In the last few years, the graphic novel has blossomed as a genre, and several lesbian cartoonists and writers have garnered a fair share of recognition. Last year marked the release of Alison Bechdel’s (Dykes to Watch Out For) critically acclaimed Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic; lesbian manga from newcomer June Kim; and Jokes and the Unconscious from Daphne Gottlieb and Diane DiMassa (Hothead Paisan). This May, L Word writer Ariel Schrag’s latest book is due out; titled Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics from an Unpleasant Age, it is an anthology of comics about middle school.
“The graphic narrative is a vivid, potent way of conveying information and experience,” Bechdel said to AfterEllen.com. “It’s an important format for any stories: lesbian stories, conservative Republican stories, Islamic fundamentalist stories, whatever.”
The acclaimed “Best Of” series recently embraced comics with the publication of The Best American Comics 2006, which included a strip from Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. Though Bechdel’s strip is syndicated in numerous newspapers, these days she is most known for Fun Home, a memoir about her complex relationship with her father and her struggle with her sexuality. Named by Time magazine as the Best Book of the Year, it was also listed in the New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2006.”
“The comic form is a very immediate and intimate medium,” said June Kim. “It’s been viewed as a charming part of any subversive cultural movement for that reason, and for the accessible and economic production process.”
Kim admits that she was surprised when manga publisher Tokyopop accepted her pitch for 12 Days, a novel about a woman who mourns the loss of her lover by drinking her cremated ashes. “It made me believe there is room for diverse stories,” she said.
Publishing companies are opening up to the graphic market, Kim said, and “seeing it as an opportunity to find new readers.”
This increased opportunity and access is also changing the landscape for many artists, said Ariel Schrag, whose autobiographical comic book series Awkward, Definition, Potential and Likewise records her experiences, including coming out, at Berkeley High School in California. “The industry has changed in the past few years,” she said, with graphics receiving more critical acclaim and media attention, and cartoonists picking up book deals with mainstream publishers.
While this certainly has its benefits, Schrag pointed out that the past also had its own set of advantages. “What is nice about comics, at least what was nice for me writing about being gay, was that I felt very uncensored,” she explained. “For a long time alternative comics — not superhero comics — were sort of this ignored, free-reign territory. Nobody expected to be published by a large company or to make a lot of money, so people just wrote whatever they wanted.”
As the industry changes, naturally, so does the audience. “At first my readership was almost all lesbians,” Bechdel recalled. Now, however, it is far more diverse. “Most of them seem to share a leftist ideological bent, but there are the odd self-identified straight white Republican males who follow the strip, too.”
When Bechdel first began writing back in the early 1980s, she was more “conscious of writing for a community — but even then, I imagined that community as being just a bunch of people like me.”
Schrag agrees. “My target audience is me,” she said, then added, “and the amorphous idea in my mind of ‘everyone else.’ Also, sometimes it’s my sister or my girlfriend, trying to imagine their reactions to something.”
But the idea of trying to satisfy a specific reader or readership can be daunting, said Schrag: “Having a ‘target audience’ usually stunts the creative possibilities in your work. It really makes me happy when anyone relates to my book.”
Kim also considers her own interests first. She did not learn how to draw properly until she attended college in Korea, where she is from, and joined a group of aspiring cartoonists. “As a kid I just daydreamed a lot and started putting it down in a comic form when I was 8 or something,” she said. “For me, I’m the audience. It’s all about my daydreams.”