The documentary “No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics,” airing Monday night on PBS, explores that breakthrough in representation, providing a visual and oral history of gay life and comics in the last quarter of the 20th century.
Directed by Vivian Kleiman, the film features stills from print comics from the era and interviews with queer comics legends who have shaped the landscape. Among them is best-selling artist Alison Bechdel, also known for the Bechdel Test, who created “Dykes to Watch Out For” and the graphic novel “Fun Home,” which was turned into a Tony Award-winning musical.
Bechdel and Kleiman spoke to The Washington Post about the importance of queer comics in chronicling history, the continued ban on LGBTQ books, and creative breast censorship.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: “No Straight Lines” explores how queer comics rose to prominence in the 1980s. Can you explain what happened then?
Vivian Kleiman: Alison, since this is your life, why don’t you take it?
Alison Bedel: The real moment for queer comics was the release of “Gay Comix” in 1980, an anthology comic book that Howard Cruse put together. There had been gay comics before that, but pretty marginal, pretty underground. Howard had been an underground cartoonist and used his skills and knowledge of the comics world to publicly portray himself as a gay man in his work and to encourage other gay and lesbian artists. … I discovered that comic book when I was fresh out of college, so it was this great introduction to these trailblazers [that] had already paved the way for people who came later, like me. I was able to pick up the first edition of “Gay Comix” and realized this is something you can do. You can write comments about your queer life, and it was legit.
Vivian: It was Alison’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” series… [that] we ran into our issue with bated breath, finding out what had happened to all the characters and who was sleeping with whom and all of their various exploits. It was life-changing to see stories presented about our own lives.
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Q: Besides the exploration of queer identity, what else sets queer comics apart from other comics, cartoons, and art forms?
Alison: The thing about gay identity is that it’s all about sex. So there’s tremendous sexual openness. I should say that Howard’s mission with “Gay Comix” was to create a comics space that wasn’t strictly sexual, because that’s what gay and lesbian culture had basically been relegated to before. He wanted to show stories that showed the dimensions of people’s lives. But the inescapable fact is that we are oppressed because of our sexuality. So the way we talk about, represent and push the boundaries of sexuality is a big part of queer comics.
Vivian: When we look at queer comics, from Mary Wings’ “Come Out Comix” in the early ’70s to “Fun Home,” it really is a compendium of stories about our lives. And that’s very, very different from what happened with Marvel and DC and other mainstream publications.
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Q: Why do you think comics are so used within the LGBTQ community?
Alison: So much of the civil rights movement for gays and lesbians has been about visibility. In the past, people were hidden. You didn’t want to give away that you were queer, and one of the other great things about being queer is that you can often succeed. You are not clearly gay. And so making us visible in these comics, I think, is a big part of why it’s been such a fertile medium for us, because we literally have to see ourselves. Because we didn’t.
Vivian: And as one of the young artists in “No Straight Lines,” the movie, you can entertain yourself in any way you imagine while drawing. And so I think comics are really a creative, generative medium for queer expression.
Q: What do you think are the barriers that prevent queer people from being exposed to media about their lives?
Alison: We are in the middle of this crazy era of gay material, specifically its banning from school libraries and classes.
Vivian: I think, as Alison points out in the film, in the early 2000s with the rise of the internet and Amazon and big stores, we lost our local underground or alternative newspapers and closed the bookstores and closed the small publishing houses. So I think that caused a break in cultural continuity. What’s interesting to me is how the young artists we spoke to in the film were so grateful for the generations that preceded them and the challenges they faced in the work that was done. I was actually surprised by that because my experience with young people is that they are more cynical about the old people. … There was none of that rejection of what came before, and there was just deep appreciation. And I found that remarkable and impressive and important.
Alison: Yeah, I love that frame of the docu’s with these young cartoonists, filled with their own energy and their own particular take on showcasing queer lives, but also really paying this eloquent tribute to the people who came before them.
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Q: How do you think comics can be a resource for people to learn about the gay community from the perspective of those who have lived through major events?
Vivian: We wanted to tell the story of this art form, strange comic books, and we wanted to tell it through personal stories of a few individuals and their lives and their experiences. … The challenge for me was to find a way to tell our history that would feel fresh and that wouldn’t feel like a rehash of what people watching the film would have already seen in a classroom or other public television program . And then I also woke up one morning and realized, “Oh, wait, it’s a movie about comics. Let’s use comics to tell the story and tell the story from fresh vernacular.”
Alison: One of the great things about this movie is how much of all of these artists’ work is showcased in it. So you’re basically getting first-person, in-the-moment footage that people were drawing as they went through their lives, going through these moments in history. And it’s like a slideshow of all this really rich stuff.
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Q: We are seeing an influx of censorship of queer media and expression. How do you think this will affect the next generation of queer people and artists?
Alison: I think it will just energize them and heat them up, which is a good thing. I find it amazing that people think censorship is going to accomplish what they think it is going to do. It never does. It’s always the opposite. It’s a mystery.
Vivian: Yes. I think the minute they censored Maia Kobabe’s book “Gender Queer” in North Carolina and Texas and other states was the minute sales escalated.
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Q: Is there anything we haven’t talked about today that you’d like to mention?
Vivian: I’d like to give props to National Public Television for having the courage to air “No Straight Lines.” … The head of National Public Television approached me and was eager to work with me to make this work. The question was, “Would we be willing to make changes to the film to comply with FCC regulations?” So I turned to Alison and the other four pioneer performers in the film and asked what they thought. And everyone said, “We hate the idea, but we love the idea of the work being shown to 2 to 3 million viewers.” So we got the green light to go.
Q: Alison, was that hard for you to agree to?
Alison: No, I didn’t really care. Viv, I just watched the new version and saw how you cleverly put a caption about a naked woman’s breasts in one of my scripts. That was pretty funny. No, it definitely seems like a tradeoff worth making.
Vivian: I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a nuance. Usually people cover up the taboo by very carefully blurring the image so it doesn’t stand out. Instead, I took a rainbow-colored mosaic tile to make it very clear that this was the version made to comply with FCC regulations.