Gay cartoonists create their own worlds on the Internet

By Bill Roundy

Imagine an alternate history of comics - one without a comics code to restrict depictions of gay people, one where newspaper syndicates didn't worry about offending the sensibilities of Ladies' Church Muffin Club. Where gay comics creators could tell whatever kind of story they wanted, at whatever length, and reach readers all over the world.

That alternate reality exists on the Internet, where gay cartoonists are forging new ground, free of the restrictions of print and the hidebound traditions of traditional comics. As more people get broadband access to the Net, cartoonists have flocked to use the medium to present their work.

One sign of the growing maturity of webcomics is the success of Nowhere Girl, an online drama about a young lesbian whose life is slowly falling apart. Lushly colored and emotionally resonant, the stunning debut by Justine Shaw is the first webcomic ever nominated for an Eisner Award (the comics equivalent of the Oscar, winners announced July 18).

Other Web creators have taken notice as well: on July 6, Nowhere Girl won four of the Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards, including Outstanding Comic.

Shaw, who works with computers in San Francisco, says that she initially felt guilty over receiving the Eisner nominations because she's "not even a real comics person." But she first sketched her lead character way back in 1992, and now she appreciates having her years of work recognized.

"I'm pretty much over it," she says. "Heck, it's great. … These nominations recognized my work, that I worked so hard on for so long."

No genre restrictions

Traditional print comics are still dominated by superheroes. But on the Web, there are a wealth of genres that don't have to compete for shelf space, including historical fiction, horror, romance, funny animals, and autobiography - and there are gay stories in each.

Zan, president of Prism Comics, an group that promotes queer comics, says that when you don't have to worry about printing costs "it gives you freedom to explore exactly what you want to do. You can do a romance comic, or a comic about archeology. That was the appeal of underground and small press comics - that's even more so the case with webcomics."

"Webcomics offer delicious freedom," says Sandra Fuhr, creator of the online romance comic Boy Meets Boy. "I have no editor telling me what to do or what not to do. No criticisms that my characters are too gay - or not gay enough. It's a fun hobby, and it's nice to be able to follow any creative thread I want."

Boy Meets Boy beat out a host of hetero comics to win the WCC Award for "Outstanding Romantic Comic" - but it's far from alone. One of the more prominent gay webcomics is Young Bottoms in Love, a gay romance anthology. YBIL updates every weekday, telling a self-contained five-part story with a new cast of young gay men each week.

With the Web, cartoonists can reach audiences who might never venture into a comic book shop. "While the genre is certainly limited in its target audience, it has perhaps the most defined target audience available," says Tim Fish, creator of Young Bottoms. "That's the first draw: I am able to identify, know, and write to a specific audience. Which hopefully makes for better stories.

"I get fan mail from guys often, who never reads comics, except for [Young Bottoms in Love]" says Fish.

Erin Lindsey, 23, a transsexual college student, began posting her webcomic Venus Envy in late 2001, just as she finished her transition. The series filled what she saw as a gap in the online comics world, but it started as just a whim.

"I was doodling my own cartoons about how absurd this subject was… and a friend told me I should put these up online."

Those first sketches are fairly crude, but the series soon evolved from a simple gag strip to a compelling, sometimes moving teen soap opera. The series follows Zoe, a 16-year-old transgender girl trying to pass at a new high school without anyone realizing her difference, quarreling with her parents, and feuding with FTM transgender student Larson.

Webcomics have even spawned their own unique genre - the journal comic. Like an illustrated blog, journal comics distill a day's experience into a few panels, providing a glimpse into someone else's life that makes for a powerful reading experience.

Neil B.'s vibrantly colored journal comic, Imitation of Life, provides an intimate look at his struggles with law school, depression and being gay and Indian-American.

"It was a big decision for me to come out in the comic, because doing so meant coming out to a lot of friends in real life who didn't know that I'm gay," says Neil, who still does not put his full name on the site. "But soon it become inexorably true to me that I couldn't be sincere about anything without coming out."

Breaking the boundaries

Many gay comic strips, such as Dykes to Watch Out For and The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green have an Internet presence. But comics that are native to the medium have developed their own forms and traditions. There are no size restrictions, for instance: pages can scroll for an infinite space, or take as many panels as they like to finish a story.

Gay cartoonist Howard Cruse, the creator of the acclaimed graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby and the strip Wendel, has adapted many of his old cartoons on his Web site, recognizing that the new format required a new layout.

"We're like in the early stages of television, when most TV shows were radio shows with pictures, or the early stages of any medium. People haven't yet figured out the special characteristics to the medium."

Despite the potential versatility of the Web, however, most cartoonists still borrow a form either adapted from the newspaper comic strip (three or four panels, often with a punchline) or from the comic book, creating 'pages' of images.

There are differences, however: Unlike self-contained daily newspaper strips, web-comics often have plots that stretch on for months. Because archives of previous strips are freely available, new readers can simply click back to catch up on the story.

The interactive nature of the web also allows readers to communicate with the artists easily. Many webcomics offer message boards and comment areas, where fans can discuss the current storyline, argue about their favorite characters, and post encouragement to the artist.

This interaction encourages an informal tone in many strips, and also a sense of community with the readers. Artists may draw themselves into the strip, or apologize to readers when the strip is late.

Sometimes artists will even hand over control of the strip, creating a "guest week," posting fan-created art, or allowing another web-based cartoonist drawing the strip.

"Having a comic available only online automatically puts you closer to your audience, and you definitely get input on what they like and what they don't," notes Fuhr, of Boy Meets Boy. "The audience lets me know when I'm doing something right, when the story is engaging, and if I'm making them smile … On the negative side, a few people get very upset if the story does not go in the direction they want."


Prism Comics
An advocacy group that promotes queer comics and comics creators. Includes a listing of more than 120 creators, both online and in print, plus interviews and news.

The Gay League
A site for fans of gay comics. Features Queen of Diamonds and Glamazonia, the Uncanny Super-Tranny.

Howard Cruse
Founder of Gay Comix, creator of Stuck Rubber Baby and Wendel, his designed his site to be "so full of things that no one could ever see it all in one visit, so they'll have to come back." Includes an extensive listing of queer comics online.

Free hosting service for hundreds of webcomics, including 100 with boy/boy relationships, 69 with girl/girl pairings, and 53 transgender strips. (Of course, it also includes 273 comics about "Idiots.")

Individual sites:

Boy Meets Boy
Romance comic about a happy couple and their friends. Updates daily.

Imitation of Life
Glimpses into the real life of gay Indian law student. Updates erratically.

Nowhere Girl
Gorgeously illustrated coming-of-age story. Two chapters available.

Venus Envy
Humorous strip about an MTF transgender 16-year-old. Updates three times each week.

Young Bottoms in Love
Gay romance stories, updated daily.

And surprisingly, gay creators haven't found themselves being flamed by homophobic viewers.

"All that stuff about everyone online being a jerk who's just there to flame everyone else anonymously? Not true, at least not in this corner of the web," says Shaw. Response to Nowhere Girl has come from all kinds of people: gay, straight, men and women, though many of her readers are in their teens and 20s. "I've emailed back and forth a lot with some of these folks. They're great people. A number of them are really unhappy with their lives, really sad, and I wish I knew better what to tell them. I've been that person, and I got lucky

Venus Envy has also prompted an outpouring of support, which leaves its created mock-exasperated. "This is annoying. It's almost entirely positive. I keep sneaking in little offensive bits and hoping I'll piss somebody off, but people seem to like me. It boggles my mind."

"I feel like I'm just doing this piece-of-shit comic, and people keeping reading it for some reason," she continues. "It screws with my perception of reality."

"Someone who is going to react badly to a character being gay simply because they are gay is unlikely to actually go and read a comic featuring a queer character in the first place," observes Bevis Musson, creator of Queen of Diamonds, about a flamboyant gay superhero who fights ruffians while clad in a belly-shirt. "I have had a couple of people who are a little uncomfortable with the Queen being so camp and overtly gay but they've generally actually been gay people who think that he's a stereotype. He is, but he's also based on me so I don't see that as being a problem."

On to print?

But despite the advantages of the web, most creators have their eye on an eventual print publication - either as a collection of strips, or as a full-fledged comic book.

"I do, in a lot of ways, prefer print comics," says Musson. "There's something about being able to pick up a comic and turn the page that makes it much more satisfying (and easier to read) than a webcomic but the problem if you're doing it yourself is just getting the thing out there in the first place."

"Just about every fan I meet says, "I love the comic... when is it going to print?" says Fish. "Or I meet people at conventions who flip through my print outs and say, 'This looks great... but I only read printed comics.' The feedback I get currently is that print is still preferable."

The other advantage of print, of course, is being paid for your work. It is difficult, if not impossible, to make money from Web comics. Debate is currently raging online of various methods to make money. Despite some intriguing experiments with "micropayments," a workable system for getting paid seems a long way off.

Most webcartoonists post their work for other reasons: to express themselves, to reach out to people, or just to get some practice drawing and telling stories.

"I like having my stuff available online for free: it goes with the kinda 'spirit of the web,' says Shaw. Keeping it free also keep her comics accessible to queer youth. "Most kids don't have credit cards, so if you're 15 and you want to read a comic online and it asks for your credit card, what are you going to do… Seriously, most kids don't have the means, even if they have access to a computer."

"Venus Envy has always been practice," says Lindsey. "It's teaching me about layout and storyboarding - it's an on-the-job training thing."

But the biggest advantage is just the ability to get their work out there. Now, anyone with a pencil, a scanner, and a vision can reach a world-wide audience.

"A lot of these young gay and lesbian cartoonists, they don't get much attention and they need it," says Cruse, who began his career in the underground comics movement. "What you see is the next generation of gay and lesbian cartoonists. What used to be underground comics is now on the Web."

This article first appeared in edited form in the July 18 edition of the Washington Blade.