This video, written and produced by Maitreyi Menon, Isabel Aurichio, and Judy Fisher during the First-Year Experience (FYE) section of FG110 Introduction to Feminist & Gender Studies at Colorado College during Block 1 2016, explores constructions of gender in comic culture.
Our guide, Hannes, was one of the exhibit curators and began the tour with some background information on the museum. The Schwules Museum* was founded 30 years ago by three white German gay men who were working at the Berlin Museum and wanted to establish a permanent museum devoted to gay history. “Schwule” means gay in German, and Hannes noted that, similarly to “gay” in English, this word had been (and continues to be) used in a derogatory many, but that many in the LGBTQIA community, including the museum, were reclaiming it.
Hannes also told us why there is an asterisk following the museum name. In 2008, the Board of Directors decided that they wanted to open up the museum for the rest of the LGBTQIA community, considering that it had focused primarily on the history of white, cisgender, gay men up to that point. Borrowed from something the trans community was doing in the U.S., the asterisk denotes that even though the name of the museum is specific to gay men, the museum itself is inclusive of many queer identities.
This strategy can be problematized through an examination of liberal politics. Many organizations that are marginalized sometimes feel they must expand the scope of their organization either to give the appearance of progress or out of a genuine desire to include other marginalized people. These both stem from liberal understandings of “inclusivity” and “diversity.” Black feminists have been critical of this notion for years, especially concerning white feminism. First, because other marginalized groups often have their own thing going on (Hannes mentioned that German lesbians have a more extensive archive that predates the Schwules Museum* by ten years), and second, because assimilation is not a tactic that helps the most marginalized, but rather a tactic that helps those complicit in existing power structures to maintain power. Additionally, “trans*” has been changed in the U.S., because it implies that anyone who is not binary/passing/post-op is conditionally trans.
In many ways, however, this is working quite well. For example, all the signs in the Superqueeroes exhibit use the “gender gap,” which resists how certain German words are gendered by replacing part of the word with an underscore. In addition, the exhibit featured several trans artists and the rest seemed to be almost equally about lesbians and gay men. Another exhibit that we stopped in briefly at the end was art entirely done by trans artists. While not perfect, this is in many ways a step above similar attempts in the U.S.
Although most of the comics in the exhibition are actually American, there were some interesting historical parallels that seemed relevant to Germany and other parts of Europe. Hannes told us about the comic burnings between 1945 and 1955 in the U.S., during which people would publicly burn piles of comic books. Much of this stemmed from author Frederic Wertham, who wrote Seduction of the Innocent in order to argue that comic books were turning the children into criminals. While Hannes didn’t mention this explicitly, his discussion made me think about the Nazi book burnings happening around the same time. As Erik Jensen writes in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” “While the American gay community often employed the Jewish Holocaust as a template for understanding the persecution of homosexuals, the German gay community generally avoided this comparison” (342). The collective memory of American gays concerning the treatment of homosexuals during the Holocaust is very different from the German understanding. Perhaps that is why this parallel seemed so obvious to me.
By Queers, For Queers
Throughout the exhibition, there were two main categories of comics that were shown: comics that were written by queers for queers, in which a significant part of the story line has to do with queer identity, and mainstream comics that incorporate queer characters as a side note to a larger plot line. These categories are both significant, especially given the influence of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Between 1955 and 2011, the CCA (a private board that governed all the mainstream publishing houses) dictated what types of content could be in comics. The list of banned subjects included any type of explicit sexuality, drugs, violence, the words “horror” and “terror,” undead characters, and critiques of military/police/judges. Further, homosexual content was not allowed by the CCA until 1989. In response, the 1960s brought about an explosion of underground comics that used “comix” instead of “comics” to denote the change.
Within this underground movement, there was yet another split as queers and women grew tired of the sexism, racism, and heterosexuality that dominated the underground scene. Comix publishers, such as “Wimmens Comix” and “Tits & Clits” were founded to counter this phenomenon. An important note is that in 1972, a woman named Trina Robbins created the first gay comic “Sandy Comes Out.” As our friends at the ADEFRA meeting pointed out, lesbians are always at the beginning of a movement, despite dominant groups trying to push them from the front lines.
In the newer era of web comics, one person making a name for herself is Scout Tran-Caffee (Dax). She is a non-binary, trans woman of color who has created comics that transcend the page and are only possible in the virtual parallel universe. This unapologetic love for the trans experience is amazing, especially when compared to the stale decades old statements that Marvel is trying to make about sexuality.
There is an absolutely striking difference between the levels of political thought and storytelling in the mainstream comics and comix. The former use a quite different parallel universe in which gay sexual encounters exist between superheroes as a way to simultaneously draw in queer readers while retaining their (presumably) heterosexual audience (a tactic used in almost every form of media, commonly referred to as “queer-baiting”). Sadly, the most progressive comic we looked at featured Wonder Woman officiating a lesbian wedding and then explaining her actions by saying, “Where I come from it’s not gay marriage, it’s just marriage.” This sort of assimilationist, liberal language illustrates the significance of many queer artists saying that they are queer and actively queering the way comics are written and produced.
These comics also incorporate the problematic notion of “coming out.” Hannes repeatedly referred to the “coming out page” of a comic. As noted by many scholars, the conceptualization of “outness” is a Western construct that is often used as a litmus test for progressivism. Within the Western context, coming out is often problematized for perpetuating compulsory heterosexuality. As Jürgen Lemke writes about the coming out process in East Berlin before the Wall fell, “The coming-out generally catapults her or him…into the cold, hard world. Very often a banishment from the family unit will be the harsh result” (33). The “coming out pages” for these superheroes are only necessary because until that page is created, they are heterosexual by default. This marks another stark difference regarding comics being written by queers, for queers, because operating with a knowledge base of other sexualities changes the way you write about and conceptualize those sexualities in media you are producing.
Hannes informed us that this was the first exhibition about queer comics in all of Europe. It is quite obviously a highly interesting field and many books could be (and probably have been) written about it. The key lessons I took away from the experience are that independent artists have more political freedom, which almost always means they produce more interesting art. The other thing I took away is that critical consumption of media is important and should be a constant process, but that sometimes it is just pretty cool to see Wonder Woman as a lesbian.
Grace Montesano is a rising senior majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies as well as Political Science at Colorado College. They love discussing politics, and are known for making obscure references to various media that no one else has heard of. Grace is skeptical of the 9/11 story we have all been told, and believes the jury is definitely still out about the existence of mermaids.
In recent years, the U.S. comics industry has generated increased critical, scholarly, and popular attention. The sheer strength, volume, and range of the comics produced, as well as the enthusiasm of fan culture, renders the industry a powerful ideology-producing tool. Although other publishers have experienced growth since the industry was conceived post-WWII, Marvel and DC Comics still comprise more than half the industry. What’s more, their success continues to grow as a result of the development of more accessible retail outlets for the medium: the Internet and cinema. In “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture,” Douglas Kellner explores how media—including radio, television, film, popular music, the Internet, and social networking sites—provide a cohesive text from which we “forge our very identities” (7). In many ways, he claims, the media shapes our “view of the world,” our “deepest values” (7), and even our morality. It is important, therefore, to consider whose perspective gets left out of—and often misrepresented by—the dominant narratives circulating mass media. So, what are the social and political implications of the conglomeration of Marvel and DC?
To begin with, alternative media voices are left out of the equation and unable to question “fundamental social arrangements under the which the media owners are doing quite well” (37), as David Croteau, William Hoynes, and Stefania Milan point out in “The Economics of the Media Industry.” This, in turn, supports Western imperialism, further marginalizing a myriad of other cultural narratives. One response to this lack of diversity in the media environment—and specifically in the world of comics—is the growth of the African superhero universe. One prominent South African illustrator, Loyiso Mkize, says that he was first inspired by American superheroes, as American comics were the most widely available during his childhood. Mkize told Buzzfeed News, “Growing up, comic books had a huge interest for me. It wasn’t just the visuals—but the strong superheroes. I wanted to emulate them.” However, the template he was provided with was conspicuously lacking characters with whom he could identify. He continues, “I was thinking, where are the heros that look like me, speak like me, and share the same environment as me? I realized that we don’t have it—it came as a big shock.” Thus, the comic Kwezi was born.
Mkize describes Kwezi, which means “star” in Xhosa and Zulu, as a “coming of age story about finding ones heritage.” The graphic narrative follows a confident, young boy as he embraces his superpowers in the context of the bustling, fictional metropolis “Gold City.” Perhaps the most significant aspect of the comic is its inclusion of “street” slang and popular culture references, which situates the story in a familiar setting for young South African readers. It is also significant that Kwezi (the hero) is fashionable, donning a contemporary haircut, and modern, using Twitter and other forms of social media as an activist.
Ultimately, the recent rise in scholarly interest regarding graphic narratives has produced a catalytic effect with regard to the emergence of non-conventional, non-Western narratives. Over the last ten years, comic books have undergone a substantial change in terms of the type of content available and in their critical reception. That “said,” there is still a lot of progress to be made. U.S. comic culture does not just overlook and effectively erases narratives that fall outside the non-Anglophone world—the narratives of marginalized communities within the United States are absent as well, forcing women, LGBTQIA+ people, and people of color into weak, stereotyped roles. Of course, visibility is a complicated affair. “If representational visibility equals power,” claims Jay Clarkson in “The Limitations of the Discourse of Norms: Gay Visibility and Degrees of Transgression,” then “almost naked white women should be running Western Culture” (392). It is the hope of illustrators like Loyiso Mkize to depict the popular reality in his portrayal South African culture, and by doing so, achieve visibility in a way that benefits his culture and community.