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The State Of Queer Comics With Valentino Zullo

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. Comics scholar and journalist Valentino Zullo was gracious with his time and replies. 

Gay League: What do you think the role and importance queer comics plays in your life and the greater LGBTQ+ community and communities within it that are relevant to you?

Valentino Zullo: From a young age, queer comics have been important to me. In particular, I remember being in my early high school years reading Brian K. Vaughan’s Mystique and I would pour over the pages that had any mention of Mystique’s queerness. That series in particular impacted me not only because I already loved the character, but Vaughan actively explored her queerness in the comic in a way I personally had not seen before! That series along with the birth of Batwoman in 52 a few years later along with other series that I started to pick up as I got older made me feel more comfortable with myself. I did the same with other comics as well in those early years, searching for references to queerness (and begging for more), hoping to find myself in these stories or any reference to the community that I had yet to understand. I did this in secret so as to not alert my parents or friends to my own queerness. Being a fan of X-men comics was perfect, because they were cool and interesting to the general populace, but as a young queer person, I could also find many references to my own community within them. Comics, especially at a young age, gave me the permission I so desired, to exist.

GL: How your work is received by queer comics fandom and or straight fandom. Surprises, disappointments, any insight you’ve gained since starting?

VZ: Since I am not a creator, I cannot speak to how fandom has responded to my work, but I can say that I have given many lectures on queer comics across Ohio and in other states including Illinois, and I am increasingly surprised by how many people are interested in these stories and history. I say this because 15 years ago when I came out, I could not imagine having these discussions. I am also very fortunate to not have experienced any significant backlash, but that is perhaps due to the fact that I live in a particularly liberal area of the state. The same would not be true in other parts of the country or even the state of Ohio.

GL: What do you think is ahead for the state of queer comics? In a general sense for both indy or mainstream.

VZ: The trend that I start to notice in discussions of queer rights that is being reflected in comics is a consideration of intersectionality. I think the more representation of intersectionality in comics that we see, the healthier comics will be. Queerness has never been a standalone idea, it always intersects with other identities and is perhaps most transformative in that intersection. I don’t think there is enough being presented yet, though. We need to push the companies toward this more. We should remember that comics is a visual art form, you can’t have a homogenized color palette, or the same body presented over and over again. We need to see difference.

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

VZ: Representation is so important and one of the best parts of speaking to the public about comics as an academic is the feedback. I am constantly learning about new series (or old, comics unknown to me!) from those that attend the lectures, book clubs and other programs that I have led at libraries in Ohio. As I spoke earlier about intersectionality, being Persian and queer myself, I have always been aware of that intersection, but being in the public I have been made more aware of my own blind spots, the types of stories I don’t think about or the stories I don’t realize are being ignored. I like to think of a lot of my work in the public as educating others, but also educating myself. In terms of representation, I know that in the last few years, for example, I have become particularly cognizant of asexuality and bisexuality, two points of discussion that I think I too often ignored in my history of queer comics lectures. It was audience members and friends that challenged me to think about this more though. So, while I shared my own thoughts about comics, I have learned about the representation that I still need to recognize in my work.

GL: Is it important to you that your work have a positive impact on people outside of the group(s) represented in it?

VZ: That’s definitely an interesting question and it’s a difficult one to answer. I’ll try though. So, I don’t think that we have to be sure that the comic has a positive impact upon those not represented, but we have to be sure that we are not negatively representing groups either, particularly if other minority groups are represented in a story. What I am trying to suggest is that if a queer comic does not cater to another audience that is fine, because writing from one’s own personal position is important, but queerness is never an excuse for active denigration of another group. For example, we too often see gay men excuse their misogyny by claiming they are gay! Being gay doesn’t make you a feminist. We need to be conscious of the excuses we make while focusing on stories from our own particular positions. Tell your story, give it to your audience, but be sure that in the meantime you are not harming someone else or the representation of that other group. I think this is an important idea that we all need to think about as creators, critics and consumers.

GL: What are your thoughts about the state of LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream comics – current, past, and future. Why does a sustainable solo queer title seem elusive?

VZ: It seems that queer comics is growing into its own subgenre in the mainstreaming of autobiographical narratives by Alison Bechdel, the superhero stories of Iceman penned by Sina Grace or America by Gabby Rivera, and with the wonderful fictional stories by Mariko Tamaki such as Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me. This list could go on and on, but those are some of the immediate stories that come to mind that represent what is happening in comics. Significantly, though, I think LGBTQ+ representation seems to be thriving in autobiographical comics and in independent presses, but it does seem to be struggling in superhero comics. Yes, we have had some wonderful stories ranging from Batwoman to the Young Avengers, but the solo queer title has yet to truly be sustainable. Perhaps Sina Grace got the closest with Iceman, considering we got a very strong, complete story. Perhaps one day we can get a series that will run to 100 consecutive issues, though. Remember that many characters that are not straight white men have struggled to get to that anniversary issue. I think it points to the lasting identification with the patriarchy that haunts comics, particularly mainstream comics.

GL: 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?

VZ: I think it is about money spent by the consumer, but I think it is also about the money the companies put behind these books. Think of all the money Marvel is putting behind advertisements of House of X and Powers of X right now, or DC’s “Bendis is Coming” double page spreads. I think the companies need to put more of their money behind books with queer characters and the advertisement of those stories. Perhaps that would help. Companies have to put money behind these books if they expect them to sell, and they know that. It’s the practice they have with their main books, and it needs to be part of the push for smaller titles too. Think of the success a book could have if Marvel or DC had released a queer led book in Pride month and poured money into advertising it. (I’m waiting.) As for the second part, can we ask people to spend money on a book they dislike? No. So the other important point is to hire creators that sell, with artists that are engaging. Again, Marvel and DC knows who those creators are. They put them on their big books. Give them lesser known characters as well.

Cleveland Public Library’s queer comix book club facilitated by Zullo and held in conjunction with the Ohio Center For The Book.
Images provided courtesy of Valentino Zullo.

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?

VZ: Absolutely! So I am quite biased being an academic myself, but I think it is so important to think about philosophy, history, cultural difference and other factors when thinking through comics. I am also trained as a mental health practitioner and I regularly turn to these ideas when studying comics. It is difficult to imagine talking about comics in a vacuum. I also think not only does considering these points add to our discussions of comics, but it can also be our access point. There is quite a bit of history, for example, that I have learned from comics.

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?

VZ: Yes, I believe now more than ever we need to educate the public and announce our presence. Pride is such an important concept because it’s not just about announcing our survival, but it’s also about insuring a future for ourselves and others. I think that’s why I love giving talks on queer comics because it constructs a history that people might not know, but also imagines a future. If we uncover the history of queer identity, by creating an archive, we also create a record to build the future of representation. It’s important to talk about the archive of queer comics, queer history, queer politics, its present and what we want the future to look like. All of these stories aim to assert our presence at the very moment that far right governments aim to erase us.

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?

VZ: I think there are so many stories we need to tell ourselves. For me, in particular, I think we need to tell ourselves stories of hope, stories that imagine a better future, and help us to think about the world we want to live in, not only the world that we fear living in. I love good dystopian fiction, but I also love the utopian feminist narratives that creators like William Moulton Marston and H. G. Peter offered us with their early Wonder Woman stories. I think it is important that we are stimulated to think about what we can achieve and to imagine the world we want to strive in, in the future.

Valentino L. Zullo is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at Kent State University and a licensed social worker practicing as a maternal depression Therapist at OhioGuidestone. He leads the Get Graphic program at Cleveland Public Library and is American Editor of the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. He has published articles in Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, Asylum: A Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, and has a forthcoming piece on comics and queer theory in More Critical Approaches to Comics (Routledge, 2019).



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