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‘No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics’ (review)

We live in a world consumed by superhero entertainment, all of which began as four-color comic book pages about 80 years ago, to a degree the everyday nerd never could have imagined. For example, the common American knows who Peter Quill is.

But what about comics full of the people often shown only in the margins of those comic book panels, if not shoved off the page entirely?

Comics, just as any art, is the chance for a creator to depict not just what is, but how they see themselves and how they wish to be seen. For LGBTQ+ comics creators, that meant not only making their own seat at the table, but often building their own.

Such is the story of No Straight Lines, a documentary premiering January 23 on via the PBS anthology series Independent Lens.

The film, from director/producer Vivian Kleiman and producer Justin Hall, follows the evolution of LGBTQ+ representation in comics and largely succeeds by weaving together the stories of pioneers in queer comics.

No Straight Lines may not hold together entirely as a traditional chronicler documentary, with timelines and encyclopedic displays.

However, by the final frame, No Straight Lines creates a rich tapestry of DIY energy, chosen family, and advocacy and activism born from the basic human insistence on self-declaration.

Five absolute pioneers of queer comics anchor the film with big, follow-around interviews: Alison Bechdel, the greatest success story of queer comics with the graphic novel (and, later, Tony Award-winning musical) Fun Home; Rupert Kinnard, a Black pioneer in the genre; Mary Wings, who created the first known lesbian comic book by an out lesbian; Jennifer Camper, still bringing all the 1980s New York punky dyke energy; and the late, great Howard Cruse, a giant of underground comics and creator of the widely acclaimed graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby.

With five central figures to cover in just 78 minutes, No Straight Lines has to wrestle with finding a story within the footage and quotes. While the film does move through a broad timeline of the past 50 years, at times there just aren’t segues or the most graceful transitions.

The film supplements those meatier interviews of Bechdel, Cruse and others with talking-head pieces from numerous modern-day queer comics creators. Those smaller interviews serve as connective tissue between the five profiles to varying degrees of success. The best of them, however, show how modern creators continue to enrich the picture of queerness by showing its intersections with an ever-widening panoply of identities.

There’s a strong looking-back-while-reaching-forward energy throughout the documentary. Sometimes, circumstances change, but people don’t. For example, it’s astonishing to see Mary Wings’ images of a young lesbian at a bar, thinking through a maelstrom of emotions and panic attack-level anxieties about meeting other sapphic folks.

Those sentiments, staring at the viewer from a homemade comic book made 50 years ago, are easily found in memes on Instagram right now.

Bringing multitudes of queer experience to life in a changing world, No Straight Lines works best when letting its interview subjects tell their personal stories alongside these comics showcasing everyday pursuits of love, sex and community.

Sometimes, the filmmaking gets in the way, most notably when one artist breaks down while remembering the AIDS epidemic and so many lost friends. The background music plays so loudly during a moment when a documentarian comes on camera and consoles the sobbing artist.

Other times, PBS and broadcast standards create their own irony. As Bechdel or Camper or another artist wax on about depicting true-to-life sexuality as part of queer comics’ grassroots advocacy for underrepresented people, little rainbow flags have to cover up nudity, middle fingers and cussing.

But nothing beats watching Cruse, who died in 2019 at age 75, rummaging through his file cabinets to show off original pages. Or seeing Bechdel demonstrate her nibs of choice when inking over her pencils. Or the Looney Tunes-style violence and in-your-face sex energy of Camper’s work with jokes very much of their time.

“More than a chronology of milestone events, I wanted to create an intergenerational story of our emergence from rejection to acceptance, and help LGBTQI youth feel safe,” director/producer Vivian Kleinman says of the documentary.

That message drives all the way home in the final pieces of the film. Rupert Kinnard, who was paralyzed in a car crash later in life, shows off a get-well card made by an entire family of queer cartoonists. Each square of paper lays on top of the other and is strung together as bunting. Community comes alive in that card, a community forged stronger in struggle and embracing joy in the fight to feel alive, seen, recognized.

No Straight Lines serves less as a narrative than as an anthology – a collection of stories, more zine than graphic novel. And like any good zine, No Straight Lines offers a colorful and intriguing buffet of artists and stories that will inspire you to keep looking for more to find and enjoy.

No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics premieres on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, January 23.

*  *  *  *  *

Directed & Produced by Vivian Kleiman

Producer & Principal Consultant Justin Hall
Executive Produced by Ellen M. Poss,
Gerald Herman, Cort Lane, Greg Sirota

Featuring Alison Bechdel, Jennifer Camper,
Howard Cruse, Rupert Kinnard, Mary Wings


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