Decades before Iceman came out as gay or Robin kissed her boyfriend for the first time, LGBTQ artists were creating queer comics in the 1970s and 1980s. They weren’t working for Marvel or DC, though: they were making underground comics. , strips and zines outside their homes, DIY-style.
Premiering Monday on PBS, the documentary «No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics» highlights some of these pioneers, including Alison Bechdel («Dykes to Watch Out For»), Howard Cruse («Wendel,» «Stuck Rubber Baby,» ”), Jennifer Camper (“Rude Girls and Dangerous Women”) and Rupert Kinnard (“BB and the Diva,” “Cathartic Comics”).
«No Straight Lines» also features Mary Wings, who is credited with publishing the first known queer comic, «Come Out Comics,» in 1973.
«There’s a history of erotic illustrations, like Tom of Finland, and comic strips in Advocate, but ‘Come Out Comix’ was the first ‘literary’ queer comic,» said Justin Hall, who produced «No Straight Lines» and is president of the graduate program in comics at the California College of the Arts.
“Mary was the first interview we did,” Hall said. “She created ‘Come Out Comix’ in the basement of a radical women’s karate cooperative in Oregon, doing this on a photocopier and distributing it by mail.»
The autobiographical book, completed in just one week, chronicles a young woman’s understanding of her sexual identity and her first groped romantic relationship.
San Francisco, where Wings now lives, was home to many early LGBTQ comics and comic strips, most of which were done by queer women.
Wings’ book was followed by Roberta Gregory’s «Dynamite Damsels» in 1975, a series of humorous vignettes about the lives of lesbian feminist activists, and then Lee Marrs’ «The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp» in 1977, about a 17 year old girl year-old runaway who comes to San Francisco looking to lose her virginity.
Trina Robbins, a straight ally, came to the Bay Area in 1970. Two years later she wrote «Sandy Comes Out,» considered the first comic strip about a lesbian, in «Wimmen’s Comix» #1.
Hall curated an exhibit of early LGBTQ comics for the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco in 2006, later working on the graphic anthology «No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics”, published by Fantagraphics Books in 2012.
He filmed interviews for the book with the idea of creating a documentary, eventually enlisting veteran documentarian Vivian Kleiman («Families Are Forever,» «Always My Son») to direct the project.
“I’ve been obsessed with comics since I was a kid; that’s how I learned to read,» said Hall, whose own work includes the comics «True Travel Tales» and «Hard to Swallow.» “I always knew that I wanted to be involved in creating comics in some way. It was a phase I never got out of.”
Graphic storytelling has particular appeal to LGBTQ creators, he added.
“It’s both a form of storytelling and visual art, which I think is very powerful,” Hall said. «There’s a great quote from Alison Bechdel, who said that she started doing comics because she wanted to make lesbians visible.”
It’s also an art form that’s more available to marginalized groups, cartoonist Jennifer Camper said, and technological advances have made creating and distributing comics cheaper than ever.
“You don’t need a lot of resources or the acceptance of the guardians,” added Camper, one of the comic creators featured in the film. «For people who want to tackle content that might not get mainstream approval, that’s very attractive.»
For queer readers, he said, reading comics «is very intimate.»
«You’re taking words and images and combining them in your mind to create things like time and motion, and carving this universe for yourself,» Camper said. «It’s something you do in private, maybe even in secret.»
Camper has been creating comics since the 1980s, often reflecting on her experiences as a lesbian and a Lebanese American. She has drawn strips for numerous LGBTQ newspapers and was a contributor to «Gay Comix.» a seminal anthology series that was released in 1980.
Howard Cruse, another cartoonist featured in the film, was the founding editor of «Gay Comix.» The series’ strips might be sexually frank, but they focused more on humor and drama than excitement.
Cruse also published «Wendel,» a strip that appeared in the Advocate during the 1980s. It followed a young gay man and his friends in the Reagan-Bush era, touching on same-sex relationships, anti-gay bashing, the HIV/AIDS and other hot topics.
His 1995 graphic novel, «Stuck Rubber Baby,» is about a young gay man coming of age in the South amid the civil rights movement. «Rubber Baby Stuck» it was one of the first queer comics to gain mainstream critical acclaim. (The book’s introduction was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner.)
“Sometimes you don’t want to meet your heroes, but in Howard’s case, it was just as beautiful as his work,” Hall said. “He was the godfather of queer comics. His generosity of spirit and intellect brought this community together.”
Cruse died of cancer in 2019, while «No Straight Lines» was still in development. Hall and Kleiman said his passing was the fuel that helped push the project to the finish line.
“Vivian and I were at a low point, wondering if we would ever make the movie,” Hall said. “When Howard died, we said, ‘We have to do it. It has to be done. He was one of the greatest artists of his generation, and he never got his due.’”
Over the past decade, queer comic creators have gained more recognition, if not at all. A 25th anniversary edition from Cruse’s «Stuck Rubber Baby» was released in 2020. Alison Bechdel received a «genius grant» from MacArthur in 2014, and then his best-selling graphic memoir «Fun Home» became a Tony Award-winning musical the following year. And just this month, Edmund White’s gay classic «A Boy’s Own Story» was released as a graphic novel.
But even as progress has been made, some things have been lost since the heady days of No Straight Lines.
“There was a period when every major city in America had an LGBTQ newspaper, and that’s where a lot of us published,” Camper said. “We created this world that allowed us to get our work out there. There was less money, but there was joy in creating things on our own terms.»
The attention queer comics now receive has also meant increased scrutiny from conservatives: «Gender Queer: A Memoir,» a 2019 illustrated memoir by non-binary artist Maia Kobabe, topped the American Library’s 2021 list. Association of the Most Questioned Books in the USA.
“For a long time, queer comics existed in this parallel universe,” Hall said. “Now we have comics for young queer audiences, and books for all ages and young adults with queer characters, which is wonderful. But right-wing culture warriors are putting these books together.»
Camper said she misses the freedom and sense of community she felt in the 1980s.
«But now there’s a whole generation coming up that understands, ‘Yes, comics are an art form and, yes, some comics have weird characters,» he added. «It’s very exciting.»
“no straight lines” premieres on PBS’s “Independent Lens” Monday at 10 p.m. ET, when it will also be available to stream on the PBS Video app.