Among other things, the story of LGBTQ+ liberation is a story of spaces. For as long as the LGBTQ+ community has sought freedom and equality, it has been essential for this group to have places both concrete and metaphorical where they can safely gather, emote, care for one another and understand their identities.
Those spaces have not always been so easy to find, and creativity has been essential. No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, the Peabody award–winning film-maker Vivian Kleiman’s latest documentary, is about how comics became a site in the struggle for queer people to have room to exist. It tells how a foundational generation of artists, including Howard Cruse, Mary Wings, Jennifer Camper and Rupert Kinnard, fought against censorship against their very existence by creating and distributing their own comics in the 1960s and 70s. It then follows that story down through the generations, integrating the careers of later creators like Alison Bechdel and the Gen Z artists who are again redefining how the LGBTQ+ comics world looks and where it is found.
“I’m amazed about how much material is in the film,” said Bechdel, whose New York Times bestselling 2006 graphic novel Fun Home was adapted into a Tony Award–winning Broadway musical. “It’s mostly about this generational transmission and the political changes that have happened over the past 40 years or so. [It’s] a generational story about recent progress.”
No Straight Lines starts in the 1950s, when gay and lesbian artists found that censorship made it impossible to tell their stories in the comics section of newspapers. Cruse, whose groundbreaking 80s series Wendell was one of the first to speak to the Aids crisis, explains how prestige venues like newspapers and newsstands self-censored via the Comics Code Authority, explicitly forbidding any mention of homosexuality. According to Cruse, this made the comics world into a “bland” space of cis-het individuals that subscribed to heavily binary, limited ideas regarding gender roles and sexuality.
So-called underground comics rode in on the countercultural revolution of the 60s, priming the 70s to be a transformational decade. The pioneering artist Mary Wings explains how the lackluster representation of a lesbian coming out in the 1972 Wimmen’s Comix anthology inspired her to tell a more authentic story in her groundbreaking Come Out Comix. Self-printed and self-distributed by Wings, it was noteworthy for being the first to portray a lesbian protagonist as a fully fleshed out human being, as opposed to just a sexualized object.
As Kleiman introduces these foundational stories, she intersperses the words of contemporary comics artists like Meggie Ramm, who explains that “I was just so grateful that these people had come before and had helped me get to the point where I am today where I can make comics about being a queer person and have people acknowledge them and take them seriously.” Throughout, Kleiman structures the film so that it feels like a series of intricate, intimate conversations across the generations, resulting in a rich tapestry interwoven voices and images. Commenting on this aesthetic, she stated: “In film-making I try to construct a simulated conversation among the different people that I’m including in the film. When it works it’s really quite dynamic.”
Throughout the interplay of voices, No Straight Lines begins to answer a central question: why have comics become such a powerful site for queer culture? Ineluctably, the documentary finds itself again and again returning to one answer to this question: comics have a remarkable capacity to provide a space for self-definition that many in the LGBTQ+ community do not otherwise possess in their day-to-day life.
“When I got started as a cartoonist in the early 1980s,” said Bechdel, “I was conscious of it as a form that nobody was going to criticize, and that just gave me a great sense of freedom and possibility. It’s just really super accessible, not only in the ways it can be distributed but in the ways it’s assimilated, the ways we read it, the ways we ingest these words and images.”
No Straight Lines is a testament to how, with just ink and paper, LGBTQ+ artists can envision profoundly validating bodies, identities and relationships that often have no space in the cis-het world. Kleiman’s cornucopia of images from the strips themselves lets viewers experience first-hand the very idiosyncratic, forceful presences that these artworks conjure in the minds of readers.
A notable example of the power of these comics is the story of Rupert Kinnard, a Black, disabled artist who began his career telling the story of his protagonist the Brown Bomber in the pages of Cornell’s student newspaper. Seemingly without even intending it it, Kinnard discovered that when he made his Brown Bomber come out, it became entwined with his own coming out, elegantly making the case for the substantial impact that queer comics can make in the lives of those who participate in them. As Kinnard narrates his story, Kleiman leads us around the mostly black squares of the strip with which he and his character came out, artfully popping in text and images in conversation with Kinnard’s voice.
No Straight Lines is also a story of media. It begins with queer voices on the outside of the mainstream media of the 50s and 60s, then shows how they eventually made their own media through self-printed publications and the rise of LGBTQ+s those LGBTQ+ newspapers began to disappear and the web became ascendant. Bechdel’s story is instructive: her long-running Dykes to Watch out for was originally carried in the alt-paper Funny Times and syndicated in queer newspapers, but as it became increasingly difficult to stay afloat financially in that format, she was forced to embrace the graphic novel form. This transition proved to be the beginning of a major new chapter in her career, as the resultant book Fun Home broke through barriers to become a smash success and bring her stories to entirely new audiences.
“I feel hopeful when I saw the young people that [Kleiman] talked to for this movie,” said Bechdel. “I didn’t know until I saw the show that there’s this whole strand of younger artists. That really does make me hopeful. I feel like I have some kind of connection to these younger people, and that is really pleasant as someone who doesn’t really have that in a familial way.”
If the documentary ends on a high note – with testaments to the community that exists in the queer comics world and the openings it creates for complexity and different ways of being – the entire film evokes the special way that generations of creators have intermingled in this space, trading inspiration and gratitude. “The thing that surprised me when I interviewed the young people,” said Kleiman, “was how grateful they were to the pioneers of queer comics. They were totally recognizing the struggles of the prior generations and including that sensitivity and awareness in their own consciousness.”