As a young, nerdy, proto-queer, I was always interested in comics and graphic novels but didn’t step into a comic book store until I was in my mid-20s. This was before either online shopping or comics had really hit the mainstream, so comic book stores were the only option. At the time, the stores seemed very male, very straight, and very full of superheroes I had no interest in. The first time I remember seeing a queer character in a comic book was when a friend passed me some of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman which, for a very brief moment, showed a pair of lesbians. That was the last time I would see queers in graphic form for while.
But queers have been in and around graphic format for a long time, I just missed them. Although the American Comics Code Authority forbade any mention of queer themes until 1989, this did not apply to international comics such as Japanese manga, which has included several genres of comics featuring queers since the 1970s.
Comic strips were also not held under this code, and Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury introduced a gay character as early as 1976.
The most famous of these is of course Alison Bechdel, whose long-running strip Dykes to Watch Out For began in the early 1980’s and shepherded many confused people out of the closet.
Luckily, gone are the days when a creator was sent death threats for having a character come out (as happened to Lynn Johnston of For Better or for Worse) or when comic book stores were the sole domain of angry nerds. These days, more comics than ever are showing the complexity of queer lives and comic book stores are building welcoming communities, open to everyone.
My favourite of the latter is Variant Edition Comics & Culture, owned by the superhero duo of Danica LeBlanc and Brandon Schatz. Variant doesn’t just talk about inclusivity, they live it: from their Gender is Not a Genre panels, to ordering products that represent more than cis-gender heterosexual characters, to creating a warm atmosphere for comic pros and novices alike, Variant is everything comic book readers could want.
“We want to create a safe space for all our customers, and that goes with what is on our shelves as well,” LeBlanc says via email. “It’s one thing to say you’re inclusive, but it’s another thing to be mindful about what that actually means and how your store can put that into action.”
And really, there’s no excuse for other stores not to do the same, given the growing number of queer and trans* characters on the page. Schatz and LeBlanc note that much of this increase is due to the ability to access content digitally—creators no longer have to worry about sales volumes in stores if they can publish online. This in turn creates a larger audience for these kinds of stories, which creates demand, which creates more stories, and then suddenly gay characters are getting married in mainstream comics.