Comix as a rejoinder to Robbins’ work from a gay person’s perspective (since Robbins identifies as straight). From there, he clearly outlines the significant milestones in LBGT comics over the past forty years, including important events such as the AIDS crisis, while touching on the careers of several distinguished LBGT cartoonists, including Roberta Gregory, Howard Cruse, Alison Bechdel and many more.
“We’re just rolling the book out now,” says Hall, “but already the response has been really kind of amazing. I think Fantagraphics didn’t understand how hungry people were going to be for this material.” The collection debuted at San Diego Comic Con 2012 last month and, in what is generally a good sign for comic book publishers, sold out of all the copies they brought with them early Saturday afternoon at the show. Fantagraphics, who did an initial print run of 3,500 copies, reports that “orders are strong” and that the book “seems to be doing well thus far.”
Replying to questions about the marketing and distribution strategy for No Straight Lines, Jacq Cohen, Fantagraphics’ Director of Publicity and Promotions, said they, “will definitely reach out to different queer community bookstores, but we plan on treating this book with the full attention and respect we do with all our other comics. We expect it to be in comics shops around the country and bookstores all over the world.”
Fantagraphics’ signature book design and packaging lends the collected works of No Straight Lines the high print quality of their other notable historic collections, such as Peanuts and Love and Rockets. Hall, who got the idea to put a comics anthology together after doing an LBGT original comic art show for Gay Pride at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum in 2006, said of Fantagraphics, “I knew that they would care about the material and that they would produce a really beautiful book.”
While the compelling material and fan bases of its contributing artists should make the book an easy sell for fans of art and underground comics, the collection may face some challenges in finding a wider audience within the gay community and beyond. Ironically, the same gay newspapers and queer bookstores that initially nurtured the creation and distribution of queer comics are, like many of their counterparts in mainstream publishing and bookselling, dying out.
But Fantagraphics plans on going digital with No Straight Lines, in part to address that issue and make sure the material reaches a wider audience beyond the comics market, No Straight Lines will be the publisher’s second release though the Comixology digital comics platform (the first Fantagraphics books to be released digitally will be forthcoming volumes of the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets, which are being released in honor of the series’ 30th Anniversary). Hall, who has also taught classes in queer comics at the California College of the Arts, maintains a Tumblr blog with the assistance of some of his previous students. In addition to showcasing the work of emerging LBGT cartoonists, the blog also features video interviews with some of the book’s contributors, including David Kelly (Boy Trouble) and Trina Robbins (Wimmens Comix).
As is the case with many niche markets, however, connoisseurs of the material may be able to sniff out a good thing then keep the buzz going via word of mouth. The Advocate, the longest running gay publication in country, did an interview with Hall prior to Comic-Con that garnered several social media shares.
“It’s a different world where the queer comics media can’t support them,” Hall said, “(But) queer cartoonists now can either find their niche markets on the web or through different kinds of conventions. They have the potential to cross over into the mainstream now. They can be the next Allison Bechdel. The mainstream is open to queer graphic novels in a way that it never was before so both possibilities are there for queer cartoonists.”