Jul 16, 2017

Seeing Yourself in Comics

Seeing Yourself in Comics
Travis Hedge Coke

A recent interview with Gengoroh Tagame opened with, “He drew what he wanted to see, but couldn’t find elsewhere.” And, because I bought his My Brother’s Husband in the same batch of comics as Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, and the Hope Nicholson-edited, The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, the question, for me, becomes, “How can we see ourselves? our wants? ourselves in comics?” with immediacy.

I read a lot of comics. I know a good number of comics fans, the world round. And, many comics try to put you in the protagonist’s skin, to see with their eyes and know their experience. Which, is cool. I know many fans, many readers do see themselves, regularly, in Spider-Man, in Ranma Saotome, in Dennis the Menace. I don’t, and I’m used to not. Maybe I’m just being fussy, maybe I’m just a stick in the mud, but Peter Parker, when I was growing up, had a steady job, a movie and soap star wife, a flat in Manhattan with a skylight, and we lived on commods. Peter “hard luck” Parker once flew to Scotland because he inherited a castle. That was, then and now, way out of my realm.

I can enjoy Spidey comics. I often do. I cannot, though, really see myself in Peter Parker. I don’t really understand his financial life, much less his sexuality. Peter Parker’s sexuality befuddles the hell out of me. When Parker was briefly widowered (or so he thought), he roomed with Randy Robertson, and I greatly enjoy that era of Spider-Man comics, I liked their pairing, but during that, he reminds me never of myself and consistently of horrible, annoying roommates I’d suffered.

So, what would I do if I wanted to see myself? I can’t pick up Amazing Spider-Man. I can’t write or draw Spider-Man comics. My nephew sees himself in Spidey, in almost every iteration he’s ever come across. I fully believe that Dan Slott can see himself in Spider-Man comics, in that moral order and that psychological map, but I would not be able to. To do so, I would have to change so much, it would no longer be what it is. I would have to lose everyone who can see themselves in it.

I do not see myself in My Lesbian Experience, either, but it is closer. I know what depression looks like. This inability to reflect or to perceive is not particularly about race or sexuality or class or gender. I’m not a Japanese woman. I don’t feel gender significantly enough to really get homosexuality or heterosexuality. The fundamental break, there, is lost on me. But, I see my reactions in Nagata, and more importantly, I see Nagata Kabi in her comic. The same way I can enjoy Slott’s fan-self in his Spider-Man, yet more intimately and strengthened by its resonating with my own self-image and self-concerns, Nagata shows earnestly in her work.



She made a comic for herself. A comic in which we can see her, and even if the mirror is marred or tilted, I can see myself.

In her foreword to The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, Kelly Sue DeConnick admits to initially misunderstanding the premise of that anthology, referring to her state upon realizing it is a collection of love stories as panic. “Love stories, frankly, make me… uncomfortable.” But, when DeConnick wrote Captain Marvel, she wrote my favorite kiss in a Marvel book from that year. She wrote some of my favorite love stories from the publisher during that time. Stories I could see myself in, that I saw my wants in, and that, hopefully, did not make DeConnick too uncomfortable to write.




Everyone else, one year, went nuts over the kiss in Angela. Warrior princess angel and her buddy and scribe locking lips. Big deal. Whole page stuff.



The kiss, in Captain Marvel, was a small panel in a multi panel scene. And, though I couldn’t know it then, now I’ll always associate it with that Angela kiss and with something Ta-Nehisi Coates said about keeping a same-sex kiss in silhouette, early in his Black Panther, because it should be for them, not for us.


I get it, but at the same time, I think he’s presuming his audience too much, there. To me, that’s right up there with Frank Miller’s “gimme an ass-shot, Jim.” The big kiss scene in Angela felt like it was for everyone, and the scene in Captain Marvel felt like it was for me.

Earlier today, online, I got to witness someone blowing up over a decade-old Wolverine cover by Esad Ribic. It’s a beautiful cover. It’s Nightcrawler walking over to his fellow X-Man in a bar. It is a sexy cover. Bleeding Cool called it a “gay porn” cover. Again, though, it is just a cover. It’s indicative of the story within, but it is not the story. There’s no homoeroticism between Wolverine and Nightcrawler in the comic. Not really, and certainly not so blatant. But, this guy; it threatened him. Its existence, and the mirror it threw up, made the world bad for him. It showed him things he did not want.



My Brother’s Husband is not especially erotic. It’s an all-ages comic, family drama and slice of life pleasantness. And, I know there are, out there, many a fan of “gay comics” who were upset. They felt that Tagame was limiting himself, or censoring, because this was no porno. Others are bothered by the huskier bodies of the male main characters, or that there are no “traditional” aggressor and aggressed-on, no yaoi or boy’s love genre roles.



There is no appreciable difference, for the limitations of this essay, between the displeasurable reflection (or refraction) of the guy re the Ribic cover and yaoi fans and My Brother’s Husband. I'm not saying they’re wrong (I kinda am), but they are genuinely disappointed by what they are being faced with. That has to be acknowledged. What is more important than their displeasure, though, is that these comics are allowing so many others who don’t often get to see themselves in comics, to see their lives and their wants, to have their chance. Even if said, “guy” is a majority, or represents a majority, the entire world, both the Earth and the world of comics, cannot only be tailored to him.

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