‘When you are drawing yourself, you can draw yourself however you want’

For many LGBTQ people, underground comics provided their first glimpse of representation

Comic fans, especially those weaned on a steady, vanilla diet of mainstream titles, would do well to check out Vivian Kleiman’s No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics.

Inspired by Justin Hall’s 2013 anthology of queer comics from the 1960s until the turn of the millennium, Klieman’s film will round off this year’s GAZE programme when Ireland’s oldest LGBTQ film festival returns for its 29th edition later this month. This year’s programme also features Rebel Dykes, Harri Shanahan and Siân A Williams’ documentary celebration of the London lesbian scene in the 1980s, and a 25th anniversary screening of the director’s cut But I’m A Cheerleader.

“I had the opportunity to attend the GAZE festival in 2019,” says Kleiman. “And first of all, I love the name of the festival. How brilliant is that? And I personally have an affinity with Irish literature. So being in Ireland with people who love language was just wonderful. It’s breaking my heart not to attend this year.”

No Straight Lines brings together some of the medium’s most groundbreaking talents, including Mary Wings, who created the first lesbian comic in the basement of a women’s karate cooperative in 1973; Howard Cruse, the late “Godfather of Queer Comics” and chronicler of gay life from 1979 until his death in 2019; Rupert Kinnard, who created the first African-American gay comic book heroes in the 1970s; Jennifer Camper, the Lebanese-American lesbian artist whose work has appeared everywhere from Ms Magazine to the Village Voice, and Alison Bechdel, the creator of the Bechdel Test, Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home, an autobiographical graphic novel that was adapted into a five-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.


The reason I bother spending all this time as an independent documentary filmmaker is to make something that has longer legs and a longer shelf life

It’s an important chronicle, not least because for many LGBTQ people, including Kleiman, these initially underground artists allowed for their first glimpse of representation. “When you are drawing yourself,” as the non-binary artist Maia Kobabe tells Kleiman: “You can draw yourself however you want. And that is another reason why I think that comics is a media that is so friendly to a queer author.”

“Like many people of my age, I completely felt like the veil had been lifted from my eyes when I first stumbled upon Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For,” recalls Kleiman.

“It’s a series that ended up running for almost 25 years. Clearly, it touched many hearts and minds and more than one generation. And I just felt like: Ah ha, someone has described my life, someone has captured my experiences as I think about that series as a kind of historical record. It first appeared bi-weekly. And we would just run to grab it and read the next instalment – what happened with our favourite characters. There was a cycle of characters dealing with this huge range of issues that were important. Everything from dealing with anxiety, going to anti-war demonstrations, and conversations about getting out of Central America. Will I ever find love? How will I deal with a bad hair day? How am I spending my time?”

More than any other sub-genre, LGBTQ comics have yielded such hugely important historical works as David Wojnarowicz’s HIV/AIDS chronicle Seven Miles a Second. Kleiman’s film considers the medium through the gaze and mediation of younger comic book artists, including Gaia Wxyz, Breena Nuñez, and Ivan Velez Jr.

“The kind of filmmaking that I’m involved with is not like working on a news feature,” says Kleiman. “The reason I bother spending all this time as an independent documentary filmmaker is to make something that has longer legs and a longer shelf life. With No Straight Lines, I tried to tell a more complicated tale. And I was very cautiously braiding very different filmic elements, any of which could have been the focus of a film.

“I was telling the personal stories of five queer artists in the United States, telling the story of the general history of queer experience in the United States, recounting Stonewall and beyond, the evolution of of a genre that emerged out of the underground comic scene, a scene that was enormously homophobic and misogynist and proud of it.

“I was also talking about the evolution of the means of production, of creating art. As an art history major, I could spend the whole film just speaking about the evolution of image making, going from the offset press to mainstream acceptance on the cover of Time Magazine.

“And at the same time, at the beginning of editing, I took a look at the first rough cut, and I thought, My God, this feels very old. It didn’t have a vibrancy or sense of immediacy, or connection. So I did an experiment of filming young people and by luck, I think it worked. I found a way to bring those disparate elements to some kind of cohesive narrative, that maybe won’t satisfy each expert in any one of those topics but that I hope will motivate people to want to explore further.

“I hoped to create something for young people, something that was life-affirming and that would encourage young people to be creative, to pick up a pen or a guitar. Because the suicide statistics among queer youth are completely disproportionate to the general population of youth. Our young people still need our help.”

As a filmmaker, Kleiman first came to prominence with Color Adjustment, an exploration of the representation of African-Americans throughout US network television history. The film, which won a Peabody Award and the Organisation of American Historians’ Erik Barnouw Award, was co-directed by Marlon Riggs. It was the first major production to emerge from Signifyin’ Works, a non-profit corporation Riggs and Kleiman founded in 1991. (It was Riggs who first introduced Kleiman to No Straight Lines star, Rupert Kinnard.)

Riggs died of complications from AIDS in 1994 yet he continues to make an impact on Kleiman’s work and elsewhere.

There's a notion of trying to reach a broad audience, but Marlon's idea was: No, it's only from the specific that one can reach a general or broader audience

“One of the things I learned from Rigg’s influential 1989 film Tongues Untied,” says Kleiman, “is that you can tell a story in a nonlinear manner provided you can trust your audience to follow. And that your audience shouldn’t be some abstract mainstream ideal.

“It’s actually a brilliant idea, and one that I love having the opportunity to pass on to other people whenever I can.”

She adds: “I’m kind of on a soapbox. Because it’s contrary to assumptions that we had, or at least those of us who were raised on public television had. There’s a notion of trying to reach a broad audience, but Marlon’s idea was: No, it’s only from the specific that one can reach a general or broader audience. He wasn’t intending on reaching that audience, it was a lesson that emerged as a result of his reaching a broader audience.

“When Marlon worked on Tongues Untied, it was literally created for an audience of three venues. One gay bar in San Francisco, one gay bar in Oakland where we lived, and one gay bar in Washington, DC, because we had a friend who managed it. That was the audience for that film. But because that film was so specific, and because you’re not trying to explain everything to an outsider, the work became infused with a vitality and authenticity that otherwise would have been completely lost.”

GAZE is at IFI Cinemas, the Light House Cinema, and online on IFI@Home from September 29th to October 3rd.