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No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics

Director: Vivian Kleiman (USA). Year of Release: 2021

A film review should be about the film, not the reviewer, but sometimes it helps to start by declaring your prejudices. This is a film about a community of which I am not a part, nor do I want to be. An obsessive community, rather like people who like motorbikes or Apple computers, who seem to know every slightest detail of their obsession and disdain anyone who doesn’t. But, try as I might, I never really got into comics.

I mean, I get that there are people who are seriously into them – and there were plenty here tonight, at the opening of a comic book festival. And it’s not that I think that comics are an inferior art form – I can recognise enough artistic quality in much of what I see. It’s just that their and my paths never really crossed, and now when I’m in the presence of comics, and particularly of comic book enthusiasts, I feel like I’m listening to a language that I never really mastered.

So I was expecting that I might hate this film, although at the same time there was the core of something very interesting here. How comics, which were never really accepted as “proper” art, might be particularly attractive to groups who are marginalized from society. Indeed, many of the artists interviewed here, from the paraplegic black gay man to the half Lebanese lesbian, say that they started off drawing white men, because this is what they thought comic society looked like.

No Straight Lines is at its strongest and most interesting when it is comparing developments in queer comics with what was happening in contemporary society. In the 1950s, comic artists were given more leeway than, say, newspaper cartoonists, precisely because their medium was seen as being so trivial. But the Cold War US governments got wise, and enacted legislation that meant that comics could not be sold in stores without containing a logo of approval.

You only got approval if you didn’t criticise the police, and if all relationships depicted were “healthy”, which meant that among others, gays and lesbians were explicitly forbidden. Comic culture moved underground and “adult” comics were mainly sold in Head shops used to sell drugs paraphernalia. Gay characters were even then at best sad sidekicks, and more often either non-existent, or objects of derision of homophobes like R Crumb.

Then Stonewall happened. Occupants of the Stonewall Ill, led by trans activists Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought back against a police raid, and showed that LGBT people were not just passively effeminate. One of the artists in the film (this is not my scene, so there’s only one name I remember, of which more later), was inspired to write a comic about the Stonewall uprising.

Comic culture of the 1970s was more militant and self-confident. We saw the release of the first comics explicitly about gays and lesbians, including Brown Bomber, a black, gay, superhero. The artists discuss whether they wanted to include actual sex in their stories. On the one hand, they wanted to depict gay and lesbian adolescents who were starting to understand who they were, including their fear of intimacy. On the other, why should they deny that LGBT sex also exists?

The confident 1970s were followed by the tragic 1980s, when gay activists went onto the defensive following the twin attacks of AIDS and the Reagan government. A cartoon shows a dinner table where the participants realise that 4 of the people present moved into their flat because they took the place of one of their friends who had died. Comic books also started to tell more stories about dangerous monsters posing a threat to society.

I could have done with much more of this sort of stuff. But after the 1980s the history level starts to peter out and we return to interviews with individual artists. Some of this is fascinating to a non-believer like myself. For example, did you know that Alison Bechdel, of Test fame, was a cartoonist and later writer of a Tony winning musical? Also that she is impressively articulate? If you follow comics, you probably did, but it was news to me.

In the end, No Straight Lines made me interested in a subject in which I’d previously shown little interest or knowledge. Of course there are things that I would have done a little differently, but if I’m too bothered about that, I can always go out and make my own film. Or something. This is a film that wasn’t made for people like me. The fact that it can still engage us is to its credit.

And one of the best things is that while some of the comic artists look exactly like you expect them to do, with elaborate hair do(n’t)s and ridiculously contrived names, others look just like anyone else – an ageing bloke in a plaid shirt, a short haired woman in glasses. If this helps promote the understanding that LGBT people (and maybe even comic artists) aren’t that different from the rest of us, then all the better for that.

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