jeudi 17 novembre 2016

Things That Go Poof in Comics

Well, it seems that DC, or rather somebody at DC, finally listened to me and got Extraño out of the mothballs. Just when a blockbuster movie with Marvel's Doctor Strange is being launched, it would be awfully stupid to forget about his gay equivalent, wouldn't it? Except the new version of the character has ditched the flamboyant threads as well as the "Extraño" codename, now just using his given name of Gregorio de la Vega which makes him sound like a distant relative of Zorro. Also he's married to an as yet unseen man, has an adopted child and has gone a trifle badass, saying stuff like "no one's called me that (Extraño) in years… fewer lived" Honestly, just because the comic he now appears in, Midnight and Apollo,  is the embodiment of gay badass, does it mean the character has to be turned into an embarrassing 2010's stereotype? Comics newssites go all smug in calling the original Extraño an embarrassing stereotype and you know what? He might have been, but he was not half as embarrassing as the one he's now.

Just so you know - I don't only talk about comics with gay characters, I also make write and draw some. I have started serializing on my tumblr site a comic I originally did in French a few years ago, A Visit. The new version is in English and in color and you can read it here. The link will take you to the most recent page (11) from where you can access all the pages to date. Or you can just go to jpjcomicsandstories and read it from the start, which is the page below :

samedi 2 juillet 2016

Bring Back Freedom Ring

Recently, Marvel Comics had yet another of their relaunches of their whole comics universes. This one was called Secret Wars and the idea was to re-start the Marvel Universe while keeping the elements that had proved to be worth keeping… and getting rid of those that one had best forget about. So really, there hasn't been that much change in the actual comics, given that there could have been. Apart from the fact that there no longer is a regularly published Fantastic Four title, everything is pretty much par for the course, with a bunch of Avengers, X-Men and Spider-Man titles. Which leads one to wonder what exactly the point of the whole operation was, apart from re-starting a bunch of titles with new number ones. I mean, Marvel could have used this opportunity to "correct" some of their most glaring errors of judgment. I'm thinking of one especially - the death of Freedom Ring.
If you've never heard of Freedom Ring, do not feel like you should have. The character had a pretty short life in the first place, being introduced as a new rookie superhero in Marvel Team-Up #20 (May 2006) and being summarily dispatched in Marvel Team-Up # 24 (August 2006). According to creator Robert Kirkman "Freedom Ring was always planned as an inexperienced hero who would get beaten up constantly and probably die. I wanted to comment on the fact that most superheroes get their powers and are okay at it... and that's not how life works." Which would have been okay, I guess, if not for the fact that Robert Kirkman, in an effort to diversify, had made Curtis Doyle, Freedom Ring's alter ego, a gay man. It was only after Kirkman had done good with his plan to kill the character that he realized, in no small part due to the outrage from LGBT comics fans, that doing away with a gay super-hero when there are so few of them was maybe not the smartest thing to do. He publicly acknowledged regretting killing the character (all details can be found on the Freedom Ring Wikipedia entry) and then… nothing happened. And it's been ten years.
Now, superhero universes, especially those from Marvel and DC, are known for not following the same rules as ours. Death is often a revolving door, a character who dies in a comic book being very likely to come back to life a few months or even a few years later. That is, except if said character is a minority character. If you're a superhero and you belong to a minority, then your death is much more likely to be for good. Just so the (straight) (white) editors can boast of how "realistic" their comics really are. In the first Civil War mini-series in 2007, the only casualty of the war between superheroes was black superhero Bill Foster, aka Goliath. At the moment, there is a second Civil War on and the first casualty is - guess who - another black superhero, James Rhodes aka War Machine. It's very unlikely that "Rhodey" will be brought back as his superhero identity is already slated to be taken by a woman (but it's not a racist decision because she's a black woman, you see).
So in such a context, it comes as absolutely no surprise that ten years after his infamous demise, Freedom Ring is still dead. There are two sorts of homophobic decisions in superhero comics - one is not having a superhero be gay, the other is sort of forgetting about him and hardly ever using him. Even though the Marvel wiki entry on homosexual characters lists quite a number, how many are regularly being used in comics? Northstar, Wiccan, Hulkling? Oh, and now Iceman is gay, it seems, which is great news but comes a little late for somebody like me who grew up in the 1970's with Iceman and all the other superheroes being as straight as can be.
But really, Marvel, instead of having a "big name" superhero turn out to be gay (well, more like a second-tier big name superhero, really), couldn't you make better use of existing gay characters? Or, in fact, make any use of them at all? Bringing back Freedom Ring (and many other neglected gay characters from your universe) would be a step in the right direction.

lundi 30 mars 2015

Pretty Boys Are Fools For Ignoring Him

Some time ago, my good friend Bernard Joubert (comics journalist, translator and France's top specialist of censorship in comics) told me he was only interested in autobiographical comics if he knew the person doing them. When he did, reading autobiographical material would be like getting a letter from that person telling about the latest news and events in his/her life. On the other hand, if the author was a complete stranger, there wasn't that connection of knowing who the real person doing those comics was and for Bernard that made it yet another one of those comics where boring everyday people tell you about their boring everyday lives.

I must say that I'm quite different from Bernard in that I love any sort of autobiographical material, be they comics, diaries, videos, photographs. But as it happens, I know Sina Sparrow personally (and no, his real name isn't "sparrow"), creator of the zines Art Fag (two issues), Pretty Boys Ignore Me (two issues) and The Mysterious Element of Beauty.

Art Fag is a collection of autobiographical one-page strips in black and white (some can be seen in colour on Sina's website).

Pretty Boys Ignore Me and The Mysterious Element of Beauty are collections of drawings, usually made at clubs or on public transport, each with a very short text, usually one sentence. Sina seems to try and imagine some of the back story in those strangers' lives and it has a kind of poetic quality.

The thing is, I've known Sina for years, but I feel anybody who's been reading his comics would also know something of his life that would make him more than a stranger. Sina has been involved in making zines for quite a while (one, Boy Crazy Boy, gave its name to his website and imprint), and his comics have always been either fantasy-based (with a lot of superheroes) or slice-of-life. But one also gets the feeling that the fantasies express preoccupations of everyday life while a recurring theme in the slice-of-life comics and images is the mixture of fascination and fear that happen when real beauty clashes with the fantasy beauty the artist yearns for. 

What unites all those pictures and comics is the thick line, which is used both for drawing and writing, and often for colouring when he uses crayons, and which is like a handwriting. In fact it is a handwriting used indifferently for words and pictures.

I haven't mentioned the queer element in theses zines, but really, it's just because it's everywhere, so much a part of Sina's life that it's not really appropriate to call it an "element". "The Mysterious Element of Queerness"? Like "The Mysterious Element of Beauty" it is both strikingly evident and difficult to pinpoint.

You can buy those zines ("Approved by the Comics Cock", it says on the covers) from Sina's big cartel online store which also carries postcards, tee-shirts and other silly and not-so-silly things. And you can see the images he makes on his website.

samedi 21 février 2015

Going around in Circles

Not all American comics are superhero comics. This simple statement seems hard to believe in 2015 when we are flooded with blockbuster movie adaptations of Marvel and DC superheroes. What probably seems even harder to believe, is that the most successful characters in American comic books have not been superheroes but animals. Funny animals, to be precise. You know - Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and the like. In the early 1950s, the best-selling comic book, with monthly sales of over 3 million copies, was Walt Disney's Comics and Stories. When their popularity dropped in the United States in the 1960s, the Disney funny animals (especially Donald Duck) kept on being immensely popular in Europe and remain so to this day. While not native to comic books, the funny animal genre having originated in animated cartoons, funny animals adapted very well to the media. And just as comic books grew more adult, so did the genre. Starting in the 1980s, funny animal comics with adult themes - "furries" - started being published on a regular basis in the US and some long-running titles are still published to this day. One of the "adult" themes was gay relationships (and/or gay sex), which leads us to this installment's subject, a little gem called Circles, which ran from 2000 to Summer 2008, with one collection, It Feels Like I've Been Here Before published in July 2005 collecting issues 0 through 4. The story was left unfinished until creators Andrew French (writer), Scott Fabianek and Steve Domanski (artists) finished it in the form of a prose novel that tells the story that would have been issues 9 to 13, The Years Keep Rolling By.

Circles is basically a soap opera chronicling the life of the all-gay occupants of a house in Boston owned by Scottish expat Paulie Mayhew (a dog), who lives with his lover, banker Douglas (an otter). The story begins with the arrival of a new tenant, student Marty (Martin) Miller (a skunk) who gets introduced to the other occupants of the house - artist Arthur Korsky (a bear), wannabe actor Taye (a kangaroo) and gym-bunny Ken (a leopard). The circles of the title are the circle of friends made up of the house's occupants and the circle of seasons, each episode taking part three months from the preceding one, from Spring 2001 to Spring 2003. A relationship soon develops between Marty and Taye, we learn why Douglas seems to be holding a grudge against Arthur, how Paulie became HIV+, and we see Ken get in an abusive relationship (and out of it with the help of his friends). Characters have to deal with the consequences of choices made - or not made - in their past and with the risks of getting emotionally involved with other people. They are, for better or worse, a family of friends.

Marty and Tay prepare for Christmas in Circles 4

Circles is intensely readable and the characters quickly grow on you (a very favorable review was published on the Gay Comics List). I called it a little gem, but it is also in many ways a diamond in the rough. While the characters are always very alive and expressive, the strip often suffers from the fact that the artists are - to put it kindly - lousy at backgrounds. The comic also suffered from being published over a long period of time. Originally meant to be a quarterly, it pretty soon turned into a once-a-year event, with the final issues (9 through 13) never materializing. It's nevertheless worth checking out if you've never read it before and the whole series is available from publisher Rabbit Valley either as print comics or digital editions (except for the collections).

Paulie tries ot help Ken get out of his abusive relationship in Circles 7

vendredi 12 décembre 2014

Reclaiming... Extraño

A long time ago, in the 1980s, there weren't that many gay superheroes. In fact, at the start of the decade, there weren't ANY gay superheroes or gay secondary characters in superhero stories. Northstar, who appeared first in X-Men and then in the Alpha Flight regular series, was the first superhero who was implied to be gay. And I do mean imply - you had to be able to read between the lines. The word "gay" was never used about him back then (he finally came out in a rather spectacularly bombastic fashion in 1992). So Northstar wasn't the first openly gay superhero. Extraño was.
At this point, I can hear most of you readers exclaiming "Who?". Extraño (real name : Gregorio De La Vega) was one of several characters who gained superpowers in the 1987-88 DC event series Millenium. He then became a member of the superhero team the New Guardians, who had their own comic for twelve issues (September 1988-September 1989). And then, he was never seen again, never used again in a DC comic, as far as I know.
Among the New Guardians, Extraño was the magician. In fact, his creator, writer Steve Englehart, who had in the past written the character Dr Strange, wanted him to be a gay Dr Strange, and the name "Extraño" is Spanish for Strange. Unfortunately, we'll never know how the character would have developed under Englehart, since the writer left after the second issue of New Guardians due to the publisher not living up to its promise of a free hand in his handling of "sex, drugs and politics"
Gay comics fans of the times were generally not happy with Extraño because he was written as the then-stereotypical gay queen, and also because he was shown as being infected with the HIV virus. However, I would argue that Extraño had a lot of unused potential, like a lot of characters that were only used for a brief time - and there have been a lot of short-lived characters in mainstream comics. It seems that nowadays, in the post-New52 DC Universe, only LGBT characters who are as squeaky-clean as possible can exist, and preferably in an eternal state of celibacy. Gregorio De La Vega was definitely not squeaky clean - he was an outrageous queen from a South American country (Peru) and it was implied he had lived quite the busy gay life before becoming a superhero.
And he had a moustache.
Can any of the current wave of mainstream gay male characters say the same?