Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

LGBT-infused layouts


Queer graphic novels to watch out for!

Scene from Batwoman: Elegy. Photo: Courtesy DC Comics
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Whether anchoring autobiographies, fighting crime in capes, or cracking mysteries in an old-school noir thriller, LGBT protagonists appear in three distinct graphic novels this summer. Commemorating the 15th anniversary of its initial publication, last month Vertigo Comics released a handsome new hardcover edition of Stuck Rubber Baby, a coming-of-age tale set during the Civil Rights Era. Two weeks ago, DC Comics released Batwoman: Elegy, collecting last year's gorgeous Detective Comics run that launched the Dyke Knight's solo career. And next month brings the publication of Fogtown, a black-and-white detective yarn set in San Francisco, featuring a closeted P.I. battling the bottle and powerful forces of corruption.

While such tales aren't groundbreaking today, the cluster of publications provides an opportunity to reflect on other graphic novels that boast major queer characters, and incorporate themes dealing with sexuality. Here's a look at some of the very best work in the comics medium, spanning a range of genres, but all featuring major gay and lesbian characters. Even if your summer reading list is already full, you won't be sorry if you make room for these.

Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka and JH Williams III; DC Comics, $24.99

Finally, an entry from the superhero genre that so many people conflate with comic books. In 2009, Bruce Wayne disappeared from Detective Comics, his home for 70 years, to make way for Batwoman, a relative newcomer and, thus far, a mere supporting character. DC Comics' gamble was based in confidence in the title's new creative team: writer Greg Rucka, known for his deft ability with strong female leads, and artist JH Williams III, who is quite simply the best in the business. Previously known for his mind-blowing mixed-media work on the obscure but transcendent Promethea, Williams takes his acid-infused layouts to new heights in the seven-part Elegy. Rucka and Williams' top-notch collaboration (smoothly abetted by colorist Dave Stewart) initially follows Batwoman in her battle against the occult-driven Religion of Crime, then flashes back to formative events in the life of young Kate Kane, explaining her evolution into a costumed hero. (Those key character moments include her admitting her sexuality to an Army superior.) Williams deftly switches art styles to suit different sections of the story, and slyly includes early visual hints about the villain that the text doesn't reveal until midway through. If this complete but bittersweet story arc leaves you wanting more, Batwoman will soon be getting her own monthly title — marking the first time a lesbian superhero headlines her own series.

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse; Vertigo Comics, $24.99

Originally published in 1995, Stuck Rubber Baby was four years in the making and well ahead of its time. Although not strictly biographical, this densely illustrated tale by cartoonist Howard Cruse (creator of Wendel, a 1980s comic strip published in the Advocate ) draws on his and his friend's experiences growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. Consider it historical fiction, then. Protagonist Toland Polk experiences a slow coming-out process, a personal struggle that Cruse casts against a much more public one: the fight of black Americans to win their civil rights during the Jim Crow era of the Deep South. Though it won an Eisner Award (comicdo

m's Pulitzer), Stuck Rubber Baby failed to win much mainstream notice. After all, 15 years ago, neither gay issues nor graphic novels received the attention (either political or pop-cultural) that they do today. Still very much worth reading, its impact was felt on a generation of cartoonists, such as Alison Bechdel, who wrote the introduction to this new volume, and who produced her own masterpiece 11 years later (see below).

Pedro and Me by Judd Winick; Henry Holt, $16.99

Another classic, this decade-old tale (reissued last year in a new edition) is an unabashed memoir by a strikingly young creator. Not many 30-year-olds craft compelling stories about their own lives — that's typically the forte of a much older artist — but Judd Winick already had quite a story to tell in 2000, thanks to his late friend Pedro Zamora. In 1994, the beloved Pedro became a pop-culture sensation and AIDS activist simultaneously, thanks to his bravery and openness on the MTV reality show The Real World. As Pedro's roommate, Winick learned a lot about HIV — and an entire generation of young Americans learned with him. With simple but charming illustrations, Winick first contrasts his early life (a cartoonist geek born on Long Island) with Pedro's (born in Cuba, growing up gay in Miami). He then launches into their six-month tenure on TV, Pedro's untimely death at 22 (just before new AIDS meds would begin saving lives), and his legacy of AIDS education. A heartfelt tribute that disguises a subtle call to action, Pedro and Me should be required reading in all junior-high English classes.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; Houghton Mifflin, $19.95

Subtitled A Family Tragicomic, this deeply engrossing 2006 memoir is richly layered. Irony surfaces everywhere, in the details of Alison Bechdel's autobiography (around the time she comes out, she also discovers that her father's been living a second life in the closet) and even in the very title: Fun home is a nickname for the Bechdel funeral home. Bruce Bechdel was both proprietor of the parlor as well as a high-school English teacher; his intellectual take on life prompts his cartoonist daughter to include a wide range of literary references in this book, including discursions into the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. Her duotone art — nicely rendered black lines colored in a palette of gray-blues — shows considerable range, which might surprise anyone familiar only with her work on the syndicated comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. A multiple Eisner winner, Fun Home added to the growing profile of comic books in 2006 when Time magazine named this NYT bestseller the best book of the year, topping a list dominated by prose.

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