Today I intended to write a review of an indie comic I supported through a crowdsource program. I thought, well, even if it wasn’t to my taste, there ought to be some good qualities right? Well…no, there weren’t. I was appalled through and through at how utterly sub-par the conception and execution were.
Obviously, I won’t be reviewing (or even naming) the book, because that wouldn’t help anyone. What I can do, though, is talk about why I felt the comic was so underwhelming. Because that can be generalized into a discussion of representation of lesbians and gays in comics and manga. And that is certainly worth discussing. The more I thought about it, the more I thought today we might – together – start to create a tutorial for not only independent comic artists, but also large companies on some things to consider when approaching diversity, and LGBT representation in comics as whole.
So, with that, let me talk first about creating a really good story.
A really good story does not talk about the characters. This comic began with the trope of a news report in which a character – and his gayness – were introduced by a reporter, with inexplicable camp puns. Because network news is so well known for its camp punning. Instead of seeing the hero doing hero things, we are told what he did, who he was and that he flew off with…I’m not kidding…a trick. On network news.
A really good story realizes that diversity is not providing multiple stereotypes to chose from, but providing characters who are also completely not stereotypical. Diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation are important, but diversity of perspective is critical. This is the reason why I’ve stopped reviewing series that don’t appeal to me, and started asking people who find that series appealing to write guest reviews. Yes, I can tell you why I don’t like it, but getting a completely different perspective, gives everyone a break and keeps things positive and fresh. This comic went with a “diversity of stereotypes.” There was the big hairy gay guy and the cut gym bunny and the drag queen and the drunk. Amazingly, none of them are like any gay guys I actually know, so as realistic a role model as Superman. Oh well, so much for diversity. This is the problem I’m having with DC’s interpretation of “diversity” as well. It’s still a bunch of middle-aged white guys sitting around a table saying, “Okay, we got one black guy, one Hispanic guy and a lesbian. That covers it.” (I know, I know Renee Montoya is a Hispanic lesbian…my point is, their new reboot was limited in perspective,)
A really good story never tells you the moral of the story. It doesn’t have to, because it was a really good story and either the moral was apparent or there is no moral and you’re free to take away whatever you wanted from it. This story literally sat down with a random child who was inserted in the story for the sole purpose of having the moral of the story told to him.
Which brings me to…a really good story knows who is reading it (and who might be.) This story was presumably for adults looking for a LGBT superhero team and instead we got Timmy being told it’s okay to be different. If it’s for the kids, then why the camp humor in the opening scene? It wouldn’t be suitable at all! Was this series supposed to be Lassie or RuPaul’s Drag Race? I could not tell.
When considering LGBT manga, we should always be mindful of these qualities. Overall, I think manga does “diversity of perspective” better than American comics by a lot. Sure, there’s a lot of pervy lipstick lesbians in shounen and seinen manga. Well duh, Victoria’s Secret is really for guys, too. But even so, there’s a wide variation in perspective between Amane from Strawberry Panic!, Shizuru from Mai HiME and Mina from Air Master. Saki from Renai Joshikka and Sei from Maria-sama ga Miteru aren’t all that much alike, either, despite them both being the butchy, dumped girl. Fumi from Aoi Hana, Yomiko Readman from R.O.D. and Sarasa from Ame-iro Kouchakan Kandan might be visually similar, but they have entirely unique personalities, the manga are written for different audiences and from different perspectives.
I grew up on superhero teams and I was really looking forward to seeing a comic about superheroes who were Lesbian, Gay, Bi , Trans and Queer. Sadly, this wasn’t it. Ultimately, what I was hoping for was a series about a great superhero team that represented the LGBT community. Had they played with stereotypes and had some fun with them, it would have been cool. But to present the stereotypes as the entirely of LGBT representation turns me into a stereotype – the invisible, marginalized (and displeased about it) lesbian.
If I had created this team, I probably would have had each character represent a letter of the LGBTQ alphabet soup. A lesbian, a gay guy, a bisexual, a transgender person and someone genderqueer. Their powers would have had absolutely nothing at all to do with their queerness, nor would their names be puns or tacky uses of perjorative slang. No Dykewomyn for my team.
Which brings me to the one, repeated piece of advice I’m getting in the comments. I thought I had made it plain in the above paragraph, but I’ll make it plainer: The characters being LGBTQ should not be the plot. They should be heroes who are LGBTQ. It can be part of the story…but it should not be the story.
Each person would have a rich backstory – even if the reader never saw it. It’s enough to know that the Scarlet Cape (which is now the superhero name of the Trans character) had a great childhood with supportive, if confused parents, who are *far* less enthused that he’s a superhero than that he is a famous transman. Jezebel (the Genderqueer character) was raised by a pastor and his wife, and has not spoken to her parents in years, but they send her a religious Christmas card every year. Etc, etc. You, the reader, don’t need to know these stories (although bits might come up in conversation) but I’d be damned before making them the main plot points.
Here are some suggestions from the comments that I thinks are very valid:
No one is LGBTQ in a bubble. Providing context on the environment they are in can lead to a richer experience of daily experience. A closeted person in a hostile environment coming out will have an entirely different experience than one in a welcoming environment. Establish the environment.
This having been said, sometimes the best stories *are* written in a bubble. Fujieda Miyabi’s stories are written in a fantasy space where love between women is surround by soft smiles and encouraging glances from other women. Despite the unreality, I find it all to be a very warm and comforting environment.
Also important, was the comment about not presuming that an LGBTQ relationship is less stable than a straight one. I don’t know anyone who does that, but it’s good advice to, in general, remember that if you’ve created a relationship and had your readers invest themselves in it, then just throwing it under the bus is a good way to alienate readers.
This reminds me of a popular LGBTQ webcomic that started a new arc by establishing that everything that had happened previously was a dream. People stopped reading it in droves, because, well, fuck that. The story had been established, people came to care about it. Then they werejust told, “oh well, none of that ever happened.” This is not a good way to write any kind of story.
Which brings me to the discussion portion of today’s post.
I have a gigantic pile of manga here that needs a home, some good, some bad. I’ll open this up to you, my readers, whose opinions and perspectives I value. Books will be rewarded randomly. I’ll announce winners in a separate post, eventually. (Sorry for the pile of vague, I still have a few plates spinning just as yet.)
If you were to teach a class on creating LGBT comics, what *one* thing would you add to the above list? I’ll move the exceptional answers up into the post so we can make a good tutorial together. Let’s hear your suggestions for making great LGBT comics!
(Note: Perhaps before writing a comment, you all ought to read the other comments too, because so far everyone has said the exact same thing, and it’s something I actually already said in the context of this post….)