November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Just Another Day in an LGBTQ Comic

Goldie Vance
Courtesy of BOOM! Studios

In this article
Recommended Titles

When Kevin Keller made his first appearance in Veronica #202, a 2010 issue of Archie Comics, he was one of the first openly gay characters in a children’s comic. Raina Telgemeier’s Drama introduced a story that included gay characters to the mainstream, and “Lumberjanes” made it cool.

As with their prose counterparts, middle grade and young adult graphic novels have become increasingly inclusive of gay, lesbian, and transgender characters over the past seven years or so. Especially at the middle school level, creators usually take a matter-of-fact approach. It’s not a big deal; the LGBTQ characters simply are what they are, and as with their peers, the romance stays in the background—and G-rated. “For kids these days, it’s just part of the landscape. It’s not shocking or edgy,” says Gregory Taylor, teacher librarian at

Hillside Junior High School in Boise, ID. “[A book] might be shocking or edgy because people are swearing or they are starting to have sex, but not specifically because they are genderqueer in some way.”

“If children’s eyes are open and no one is impeding their natural engagement with the world, they are being exposed to these concepts one way or another,” says Jesse Karp, teacher librarian at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, a K–12 school in New York City with two libraries. “As always, it is the job of literature—visual literature included—to help people interpret their world and understand it more deeply. We want concepts to be introduced in an age-appropriate way, of course. Graphic novels for younger readers can focus on the idea of love between gay characters rather than sex, for instance. Being gay is about identity, not just sexuality, and establishing identity is something children are on intimate and intense terms with.”

“Love Potion” by Gisele Jobateh (part of the anthology Love in All Forms: The Big Book of Growing Up Queer). Image courtesy of the publisher.

Light and sweet stories

One of the most acclaimed recent comics with LGBTQ characters is the “Lumberjanes” series (BOOM!, 2015), an adventure story about girls at summer camp who solve mysteries and battle supernatural creatures, created by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooke A. Allen, and Noelle Stevenson. Two of the “Lumberjanes” girls, Mal and Molly, are a couple. Editor and cocreator Watters says the idea of presenting a very natural, age-appropriate relationship between two girls was part of the story from the very beginning. “You watch a lot of classic kids’ movies where there’s a romance, and it reads just like Mal and Molly,” she says. “It’s sweet. You are learning how to be a person who cares about another person in this new, exciting way, and that’s something everybody can relate to.”

“We thought about what is an age-appropriate crush or romance at that age,” Watters adds. “You hold hands and you tell each other secrets and you want to hang out with each other all the time and you put your head on each other’s shoulder and you give each other furtive looks. That’s a universal experience, whether you are straight or queer. That was very natural.” Abrams will publish a series of “Lumberjanes” chapter books, written by This One Summer author Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by “Lumberjanes” cocreator Allen, debuting in October 2017.

Like “Lumberjanes,” James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh’s The Backstagers (BOOM!, 2017) is an all-ages ensemble comedy about a bunch of kids solving supernatural mysteries. In this case, the lead characters are boys, and there are hints of romance, although the real emphasis of the story is the strange world that lurks behind the stage door.

“I wanted to write the book that I needed the most, particularly in middle school and when I first started reading comics,” says Tynion. “There were superhero stories I loved reading, but there weren’t a lot of characters like me. I was an awkward young kid who was starting to understand that I wasn’t straight. I didn’t see myself out there, and the few bits of gay representation that I saw fit a stereotypical mold. In building the story, I wanted to go beyond just creating a cast of misfits.

“I wanted to show different forms of queer masculinity,” Tynion adds. “I really wanted to show how diverse male queerness can be, and when you have a book that embodies lots of different forms of characters it opens it up for you to play those characters off against one another.”

Both “Lumberjanes” and The Backstagers are published under the BOOM! Box imprint, which Watters heads up. The imprint focuses on lighthearted comics for tweens and teens, and the stories often include LGBTQ characters. “My goal with the queerness of the BOOM! Box line is really presenting queerness as an asset instead of something to beat yourself up over,” she says. “I want kids to see characters like Mal and Molly and say ‘I can be happy living my truth,’ and have that be once again just a fact. The fact of these characters’ happiness, of these characters being accepted for who they are, is so immensely important.”

The title character in Hope Larson and Brittney Williams’s comic “Goldie Vance”(BOOM!, 2016) is a teenage girl whose crush on another girl eventually turns into a lighthearted romance. “It just felt right for the character and the story,” said Larson; she also had confidence that the BOOM! Box editors would not turn it into an “issue book.”

“The point, for me, of a character like Goldie, is, ‘Here’s a character who is so cool and fun and also happens to be gay, and everybody in her life is totally fine with it,” Larson adds.

Dan Parent took a similar approach creating Kevin Keller. “I knew I was going to introduce a gay character—but wanted to make sure he was a well-formed character—in a story that was entertaining, not preachy,” says Parent, a writer and artist for Archie Comics. “I wanted to show that he’s a normal, red-blooded American teenage boy who is gay.”

The romance in Telgemeier’s Drama (Scholastic, 2012) goes no further than a kiss, but the book still drew negative one-star reviews on Amazon from adults who objected to any mention of homosexuality in a children’s book.

“Sexuality is a part of your identity that doesn’t necessarily apply to what you are doing with other people when you are eight or nine years old, but it’s still a part of you,” says Telgemeier. “The identity and the actions are not necessarily one and the same. If a chaste heterosexual kiss had happened in Drama, no one would have batted an eye. But because it was two boys, suddenly I was ‘pushing my liberal agenda on people.’ I don’t even have an agenda. My agenda is love and friendship.”

Backstagers
Courtesy of BOOM! Studios

Transgender characters: I am what I am

As transgender issues have drawn more attention in national politics, more characters have been appearing in graphic novels as well. The creators of “Lumberjanes” decided early in the development of the characters that one of the girls, Jo, would be transgender.

“We wanted it to just be a fact of her existence,” says Watters. “Jo has already come out, gone through a really tough time of just figuring stuff out, and is quite confident in herself. We did not want her story to be a coming-out story. She’s a leader, and she’s so smart; she’s a genius, and she’s trans.” Similarly, about halfway through The Backstagers, one of the characters is revealed to be a transgender boy—when he encounters his former classmates from the all-girls school he previously attended. While his old stage crew members miss him and his expertise, all the characters accept him as a boy. The drama comes from the fact that he had to change schools, and one of his friends feels betrayed by that.

Gisele Jobateh’s short story “Love Potion,” included in the anthology Love in All Forms: The Big Book of Growing Up Queer (self-published, 2015), features a witch describing how she told her parents that she no longer wanted to be treated as a boy: “So I told this to my mom and my dad, and they said that was all right,” she says, over a panel of her parents embracing her. She changes from warlock to witch, and from Sam to Samantha.

Dana Simpson, the creator of Phoebe and Her Unicorn (Andrews McMeel, 2014), is a transgender woman who is working on a graphic memoir, Only You’re Different, which will be targeted at middle school readers; Andrews McMeel is scheduled to publish it in 2018. Simpson knows firsthand the importance of representation. “If you never see characters like yourself, or if you only see characters like yourself as bit players in some ‘normal’ character’s story, that sends a powerful message,” she says. From an early age, Simpson knew that she was a girl—but since nothing in her environment suggested that was possible, she kept it to herself. “If I had encountered characters in fiction who were anything like me in that way, I might have gotten to be happy a whole lot sooner than I did,” she says.

View from the library

Karp says the greatest interest in specifically LGBTQ content in his library comes from students ages 12–14. “I would like to see more LGBTQ characters in books that aren’t specifically about LGBTQ issues—where they’re just a normal, integrated part of the world,” Karp says. As for what types of stories and characters he hopes to read about, he says, “It depends somewhat on age level. But generally, we want the LGBTQ characters to be as accessible and recognizable as any of the other characters, and we want emotional realism tempered with a sense of hope.”

“I think the biggest thing I look for is that [the characters] are actually labeled as LGBT,” says Scott Robins, children’s services specialist at the Toronto Public Library, who is currently building an LGBTQ children’s collection. Too often, publishers will describe characters as “friends” or “just quirky,” he notes.

“I want books that actually say a character is gay or say a character is questioning,” Robins says. “This is the issue with juvenile LGBTQ characters: At that point they are not having sex, but they are thinking they are different, or they have crushes. Not all characters are going to say ‘I’m gay.’ Still, I’m definitely looking for a message that’s not subtle—but something that’s a little more clear.”

While the field is opening up, Taylor says there is still something missing: “Where’s the gay American Born Chinese?” he asks. “I know that graphic novels that feel as literary and brilliant and accessible as American Born Chinese or This One Summer are not a dime a dozen. It takes great writing and all sorts of skills, but it seems like there should be something of that caliber with some sort of genderqueer character.”

Brigid Alverson edits the “Good Comics for Kids” blog.

Recommended titles

DIMARTINO, Michael Dante. The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars, Part One. Illus. by Irene Koh. (Dark Horse, June 2017)

Gr 3 Up–The animated Nickelodeon series continues in a series of graphic novels written by series co-creator Michael DiMartino. The fourth season of Legend of Korra ended with Korra and Asami facing each other in a pose that suggested romance was in the air. In the graphic novel, they are both a team and a couple, dealing with the latest events in Republic City and fighting a developer who intends to transform the portal to the Spirit World into an amusement park.

DWYER, Serafina, ed. Love in All Forms: The Big Book of Growing Up Queer.
(Self-Published, 2015)
All Ages–This anthology of comics by emerging creators is aimed at young readers. The stories are short and cover a variety of topics, including kissing another person of the same sex, guilt imposed by others, and simply being comfortable with who you are. The messages are upbeat, the language is simple, and the art is colorful. The book is available via its website and Northwest Press.

LARSON, Hope. Goldie Vance, vol. 1. Illus. by Brittney Williams & Sarah Stern.
(BOOM! Studios, Oct 2016)
Gr 6-10–This charming teen-detective series is set in a Florida resort hotel in 1962. Goldie Vance works as a parking valet, and her father is the manager. When a necklace goes missing, Goldie “borrows” a car and wins it back in a drag race—but her father loses his job when his boss finds out. Goldie redeems herself and goes on to other adventures in this continuing series, sometimes accompanied by her super-cool girlfriend, Diane.

O’NEILL, Katie. Princess Princess Ever After. (Oni Press, Sept 2016)
Gr 3 Up–O’Neill has some fun with fairy tale tropes in this romance/adventure story. Princess Sadie was locked in a tower by her mean older sister, and even if she gets out, she’ll still have her sister to reckon with. Princess Amira, bored with a life of idleness and looking to become a hero, rescues her, and together, they rescue a hapless prince, talk down a destructive ogre, and finally face down Sadie’s sister. A few blushes and a hug at the end set the stage for the epilogue, in which the two princesses get married.

REISS, Natalie. Space Battle Lunchtime, vol. 1: Lights Camera, Snacktion!
(Oni Press, Oct 2016)
Gr 4-7 –This sci-fi take on competitive cooking shows is full of color, imagination, and straight-up weirdness. Peony is working in a bakery when a space frog comes in for coffee and talks her into taking part in an outer space cook-off. Everything—the ingredients, the equipment, the other contestants—seems strange and unfamiliar at first, but Peony catches on quickly, and soon she and the blue-skinned, standoffish Neptunia are cautiously beginning a friendship. The story winds up with volume 2, due out in July 2017.

TELGEMEIER, Raina. Drama. (Scholastic, Sept 2012)
Gr 5-9 –The title of this book has a double meaning—the characters are all involved in theater at their middle school, either onstage or behind the scenes, and there’s plenty of pre-teen drama going on as well. Callie likes Greg but Greg likes Bonnie, and then Callie makes friends with twin boys who she likes—but her romantic imaginings fall flat when she realizes they are gay. Meanwhile, the kids are are figuring out costumes and special effects for the school musical, and as showtime draws near, the offstage drama ramps up as well. At a crucial moment, the leading lady stomps off and one of the brothers jumps in mid-show to take her place and keep the show going —to the final kiss.

STEVENSON, Noelle, and Grace Ellis. Lumberjanes, vol. 1. Illus. by Brooke Allen. (BOOM! Studios, Apr 2015)
Gr 5 Up –A quintet of lively girls use their wits and their scouting skills to battle strange creatures at a totally rad summer camp. “Lumberjanes” has expanded to multiple volumes, and Abrams is planning to publish “Lumberjanes” chapter books under its Amulet imprint.

TYNION, James IV. The Backstagers. Illus. by Rian Sygh. (BOOM! Studios, July 2017)
All Ages –Jory, the new kid at a private boys’ school, decides to join the theater club in order to meet people, but he ends up behind the scenes with the geeks and misfits of the stage crew—who have a bizarre, extra-dimensional world all to themselves. The world behind the stage door is filled with real danger as well as adventure, and the crew members must rely on one another to stay safe (and sane).

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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