Seventy years of LGBTQ+ history are vividly illustrated in “No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics,” a documentary about the art form, its artists, their superheroes and social themes among the 134 offerings of in-theater, virtual, drive-in and Oracle Park screenings in the Frameline45 film festival, which runs June 10-27.
Comics have been a popular mode of LGBTQ+ expression since before Stonewall and through the AIDS crisis. “No Straight Lines,” which screens at 6:30 p.m. June 27 at the Castro Theatre and streams June 17-27, focuses on five pioneering artists: Howard Cruse, Mary Wings, Alison Bechdel, Rupert Kinnard and Jennifer Camper. It also gives voice to Next Gen artists, showing how the form has evolved and remains relevant.
“Queer comics are a fresh vehicle to tell our history to a new generation of queer youth,” says the film’s director and co-producer Vivian Kleiman. “For some viewers, this film will be a nostalgic romp down memory lane. For most, however, I hope that the film will offer thoughtful commentary on notions of constructing identity and community, and that it will help inspire a new generation to form creative expressions of their own.”
Kleiman, an Oakland resident, Peabody Award winner and director-producer of the documentary short “Families Are Forever,” adds, “By using comics to chart the historical trajectory and diversity of queer life — the dilemmas, the celebrations, the conflicts, that which is unique to the LGBTQ experience and that which cuts across most lives — the film will generate new understandings of, and hopefully comfort with, what it means to be queer today in the U.S.”
Co-producer and consultant Justin Hall, a San Franciscan who compiled an anthology on which the movie is based, says, “I had been working in queer comics for years and realized that if I didn’t document the history of this remarkable artistic subculture, we were in danger of losing those stories. I put together ‘No Straight Lines’ as a collection and celebration of that work, but realized that film has a unique ability to command attention from a wide audience.”
Unlike mainstream comics that often deal with fantasy, queer comics deal with reality, and the fact that LGBTQ+ people have been the target of repression.
“Comics, as a DIY and underground medium, have a long and illustrious history of candid representations and speaking truth to power. Queer comics have had an extra responsibility, though, as a forum for marginalized LGBTQ people to examine, poke fun at, and celebrate themselves and their communities in an uncensored way,” says Hall.
But there have been many examples of roadblocks to the dissemination of queer comics, and the implication of disturbingly punitive consequences for the artists.
“I was afraid I would be arrested,”says Wings, the San Francisco author of 1973’s “Come Out Comix,” the first lesbian comic book. “I know that sounds silly, but the comix were seized at the Canadian border,” she says about a shipment of her work.
Queer comics have also been on the cutting edge of intersectionality. Kinnard, a disabled, gay Black man and the creator in 1977 of “Black Bomber,” the first African-American LGTBQ comic-strip character, and Camper, a Lebanese-American lesbian whose work reflects her life, are two examples.
“Queer comics from the very beginning showed a remarkable and sophisticated awareness of intersectionality, well before that became a valued trait in most media, Hall says. “Queer cartoonists were tackling issues of sexism, racism, ableism, etc. well before most other artistic communities, as we see not only from the work of Rupert and Jen, but also from the pages of Alison Bechdel’s ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ and Howard Cruse’s ‘Stuck Rubber Baby.’”
For Kleiman, the diversity of the community was on full display when in 2015 she attended the first Queers & Comics conference in New York.
“It was a casting director’s dream: from the gender nonconforming young person with chartreuse-dyed hair to the older gentleman with a button-down dress shirt, the range of queer artists who were in conversation together in one room, was simply astonishing,” Kleiman says. “It was clear at that moment that queer comics was an art form that embraced the diversity of our community through the common joy of artistic expression.”
Next Gen artists in the film — including the Bay Area’s Alex L. Combs, Gaia Wxyz and Anand Vedawala — also exemplify the community’s diversity, and point to how the pioneers in the movie provided a source of inspiration.
“When Howard Cruse created ‘Gay Comix,’ he brought together queer cartoonists to create an anthology,” Combs says. “Queer people often grow up feeling isolated, but reading a relatable comic can give one a sense of connecting to shared experiences and interests. Finding art that resonates with one’s thoughts, feelings and desires is a powerful experience.”
And while Next Gen artists don’t face the same challenges as their predecessors, they do struggle with the Bay Area’s high cost of living. But some have found creative to stay and pursue their craft.
“I personally feel very lucky to have a day job in my field, working at an independent comic shop/publisher (Silver Sprocket), and I will be teaching the first ever Comic Art class at UC Berkeley this summer, but even still, it feels like I’m constantly hustling, and don’t have as much time to work on my projects as I could if I lived somewhere else,” Wxyz says. “But the Bay is my home and I don’t plan on leaving any time soon.”
Younger artists also would like to earn more for their work.
“The future of queer comics is inclusive and diverse, not just in terms of race, but in terms of gender, sexuality, ability and culture. Fortunately, that’s the reality of where we’re headed. I would like to see this future value its queer creators for their efforts, experiences, and skills. In other words, pay us, support us, respect us. It’s about damn time,” says Vedawala.
Hall, who moved to San Francisco in 1995 for the comics scene, has seen booms, busts and gentrification. But he’s always amazed and inspired by the sheer tenacity of the local community. He says, “We’ve always been one of the global epicenters of comics art, often led by queers, women, and artists of color. And as demonstrated by the continuing success of institutions like the S.F. Zinefest, the California College of the Arts comics program, and the S.F. Cartoon Art Museum, we’re still thriving.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Castro, Roxie, Fort Mason Flix Drive-in, West Wind Solano Drive-in, Oracle Park
When: June 10-27 for in-person screenings; most films stream June 17-27
Tickets: $14 to $16 in theaters, free to $10 for streaming, $25 to $49 per car for drive-ins, $25 to $2,500 for Oracle Park
Contact: (415) 552-5580, firstname.lastname@example.org
Genderation: Director Monika Treut revisits a group of gender-fluid, proudly unapologetic San Franciscans as the subjects of her now classic “Gendernauts” from Frameline23 20 years ago; now the principals face the realities of aging and try to remain rooted in a very different city. (Roxie, June 20, 3 p.m.)
Baloney: The story of San Francisco’s first and only all-male revue, a humorously racy blend of burlesque, dance and theater, is retold by its co-creators and provocative cast. (Roxie, June 20, 6 p.m.)
Firebird: Based on a true story, the Cold War-set tale traces the passionate, furtive love affair between two Soviet military men, the young romantically devoted private Sergey (Tom Prior) and career-focused fighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii). (Castro, June 27, 2:30 p.m.; streaming)
Prognosis: Notes on Living: Academy Award-winning documentarian Debra Chasnoff is the subject of the world premiere, a story of her life in San Francisco from the time she is diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer through her death in 2017 shortly after her 60th birthday. (Streaming starting June 19, 4 p.m., followed by live Q&A with filmmakers; also June 26, 4 p.m.)
Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of José Sarria: The poignant documentary, with San Francisco footage, describes the boldly out son and queen of The City, who blazed a trail in politics, queer rights, Pride parades and the charitable Imperial Courts. (Streaming starting June 17)