Exclusive Interview: filmmaker Vivian Kleiman on her queer comics documentary No Straight Lines “Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For changed my life”

Vivian Kleiman, who we spoke with last year about her Peabody Award-winning filmmaking partnership with the late Marlon Riggs, saw her latest film as director and producer, No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, receive its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival 2021. The beautifully crafted documentary feature 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. The film went on to play other prestigious festivals including Sheffield Doc Fest, AFI Docs, and Outfest, where it won the Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Documentary Feature.

Ahead of the theatrical release of No Straight Lines this Friday November 12th at Laemmle Glendale, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Vivian Kleiman about her own interest in queer comics, what convinced her to make the film, the power of seeing our queer lives reflected in the art and entertainment we consume, and what she admires about Billy Porter.

Panel from Alison Bechdel’s comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” episode 583, published in 1987, as seen in No Straight Lines, directed by Vivian Kleiman. Image courtesy of Compadre Media Group.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: How did you first become interested in queer comics and how did this film come about?

Vivian Kleiman: “Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For changed my life, as it did for many lesbians in the 1980s. Her representation of our lives, from the political to the personal, from going to the marches and bumping into your your exes with your exes, to searching for love at the bookstore or at the lesbian café. It was just such a breath of fresh air to see my life, my issues, represented with such clarity. It was so precisely us and she gave voice to a whole generation who didn’t have any opportunity to see ourselves anywhere in pop culture. I can’t emphasize enough the power of seeing oneself represented outside of one’s own little head and social and political world.”

“Fast forward to a few decades later and I really had very little connection with queer comics. Greg Sirota, a colleague of mine, contacted me one day and told me that he’d started work on a project that he wanted to hand over to me and asked if I was interested. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, it’s not a passion of mine’. Then Greg and a friend of his, Justin Hall, who’s the expert in queer comics history and is an artist himself—who ultimately became a producer with me on the film—encouraged me to attend the world’s first international gathering of queer comic book artists, the Queers & Comics Conference, held in New York in 2015. I went along and I was flabbergasted by what I saw.”

“First of all, my stereotype of comic book artists was represented by Robert Crumb; misogynist, homophobic, snarly, snarky, and not the kind of person who I would want to spend time doing a film about, or even just reading their comics. But I was completely stunned by what I saw at the conference. I walked into the hall and I immediately saw in the middle of the room this young person with chartreuse colored hair engaged in conversation with this slightly balding, punched, older gentleman with a Southern accent and a button down striped shirt. Around them was the manifestation of us in all of our glorious difference, from the youngest to the oldest, to the in-between, to the ragtag je ne sais quoi—that’s the joy of it—and they were all engaged in discussion together.”

“I thought, ‘Wow, I am entering a whole new dimension here’. Over the next few days, I attended all these different panels and I heard an amazing array of stories and the people were such incredible storytellers. I like to say it was a casting directors dream, because as a filmmaker I’m not just looking for strong subjects but for good storytellers and interesting stories. I especially like stories that show me a whole new dimension on something that I thought I already knew. I love it when my notions get turned topsy-turvy and I have to reexamine and rethink my assumptions.”

Artist Howard Cruse holding a page of his comic “Stuck Rubber Baby,” as seen in No Straight Lines, directed by Vivian Kleiman. Image courtesy of Compadre Media Group.

How did you go about deciding to primarily focus on five artists?

“Justin Hall had done the first anthology of queer comics, No Straight Lines, in which he brought together four decades of queer comic history, giving representation to some 70 different artists in this landmark publication. I knew from the get-go that I had no interest whatsoever in replicating that approach. My approach is to go into as much detail with an individual as possible to give my viewer a sense of connection with their personal stories, no matter what the subject is. So I immediately knew that I wanted to narrow it down. Typically for a documentary I would have chosen three people, the magic three of the Asian aesthetic, but in this case it was impossible to narrow it down to just three, so I expanded it.”

“It was very difficult to narrow it down to five and it took a while to explain to Justin that certain people would be excluded, but from the specific comes the general and yes, it’s painful, but if I accomplished anything with this project it would be to create an invitation for the viewer to be curious. All you have to do now is push a little button, or just ask Siri, and you’ll find out anything that you want to know. So if I could just tickle somebody’s curiosity and interest to get them to look further, then mission accomplished.”

“Alison Bechdel, and the arrival of her book Fun Home in 2006, was originally the terminus for the film. It was on The New York Times bestseller list for 50-something weeks, it was on the cover of Time magazine as book of the year. So I always saw that as illustrating that we’d arrived at mainstream acceptance, from the early 70s do-it-yourself art form to that success. I saw that as the framework for the film. Trying to find a way to keep it intimate while at the same time offering ideas that would stimulate people to think about the bigger issues was one of the main challenges that I faced.”

Comic book artists Jennifer Camper, Diane DiMassa, Alison Bechdel, Rob Kirby, Joan Hilty and Howard Cruse together at the 1993 OutWrite conference, as seen in No Straight Lines, directed by Vivian Kleiman. Image courtesy of Compadre Media Group.

You also introduce some contemporary voices with a diverse range of LGBTQ+ artists, which I thought worked really well. What perspective did you want them to bring to the film?

“I knew that for older queers the film would be a nostalgic romp in our history, but I wanted it to reach young people too. When I looked at the first rough cut, it felt a bit like old people telling stories that we’ve already heard, and so I needed to put out a welcome mat to younger viewers, but I wasn’t sure how. On a very tight budget, I decided to spend some money on an experiment. At the 2017 Queers & Comics Conference I grabbed individuals who I didn’t know. I had no idea about their art, no idea about their background, and I had an assistant time me for 10 minutes for each interview. I spoke with about a dozen people and at the end of the day my cinematographer Andy Black, who’d been involved in every shoot, looked at me and he goes, ‘Viv, this is one of the most dynamic days of filming and I have no idea how you’re going to use this material’. I said, ‘I don’t know either, but we’re going to try really hard because this has been really amazing. The stories came from their heart.’ So we worked really hard to make it fit.”

“To be honest, when I showed it to people who know how to look at a work in progress who were over the age of 50, they said, ‘If you’re going to have these young people, don’t just throw them on screen for a few seconds, tell me about them. Who are they? What is their work? How did they get involved in comics?’ Whereas anybody under the age of 30 who saw it, looked at me and said, ‘What’s the problem?’ So I knew that next-gen viewers were going to engage with this experiment in storytelling, but that my challenge was to make it so that everybody else felt like they had an access point, to make them care about these people. That was one of the biggest challenges of this particular film.”

“I wanted to get personal stories from the five artists and to tell the history through the comics, history that had been well-trodden before me, and to tell it in a fresh way, and I also wanted to speak to the means of production vis-à-vis art making. I wanted to introduce a whole sprinkling of young voices in what I was originally thinking of as being like the Greek chorus. I thought maybe they would introduce a section and end a section nicely, but it really didn’t work to have it organized as simply as that. So what I tried to do was something that ends up not being chronological, and not so clearly organized, with these folks introducing or ending a chapter. Some people find it chaotic, but most people follow it and to be honest if I was doing something that was going to be welcomed by everyone then I’d be wasting my time.”

Comic book artist Alison Bechdel as seen in No Straight Lines, directed by Vivian Kleiman. Image courtesy of Compadre Media Group.

Talking about showing us the process of art making, I really appreciate that we get to see Alison Bechdel talk about that intimately.

“When she says, ‘Look, I can tell that I was using a certain kind of pen when I drew that’, every time I hear that comment, my heart goes ‘thumper, thumper’! Right there, that’s an example of from the specific comes the general, because in that one little comment, as an aside that she makes, she’s offering so much about what it means to have that level of craft and attention to such a particular detail.”

Last time we spoke we discussed Color Adjustment because we were talking about your work with with Marlon Riggs. How does No Straight Lines echoe your approach to that film?

“You are the one person I’m speaking with who understands that link. I would reference this in my proposals, but you really get it, I love it. This project came to me by accident, but it really is a logical relative to the work that I was doing with Marlon in Color Adjustment and also in Tongues Untied. In Tongues Untied, what Marlon taught me was as specific and tailored as every cut that you make can be for your specific audience is as strong and as powerful a film it will become. Do not try to explain for the outsider, it’s for a certain audience. With Color Adjustment, the kind of questions that Marlon taught me about representation, about the relationship of image and what’s going on in society, with historical events, and political events, and how the construction of images at once mirrors and reflects our lives was an a powerful lesson.”

“The notion of posing questions in Color Adjustment was something that I had suggested. He was struggling with writing narration and I said, ‘Marlon, you know it’s not our task to give the answers, it’s enough to just pose questions and let people chew on and digest the questions.’ Then Marlon comes back, not just with actual questions, but he puts them on screen. I brought that same set of questions with me to this project and I was able to apply that experience of producing Color Adjustment to No Straight Lines. It’s an awesome lineage and tribute to my collaboration with Marlon.”

Jon Kent Finds His Identity in Superman: Son of Kal-El #5 © 2020 DC Entertainment.

With your film just about to be released it was interesting timing to see the news about Superman being bisexual in the DC comic book series, Superman: Son of Kal-El. What did you make of that?

“Aren’t I lucky that I’d already finished the film by the time that announcement happened?! Otherwise I’d really been a conundrum. The notion of Superman being bisexual, and the reaction that it generated around the world, is an example of just how far we have come and it thrills me. I’m delighted that I was able to bring No Straight Lines up to a contemporary point of web comics and show the amazing diversity of image making that we have. At one point my editor looked at the images of the web comics and said, ‘You know, these don’t really look like they’re queer in particular’, and I said, ‘Bingo! You got it.’ It’s a testament to how mainstream our lives have become and the level of acceptance that we have achieved. At the same time, there is a significant rise of suicidality among queer youth relative to the general population of 18 to 20-something year olds, and that is witness to how our struggles continue.”

Tongues Untied (1989). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Dyllón Burnside and Billy Porter in Pose. Courtesy of FX.

One final question for you, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you resonated with you over the years?

“That’s a very hard question, but I’m just going to be spontaneous and say who immediately comes to mind, Billy Porter. He has changed hearts and minds in a way that is so magnificent and so majestic. Pose received a Peabody in 2019 and I was there because they also honored Marlon Riggs for his life’s work that year. Billy Porter was asked to present the award and when I saw him at the event I ran over to him. While we were chatting I asked, ‘Have you ever seen Tongues Untied?’ He looked at me and he goes, ‘Have I seen Tongues Untied?! I saw it when it was first broadcast on the POV series on national PBS and it changed my life. It enabled me to be who I am.’ So if anybody asks you about the power or the impact of documentary films, there you go.”

By James Kleinmann

No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics opens at the Laemmle Glendale, California this Friday November 12th 2021.

No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics (TRAILER)
No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics – Poster.

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