There’s something queer about comics. Whether one looks to the alternative mutant kinships of superhero stories (the epitome of queer world making), the ironic and socially negative narratives of independent comics (the epitome of queer antinormativity), or the social stigma that makes the medium marginal, juvenile, and outcast from proper art (the epitome of queer identity), comics are rife with the social and aesthetic cues commonly attached to queer life. Moreover, the medium has had a long history as a top reading choice among those “queer” subjects variously called sexual deviants, juvenile delinquents, dropouts, the working class, and minorities of all stripes. Despite this, comics studies and queer theory have remained surprisingly alienated from one another. On the one hand, comics studies’ tendency to analyze the formal codes of sequential art separately from social questions of sexual identity and embodied difference has often led to a disregard for a nuanced queer and intersectional critique of the comics medium. On the other, the prevailing assumption that mainstream comics (i.e., the superhero genre) embody nationalistic, sexist, and homophobic ideologies has led many queer theorists to dismiss comics altogether or else to celebrate a limited sample of politically palatable alternative comics as exemplars of queer visual culture. In this logic, “Queer zines yes! Superhero comics no!”
This alienation—at times even antagonism—evinces a failure of recognition in the current development of scholarship rather than a true gulf between the foundational questions and concepts of the two fields. The conceptual and historical intersections of queer theory (and sexuality more broadly) and comics culture in both its visual and narrative production and its fan communities are rife and rich. At every moment in their cultural history, comic books have been linked to queerness or else to broader questions of sexuality and sexual identity in US society. In the 1930s and 1940s, Wonder Woman visually celebrated S/M practices and same-sex bonding between women, metaphorized through the image of the chained, shackled, or bound submissive; in the late 1940s and early 1950s, crime and horror comics presented what was arguably the most antisocial critique of postwar domestic life outside of noir cinema, spectacularizing forms of violence, gore, and criminality that radically upended the ideals of nuclear family harmony and the sublimation of desire in material goods; in the late 1950s, MAD Magazine elicited affective pleasure in the satiric critique of the nuclear family and its blatant refusal of the Cold War security state; in the 1960s and 1970s, Marvel Comics revitalized the superhero comic book by infusing its art with the visual politics of gay and women’s liberation while the independent comics art of R. Crumb and the Wimmen’s Comix collective brought a radical sexual politics to the visual culture of comic books; and from the 1960s to contemporary times, gay, lesbian, and queer culture has taken up comics as sites of sexual pleasure, such as in the graphic sex narratives of Tom of Finland and the cartoonists inspired by him, many of whom testify to beginning their cartooning by tracing and imaginatively redrawing the male figures they encountered in superhero comics. These latter crosscurrents now flow strongly in both directions, as evidenced by the recent proliferation of explicitly LGBTQ+ characters and scenarios in contemporary comics, from the X-Men’s Legacy Virus (a spectacular metaphor for HIV/AIDS) to the lesbian Batwoman and the gay Green Lantern. Moreover, the ubiquity of the medium—comic books being among the most mass-produced and circulated print media of the twentieth century—alongside its simultaneous stigmatization as the preferred reading material of a small slice of so-called immature youth and social outcasts models Eve Sedgwick’s now-classic formulation of queerness as both a universalizing and minoritizing discourse: comics end up in the hands of nearly everybody, but comic book readers are a niche (i.e., queer, nerd, outcast, weirdo) group; anyone and everybody could be queer, but actual queers are a minority group in the larger culture.
As this broad sketch of comics’ queer attachments suggests, rather than needing to be queered, comics themselves “queer” the archive of American culture. Encounters between queer theories and comics studies potentially offer broader historical assessments of how the literary medium of comics, and its larger aesthetic and production history, might be understood as a distinctly queer mode of cultural production that has functioned as queer history rather than its serialized supplement. When we understand the history of sexuality and the history of comics as mutually constitutive, rather than merely reflective or coincidental, we can gain insight into the ways that the comic book medium’s visual structures not only lend themselves to questions of sexuality and sexual identity but have also taken shape historically in response to transformations in the history of sexuality.
Among the questions we might begin to consider when we explore what is distinctly queer about comics—and what aspect(s) of comics represent and give meaning to queerness—are the following: How might a medium made up of the literal intersection of lines, images, and bodies capture the values of intersectional analysis? How does comics’ attention to the visual orientation of images in space model a conception of sexual orientation—especially in relation to race and gender—since all of these are coordinates of embodied being not truly “present” on the two-dimensional page but signified and referred to by combinations of text and image? How might the medium’s discontinuous organization of images map onto disability’s discontinuous relationship to heterosexual able-bodied existence? How might the medium’s courting of marginal and outsider audiences allow for the formation of queer counterpublics? How do the comics medium’s formal properties provide material analogies for or creatively materialize and literalize seemingly formless experiences of nonnormative erotic desire, pleasure, and intimacy?
These questions only begin to scratch the surface of productive encounters between comics studies and queer studies, but they suggest a synthetic approach to comics that considers the medium’s queerness as opening out into a variety of formal and narrative experiments that have attempted to deal with the problem of being literally and figuratively marginal or “queered” by social and political orders.
In the interest of developing some of these links, we map three of the primary sites where we see queerness as a social/affective force intersecting productively with comics as a medium. This initial mapping functions merely as a starting point for identifying those locations where queerness—understood variously as a social force, a complex network of erotic and affective ties, or an entire shared culture—appears intimately bound up with the formal and narrative capacities of the comics medium.
First, the status of comics as marginal literature and art and the assumed immaturity of its audiences (associated with childhood or arrested-adolescent fantasy) situate comics as an outsider medium that elicits attachments from perceived social delinquents, outcasts, and minorities. Comics readers and fans construct their relationships to these texts on the basis of the medium’s marginality and often their own sense of disconnection from the expectations of normative social life. Comic books are a medium that thus hails counterpublics. Per Michael Warner, “A counterpublic maintains at some level, conscious or not, an awareness of its subordinate status. The cultural horizon against which it marks itself off is not just a general or wider public but a dominant one. And the conflict extends not just to ideas or policy questions but to speech genres and modes of address that constitute the public or to the hierarchy among media. The discourse that constitutes it is not merely a different or alternative idiom but one that in other contexts would be regarded with hostility or with a sense of indecorousness” (2002, 56). Comics counterpublics are shaped in large part by the development of a variety of alternative—and often egalitarian and grassroots—forms of sociality between readers, creators, and textual content, including fan clubs, letter-writing campaigns, zines, and comic conventions. What psychologist and anticomic crusader Fredric Wertham presciently captured in his derision of the homosexual undertones in Batman and Robin in the mid-1950s was the same queer spirit that he would later celebrate in his embrace of comic book fan communities and their egalitarian practices in the 1960s and 1970s; both comic book content and fan culture ran an ongoing critique of normative social relations that exhibits itself in comic books’ visual content and its solicitation of nonnormative counterpublics.
Second, the expansive representational capacity of the medium queers it. As a low-tech medium primarily composed of hand-drawn images, the representational possibilities of comics vastly outrun those of other media, requiring little to no special effects or technical equipment in its most classical sense. (It might be said, too, that this low-tech quality makes comics either fundamentally democratic or especially available to democratic practices.) Both the protocols of writing/drawing and reading comics dictate that anything that can be drawn can be believed—often if not most times with little or no attention to verisimilitude between what’s represented on the page and what we perceive in the three-dimensional world beyond the page. This has made the medium especially effective as a space for the depiction of an array of fantastical characters, worlds, and social interactions (among humans, mutants, aliens, cyborgs, and other “inhuman” figurations). The fantasy aspects of the medium have historically lent themselves to the depiction of a vast array of nonnormative expressions of gender and sexuality—from the most metaphoric (in hyperbolic camp visuality, the metamorphosing of human bodies into forms that put into question traditional gender norms, etc.) to the most literal (the actual depiction of queer bodies and erotic attachments).
Such figures are possible to read as refractions of social and political possibilities: a perhaps unexpected example of comics’ refractory fantastic can be found in The Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics’ first commercial hit during the company’s renaissance in the early 1960s. In that series, the three male characters’ physical mutations ran up against and undermined their ability to embody normative masculinity even as their commercial dominance and fan response presented them as exemplars in a tradition of representation whose post–Wertham Comics Code Authority brief was to produce heroic masculine role models (Fawaz 2016, 66–88). Instead, the heroes were freaks: Mr. Fantastic’s pliability was a sign of “softness,” the Thing’s rocky body rendered him fundamentally androgynous, and the Human Torch’s flaming body functioned as both a figure of hypermasculinity as well a visual signifier of the “flaming” homosexual of Cold War America. The extraordinary transformations that made them “super” and “heroes” also unraveled their traditional performance of gender and sexuality, or as Fawaz suggests, such unraveling might even productively be seen as a necessary part of how it was possible to think heroism (for putatively straight, white, male, educated cultural producers) on the cusp of the vast social changes coalescing under the signs of the civil rights movement and later the New Left and antiwar movements, Black Power, second-wave feminism, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation.
Third and finally, the unpredictability of serial narrative/narration and the visual structure of comics as a set of sequential panels that repeat, but always with a difference, suggest that comics are formally queer. Just as the underlying premise in comics that anything that can be drawn can be believed taps into the productivity of human capacities for fantasy, the formal character of comics—the idea that you can have indefinite iterations of a given story that never reproduce a single trajectory—helps clarify the ways that fabulation underwrites our realities in decidedly queer ways.
Here for definitions we can turn to Saidiya Hartman’s description of the practice of critical fabulation:
“Fabula” denotes the basic elements of story, the building blocks of the narrative. A fabula, according to Mieke Bal, is “a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused and experienced by actors. An event is a transition from one state to another. Actors are agents that perform actions. (They are not necessarily human.) To act is to cause or experience and event.”… By playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story, by re-presenting the sequence of events in divergent stories and from contested points of view,… [critical fabulation] attempt[s] to jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account, and to imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done. (2008, 11)
What’s potentially queer about comics’ fabulation and thus the formal relation comics bear to queer politics? Take two fundamental conceits of queer theory: In what is perhaps the most oft quoted line from the inaugural moment of queer theory, Judith Butler claimed that “gender is an imitation for which there is no original” (1993, 313). Only second to this then-revolutionary statement might be Eve Sedgwick’s first axiom for queer studies that “people are different from each other” (1990, 22). Though both theorists first formulated these claims to describe the instability of gendered and sexual identity, their statements describe the operation of comic strip form exactly. As a serialized medium, comics proliferate images that imitate both material or embodied experience and previous images or copies in a sequence; this proliferation underscores the limitless differences produced between an ever-expanding range of images and the figures and worlds they depict. Simultaneously, the sheer number of images, texts, and characters the medium produces renders claims to originality superfluous, as does the presentation of mutant, monstrous, or altogether fantastical characters that have no “original” form in everyday life. Perhaps more than any other literary or cultural mode, then, comics self-consciously multiply and underscore differences at every site of their production. Each iteration of an image, an issue, a story line, or a world has the potential to disrupt, comment upon, or altogether alter the flow and direction of what has come before: in this sense, comics function, to borrow from Sara Ahmed (2006), as queer orientation devices, productively directing readers toward deviant bodies that refuse to be fixed in one image or frame, toward new desires for fantasy worlds that rebel against the constraints of everyday life, and toward new kinds of counterpublic affiliation among readers who identify with the queer, deviant, maladjusted form called comics.
Each of these areas of nexus is rich unto itself and allows scholars working at the intersection of queer theory and comics studies to talk about a range of things—from the cultivation of rarified fan communities, to the production of queer intimacies between readers and fantasy characters, to formal and representational feats that lend themselves to being articulated to the depiction of nonnormative or queer orientations to the world. Such conversations allow us to see comic strip seriality anew not merely as the accumulation of drawn images in sequence but as the unfolding of thrilling and unpredictable desires into an indefinite future, very much like queerness itself.