Out of the Closet and Into the Costume: A History of Queer Comix

Thursday, October 12, the University of Illinois at Chicago hosted PhD student and psychotherapist Valentino L. Zullo to speak on one of his favorite topics: comics, specifically queer comix. Part history and part survey, Zullo's lecture was infused with his signature humor and delivered with a relaxed attitude that made the topic accessible to everyone, not just academics. He warned early on that "each image equals 10,000 not shown" and that there was a "99% chance I'll forget your favorite character."

Dr. Mark R. Martell, Director of the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, welcomed everyone and provided a list of the sponsors, including the AARCC, the Honors College, and the Gender and Sexuality Center. The Assistant Director of the latter, Moisés Villada, introduced Zullo, a PhD student at Kent State University, a Maternal Depression Therapist at Ohio Guidestone, and the Ohio Center for the Book Scholar-in-Residence at Cleveland Public Library.

Zullo began with an image from Tom of Finland as an early representative example of queer comix and then jumped to 1954 to discuss Dr. Fredric Wertham. There was "not a lot of out [LGBT] representation until the 70s," he explained. At the height of McCarthyism, Wertham was an anti-comics crusader who managed to get before Senate subcommittees. Joking that he "didn't know how big of a deal that was until I started following Trump's election," he provided context about how the old jokes about Batman and Robin being gay "probably started with Wertham."

Batman and Robin were "wish fulfillment of homosexuals" and Wonder Woman was the "lesbian counterpart of Batman" who presented a "morbid ideal," in Wertham’s words. As Zullo explained, "homosociality is not a concept [for Wertham]." He was unable to conceive of any type of relationship between two men without there being a sexual component. Comics were burned en masse as early as 1946, and banned in such major cosmopolitan centers as New York and Detroit. Above an image of a comic book burning in Binghamton, New York, Zullo presented a quote from Wertham taken from his Senate Subcommittee hearing: "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry."

The establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954 allowed publishers to censor themselves. "Any hint of anything queer positive would not get approved." Zullo showed a slide with an actual guideline of the CCA that read "sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden." In 1956, DC introduced Batwoman as a means to break up the "subtext" of Batman and Robin by being a love interest for the Dark Knight. The end of her introduction story declared, "A new trophy is added to the Bat-cave (sic)."

"We'll get back to Batwoman in 50 years," Zullo promised with a laugh.

In the 50s and 60s, many companies went under in the wake of Wertham's (and other anti-comics crusaders') accusations and attacks. Fortunately, many creators and readers didn't give up, and created a whole world of underground comix that were sold out of head shops or circulated by hand. None of it was regulated, and were not beholden to the same rigid and oppressive structures as the Comics Code. Some newspapers, like Berkeley Barb or The Advocate, had stories with a wide range of tones that were all important. "To announce yourself existing…you're making a statement," Zullo said. Underground comix had huge implications for the world of comics and the world at large.

In 1972, Trina Robbins helped create Wimmen's Comix, a magazine of autobiographical comics by women. One of the first stories drawn by Robbins, "Sandy Comes Out," depicted the self-actualization of Robert Crumb's sister Sandra. This prompted Mary Wings to publish Come Out Comix in 1973, since "It was as if Sandy came out, went to the bar, took karate lessons, and that was it. There was an emotional and spiritual side to coming out that wasn't there." Wings felt a need to tell her own story, rather than let someone else tell it.

Anthologies also became a great source for queer content, especially the groundbreaking Gay Comix, published by Denis Kitchen.Comics pioneer Howard Cruse says in the introduction that "we gay cartoonists would like to affirm that we are here." One of Cruse's featured stories was "Billy Comes Out," an internal monologue driven short that had "little comments that show lived experiences," as Zullo put it. For example, in one strip, Billy wonders if he should bottom while suffering from hemorrhoids.

In 1983, Alison Bechdel began publishing her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. "I had set out to make lesbians visible," she said. It also introduced the world to what's become known as the Bechdel Test, which stipulates that two named female characters must have a conversation with each other about something other than a man. Zullo polled the audience to find a recent film that passes, and the only offering was Sharknado.

Trina Robbins and Robert Triptow, an editor at Gay Comix, created Strip AIDS USA in 1989, an underground comic to raise money for AIDS research. Zullo quoted Triptow's introduction: "You can't get AIDS from reading this book. Instead, it could be part of a cure…for hysteria, the other AIDS epidemic."

The 1990s saw mainstream comics finally introduce a gay character when Marvel had Northstar come out of the closet in Alpha Flight #106. Unfortunately, there was still AIDS hysteria in his storyline as his friend was dying of the disease. Outside the mainstream was a great deal of queer content. In 1994, Rob Kirby published his first book of Boy Trouble comics. "A lot of people who did their own zines had the same little epiphany I did, encountering a homemade alterna-publication that created an instant frisson, a sense of new creative possibilities."

Zullo also pointed out how the advent of the Internet led to even more content, as the proliferation of webcomics provided more outlets than ever before. He singled out Christine Smith’s strip The Princess and quoted the creator. "I'm creating comics now for the little girl I was then, and presenting a young, trans girl in a normalized, non-pathological fashion."

Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer for Maus in 1992, ushering in a new era of respect and admiration for the comics medium and long-form autobiographical stories, content that had sprung from underground movements. Zullo chafed at the phrase "graphic novel," because "[the word] novel implies fiction." He quoted Alison Bechdel again: "When I started out my comics were 'lesbian comics.' Then they became comics." Zullo said that this works because she's white and has privilege that many creators do not. "While we're past the rape fears as seen in Jim Shooter's Hulk or tokenism, there is still a lot of work to do for those who are not as privileged."

He returned to Batwoman, as promised, with Greg Rucka's wonderful reinterpretation. Zullo highlighted J. H. Williams III's artwork that "[took] control of the page" and how this Kate Kane deconstructs the character's homophobic history and stereotypical gender images. He delivered a quick montage of queer characters, including America Chavez, Jughead, and Doctor Aphra.

America written by Gabby Rivera was singled out as "a great proclamation of America [the country]’s future [as] queerer, browner, and female" and Sina Grace as a Persian queer man writing Iceman bringing intersectionality to comics. Zullo also celebrated Grace's other work, including his memoir Nothing Lasts Forever. While we continue to get stories of white people coming out (and we do need those) we can keep moving forward and show more diverse representations. Zullo ended his lecture with the exuberant reminder that while some people think "if we have a gay Iceman or a female Thor, we can't have Captain America or Spider-Man. We can have all of them!"

Afterwards, Zullo took some questions from the audience. He was happy to see more creators who are queer and POC, and deplored the use of token characters. "What's great now is you'll have multiple queer characters…[Earlier,] you'd have one, and they'd have to do everything and represent everyone." He lamented how some great books have been cancelled, such as Black Panther & the Crew. He also told the story of how he got interested in comics academically thanks to a British Literature, 1660–1800 Professor at Kent State University, Dr. Vera Camden, who simply asked him, "Why don't you study comics?" Since then she has been a mentor to Zullo, and has pushed him to continue to work on comics both academically and in the community.

The lecture was followed by a workshop at the university's Gender and Sexuality Center, where Zullo led participants on an exercise used by Lynda Barry, which she learned from Ivan Brunetti. After everyone had paper and pencils, they were told to fold the paper into four sections, then draw either a car or Batman in four minutes. The time frame was subsequently shortened to two minutes, one minute, 45 seconds, thirty seconds, and five seconds. Cars were reduced to single wheels, and Batman became little more than his logo. The process was repeated with participants encouraged to do self-portraits or their personalities. Zullo's psychoanalytic roots came through as he discussed the therapeutic advantages to comics and their creation, and how this exercise helps distill subjects to their most essential elements.

Devin Whitlock's picture
on October 18, 2017

I've enjoyed comics since I was ten years old, but won't reveal how long ago that was. I'm a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, and can usually be found at a local bar with a book in one hand and a drink in the other. I'm so happy to be contributing to Geeks OUT!