Why I Believe in Comics, by Grace Ellis

April 13, 2018

Why I Believe in Comics, by Grace Ellis

Let’s start out by being clear about something that is hopefully already evident: LGBTQ people are everywhere. We’re in your offices, your schools, your bathrooms, your Image+ magazines. And, most relevantly, we’ve got our gay creator hands all over your comic books. A second fact that is hopefully already evident: none of this is new, not even our involvement in comics, not even in mainstream superhero comics. After all, who knows more about living a double life or secret identities than a closeted queer person? We’re here, we’ve always been here, and anyone in a moral panic about LGBTQ people in comics is at least 75 years too late to stop us.

We’re in your offices, your schools, your bathrooms, your Image+ magazines. And, most relevantly, we’ve got our gay creator hands all over your comic books. A second fact that is hopefully already evident: none of this is new, not even our involvement in comics, not even in mainstream superhero comics. After all, who knows more about living a double life or secret identities than a closeted queer person? We’re here, we’ve always been here, and anyone in a moral panic about LGBTQ people in comics is at least 75 years too late to stop us.

Being LGBTQ is often an isolating experience. I’m a happy, out lesbian now, but I grew up in a religious, homophobic household where being gay wasn’t just not an option; as far as I knew, lesbians didn’t even exist. I spent my teen years feeling, in equal parts, like I was the only person in the world who felt the way I did and pretending I didn’t feel anything at all. A media landscape saturated with nothing but straight people confirmed for me that queer identities were, at best, a joke, or more likely, a death sentence. If I had come in contact with a single story that included a lesbian, it would’ve changed my life. The media we consume is a part of who we are (shameless plug: this is one of the many themes of my Image book Moonstruck, trade paperback available now. Run don’t walk). For example, if you spend your entire life reading comic books where lesbians don’t exist or are ugly butch punchlines or fantasy objects for men, that informs your understanding of what a lesbian is, which in turn informs how you treat lesbians in the real world. This goes for anyone you may meet whose life experience is different from your own. When a queer person sees someone like themselves in media, it impacts how they see themselves. After a lifetime of bad or non-representation, it’s easy to feel like you’re invisible or somehow broken or generally socially unacceptable. This applies doubly for media aimed at kids, particularly because LGBTQ characters are seen by many people as inherently X-rated and inappropriate for children. This idea is sometimes referred to as “symbolic annihilation.” If you don’t see yourself in media, does society value you at all?

The goal of most media is to create empathy; part of what makes effective stories in any medium is the ability of the writers to make you understand the characters, or at least understand their choic- es. This requires you to see the characters as fully developed people, and when the characters in question are LGBTQ people, straight people are forced to reckon with the humanity of non-straight people. It’s harder to bully or legislate against someone if you can look them in the eye and see a piece of yourself.

Which brings us (finally) to comic books, the perfect storytelling tool in many ways. Comics: a go-at-your-own-pace story with a visual element that equalizes and clarifies the experience. Comics: a medium with the ability to get inside the heads of characters in a way that filmed media can’t. Comics: an ideal venue for character exploration. I didn’t set out to write comics. I was a big comic strip fan as a kid, but as someone who doesn’t draw, it never occurred to me that writing comics could be a viable career. By the time I got to college, I was a battered, closeted kid who was still trying to figure out how my desire to write and my immense internalized homophobia would resolve themselves. The answer turned out to be simple: I got involved with writing for a web- site for lesbian and queer women, and then I co-created Lumberjanes, a book about monster-fighting girl scouts. There was never a question about whether or not there would be les- bians in Lumberjanes. It was absolutely a given.

A lot of that book was wish fulfillment, an imagining of the book that would have changed everything if we had gotten our hands on it as kids. A Saturday morning cartoon-style comic about girls who take down monsters and solve mysteries, and two of them have a crush on each other? It would’ve been a slam dunk for Tiny Me, and apparently I’m not the only one. Originally an eight-issue miniseries but soon releasing its 50th issue, the book exploded, its impact made clear before it was even released. Before its official launch, the first issue was available at Emerald City Comic Con, and when the doors opened on the first day, a group of young cosplayers dressed as our characters ran over to our booth and bought copies. They hadn’t even read the book, but they already felt a connection (which is really a testament to the strong, clear visual language of Brooklyn Allen and Noelle Stevenson’s art). Lumberjanes won awards and became a bestseller, but truly, seeing the faces of the kids who have found a sense of home and a sense of self in the world we built has been the most rewarding part of the process.

Seeing the impact of Lumberjanes undoubtedly impacted the creation of Moonstruck, illustrated by Shae Beagle and Kate Leth and edited by Laurenn McCubbin. Lumberjanes clarified something to the industry that LGBTQ creators already knew instinctively: kids are hungry to see themselves and their experiences reflected in comic books. The market is there, it’s always been there, and it’s champing at the bit to read new books. With that in mind, as well as bearing in mind the smorgasbord of tragedy that makes up the lesbian story canon, we created Moonstruck to be an intentionally positive book for LGBTQ people. A magical adventure, romance, slice-of-life mystery, one of the goals of Moonstruck is to use all the tools that comics specifically offer to tell a unique story that centers on LGBTQ characters and readers. The art is round, emotive, and warm because we want the world to feel cozy, comfortable, and inviting. We visually linger on emotional moments because we want to focus the story on our characters’ inner lives. We have a comic-within-a-comic that uses the readers’ understanding of differing comic book visual languages because we want our readers to reflect on the impact of their own media diets. None of these concepts would function the same way in any other medium, but the medium specifically allows us to tell the story we want to tell.

And that’s why I believe in comics.

Grace Ellis is the co-creator and former co-writer of Lumberjanes for BOOM! Studios and has written several episodes of Bravest Warriors for Cartoon Network. She’s the writer and co-creator of Moonstruck for Image Comics.