Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) is the queer touchstone of comics. A multi-genre classic, a lesbian graphic memoir and now an award-winning musical. Fun Home is essential queer reading the world over, seminal to contemporary lesbian culture and even signalling — ever seen a ring of keys hanging off a butch’s belt? (It was already a thing, but Bechdel made it a thing.)
Fun Home is an exception in a reading landscape where comics and graphic novels don’t always get their due. Comics are often considered a lesser kind of reading, or for kids as a gateway into ‘serious’ reading. I’m here to tell you that’s nonsense, and that swearing off comics and graphic novels will leave you seriously missing out. Comics are a legitimate form of reading, and have long been used by underground communities to revolt and express themselves.
Here is my guide to the best in queer of the past five years, split into some favourite genres, to help keep you from missing out.
Who am I?
Guide books to identity are a big part of queer publishing, but who does it better than these two? Sexuality is the most recent addition to Barker and Scheele’s incredibly set of queer graphic guides. (Sister titles Queer: A Graphic History (2016) and Gender: A Graphic Guide (2019) are equally worthy of a mention in this list). Sexuality: A Graphic Guide is an introduction to sexuality through its history, terminology and theory. It has a running visual theme in the Scooby Doo gang, exploring the haunted house of sexuality —a house haunted by the ghosts of human sexual norms’ past. This is an incredibly accessible, but by no means basic, guide. Barker and Scheele do not only explore sexual identities based on gendered attraction (homosexual, bisexual, etc.), but also explore kink, the spectrum of asexuality and sexual desire, as well as polyamory/monogamy. This is an all-encompassing guide for all those interested (or not at all interested) in sex, drawing on theory, history, and personal experience.
While Genderqueer is certainly a graphic memoir, Kobabe creates something that feels much like the best guide books out there. Readers are encouraged to come along and watch as e journeys to find labels that fit, discovering eir romantic tendencies, sexuality, pronouns. Kobabe talks about eir own experiences but e encompasses so much of the queer experience in this book, especially for those who exist between binaries and who love fluidly. Genderqueer is ultimately a celebration of experimentation. Kobabe will certainly help you feel less alone in your quest to find yourself.
Tillie Walden creates beautiful, expansive worlds in her graphic fiction with stories that feel at the same time intimate and universal (especially in her new graphic novel On a Sunbeam). But my favourite of all her work is her graphic memoir Spinning. It tells the story of her falling out of love with figure skating, discovering both her sexuality and love of drawing. This is ultimately a coming of age story, stinging with the tween pain of not quite fitting in. It weaves an interlocking web of issues: a complicated relationship with her parents, classmates, fellow skaters, and managing the expectations of others. This one might hurt your heart but it is well worth the venturing out onto the ice for.
Death Threat is not a traditional graphic memoir per se. It is a short autobiographical piece about online death threats Shraya has received. This is a vital work, exploring what it is to exist as a visibly queer person, especially a trans person of colour, online. Death threats are considered an occupational hazard, but that doesn’t make them any less terrorising or wrong. It’s amazing to read a comic exploring these issues, but also transforming them into surreal, beautiful art. Boy, is this book beautiful. Shraya weaves hateful words into gorgeous graphic poetry with Lee. The work ascends beyond the threat of death and denies attackers the control they try to gain through fear.
Gumballs is a hilarious collection of short autobiographical comics, largely about Nations’s experiences as a trans man. Stories of the trans experience are presented alongside travelogue comics, hilarious fake personal ads, short fictional pieces, and autobiographical tales about being a triplet. He makes trans stuff — like going through a second puberty, having awkward experiences with packers, debating when to disclose his trans status — feel pedestrian, fun, and mercifully normal. Pain and awkwardness is not brushed under the carpet, but readers are happily welcomed into Nations’s world.
From the brilliant mind of kink writer Tina Horn comes a futuristic dystopia of sexual conservatism. SFSX is a radical comic bringing sci-fi and sex-positivism together, with our queer sex worker protagonists fighting against a regime that has outlawed all non-hetero, non-reproductive sex — a regime that has introduced a Fitbit-like way of monitoring its citizens in this regard. At the heart of this comic is underground sex club, the Dirty Mind, which acts as a base for our protagonists and also as a utopia of sexual freedom. Technology is used here, too, but in sexually liberating and sex worker-empowering ways. This is not one to be missed — especially with Volume 2 in the pipeline and looking for crowdfunding.
Mark Russell is doing the holy work of rebooting Hana Barbara cartoons into graphic novels, most notoriously with his adaptation of The Flintstones, but now with campy pink lion Snagglepuss, too. Snagglepuss is reimagined as a foppish playwright in the 1950s McCarthy era of American history, accused at one point of being a communist. Asked if he has ever been a member of the communist party, he replies: “Lord no. I can’t even keep up with my magazine subscriptions”. This is a funny but undeniably poignant book, especially when a fictionalised version of the Stonewall Riots takes place. Ultimately this comic becomes about bravery in queer art; facing the censors, being closeted, and finding the gumption to be fearlessly yourself, even when it comes with grave consequences.
Hamish Steele’s Deadendia will soon be gracing screens in its Netflix animation adaptation and there is no better time than to get acquainted with Steele’s work. A radically trans-inclusive sci-fi/horror comedy, in an art style that might remind you of Steven Universe, this is an incredibly fun book. All the action takes place inside a haunted house at a theme park. A haunted house that is actually haunted — oh, and also a portal to hell. The cherry on top is a talking pug who wears a fes — can you really afford to be missing out on this action? If you enjoy The Watcher’s Test, there’s also second volume The Broken Halo to keep you company until the TV show gets released.
For younger readers
Heartstopper is one of the biggest graphic novels in the UK right now and you’d better believe the hype. An amazing YA romance series plotting the love between protagonists Nick and Charlie, this series started out as a webcomic posted to Tumblr, and it certainly brings all the gay teen romance feels. Heartstopper is set in a British secondary school and feels like a world you could just step into. This is one enjoyed by teens and adults alike, bringing fan fiction energy with a charming art style. Very fluffy but ultimately very moving.
Middle-grade graphic novel The Witch Boy creates a powerful allegory for the gender non-conforming experience. In this fantasy world, girls become witches and boys become shapeshifters. Aster is told it is dangerous for boys to practice witchcraft — he must stop trying to learn from female elders. Aster can’t stop pursuing this feminine knowledge and as a result, received wisdom about this strict binary starts to unravel. This title is especially exciting because it’s published by Scholastic books, the same Scholastic who set up school book fairs! The fact that young readers will find their way to this beautiful title about the queer experience is so important. Have no fear that it’s just for kids; this is a title equally entertaining for adult readers. It is also very excitingly receiving a Netflix adaptation soon.