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The State Of Queer Comics With Bevis Musson

Recently Gay League asked a number of LGBTQ+ people involved in comics either as a creator, critic, journalist, or academic to comment on a variety of topics and questions to gauge through a queer lens their experiences, insights, thoughts about and hopes for the much beloved four color medium.  Artist and writer and all around bon vivant Bevis Musson is the first of several and hopefully more respondents! 

Gay League: Representation is important! How does your work reflect representation? Has it changed for you?

Bevis Musson: Representation is massively important, yes, and that applies across the board for everyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis, Christian man. I’ve always had a very clear sense that I want to show queer characters in my work, but I’ve made as much effort to show the whole spectrum of society rather than just queer people. Sometimes that’s easier than in others, but all it takes is asking yourself “does this character have to be white/cis/straight?” and if they don’t, then don’t make it the default. I’m much more conscious now that as a white person in a very white country that my unconcious default is a particular type of white person and I have to make an effort not to do that.

GL: Do you have stories to mention about how representation in your work has affected people or how you’ve been affected by people commenting on your work?

BM: Not really recently, but most of my recent work hasn’t really touched on sexuality or queer characters per se. I’ve been asked about the possibly queer characters in The Dead Queen Detectives (Queen Anne, but also Hatshepsut who is kind of genderqueer in the comic) but there’s been no point where their gender identity or sexuality have really come into play. That said, having a comic that i almost exclusively female characters has been commented on a fair bit, and mostly by younger women. Working in the UK indie scene I almost get a bit blase about the number of women working in comics, but for young women coming to a con who only read superhero comics or the like it can be a revelation that there are comics out there that they feel reflects them in any way at all. And the best thing that anyone has ever said is having a couple of young girls come back to my table at a con and showing the comics they’d done because they’d been at least partially inspired by my work (amongst others, I hasten to add).

GL: Is it important to you that your work have a positive impact on people outside of the group(s) represented in it? What are your thoughts about the state of LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream comics – current, past, and future.

BM: Absolutely, yes. I want non-queer readers to read any queer characters I write or draw and feel some kind of connection. Obviously I want that for all my characters, but I think representation matters as much for the straight, white, cis audience as well. It’s only when the default isn’t straight/white/cis for them that we’ll really have made a change. I think queer characters in mainstream comics are, as ever, a bit of a mixed bag but things are improving a lot. There have been some massive missteps and Marvel in particular still seems to think that the tiniest crumb of representation makes up for every shitty move they make (and it really doesn’t), but DC are clearly making efforts and even just having Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy overtly queer is a big step, as is the clear effort to make Midnighter and Apollo key characters. And then you have the likes of Image who while they have made some major fuck-ups also have titles like The Wicked + The Divine and DIE that wouldn’t be out of place in a collection of queer comics (and I suspect Kieron would quite readily label them as queer comics even if most comic shops wouldn’t). I also think the fact that there are so many more visibly queer creators working in mainstream comics, and allies like Gail Simone making a concerted effort to have better representation, has to be a good thing.

Bevis Musson’s Dead Queen Detectives

GL: Why does a sustainable solo queer title seem elusive? Is it really just a matter of dollars supporting a book and if so, is it possible to persuade people to spend their money on a book they dislike?

BM: I think a lot of that depends on what you consider a sustainable title. If you’re talking DC or Marvel almost *nothing* is a sustainable title. Even a character like Wonder Woman (who is a queer character, but more importantly is one of the most recognisable comic characters worldwide) can barely sustain a profitable title at the best of times. The mainstream comic market is shrinking, long-running titles are almost impossible to come by if they’re not based on established characters (when was the last really big breakout character? Harley Quinn, maybe? And even a ‘new’ character like Harley has been around for 25 years), so having a sustainable queer title at DC or Marvel is probably not so much an issue of them being queer as it is them not being Batman, Superman or Wolverine. If Batman suddenly had a relationship with a man would his title tank? Almost certainly not, but DC are never going to take that risk either. On the other hand at a smaller publisher like Image you can have a massive hit with something like The Wicked + The Divine even though it has much smaller sales than a DC or Marvel title because its such a different market. Ultimately though I think that some of it is just the market not sustaining *any* title and some of it is that until recently queer characters were seen as too much of a sales risk for there to be a title that catches the zeitgeist in a way they need to to really succeed. I think it’s probably only a matter of time though. And all that of course is ignoring the smaller press, indie press and web comics that have been running for *years* with queer leads. The point being, I guess, that it all depends on how you frame the question and what you consider success.

GL: As an indy comics person, how do you try to get word out about your work? What’s your experience like working in indy comics? What drives you to create?

BM: Honestly I’m not very good at it. I rely on Twitter, word of mouth and a few UK cons to try and get the word out. But conversely I’m not a hugely prolific author due to other commitments in my life, so I don’t put the effort in that I maybe would if I were producing more work. I make comics because I love them and I;m make them regardless of whether I sold a million copies of each comic or didn’t sell a single one. I make comics because that’s what I do. I’m lucky in that I’m happy working as a writer, artist, letterer or absolutely everything so I can just get on and do it without having to rely on anyone else (although I also love working as part of a team). It does help though that the UK indie scene is that absolute fucking tits too. It’s such a diverse, supportive, friendly scene that I encourage everyone to get involved.

GL: Do mergers such as the recently announced Oni & Lion Forge affect the voices of queer comics community and the stories that are told?

BM: I would hope not in a negative way. Unless it were a queer publisher being taken over by a mainstream publisher who decided they wanted to tone the gay down though I can’t see why that would happen though. But I don’t see that it’d have an automatic good affect either. Maybe bigger publishers will err on a more conservative path to try and catch a wider market, but I can’t imagine Oni ever doing that, even after merging with Lion Forge. Not least because if they did they’d lose most of the goodwill they have with their existing creator and audience.

GL: Do you think it’s important to draw on other media, topics, philosophy, history, cultures, and current events to inform and or inspire yourself or your work? Any examples you’d like to talk about?

BM: Ha, I’m a massive history nerd and my main comic is a bunch of dead queens not solving crimes, so almost everything I do draws from history. Yes, I think it’s hugely important to draw inspiration from everywhere. The “write what you know” theory is complete and utter bollocks, but if you’re going to write what you don’t know then you owe it to yourself and your readers that you give yourself as broad a base to build your creative world on as possible. Not everything has to inspire you, but never restrict yourself just because you think it’s not going to say anything to you. Like I say I’m a massive history nerd, especially women in history, but I’m a massive theatre and costume design nerd. I love fashion and fashion history. I like walking round cities looking at buildings and doorways and interesting trees and weird graffiti. You just need to keep your eyes open to the things that spark curiosity and not ignore them because you’re unconscious mind tells you they’re mundane or outside your usual frame of reference.

GL: Has your life or your work changed with the rise of conservative, ultra right wing, Fascist players in government and society? How do you engage it and maintain a sense of hope, etc?

BM: I’m in a slightly weird position that in the UK for a while we had a lot of big changes that had major effects in me. I got married a year after it was legalised in the UK (technically it was a Civil Partnership, but that’s now been backdated to being a marriage with the introduction of equal marriage) and my husband and I were one of the first male couples to be approved as adopters in the UK after the law changed, so there are relatively recent big changes that have been hugely positive, but in the last few years it’s felt like we’re on a dangerous slope backwards. We’re at the point where we’re not sure about holidaying in the US because we’re not sure we’d be safe as family. I don’t think our rights are likely to be curtailed in the UK even with the Right on the rise here as well, but there’s a clear rise in queer hate crime and it’s becoming more common to hear politicians overtly equating being queer with being somehow lesser. There’s a big debate at the moment about teaching about same sex families in primary schools (not sex education, literally just that queer families exist) and the fact that we are even having this debate smacks of the Section 28 debates of the 80s that made me feel as a young gay man that I was a second class citizen. I don’t ever want my kids to feel like that, or that their family is no a valid family just because they have two dads. I really, really hope though that this is the last, loud, nasty but short-lived death squeal of the kind of Them Vs Us mentality that has given rise to the likes of Trump, Johnson and Le Pen. the worry is that they might just be loud, nasty and vicious enough to win again.

GL: If stories are what we tell ourselves to help us understand our world, what kind of stories should we tell ourselves today and in the near future?

BM: Stories of hope and fun and joy, but also stories that are warnings and provoke thought. Honestly though I’m not sure that’s any different from any other time. It’s just the way we tell those stories, or the characters that we tell those stories about have changed.

Bevis Musson is a writer and artist, the creator of The Dead Queen Detectives, and artist on Knight & Dragon for Improper Books. Musson’s online shop may be found at Big Cartel. His portfolio can be viewed here  and he may be found on Twitter @bevismusson

June 22, 2019
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