History of LGBT: Comics and Comic Books

Anne N Thalheimer. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

When discussing LGBT comics, two names spring instantly to mind. One is Howard Cruse, who has had a very lengthy history in LGBT comics. Cruse had a strip in the 1970s called Barefootz, in which he created one of the first out gay characters in comics. Cruse founded Gay Comix in 1980 and was its first editor. He published a series of strips in the Advocate from 1983 to 1989 (with a hiatus in 1985), as well as book collections based on a character named Wendel Trupstock (and his very extended family). He is perhaps best known for his 1995 book Stuck Rubber Baby, which combines civil rights and gay rights content in telling the story of Toland Polk, who is living in the South as a gay white man during the 1960s. Cruse discusses race and ethnicity through varied characters, including Les Pepper, a young man trying to find the balance between religion, race, and sexuality. Cruse paved the way for many other LGBT cartoonists, such as Tim Barela, whose own continuing series, Leonard and Larry, begun in 1984, first appeared in Gay Comix.

The other “elder statesman” of LGBT comics is undoubtedly Alison Bechdel, whose strip Dykes to Watch Out For is perhaps the most recognized and widely read LGBT comic published today. It is currently syndicated in over seventy publications throughout North America and has been translated into dozens of languages. First published in the June 1983 issue of WomaNews and self-syndicated in 1985, Bechdel’s strip deftly skewers world politics and simultaneously represents the diversity of queer life, including characters of nearly every ethnicity, background, class, education, and gender. She has expanded the scope of the strip far beyond its title to include a heterosexual white man and a female-to-male gay man. Bechdel has published nine collections of her work and won numerous accolades (including multiple Lambda Literary Awards for Humor and Vice Versa Awards for Excellence in the Gay and Lesbian Press). Her work is widely anthologized and has appeared in Out, Advocate, Ms, Dyke Strippers, Gay Community News, and American Splendor, to name just a few. However, many do not know that in 1988 Bechdel created a strip, Servants to the Cause, about the staff of a LGBT newspaper, which appeared in the Advocate for just under two years and is collected in the all-Bechdel issue of Gay Comics (#19).

Arguably, LGBT characters have been in comics for as long as comics have existed, but many, like those in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, published in the mid-1980s, were only a backdrop to the book’s primary action. During the days of comics prior to the Stonewall Riots in 1969, those portrayals were generally negative or cursory, though a cartoonist named Blade reportedly had gay pornographic material circulating in the under-ground during the heyday of comic books in America prior to World War II. But openly positive LGBT characters did not prominently appear in comics until after the Stonewall Riots. The effect of that event on comics (as on the rest of the homophile movement) was long lasting enough so that Andrea Natalie named a series of hers Stonewall Riots in 1989. LGBT comics (initially often spelled “comix” to indicate their difference from mainstream comics as well as their more adult “X” content) were first found in underground comic books. These were self-published or printed and distributed by small-press publishers, in contrast to the then-bland mass-market comic books. In this period, many anthologies (like Wimmin’s Comix and All Atomic Comics) took up political issues. It is logical that gay comix followed. Underground comix prior to 1976 had of course made mention of LGB (if not yet trans) issues, like Lee Marrs’s Pudge, Girl Blimp. Lee Marrs helped start the Wimmin’s Comix Collective, which was founded in 1972 and is widely considered the birthplace of lesbian comics.

A. Jay’s character Harry Chess appeared in the gay magazine Drum during the mid-1960s. The first gay male comic book series, Gay Heartthrobs, appeared in 1976. Mary Wings (who subsequently wrote lesbian detective novels) published the first lesbian underground comic in 1973, titled simply Come Out Comix. She created it as a reaction to Trina Robbins’s story “Sandy Comes Out” in the first issue of Wimmin’s Comix. Robbins is one of the most widely known figures in American underground comics history, and she created the first all-women comic book, It Ain’t Me, Babe, published by Last Gasp in 1970. The year 1976 saw the publication of Roberta Gregory’s Dynamite Damsels (only the second openly lesbian comic book) and the outing of Headrack, a character created by gay comix pioneer Howard Cruse in Barefootz Funnies #2.

Roberta Gregory also found herself influenced by early issues of Wimmin’s Comix, publishing “A Modern Romance” in #4 in 1974. Mary Wings self-published Dyke Shorts in 1978, and Cruse began the still-running anthology Gay Comix in 1980. When Cruse left after four issues, Robert Triptow took the helm until #14, when Andy Mangels stepped in. (The title changed with #15 to the more conventionally spelled Gay Comics). Triptow, along with Robert Sienkiewicz and Trina Robbins, edited Strip AIDS USA in 1988, and he published a book history of LGBT cartoonists, titled Gay Comics, the following year. Each year Andy Mangels organizes the Out in Comics panel for Comic Con International in San Diego, first published in 1999. He is a prolific cross-genre writer. Prism Comics cited him as a direct influence on its decision to found an organization to promote LGBT folks in the industry. In addition to her multiple book projects, Roberta Gregory has published more than thirty issues of her comic book Naughty Bits(begun in 1991) and appeared in all but six of the twenty-five issues of Gay Comics.

As the 1980s progressed, LGBT characters continued to appear in titles as diverse as Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquestand the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets (which prominently featured a lesbian couple named Maggie and Hopey). In 1986, Leyland Publications began issuing a series of book-length anthologies called Meat-men, and Robert Kirby published Curbside in 1998, followed in 2002 by a second collection, Curbside Boys, with the well-known LGBT publishing house Cleis Press. Kirby also created two queer comics anthologies: Strange-Looking Exile: The All-Cartoon Zine For Queer Dudes ‘n Babes(published by Diane DiMassa’s Giant Ass Press) and Boy Trouble (with David Kelly). DiMassa is the creator and publisher of Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, which is often termed a “comics-zine” (because of DiMassa’s choice to self-publish and distribute). Besides the first twenty issues, there are also two anthologies (and one collection of over four hundred pages) published by Cleis Press.

The 1980s also saw the rise of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Jerry Mills, creator of the strip Poppers (started in 1982), penned a short history of gays in comics for the first Meatmen collection and printed his strip as health would allow; Mills died 28 January 1993 of complications from HIV. In 1996, DC Vertigo (a small division within a large mass-market publisher developed in order to publish comics aimed for a non-child readership) released David Wojnarowicz and James Romberger’s Seven Miles a Second, completed after Wojnarowicz’s AIDS-related death in 1992. In 2001 an autobiographical account by Judd Winick of the friendship between himself and Pedro Zamora—who died of AIDS in 1994—called Pedro and Me (2000) won an Outstanding Comic Award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and was nominated for an Eisner Award. Winick went on to work in mainstream titles, namely DC Comics’ Green Lantern and Marvel’s Exiles. Angela Bocage, creator and editor of Real Girl (billed as a comic anthology for all genders and all orientations) has long been an outspoken AIDS activist and critic of the public health care system.

Mass-Market Comic Books

Marvel’s Northstar came out in Alpha Flight #106 in 1992 in the midst of an AIDS-related storyline, officially making him the first out gay superhero. He had his own four-issue spin-off series from April to July 1994, which complicates Marvel’s recent claim that The Rawhide Kid is the first openly gay title character. There is also Go-Go Fiasco, sidekick of secret agent Angela St. Grace, in DC Vertigo’s Codename: Knockout series, created by Robert Rodi. Prior to that, in the late 1980s, John Byrne wrote a lesbian police captain—Maggie Sawyer—into Superman. Image Comics’ Gen 13 series included Sarah Rainmaker, a lesbian Native American character, in 1994. LGBT characters have appeared in other prominent mass market books, including The X-Men, X-Force, The Incredible Hulk, and Legion of Super-Heroes. DC’s The Authority included the first openly gay couple in mass-market comics; Green Lantern has the out lesbian duo Lee and Li, and many have read Batman’s Riddler and the Joker as gay. That is not surprising, since many people—the two most widely divergent being Fredric Wertham, the Joe McCarthy of comic books during the 1950s, and more recently, cultural critic Andy Medhurst in the widely reprinted “Batman, Deviance, and Camp”—see Batman and Robin as gay and Wonder Woman as lesbian. Machinesmith (from Daredevil) and Pied Piper (The Flash) are gay. Ivan Velez Jr. worked on Ghost Rider for Marvel, but is better known for Tales of the Closet. Ghost Rider and Captain America included gay story arcs, and Peter David wrote a Supergirl story line that drew favorable response from GLAAD.
Recent Comics

The number of LGBT independent comics since 1990 has increased rapidly, with works like Kris Dresen’s Max and Lily, Sean Bieri’s Cool Jerk and Homo Gal, and Carrie McNinch’s The Assassin and the Whiner. In the early 1990s, Donna Barr began a series, the Desert Peach, detailing the life of Erwin Rommel’s fictional gay brother. Also notable are strips like the long-running internationally syndicated For Better or Worse, by Lynn Johnston, which recently featured a gay male coming-out story, and Rupert Kinnard’s characters the Brown Bomber and Diva Touché Flambé, who were the first out LGBT African American superheroes. Sick of comix pornography, a staple in some gay male comics, some LBT women began to create comix erotica for women, notably Colleen Coover’s Small Favors, Ellen Forney’s Tomato (which includes the bisexual character Birdie), and Molly Kiely’s Diary of A Dominatrix.

Other notable LGBT cartoonists are Paige Braddock, Eric Orner, Jackie Urbanovic, P. Craig Russell, Jennifer Camper, and Leslie Ewing. Joan Hilty, an editor for DC Vertigo, produces a strip called Bitter Girl published on PlanetOut.com. Terry Moore published Strangers in Paradise, which featured a bisexual lead character, and Reed Waller and Kate Worley of Omaha, The Cat Dancer outed themselves as the first out bisexual comics creators in 1988. Like Bob Fingerman, Waller and Worley have included characters of all identities in their comics. The award-winning Sandman series by Neil Gaiman (which P. Craig Russell worked on for a time) has long been a prominent LGBT ally; it presented one of the first trans characters in comics—Wanda, from A Game of You. Trans comics are not as established as LGB comics, but they include the online comic T-Gina by Gina Kamentsky at T-Gina.com and Diana Green’s comic strip Tranny Towers, which began in 1995 and ran for over a year.