’Gay Agenda’ out at NY Comic Con
When people think Comic Con, they think San Diego in July, not New York in October; but since 2006, the event - which is not affiliated with its West Coast counterpart - brings thousands to New York's mammoth Jacob Javits Convention Center, many in costume, eager to buy back issues, get the scoop from their favorite comic book companies and meet and hang out with others of similar interests.
Two young men walked through the crowd nearly shoulder to shoulder, both wearing lavender T-shirts. One was imprinted with a stylized "J"; the other with a stylized "Z." Those in the know would instantly associate them with the '70s show "Super Friends," real-life couple Shawn and John dressed as Zan and Jayna, the Wonder Twins.
The Con wasn't teeming with LGBT attendees. At least not obviously. But maybe in years to come that could change. A gay comics group was formed specifically to increase visibility after last year's convention.
"At last year's Comic Con, there was only one gay .... anything," said Geeks Out organizer Joey Stern. "There was no gay booth, there was nothing out there acknowledging that this community existed. So we started small and gathered together our forces. Our goal was that when you get into Comic Con, you see that there are gay people here, you see that there are queer people and you know that there are people who are like you. We've got people coming up to us saying 'I've been looking for this, but I didn't know I was looking for this.'"
A gay presence
The Geeks Out booth, located squarely between the two titans of comic book publishing, Marvel and DC, was populated by men wearing everything from city casual to pink capes. The group published a guide to the 2011 New York Comic Con with the attention-grabbing title of "The Gay Agenda," which was handed out to direct comic book fans to LGBT programming.
Produced by Prism Comics parent Northwest Press, the guide contained 17 separate events with LGBT content over the four-day weekend. An astonishing number given that at last year’s Con, there was hardly any LGBT programming at all.
Throughout the weekend, fans could find out more about Kevin Keller, the newest member of the Archie Comics gang who just happens to be an out gay teen. Fans could also attend a screening of "Husbands," a new Web series about a couple of guys who marry after getting drunk celebrating the passage of Marriage Equality and who must stay married.
"If it weren’t gay, this would be a hackneyed premise," said writer and producer Jane Espenson ("Star Trek: Next Generation," "Battlestar Galactica," "Caprica"). Fans could also preview and discuss the upcoming transgender themed documentary "Better Things: The Life and Choices of Jeffrey Catherine Jones." Jones is considered one of the finest fantasy artists of all times, who did dozens of book covers and comics. Jones also transitioned form a man to woman.
Prism on the forefront
Zan Christiansen, publisher at Prism Comics, a non-profit company that supports LGBT creators, comics and readers, echoes Sterns goals: "What we’re doing at the booth is bringing together individual people who would be scattered out around the Con and be in isolation."
Prism has been at the forefront of LGBT comics, acting not only as an online source for sales and a place to find listings of out gay comic professionals, but also as a place where creators come to sell their work at various Cons around the country. There is a profit sharing program for the creators which works out more profitably than if they had to get distributed through a brick and mortar store.
Titles include the popular "Jayson" series by Jeff Krell; Mike Breed’s collection of online "Hitched" strip; and, among the most popular, Ivan Velez Jr’s "Tales of the Closet." Written and drawn nearly 25 years ago, "Tales of the Closet" was a groundbreaking series first commissioned by the Hetrick-Martin Institute and followed a group of LGBT youth that laid bare the personal hell of navigating one’s way through the coming-out process.
What makes the series so incredible, especially for its time, is that it treated the characters like real people rather than stereotypes, and was unsparing in its realism, including attempted suicide. "I know that kids have not killed themselves by reading the book," Velez said. Ironically in retrospect, "Tales" was often referred to as "a gay Archie."
How fitting, then, that as LGBT comic fans have been organizing and presenting themselves as a group at conventions such as this one, Archie Comics has found the gays. Archie Comics created its landmark gay character. Artist Dan Parent pitched out-gay teen Kevin Keller to the company a couple years ago. A gay teen character in Archie Comics "couldn’t have been done even five years ago," he says now. He credits the Marriage Equality movement for creating an environment for this to happen.
The character debuted in an issue of "Veronica" earlier this year and is currently the star of a very popular four-issue mini-series. Parent says that the push back has been "very minimal. We had like seven canceled subscriptions but we’ve picked up thousands of readers."
Indeed, these days Archie Comics is experiencing something of a renaissance with an emerging multiversity, a new super heroes line, a "Sabrina" cartoon in the works and a "Kevin Keller" ongoing series starting in February 2012. Then there’s a new title, "Life with Archie," which explores what life might be like for the Riverdale gang when they’re in their 20s.
Archie is married to Betty in some stories and to Veronica in others. In an upcoming story, he will be married to Valerie, one of the members of Josie and the Pussycats. (But not to Kevin, alas.)
In another upcoming issue, Kevin will be wounded while serving in the Army. He will meet his future husband, a military doctor, because, after all, "every mother wants their son to marry a doctor" teases "Life With Archie" writer Paul Kupperberg.
"The Power Within"
But comics are also continuing to address real life-and-death issues for gay teens. With the ongoing threat of bullying, Christiansen created a special comic, "The Power Within." The story illustrates a lonely Eighth Grader driven to an attempted suicide from the bullying he’s gotten at school. Prism is eager to send free copies of the comic to schools and libraries so that the story can be read by as many at-risk youth as possible.
These days out gay characters seem to be cropping up everywhere. There’s Batwoman and The Question at DC Comics and Karma at Marvel, to name just three. "I think it matters to have diversity in the stories that are being told," Christiansen said. "Comics are not really a mass medium anymore. They are more of a niche thing. But comics do influence culture and this work is going to help. Anything you can do to show somebody in the medium that they are passionate about, like kids who read comics and if they’re starting to think that they’re gay or trans to let them know in advance that they’re not weird".
To read more about the New York Comic Con, visit the event’s website.
To read more on "Husbands," visit the show’s website; to read more on Geeks Out, visit the Geeks Out website; and for more on Prism Comics, visit the Prism Comics website.