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Independent creators reflect on the history and future of queer comics

//Comic creators Kate Rhodes and Jen Xu revisit inked pages from their webcomic “Novae” at the Denver Botanic Gardens where they sometimes gather inspiration from on June 26. Photo by Anna Sutterer | asutt99@gmail.com

Manga and anime buoyed young Jen Xu when they found themselves feeling adrift. Having emigrated from China to Canada in elementary school, Xu, who identifies as agender and asexual, found themselves experiencing culture shock. Anime became a source of comfort, despite some classmates mocking the medium. 

Their love of anime made it hard to feel accepted at times, but the idea of changing themself to fit in made Xu dig their heels in even more.

“Messages in manga and anime really helped me grapple with a lot of the emotions I had at that age,” Xu said. Its expressive, cinematic style drew them in. “Before I knew it, I just wanted to make them and I had a lot of stories. I really just wanted to tell them.”

Kate Rhodes, who also identifies as agender and asexual, also found her way into the comic scene through manga. Friends in middle school introduced her to “Mars” by Fuyumi Soryo and “Inuyasha” by Rumiko Takahashi. The medium’s complex and stirring subject matter unlocked her desire to become a creator. 

Since 2014, Xu and Rhodes have worked in Denver as the independent comic publishing team KaiJu. Their main characters range from an adolescent musician during World War I to a chemical engineer who must save the world with magic. The pair’s comics always feature queer characters who reflect their own experiences.

“Because it’s like people expect straight to be the norm,” Xu said. “I want to make queer the norm.”

Queerness represented in manga helped Xu and Rhodes explore parts of their identities. Manga and fan fiction creations that paired same-sex couples expanded their perspective of the world. In the decades prior to the KaiJu pair picking up the media for the first time, major Japanese comic publishers had hired women creators. Many of these women were the artists who brought the LGBTQ+ stories to life that Xu and Rhodes gravitated toward.  Xu and Rhodes point to Hagio Moto’s “The Heart of Thomas,” published in 1974, as an early example of shōnen-ai, or male-male romance.

Meanwhile, mainstream comic content in the U.S. was being censored. In 1954, psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that violence and sexual content in comics would seduce the innocent minds of young readers. Wonder Woman was “a frightening figure for boys,” and “an undesirable ideal for girls,” he argued. Batman and Robin’s lives were “like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” The Comics Magazine Association of America responded by forming the Comics Code of Authority (CCA), which banned excessive violence and profanity and limited depictions of sexuality. Works with the CCA’s stamp of approval were preferred by many distributors.

“Back in the ’70s, the Comics Code of Authority was there to police comics and make sure that there wasn’t subject matter that was ‘offensive,’” said Wendy Pini, author and illustrator of the independently published “Elfquestseries, which began in 1978. Marvel and DC pushed the limits a little, said Pini, but were still “pretty vanilla.”

Pini started her first professional work in comics in the mid-’70s, writing an issue of “Red Sonja” which was published by Marvel. Throughout the ten years prior, she’d been a science fiction and fantasy illustrator of some note.

Drawing served as a safe space for Pini since she was young. Her adoptive parents were very conservative and strict.

“I always knew that I felt kind of different,” Pini said. “My nickname in high school was ‘fairy head.’ And, of course, ‘fairy’ used to be one of the derogatory terms for gay. I was only able to find people who had my back after I struck out on my own.”

In 1969, Pini met her now-husband, editor and publisher Richard Pini, who embraces both of Wendy’s strong male and female energies. The two joined forces to independently create the 40-year running “Elfquest” comic series.

“As the independent comics movement grew, more and more people with different points of view, different lifestyles that they wanted to examine, they got the chance,” Pini said. “They could use the stories as metaphors to explore the gambit of society and things that were hidden.” 

With “Elfquest,” Pini found the readership skewed female and attracted LGBTQ+ folks. “They found themselves in the elves because the elves are polyamorous, they are androgynous and shapeshifters. So they can really be whatever they want to be.” 

Ordinary comic-lovers and new readers got into Pini’s work. Young readers, in particular, challenged her and Richard to honestly represent the characters, while making them “family-friendly.”

Pini watched comics evolve as movements from the independent scene and Asian comics began to influence the industry at a greater scale. Publishers complied with CCA to varying degrees from 1954 to 2011, however, the censoring group had already lost a lot of power by the 1980s and 90s. Comic shops that eschewed censorship guidelines allowed for different narratives to live on the shelves and compete with mainstream publications. 

“And here we are again, coming out of COVID, it seems like the industry is reinventing itself while there are fewer and fewer comic shops than ever right now,” Pini said.

The same, if not more, freedoms for creators have arisen within the growing webcomic arena. One doesn’t have to conform to a publisher’s idea of the intended audience, so creators can focus on story progression and messaging. Rhodes noted that queer and BIPOC creators around the world continue to push the medium forward.

“Webcomics are one of the reasons why queerness and diversity in comics is growing so fast,” Xu added. “Without [web comics], I don’t think we would even be able to make what we’re making.”

KaiJu’s current work, an extended webcomic called Novae, follows a young necromancer and a 17th-century astronomer as they face questions of love and immortality. There’s a scene that specifically talks about the experience of being asexual. They also have a middle grade graphic book in the works, one that will press on social issues. 

Creative direction is generally influenced by Xu’s dream journal or something Rhodes sees on a TV show. Sometimes they’ll take inspiration from other media for what to avoid. When they consume a show or another comic that feels like it’s missing something—plot points or character representation—they take special care to avoid the same pitfalls in their narratives. 

As the conversation around queer representation in media grows, comic book publishers are satiating that desire. Upcoming works by Hiveworks will add to their already bursting collection of queer webcomics. PRISM Comics, an organization supporting LGBTQ+ comic books, professionals, readers and educators, shares creator profiles and comic news. They’re working on launching an online pop-up shop as well. Relatively young, independent publishers like BOOM! Studios, Northwest Press and Iron Circus Comics are making queer comics a focus point of their business. 

“Almost all of our titles feature LGBTQ stories or characters, and I think our readers are glad to immerse themselves into a book that doesn’t fall into traditional tropes,” said Andrea Purcell, assistant editor at Iron Circus Comics. “It’s important to me that Iron Circus publishes the kind of comics that might have changed my life as a young queer kid.”

According to Pini, the stories readers crave are virtually all out there, just waiting to be found.

“Be diligent about searching for what you’re interested in, and what type of creator you would like most to support,” Pini said. “If you don’t know the name of a character, but you would like to read a story about someone that has those characteristics, type in those characteristics.”

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