Comics, Queerness, and my Newest Literary Love

I am new to comics. I’ve read various graphic novels and memoirs over the years—Fun Home, Persepolis, Maus—and I devoured Dykes to Watch Out For when I was in my early twenties. But I’ve never been a comics-reader. I wasn’t the kid with hundreds of comic books stashed under her bed; I was the kid who could recite Lord of the Rings chapter titles in order, the kid who tore through every series my science fiction-and-fantasy-loving older brothers tossed my way. There were no superheroes in my childhood menagerie of fictional friends—instead there were elves, hobbits, robots, immortals, mages, starship pilots, dragons, telepaths.

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My beloved copy of the Hobbit, a gift from my parents from when I six.

I still love science fiction and fantasy as an adult—completely and utterly—for its own sake. But there is also a layer of nostalgia to my love of these genres. The first books I ever fell in love with were fantasy novels. When I was lonely, sad, angry, upset, isolated—whenever I felt like I didn’t belong—it was in sci-fi and fantasy that I found comfort. I spent a lot of time reading as a teenager, and it was the books that told stories of other worlds that I turned to, again and again, as trusted and beloved companions. These were the first books that felt like home to me. I still devour sci-fi and fantasy because there are so many brilliant, big-hearted, moving, gorgeously written books in these genres. The human imagination is astounding, and nothing celebrates it like the array of imagined worlds and magics and technologies found in science fiction and fantasy. But I also feel a fierce protectiveness—a sense of ownership—toward these books. These are my genres. These are the books that saved me. These books are where I come from; they’re a deep part of who I am as a reader and a person.

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I like to think I would have found sci-fi and fantasy as an adult, even if I hadn’t read so much of these genres as a teenager. But the truth is that I’ve continued to read these genres because I have always read them. I can’t conceive of my life without the joy and comfort and insight that sci-fi and fantasy bring me. Comics hold no such nostalgia or meaning for me. It has taken me thirty-one years to start reading comics.

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I’m getting ahead of myself. I have yet to fall in love with comics as a genre. I have fallen in love with one comic. One breathtaking triumph of a story: Saga, by Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Saga is a mega bestseller, has been met with wide critical acclaim, and has won several awards. Much has been written about it. I am late to the party. But I have fallen in love, and I have fallen hard, and, as is often the case with a new love, it’s all I want to talk about. Lifelong comics lovers and Saga fans, forgive me for repeating the obvious, but this comic book is magical and brilliant. I am going to rave about it now.

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Saga, at its most basic, is the story of Alana and Marko, two soldiers from opposing sides of a brutal and endless galactic war, who fall in love, dessert their respective armies, and have a daughter, Hazel. Though the story opens with Hazel’s birth, and covers events of which she has no memory, it is grounded by her narration from a point somewhere in the future. (This is an awesome narrative device that adds so much depth and insight to the story; it broadens the scope of the thing in ways that give me chills. As far as I’m concerned, from a craft standpoint, it’s perfect.) Alana and Marko’s fugitive family also includes Marko’s mother, Klara, and a teenage ghost, Izabel. There are a lot of people trying to kill this fledgling family—fascinating, complex, wonderfully flawed and easy-to-fall-in-love-with characters—and the story is as much about them as it is about Marko & Alana.

Saga takes place in a bizarre and beautiful universe that is not our own, this gorgeously drawn universe where some people have wings and others have horns, where spunky teenagers appear as pink floating ghosts with their intestines hanging out, this universe peopled by robots with TV heads and unionized assassins, one of whom is a fierce, many-legged, many-eyed femme spider-woman, one of whom has a protective and lie-detecting cat for a sidekick. In this universe a talent agent with a serpentine head talks to his clients from a desk on a deserted beach, space monsters hatch out of planets, and trees turn into spaceships. The creativity and the continuity of it is astounding. It is some of the most incredible blending of science fiction and fantasy I have ever seen.

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Then, in the midst of this breathtaking and continually surprising universe, there is a story that is deeply intimate and so familiar. The story is absolutely about our own world. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I fell so hard for Saga. This is one of the things I love most about science fiction and fantasy. There’s something about reading such deeply familiar stories in the context of things that are so foreign and fantastical that makes me love humanity more. It reminds me that people are always going to be people whether we have horns or wings or crocodile heads, that there is some sameness that lives inside us, that remains even if we can’t quite call ourselves human anymore.

There is so much happening in the pages of this comic, so much complexity and insight and humor. It’s about people from different cultures falling in love and dealing with the ramifications of their upbringings. It’s about parenting in the midst of war. It’s about how people build families—about what defines a family and who gets to decide, about chosen families and birth families and the ways in which how we construct and embody family impact children. It’s about militarism and nationalism and how these ideologies destroy people, families, worlds. Saga’s universe is strange and fantastical, but it does not shy away from any of the horrors of our own. There are people dealing with PTSD. There’s a storyline involving child sex trafficking. There is prejudice and oppression based on physical appearance. There are nuances upon nuances of violence in this story. Who perpetrates it and why. The ways it gets under our skin and stays there. The dark, slippery line of what is justifiable and what is not.

Saga is also full of so much beautiful feminism and queer joy I could kiss the pages. The women in this comic are breathtaking. They are not heroes. They are not perfect. They make mistakes. But they are strong and they are seen and they speak loudly and unapologetically. They fight hard and they raise children. They set their own boundaries and refuse to comprise on their desires. They are fierce. Saga tosses gender roles out the window—it’s not just the women who are feminists—and it is beautiful to behold.

The representation is also magnificent. I don’t know anything about the comics industry, or the history of diversity and representation in comics, so I can only speak to the fact that Saga is full of characters of color. In both the human and humanoid characters and the many fantastical aliens and others, there is a huge range of body diversity and gender expression. There are queer characters of many persuasions. There is also a wonderful range of age diversity. Not only Hazel as a baby and a toddler, but children, teenagers, and grandparents, all of whom are fully-fledged characters with thoughts and feelings and opinions.

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Then–and this is what had my heart beating faster, what kept me up till one thirty in the morning–there is the celebration of queerness. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that celebrates queerness in such a visceral way, without having to explicitly state “this is a book in which queer love and queer family will be celebrated.” There are queer characters in Saga, but it is the unapologetic queer underbelly of the story that makes it so unlike anything else I’ve read recently.

All too often, the varied fabulousness of queer culture—peopled by trans folks and immigrants and genderqueer people and folks of color—is sanitized and whitewashed and discarded in favor of mainstream gay culture. Mainstream gay culture as dictated by the HRC, its figurehead a wedding cake topper of two young, slim, white gay men in tuxes. Marriage equality is a good thing, but trans women of color in this country are still being murdered at a horrifying rate. Gay mainstream culture is rarely inclusive of the most marginalized among us. I know that I bring my own biases into what I read (who doesn’t?), so maybe I’m reading more queerness into Saga that Vaughn and Staples intended. I admit that I don’t care. Whatever they indented, it is impossible for me to read Saga as anything but a queer comic. At a time when otherness is under attack, when so many people in power blatantly despise the gorgeous mess of human difference, rather than reveling in it, Saga is a joyful, explosive celebration of queerness as otherness.

For me, built families are at the center of what it means to be queer. Saga is peopled by characters who have been cast out and are still strong. It is full of people creating their own stories and their own families, even though they have been branded as other, as unworthy, as outcast. Yes, it is important to me that some of these characters have sexualities that are not straight, that are not heteronormative, but the best thing about this story is the way it depicts queerness as resistance, queerness as something that can hold and comfort. The queerness in Saga is both volatile and tender. The people in this story are sometimes hurt by their otherness, and are sometimes made to feel alone because of it. They aren’t saints; they struggle with it. But they do not shy away from it, either. These people draw strength from their otherness.

Amid the terrifying news and the impending inauguration, reading Saga was the deep breath I needed. It felt like coming home.

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Over the past three days, I’ve read the first four volumes of Saga (issues #1-#24). I’m forcing myself to wait to read volumes five and six, because after I finish those, I’ll have to start reading issues as they come out monthly, and I want the magic to last. Falling in love with a book as an adult is not the same as falling in love with one as a kid. For one thing, I’m aware of it happening in a different way. I’m aware that right now I’m in the middle of an experience I’ll never have again—reading something I love for the first time. I want to savor it—the sweet anticipation, the genuine surprise at every plot twist, the pleasure of meeting beloved characters. I’m not ready for the first time to be over.

In the meantime, the world of comics awaits me, beckoning. I am ravenous for more of these unique multi-media stories, for the beautiful joining of words and art that is so different from what I usually read. In an effort to stave of the inevitable moment when I finish all of the Saga stories that currently exist in the world, I’ve been scouring the internet making lists of all the comics I want to read. There are hundreds. I am hungry.

It is hard for me to imagine that I’ll ever fall as hard for another comic. How could anything live up to the absurdity and brilliance of this gorgeously drawn queer adventure? Then again, no other book will ever occupy the place in my heart where Lord of the Rings lives. There are other fantasy books that I love with abandon, but there is no book I’ll ever love quite like that. That’s how love works, whether it’s people, places, or books—no two loves ever feel the same. The truly wonderful loves are the ones that make you want to keep reading—or loving—even when you don’t really believe anything will ever be as good. They open the door to a world, and hold it open.

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What, you don’t have a Tolkien bookshelf in your house?

What are you favorite comics? BRING IT ON.

2 thoughts on “Comics, Queerness, and my Newest Literary Love

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