The Burial and Resurrection of LGBTQIA Comics

FunhomecoverThe history of LGBTQIA comics is in the spotlight this week at The Paris Review, where an excerpt from Hillary Chute’s new book Why Comics? traces how sequential art by and featuring gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people was first driven underground by the Comics Code–where it flourished and eventually returned to the mainstream with a vengeance.

As Chute notes, the possible sexual orientation of various fictional characters was a major preoccupation of the anti-comics crusaders of the 1940s and ‘50s, led by Fredric Wertham:

Gayness used to be a public accusation leveled at comics to discredit the medium: in the 1950s, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman, were suspected to be gay, and therefore a negative influence. Dr. Fredric Wertham wrote in his influential book on comics that the former represent ‘a wish dream of two homosexuals living together,’ and for the latter, ‘the homosexual connotation of the Wonder Woman type of story is psychologically unmistakable … For girls she is a morbid ideal.’

Any such connotations were effectively quashed in mainstream books by the Comics Code’s prohibition on “sex perversion or any inference to same,” but it wasn’t long before LGBTQIA creators began to make space for themselves elsewhere–including in the pages of the Advocate from the time of its launch in 1967. Underground titles including the collective Wimmen’s Comix and the Howard Cruse-edited Gay Comix directly inspired landmark alt-weekly strips of the 1980s including Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For and Matt Groening’s Life in Hell.

Even before that, LGBTQIA characters were slowly edging back into the mainstream–most notably Andy Lippincott in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, where he was first introduced in 1976. Lippincott died of AIDS in 1990, when the real-life epidemic still had yet to reach its peak. Three years later, Lynn Johnston got both approbation and death threats when she introduced the gay teen character Lawrence in her family-friendly For Better or For Worse. Even though 19 newspapers dropped the strip, Johnston was gratified even by the criticism which proved to her that “the comics page is a powerful communicator” and “our work is taken seriously.”

In Chute’s estimation, LGBTQIA comics today have blossomed into “one of the most vibrant areas of contemporary comics,” a success largely attributable to Bechdel’s Fun Home–a frequently banned and challenged title which led to a MacArthur “Genius Grant” for its creator and a smash hit Broadway musical. Check out Chute’s full excerpt here–or better yet, the whole book–and then read on for some of our previous coverage of this history as well:

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.