Whether they center on a superhero or psychologically complex character, comic books have long offered quirky role models. Underground comics have been a particular source of comfort to gay, lesbian and transgender people in search of personalities and storylines not found in traditional publications.
Last month, at the Queer and Comics Conference, hosted by the California College of the Arts, comics and graphics novels on display included Politically Inqueerect, Supergirl Being Super, TransCat, Lumberjanes and What’s Normal Anyway. It was CCA’s second year hosting the event, held biannually and bi-coastally after being launched in 2015 at City University of New York by cartoonist Jennifer Camper. Camper is the author of SUBGurlz, which follows three chemically altered superwomen living in toxic subway tunnels.
From the conference to events like “Comics in the City,” a summer guest speaker series, CCA has become a gateway for the comic world since beginning a graduate program in the genre in 2013. Matt Silady, chair of the program, explained that CCA has given institutional support to what at one time operated as a subculture. “The conference fits with CCA’s social justice and creative wheelhouse,” he said, adding that half of the graduate comics classes are taught by queer identifying professors.
A prevalent conference theme was recognition of San Francisco as a center of the emerging underground comic world in the 1960s and 1970s, while embracing LBGT culture. Several panelists expressed they either moved to the City to make comics or began doing so after discovering them when they arrived.
One of the pioneers was Lee Marrs, a graphic artist who stumbled on the underground comics scene when she moved to Haight Ashbury in 1969. “The Hells Angels were on one side of my street and a convent on the other. We had the safest block in the City,” she joked. She documented what she saw around her in The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge Girl Blimp, which follows a girl who hitchhikes to San Francisco to “solve” her virginity.
Tyler Cohen, who began making comics in the late 1990s, was initially captivated by Archie and Richie Rich before identifying with Tigra, a DC super heroine who defends a race that has to live secretly among humans for fear of being persecuted. As a young teen growing up in the Midwest, Cohen stumbled across Zap Comix in a cabinet she wasn’t supposed to access and realized “San Francisco was where I wanted to be.” She explained that the gay and female-oriented comics coming out of the City were a consolation for those “not living in San Francisco who were seeking stories and other visions about what it is to be queer in this world.”
Straight men have also given the artists positive feedback. Ed Luce, creator of Wuvable Oaf, a series associated with the gay bear culture, said he’s gotten responses from hairy straight men who appreciate his drawing the characters in “a loving way.” Another artist, Marinaomi, who chronicled her time as a misfit teen looking for love in San Francisco in the graphic memoir Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22, got encouraging reactions from young straight men for the insights the chronicle gave them into the female mind.
One way the underground comic world has changed over the years is their acceptance in stores. “I think the great thing now is that these books are not behind the counter,” said Cohen. Tristan Crane, co-author of How Loathsome, a 2003 series chronicling the misadventures of LBGT and goth San Franciscans, recalled growing up in the Central Valley, where a store kept “the weird comics in boxes under the counter.” Even in San Francisco, Lee remembered stores weren’t welcoming or safe. “They were grubby and never cleaned,” she said.
Lee said head shops and bookstores in 1970s San Francisco reacted negatively to Pudge Girl Blimp being about “a fat person.” Her publisher, Last Gasp, received hate mail. “The popularity came over the years,” she said. “I knew I was reaching people so I persevered.” Last year, the comic was re-released in book form with a forward by Gloria Steinem.
The most dramatic change in the industry, however, is the ability to self-publish, on the Web or print-on-demand. “So many of our cartoonists are getting their work out there immediately,” said Silady.
CCA has 34 students in its graduate program, up from a dozen when it began. Only half attend in person, the other half take classes online from as far as South Korea. All students come to San Francisco in July for what Justin Hall, a professor in the program, calls an intensive curriculum.
Hall, who is a Fulbright scholar and creator of the gay male erotica comic Hard to Swallow, has his students engage with the community for inspiration. In one class, they visited La Cocina in the Mission, an incubator kitchen which provides space for low-income entrepreneurs. After spending time with the staff, the students collaborated on a comic about the nonprofit.
Students are required to complete a graphic novel as their final thesis. Silady explained that while most comics in the real world are collaborative, having scholars learn all aspects – writing, editing, illustration and the printing process – serves them better in the long run.