Since I’m feeling reflective, what with the turn of the decade coinciding with the ten-year anniversary of Queering SFF, I wanted to take a look back. Specifically, I wanted to look back at some comics that stuck with me from my reading over the past long while… things that I didn’t actually review, or talk about at length here so far. So, what five queer comics am I carrying out of this last decade with fond memories?
These comics don’t make up a definitive top five, or a best of the decade, or anything like that. In fact, how I chose the five to write about was this: I sat cross-legged in front of my comic book shelf and thought, “Which ones still give me a jolt to remember—that huh maybe I’ll read that again tonight feeling, after all this time?” And the results are as follows, from the past ten years of my queer life in words & pictures.
Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon by Takeuchi Naoko (new editions)
Look, every person who’s heard me speak for more than ten minutes on my gender journey ™ or kid crushes knows I grew up on Sailor Moon. Despite the efforts of American censors, it was still chock full of homoerotic tension, gender nonconforming butches, and more. Ask me about the hours upon hours I spent trying to find Geocities websites with still images from The Forbidden Final Season with the boys who became girls and then turned back to boys again. (Hindsight is 20/20, y’all.) Preteen me used to save my allowance to buy the single-issues released by Tokyopop from the neighborhood comic store, and I still have the first release graphic novels in tiny pocket-size form. I had massive crushes on more or less every character in the show, and more importantly, I sensed a very real potential to see myself in a way no American media for kids was offering.
So, naturally, the release of the re-translated, cleaned up, properly formatted Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon beginning in 2011 from Kodansha Comics sent me to nostalgic paradise. More than just nostalgia, though, these handsome and complete graphic novels allowed me for the first time to read the whole story comfortably (my Japanese has never been, shall we say, fluent) and with all the intended queer content intact. I felt the same warm girl-to-girl friendship and love that drew me in as a child, but also their crushes, their squabbles, and their deep adoration for one another. Plus, I finally got to see the gay parts in all their glory and reignite my lifelong passion for Tenou Haruka.
My Brother’s Husband by Tagame Gengorō
On the other end of the spectrum we have Tagame’s all-readers comic about a single father and his young daughter, detailing their developing relationship with the man his brother married overseas—now bereaved and single, after the brother’s death, and visiting Japan to see the country where his lost husband grew up. If you’re unfamiliar with the pseudonymous writer of this two-volume short series, he’s most famous for writing… well, kinky hardcore porn comics. In this foray into mainstream work, though, he explores the deep emotions provoked by the loss of a partner, cross-cultural marriages, queer life and experience in Japan, and more. I found myself yearning for the adult, careful ways in which that the characters talk to each other and the adorable kid in the comic—for example, both of her separated parents are kind people who occasionally make missteps but discuss them together, and the kiddo herself is potentially discovering her own sexuality in the process of learning what it means to be gay.
While this manga is pure and simple realist fiction, it’s one of the most tender and heart-wrenching comics I’ve read in years. Homophobia as a social experience is explored with delicacy, particularly as our protagonist is a straight man who is working through his own assumptions and judgement about his own brother, attitudes that drove them apart over the years and cannot be truly reconciled after his death. Intensely reflective and open, My Brother’s Husband is a good book about what it means to be family, as well as what it means to continue growing up throughout your whole life. (Also, lest it go without saying: if you like big men rendered in luxurious, exquisite detail, Tagame still has you covered with a few casual bathing panels. You won’t be disappointed.)
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
This is a cute one, for all ages, but it also strikes me as a writer because it maps a certain new kind of path to comics-making and storytelling: Nimona started off as a webcomic in 2012 that served as Stevenson’s senior thesis (the talent!), got popular, was published in graphic novel format in 2015. We’ve also seen this happen with other webcomics that transition to print, especially queer comics, like On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden or Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu. I like the sense Nimona gives me that we can see different kinds of gender presentation, like a butch character, in all-ages material that is written by younger folks themselves. While the internet sure has gifted the world some wild bullshit, it also gives us this: the ability to access, hype, and pay for art that looks more like the world we want to live in.
Nimona itself is charming, featuring a ton of SF and fantasy’s favorite tropes—plus, a supervillain’s sidekick makes for a hell of a protagonist. The art is bouncy and so is the story; that ability to maintain a fun tone and heart-warming conversations about the world while telling a story about heroes and villains…to some extent, that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? If I’d had Nimona at age thirteen I’d have devoured it. And that’s what gets it on my memories list: it means something and it shows me a path that we’re forging.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel
Surprise: I didn’t choose Fun Home, though I could’ve just as easily. Consider this an implicit recommendation for that book, too, but it gets talked about far more often than the wonderful strip-comic Bechdel wrote from 1983 to 2008. The collected Essential Dykes to Watch Out For gathers more than twenty years of comics tracing a group of queer folx through their trials and tribulations: in feminist bookstores, in therapist’s offices, in marriages, in partnerships (open and closed), as parents, as poor students and middle-class academics. What this comic does is collect a whole arc of lesbian and lesbian-adjacent history filtered through an intimate, humorous lens. Our protagonist isn’t Bechdel but is informed by Bechdel in large measures; her experiences map the author’s, quite a bit.
The series over time included debates on what it means to be a consumer in a patriarchal class-stratified society, what it means to identify as a lesbian and to love women, what it means when a marriage falls apart or changes, and more. It’s also silly, sometimes-sexy, and extremely sharp-witted. Bechdel writes trans characters, bisexual women, and complicated more-than-two-parent families with a ton of heart and self-critique; the comics sometimes miss the mark, but always are making an effort, in a way I wish I saw more openly depicted in our communities. And did I mention it’s really fucking funny?
Homestuck by Andrew Hussie (et al.)
A multimodal hypertext webcomic project that was also a video game, an interactive epic, and more—what else could we be talking about but Homestuck? While the serial began in 2009 and ended in 2016 (launching a massive fandom that occupied a whole era of internet time), I was a latecomer. I didn’t tackle the beast until it was complete, at which point I binge-read it over the course of about two and a half weeks. Once I got past the admittedly puerile humor of the first handful of chapters, I read it nonstop. I cried, I laughed, I laugh-cried. If you’ve completed the thousands upon thousands of pages of Hussie’s magnum opus, I do hope you’re impressed and maybe even a little frightened by my dedication.
When the comic started, I doubt most readers expected it to close on a lesbian wedding between two protagonists, attended by several other queer couples (and their friends). I certainly didn’t, despite the fact that I had gathered ahead of time via cultural osmosis that the comic wasn’t entirely straight. Homestuck did the opposite of queer-baiting: it ended up making most of the cast gay, or at least open to the idea of ‘whatever happens, happens.’ Alternative relationship structures, particularly the trolls’ quadrant system of attachments, flourish; humans are queer, aliens are queer, aliens and humans are queer together. (Queue a lot of, ahem, inspired fan content.) From the vantage point of 2020, the comic is both stunningly brilliant and a total mess in the way that only heinously ambitious projects can be, but it remains one-of-a-kind in its size and scope. Through hundreds of hours of music, animation, game-play, and the ubiquitous textlog writing style, Hussie’s teen protagonists save the world(s) and save each other, often falling in love along the way.
There are plenty of “best of the decade” lists out there, and even more books that cover queer comics canon—you might seek out No Straight Lines edited by Justin Hall, for example, or Dyke Strippers edited by Roz Warren. But when I think about nostalgia and love, queer desire and pain, fun and drama, I got the most out of this handful of books: some for kids, some for adults, some in translation, some new and some old. One thread that connects them all, I think, is a sense of community and connection. In all of these comics, friends and chosen families play significant parts in supporting queer characters’ health and well-being.
Whether a magical teenager or a single adult dad raising a kid, these comics focus on stories that are intimate and kind while also providing critical social commentary. Given how good these were and are—and how much I look forward to re-reading them all, over and over again—I’m very much looking forward to finding my most-memorable comics for the next ten years, too.
Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.