You’ll undoubtedly have seen the meme “Be Gay, Do Crime” – but did you know that it has some of its earliest roots in queer comics? The iconic meme was turned into a print by Io Ascarium for ABO Comix, which works with LGBTQ+ prisoners. Until reading associate editor Matt Lubchenko’s intro to Be Gay, Do Comics: Queer History, Memoir, and Satire, I had no idea either.
It’s just one of many lessons you’ll learn in the pages of this new anthology from The Nib. Originally a Kickstarter campaign, it’s now widely available from IDW – and any comics fan, LGBTQ+ themselves or not, should hunt it down.
Be Gay, Do Comics is a veritable cavalcade of talented creators, all offering their own unique takes on matters ranging from identity to gender, sex and sexuality, queer heroes, gay history, even parenthood. There’s a smattering of celebrity – RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine winner Sasha Velour contributes an almost documentary single page comic exploring the relationship between women and drag queens – but all the contributors here bring something special to the table.
It’s also a powerfully emotional read, even if even the longest stories here barely stretch to 15 pages. That’s the full gamut of emotion, mind – from laugh-out-loud single page gag comics poking fun at the ludicrous concept of gender reveal parties, to harrowing gay histories. Read Levi Hastings and Dorian Alexander’s biographical The Life of Gad Beck: Gay. Jewish. Nazi Fighter and just try to hold back the tears, the sense of fear, the rush of pride.
Kazimir Lee and Dorian Alexander’s The Lavender Scare also stands out on the historical front, taking a look at the largely forgotten gays and lesbians who were outed at the height of McCarthyism in the US, almost as a side effect of the hunt for Communist spies. Such comics are a reminder of the threats LGBTQ+ people can face, how quickly the political tide can shift against them, simply for existing. Hazel Newlevant’s Queer Uprisings Before Stonewall, meanwhile, does exactly what it says, looking at queer people’s stands against oppression as far as a decade before the fateful New York riots, and all delivered in visually resplendent fashion.
There are stories that remind readers that, contrary to what you may seen on social media or amongst the clientele of your average gay bar, LGBTQ+ people aren’t all bright, young things, sure of their sexuality since day one. The likes of Jason Michaels & Mady G’s Am I Queer Enough? and Alison Wilgus’ I Came Out Late in Life and That’s Okay explore the nagging feelings many ‘late starters’ experience about their own validity as queer people.
Trans and non-binary experiences also feature prominently, from a reproduction of The Nib’s 2018 feature ‘The Response’, which asked six trans creators to produce comics around their understanding of the word “transition”, to Breena Nuñez’s How Do You Translate Non-Binary? Elsewhere, Sarah Mirk and Archie Bongiovanni’s Gender isn’t Binary and Neither is Anatomy offers a rare but honest look at the experience of intersex people and how society seeks to lock them into a binary of physical sex, let alone gender.
There are plenty of deeply personal and autobiographical works that impress too, such as Shing Yin Khor’s The Undercut, which looks at bodily autonomy and how taking control of even just your hair can help explore your identity. It’s also beautiful, with a simple use of dominant watercolours to convey mood and emotion. Another standout is Rosa Colón Guerra’s Puerto Rico’s LGBT Community is Ready to Kick the Door Down, which blends personal memories, cultural insight – for an anglophonic audience – and a modern history lesson by looking at how a 1980s sitcom character helped pave the way for greater real-world acceptance.
If there’s a downside to Be Gay, Do Comics, it’s perhaps that it’s a bit too fragmented. With stories ranging from one page to almost the length of a full, single issue American format comic, it can make for a disjointed reading experience. This isn’t a book you’re likely to sit down for a long read with, but rather dip in and out of, picking out new stories each time or returning to those that become your favourites.
Each story – each page, almost – is a surprise, taking you from moments of darkest horror in LGBTQ+ people’s collective pasts to tender personal moments or hilarious anecdotes, but ultimately, that’s the book’s greatest strength. This is a collection of comics as diverse in tone and style as the people telling them, making for a beautiful exploration of the variety and multiplicity of queer experiences.