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Loathsome Queers

howloathsomehc-001LGBT people were considered to be sexual outlaws who throughout the majority of the past two thousand years were imprisoned, tortured, hung, burnt as witches or otherwise killed or more mercifully, simply ridiculed, spurned, exiled or classified as mentally ill. During the extremely conservative 1950s McCarthy-ism was the spirit of the times in the United States, and many homosexuals in film and the arts were threatened being branded as communists. In 1961 a sex offender in America could face life imprisonment or castration. The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, told us our lives were worthless when he willfully remained silent about AIDS until it became irrefutable that heterosexuals could also contract the HIV virus. The current President Bush proposed an amendment to legislate discrimination into the Constitution by restricting the rights and privileges of marriage to heterosexual couples. The reason for these varied actions against homosexuals is a simple one. Homosexuals committed the act of heresy, the act of choosing, which was originally levied by the Church against anyone it deemed as a threat to its authority.

During the same two thousand-year time frame there were intermittent times in which it was comparatively safe to indulge in homosexual behavior, or as it was sometimes quaintly referred to as having “romantic friendships”. Such safety was reserved for the aristocracy, the wealthy, and to a large extent artists and writers until the events that led to Oscar Wilde’strial when Wilde crossed the line of social discretion by indulging in a “behavior” to the creation of a homosexual identity. In other words. Wilde determined to live his life on his rules.

Wilde was drawn to “feasting with panthers”, his phrase for his desire of searching the seamy areas of London for working class trade. Art historians and critics also contributed to defining the nascent upper class, or aristocrat “homophile” identity that was steeped in aesthetic sensibilities of the artist. Other creative personalities, such as Andre Gide, Jean Genet, and Jean Cocteau, followed Wilde’s lead and combined their art with direct experiences of their contemporary homosexual world. This concept of a sexual identity was picked up on by the Beat Poets who put their own spins on living as sexual non-conformists by becoming “sexual outlaws”.

Those of you familiar with the history of gay liberation beyond the Stonewall Riots and the founding of the Mattachine Society by Harry Hays are thinking why is there no mention of Karl Henirich Ulrichs, the grandfather of homosexual activism who gave a speech in 1867 urging the repeal of Germany’s sodomy laws. The importance of Ulrichs’ activism and writing (he briefly published a magazine Prometheus and numerous pamphlets) are cornerstones. Unfortunately, his efforts failed and in 1871 the infamous Paragraph 175 became law until its repeal in 1969. I’m also trying to tie the assertions made by Richard Schneider Jr. in his short article titled “Harbinger” printed in the July August 2004 issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review.

Schneider goes on to write that while there were now two concepts of gay identity that neither one of them proved a satisfactory basis for the flood of people who would come out after Stonewall. These two models were after all suited for a specific and narrow segment, not the average person whose lives had been mainly concerned with navigating a heterosexual world along with paying the bills and buying groceries.

Jump ahead to June 2004. There are a couple of articles in the Queer Eye on Pride issue of The Advocate that seemed to make an interesting juxtaposition with Schneider’s piece on forerunners of gay identity. The first article, The Future of Gay, by Mike Hudson poses the question of whether there will be a word for gay fifty years into the future. Gender Detour, the second article, is in two parts. The first half is a collection of photos taken by Cass Bird who started photographing gender queers. The people in Bird’s portraits are trans men. Dean Spade, director of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project whose purpose is to protect gender expression, writes about the need to create a world of their own determination.

Hudson’s article is a series of “What If?” scenarios. He does base some of his speculation on some recent events and solicited comments from openly gay Episcopalian bishop V. Gene Robinson and Freedom To Marry’s Evan Wolfson. Here is a paragraph I found most interesting:

“As GLBT culture becomes accepted, as it becomes mainstream, it will no doubt cease to be seen as special or unusual. Some will mourn the loss of a distinctive gay identity, but others will see this phenomenon as a signal that the civil rights movement is nearing its goals.”

On one hand it does seem true that the presence of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual people of our community is being assimilated to some degree into mainstream culture. On the other hand, transgend queer folks have as many hurdles facing them still as the gay community had not so long ago and in some instances are still present today.

And the hurdles come not just from straight society, but also from some individuals within our own community who may not understand such issues or be transphobic. If there is no word for gay people fifty years in the future, what will the words for gender variant people be?

So you’re asking what do Wilde Ulrichs, Schneider, Hudson, Bird or any of this have to do with comics? Just this. How Loathsome, one of the queerest comic books published in a number of year, if not ever, hit the stands last year with a lot of critical acclaim, but seemed to slip by many people’s gaydar. It was nominated for a GLAAD media award,but was passed over in favor of Ed Brubaker,s excellent characterization of Holly and her girlfriend Karon in Catwoman. Publisher NBM has collected the four issues into a hardcover edition that was released in May.

It isn’t the typical cast of comic book characters. They don’t wear spandex, although drag outfits, Goth gear, and such are not be out of the question. They aren’t anything similar to a whiny mutant or an emasculated super hero couple or a young, blond former art assistant/hate crime victim turned media darling sidekick wannabe’s or the often contested Queer As Folk bunch or Will the Martyr and Jack the Clown type homos. Instead, Catherine, Chloe, Alex, and Nick lead very human and queer lives that intersect with one another, often failing, but acting truthfully to their natures, and picking themselves up to carry onward. Their world is San Francisco, not the happy, shiny areas, mind you, but the psychological and emotional and sometimes the physical fringes of the LGBT community where many of us prefer not to go. Catherine, the main protagonist, considers herself more of a gender outlaw pushing the boundaries of her identity instead of seeking comfort in a set definition of lesbian. Straight guy Nick is “just repulsive enough to be great company” and lets himself “stray” one time. Chloe, a stunning femme fatale, quietly defies labels in her own way. Youngest of all Alex is a good kid and a rent boy.

What sets How Loathsome apart from most comics is the integrity and honesty of writer Tristan Crane and artist Ted Naifeh. The same characters could have easily become fetishized persons in other creator hands. Mind you, there’s anything wrong with that, but it isn’t unique by any stretch of the imagination unless you’re a pubescent adolescent who’s experiencing such things for the first time. Instead there was a long of birthing period for Catherine that started in 1994 when Naifeh caught a performance of Danielle Willis’ one woman act, “Back in the Flesh District”. From there it was a combination of observation experience, care, and determined desire crafted characters that are layered, smooth, jagged, and most of all compelling in their beliefs that they, like Wilde, Cocteau, the Stonewall rioters, and you and me are equally deserving of a place in the world.

How Loathsome is best summed up by Crane’s closing words:
“There is only finding joy where you can, with whom you can.”

“Learning to live for the smallest of moments which come to mean everything in the world.”

“We’re all the same brilliantly flawed creatures at times stumbling…”

“…but finding our way through the endless lonely night.”

Naifeh’s style is perfectly suited for the story: stark, refined, sometimes exaggerated line work with grey tones. The full page portrait of Catherine and Chloe is amazing. Thankfully, the art is in black and white. Color would have detracted from the story. These “beautiful monsters” in their magnificence have to be distanced from us in our technicolor world. The decision to use black and white is one of the first things taught to me in art school. To render an image in black and white is to concentrate on the form and substance of a subject. To use color is to concentrate on light and its physical and emotional effects.

A few words about the book itself. Its first incarnation seemed so complete that I couldn’t imagine it differently, but this is one comic that appreciably benefits from being collected. There is a psychological impact on the reader with the weight and feel of the hardcover lending substance to the lives of the characters. The book design wins points for style as well.

The comic’s original mid grey tone is replaced in the hard cover with a light sepia color that gives an added dimension to the art. Three wise exceptions to the color treatment are a flashback scene with Nick and two fables contained in the first two chapters. Many collections traditionally reproduce each issue’s cover. The obvious choice is passed over which is not to infer that the covers were inferior; they weren’t in the least. Instead, “double” portraits mark the chapters, one in black and white and on the reverse side of the page one in sepia, of Catherine, Alex, Nick, and Chloe. NBM also a little further with its choice of sewing the pages to the binding instead of using the cheaper perfect binding used in soft covers and sometimes in hard covers. It means the book will lie flat when opened, none of the art disappears in the inside margins, and the book itself will hold up well over time.

How Loathsome is out of print. Copies can be found on Amazon, Ebay, and possibly the publisher itself.

September 5, 2017
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