By Edward Avery-Natale.
Ostensibly about the rise, influence, and growth of queer comic(s)…. In practice, though, it is far more: it is a movie about marginalized and minoritized people finding community and relationships….”
No Straight Lines, a film by Vivian Kleinman now screening at TriBeca 2021 and based on the book of the same name by Justin Hall, is ostensibly about the rise, influence, and growth of queer comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels. In practice, though, it is far more: it is a movie about marginalized and minoritized people finding community and relationships; it is about the ways in which intersectional experiences can manifest in popular culture; and it is about art’s potential to explore alternative truths and realities.
Early Black American sociologist, WEB DuBois, taught us in his work on “double consciousness” and “the veil” that subjugated and oppressed groups can commonly see more than the dominant group; the oppressed can perceive the many myriad ways in which a reality might manifest. In this documentary, we find that comics are an avenue for exploring these alternative realties and narratives. Comics serve this purpose well because they are not strictly dependent upon the machinations of the dominant culture industry; anyone with a pencil and a piece of paper could make a comic.
The development of alternative and underground venues for narrative and artistic production speaks to the power of representation. On the one hand, we see that comics in the mid-20th century were highly censored. However, the film informs the viewer not only of the hegemonizing power of representation, but also the counter-hegemonic potential of underground cultures. Of course, comic books broadly contain imaginative capacities that we see even in mainstream comics such as Superman, brought to life by two Jewish boys in the early twentieth century, or The Black Panther. No Straight Lines, though, shows that queer comics inherit the more liberatory elements of this legacy. This radicalness in queer stories is in contrast to mainstream comics in which bodies are hyper-gendered through extraordinary muscles for men and nearly unachievable bodies for women, and where bodies have almost always been forced into that stark gender binary.
We see through the interviews in the film that for queer creators, comics opened up space for identitarian and artistic exploration, and it allowed them to traverse worlds outside of the often-stifling confines of mainstream US America in the mid- to late-twentieth century. This imagining, and the possibility for connecting to other people with lives and desires like one’s own, results in comics being similar to the internet before its time. While queer comics did not, at first, give people the capacity to connect to others in the burgeoning LGBTQIA+ community, the spread of queer comics offered readers the knowledge that they were not alone, and for many this was an invaluable truth.
Howard Cruse tells us in the film that “people should be able to do art about their lives.” In doing so, he and other gay comic creators were able to show that members of the LGBTQIA+ community were full-fledged human beings who had real lives; and they were able to show those who could not yet access places like New York or San Francisco that they were not alone. This was successful because queer comics developed characters that transcended stereotypes and constructed narratives based on lived experiences. This led to the inevitable intersectionality of the medium.
Further, the truthfulness of queer comics and their intersectional and marginalized status encourages a sometimes-brutal honesty. Because people do not live lives through a single identification—whether it be race, class, gender, religion, nation—the comics come to represent a diversity of human potential. Even when fictional or fantastical, this identitarian diversity and honesty encourages the telling of stories that can show the world for all its beauty and pain at the same time: the comics, as portrayed in No Straight Lines, reveal truths about bodies, sex, drugs, love, coming out narratives, and tragedies in the case of the world’s betrayal of the gay community during the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as well as other painful elements in the lives of gay people around the world today.
The characters in queer comics, even when imaginative, live with real world problems. As we are told in the film, “The idea of creating comics that are not about people who are heroic is part of what queer comics does best.” Using comics to speak truth into the world, to represent real experiences, and to tell people that they are not alone created a community of queer artists that in a relatively short period of time grew exponentially. And it is this idea of community and relationships between people that is the film’s heart. Like early zines in other underground cultures such as punk, comics let readers identify with something bigger than themselves and to grasp a world beyond their own. And, toward the end of the documentary we discover that these relationships do not end with the gay community. We see, for example, the way in which comics brought together a Black gay man and a straight disabled man, and the coming together of people at different intersections in the LGBTQIA+ community. We also see that queer comics continue to expand their narrative scope by focusing on ethnic and cultural heritages as these merge with queerness.
In the end, No Straight Lines is about so much more than comics: it is a film that tells us of the importance of human relationships, human diversity, and the values of difference and equality. Through comics, the subaltern creators documented here have imagined more liberated worlds into existence. These relationships between real humans are as important a part of this film as are any fictional characters. Ultimately, the film’s underlying components leave us with hope for the possibility of human creativity to make better worlds.
Edward Avery-Natale is Professor of sociology at Mercer County Community College, NJ, USA. He is the author of Ethics, Politics, and Anarcho-Punk Identifications: Punk and Anarchy in Philadelphia (Lexington Books, 2016).