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Conference takes serious look at queer comics

by Matthew S. Bajko

Tyler Cohen stands in front of two Primazons characters<br>from her book. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Tyler Cohen stands in front of two Primazons characters
from her book. Photo: Kelly Sullivan  

Topics will range from creating queer comics for children and how to redefine masculinity in one's work to tackling various health topics and illustrating sex between characters. Other sessions will delve into the business side of the art form, from how to self-publish to tips on promotion.

What attendees at the second Queers and Comics Conference, taking place in San Francisco next week, won't find are people dressed up as their favorite comics character, as is the case at San Diego's Comic Con. Nor should they expect to engage in debates on which superhero is hotter, which is often a topic of discussion at larger comics gatherings.

"Because of the nature of those conventions, there will always be a guy at the end of a panel who asks who is hotter, Thor or Iron Man? After you hear that question a number of times, it gets tiresome," said Justin Hall, 46, a gay San Francisco resident and the creator of several comic book series, such as "True Travel Tales" and "Glamazonia."

Hall, an assistant professor of comics at the California College of the Arts, attended the inaugural Queers and Comics gathering held in New York City in 2015. Unsure of what to expect, Hall was impressed by the level of discourse at the conference.

"We had in-depth conversations about the industry and queer themes in comics," recalled Hall.

Because there was no hall show, where comics creators have to man tables and promote their work to fans, it allowed for the cartoonists to engage in the discussions about their craft, said Hall.

"The focus was not on selling but this kind of more academic and straight up conversation," he said.

The first conference paid tribute to the "pioneers of queer comics" and the history of the genre, noted Hall. This year's event is themed around the future of queer comics.

"It is more about web comics and looking at science fiction genre stuff, things more interesting to young cartoonists," explained Hall. "There has been a massive, massive broadening out of queer comics on the web and with independent publishing. We wanted to focus more on that."

Hall teamed up with Jennifer Camper, the creator of the biennial conference, to organize the second gathering. Camper, 59, a dyke and freelance cartoonist who lives in Brooklyn, New York, has edited several comics anthologies and published a collection of her own cartoons in the book "Rude Girls and Dangerous Women" and created the graphic novella "subGURLZ."

She told the Bay Area Reporter that she expected the first conference to be a one-time affair. But due to its success, and the positive buzz it generated, she realized there was interest in having it be an ongoing endeavor. The plan is for the conferences to rotate between New York and San Francisco every other year.

"I think, for many of us, we didn't realize how powerfully emotional it would be for all of us to be together," said Camper.

While people can dress up as their favorite queer comics character if they like, Camper said her goal for the program is to take a more serious look at the profession.

"I compare this to a writer's conference, except it is for queer cartoonists," she explained, "to get together to discuss the craft and document our history."

With San Francisco being a gateway to Asia, in particular to Japan and its anime style of cartoon storytelling, this year's Queers and Comics Conference is highlighting Japanese LGBT cartoonists and queer manga at panels and with the two keynote speakers. One is award-winning queer Canadian born artist and writer Mariko Tamaki, who now lives in the Bay Area. The author of the young adult novel "(You) Set Me on Fire," Tamaki is writing a new "Hulk" series for Marvel Comics and the mini-series "Supergirl: Being Super" for DC Comics.

Gengoroh Tagame's erotic art

The other is Gengoroh Tagame, a creator of hyper-masculine erotic manga who has been called "the most influential creator of gay manga in Japan to date."

This year's conference will also highlight the work of numerous Bay Area-based queer cartoonists. One panel, noted Camper, will examine how the underground comic scene in San Francisco affected and influenced queer cartoonists.

Taking part in the panel with local cartoonists, and debuting her new graphic novel at a special opening party for the conference hosted by the Center for Sex and Culture, will be Tyler Cohen, 48, a San Francisco resident who has been drawing comics "on and off" since the late 1990s.

"I did go to the New York conference. It was fantastic to meet all these godmothers and godfathers of queer comics," said Cohen.

Her latest work, "Primahood: Magenta," is based on her experiences raising her daughter, who is now 11 and goes by the pseudonym Nene in the book, with her partner of 19 years, Raleigh Freeman. Cohen, who identifies as queer and bisexual, based the Mamapants character on herself.

It explores issues of gender identity and gender roles that she has faced as a parent as well as how her daughter navigates the world being of mixed race and Jewish.

"I observed all this gender stuff, even here in San Francisco, mainly subtle things around people's behavior," said Cohen of her time volunteering at her daughter's co-op school. "There was so much I wanted to say and talk about and not in a judgmental way. To have that conversation, I came back to comics because it is my first love."

Hosting the comics conference is a public coming out, of sorts, for the California College of the Arts' MFA Program in Comics, which launched in 2013. The conference is bringing 150 panelists and more than 300 attendees to the CCA campus over its two days.

"This will really shine a spotlight on what we do," said Matt Silady, who is straight and chairs the comics program at CCA, where he has taught at since 2008. "It is both an honor to host the event and a real great opportunity for really letting people know what we are about."

CCA's comics MFA is the first accredited graduate comics program in the country, said Silady, and roughly half of its faculty identify as queer.

"Because we were getting to build a comics program from the ground up in 2013, inclusion of LGBT students and faculty was part of the mandate on day one," said Silady. "Embedded in our curriculum, from day one, is the study of the cultural impact of LGBTQ comics."

The conference runs Friday, April 14 through Saturday, April 15 at the California College of the Arts' San Francisco campus in Timken Hall, 1111 Eighth Street. General admission tickets to attend both days of the conference cost $75.

To purchase tickets online, as well as to see more information about the schedule of panels and featured speakers, visit http://www.queersandcomics.cca.edu/.

There are also two opening parties being held the evening of Thursday, April 13 that are both free and open to the public. The Center for Sex and Culture, at 1349 Mission Street between Ninth and 10th streets, is hosting a happy hour from 5 to 7:30 p.m. as it opens its exhibition "Primahood: Drawings and Comics by Tyler Cohen."

Then, from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. at the gay and bi men's health center Strut, at 470 Castro Street, will be the Drink and Draw party where comics creators and their fans can mingle and draw models of all varieties with provided art supplies. Also on display is the Kumalicious show, which features illustrations of bigger men of color curated by Salvador Hernandez. The party is open at anyone 18 years of age or older.

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