Directed and produced by Peabody Award-winner Vivian Kleiman (a longtime collaborator of filmmaker Marlon Riggs), the beautifully crafted documentary feature No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, which received its world premiere at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, chronicles the history of queer comics by focusing on five lesbian and gay trailblazing cartoonists, with insights from the current wave of LGBTQ+ artists whom they inspired.
As with Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein’s The Celluloid Closet, and Kleiman’s own Color Adjustment produced with Riggs before it, through insightful interviews with its subjects No Straight Lines also reflects on our desire for representation and how the impact of seeing ourselves portrayed in mainstream media can shape our self-perceptions.
Lebanese-American cartoonist and graphic designer Jennifer Camper says that she was “always on the look out for tough, beautiful kick-ass women” in the comic strips she read like Steve Canyon, adding that though they might not be explicitly identified as such, she was “finding dykes in comics from a very early age.”
The fact that queer characters weren’t defined as such or generally easy to find was partly a result of the 1954 Comics Code which forbade “sexual abnormalities” and “sex perversion”, and like Hollywood’s Hays Code, was “designed to reinforce the most bland vision of what American life should be like” as the late gay cartoonist Howard Cruse puts it.
Cruse—referred to by Jennifer Camper as “the godfather of queer comics”—would go on to become the founding editor of the Gay Comix anthology in 1980 and create the popular Wendel comic strip for The Advocate. The cartoonist details the emergence of the underground comic book scene during the counterculture revolution of the 60s and 70s, which initially excluded then came to be rich with, queer characters depicting the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era of gay sexual liberation.
As queer characters did begin to break through, the 1972 ‘Sandy Comes Out’ lesbian story in Wimmen’s Comix left the accordion-playing Mary Wings unsatisfied and prompted her to create Come Out Comix the following year. It was the first known lesbian comic book by an out lesbian, which Wings says she wanted to enable her “lesbian sisters to go on an insane adventure” as they read “something that mirrored their experience.”
Firstly inspired by Muhammad Ali to create a Black comic book character, Superbad, who was drawn sporting a “giant ‘fro that was designed to strike fear in the hearts of every white person” and wore a costume in the colours of the Black Liberation Flag, Black cartoonist and graphic designer Rupert Kinnard was later inspired by another boxer, Joe Louis, to explore his own intersectionality by creating The Brown Bomber who was both Black and queer. Becoming paraplegic following a car accident in the mid-90s, Kinnard’s work went on to explore his experience as a disabled Black queer man living in America.
While Kinnard reflects on the fact that he’d previously spent years drawing only white characters before Superbad, cartoonist Alison Bechdel (whom the Bechdel Test was named after following its appearance in her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For) similarly questions the way that despite being a lesbian she had initially only drawn men. It was only when she encountered Cruse’s Gay Comix—which had the tagline “Lesbians and Gay Men Put It On Paper!”—that things changed for her. “The thought that I could draw about my own queer life was really revolutionary for me”, Bechdel says. Spending time with the artist at work, Kleiman gives us a satisfying and detailed look at the process of putting pencil and ink to paper, while we also get a sense of the time and passion involved in hatching and shading as Cruse discusses the years that went into his Eisner Award-winning graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, set in the South of 50s and 60s.
As the film traces the decline in traditional LGBTQ+ press across the country, where many queer comic strips had been syndicated, and the closure of independent bookstores, it tracks the emergence of zines and web comics. It is through Bechdel’s story that we see the mainstream success of queer comics with her graphic novel Fun Home. Time magazine called the work “a masterpiece” when they named it Book of the Year in 2006, before its 2013 stage adaptation at New York’s Public Theater transferred to Broadway and went on to win five Tony Awards in 2015, making history as the first show written by all women to win Best Musical.
Aesthetically elegant and vibrant the film uses beautifully rendered speech bubbles, captions and panels to give it an artful comic strip look, along with detailed, atmospheric sound design that enhances the narrative.
Two striking and moving sequences in the film convey the Stonewall riots and then later the height of the AIDS crisis and activism through comic book art. As Jennifer Camper becomes overwhelmed with memories of the grief and trauma of the 80s and early 90s, Kleiman sensitively keeps the camera on the empty chair that Camper has stood up from during an interview. It is a poignant and delicately handled moment in the film before it goes on to give us a sense of queer comic culture’s response to AIDS, from the rage of David Wojnarowicz’s posthumous memoir, 7 Miles A Second, to those who addressed the epidemic with humour.
Throughout the film we meet a diverse new generation of LGBTQ+ comic book artists such as Sina Grace, Maia Kobabe, Carlo Quispe, Dylan Edwards, and Ajuan Mance, who as well as expressing their gratitude for the queer cartoonists who broke ground before them, discuss the increasing emergence of more personal work that often explores the intersection of race, religion, gender identity and sexuality.
With No Straight Lines, Kleiman has created a rich, fascinating, and affectionate tribute to queer comic book art and its pioneers that left me with a long summer reading list.
By James Kleinmann
No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June 2021. For more information on the film and details of future screenings head to NoStraightLinesTheFilm.com.