In 2012, I somehow got my hands on Justin Hall’s newly-released “No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics.” I’d always loved comics, namely the work of Alison Bechdel, whose memoirs “Fun Home” and comic strip compendium “Dykes to Watch Out For” had seen me through some of the roughest parts of my adolescence. Leafing through the book, however, I saw that there was so much I didn’t know. How could I have? For years, queer comics existed in an underground space. They ran in small, soon-defunct gay dailies and magazines, and counted on finding independent publishers to help them see the light of day. When the Internet changed the economics of cartooning around completely, all the artists who had been quietly writing strips and one-panels for their local gay papers suddenly found themselves scrambling to make a living. And here, for the first time, was all that work, presented with historical context and deep love for the art itself. From Mary Wings’ seminal “Come Out Comix” that told the story of what out lesbian life was like n 1973 to the art of Howard Cruse, who likewise became one of the first cartoonists to explicitly depict queer life with his “Wendell” series, the anthology introduced me to new artists I’d never heard of and had me diving ever deeper into the rabbit hole of queer comic culture. I learned about and sought out Tristan Crane and Ted Naifeh’s “How Loathsome,” and out of print comic that remains one of my all-time favorites. I saw a comic about a man who loved hairy asses and I never stopped thinking about it. But I totally forgot what the anthology was called, and for years I wondered where the hell I had seen all these wonderful works painstaking threaded together.
And then, this year, filmmaker Vivian Kleiman made “No Straight Lines,” a film that takes the anthology and brings it beautifully to life. Kleiman follows the stories of a select group of working artists—including Cruse, Wings, Bechdel, Rupert Kinnard, and Jen Camper—to show how queer comics gave LGBTQ+ readers a way to see themselves before the movies cared to depict us with any real care or interest. The film also highlights how different the industry is for queer cartoonists now, and how the Internet has caused queer comics to both blossom and constrict, as the artists’ life continues to become less and less sustainable for those left out of the mainstream.
INTO sat down with Kleiman to discuss the film and take a deeper look at the impact of queer comics on queer culture.
INTO: I wanted to start by asking how you started figuring out what the movie version of “No Straight Lines” would look like. Did you feel like you needed to stick to the book as a reference or go off in your own way? What was the actual process of managing all this history?
Vivian Kleiman, Director: First of all it’s so cool that you know about Justin’s anthology No Straight Lines.
Oh my God, I loved it. It introduced me to so much.
It’s interesting because actually Justin, the editor of that anthology, which was the first major anthology of queer comics for decades and over 70 artists—was the one who, through a mutual friend, approached me. They had an idea for doing a film and it was beyond their capability and asked me to get involved, and I was a little hesitant. I was of course in love with Alison Bechdel and her work was like my lifeline.
So when we finally got to see ourselves as lesbians, as alternative people involved both in politics and also just trying to get a date and having a bad hair day, It spoke to me on all those levels and more. But beyond that, I wasn’t really following queer comics in general. Justin in particular encouraged me to attend the world’s first in-gathering of queer comic book writers, which took place in New York in 2015. I’m going to describe the moment when I walked in: It’s this funky place, I think it was a City College of New York building, in the conference hall. People were just arriving. And I see in the middle of the room this young person with chartreuse-colored hair and all kinds of tats and doo-dads and whatnot engaged in conversation with this older gentleman, balding, paunch, button-down, Ivy League collared striped shirt, and surrounded by all manner of non-binary and non-gender-conforming individuals all completely connected and immersed in the discussion. And I went, “What’s going on here? Something unique.”
For me, I knew that I wanted it to be something that was for the new generation that did not know the history.
By the end of this three-day conference, I had heard all these stories, I had attended a whole bunch, a range of panels, and I was gripped by the passion, by the storytelling, by the newness, and most especially by this sense of connection that this group of artists. But there’s nothing official, there’s no membership, there’s no organization. And their sense of creativity and the joie de vivre, the pleasure in what they were doing, along with the struggles, you know: of being a queer person, or just a sensitive person in our world.
And I like to say—I put this in my proposal actually—it was a casting director’s dream, because, great storytellers equal great content. And what I particularly enjoy is when somebody shines a spotlight on something familiar that I thought I knew all about it, and all of a sudden I’m introduced to a whole different facet that I wasn’t aware of, and I have to kind of realign and rethink my synapses. And it’s a wonderful process to face. For me in particular I had this idea of the “type” of the underground comic book artist being like, Robert Crumb. Snarly and snarky and misogynistic, and homophobic, and racist by the way. So that was my entrée to the subject.
It’s interesting to see how both underground comics and newspaper comics for such a long time have been punching down, or just very trite. Family Circle, things like that.
Yeah exactly either superheroes or little fuzzy animals and like, no complaints, but you know we enjoy Super-woman, -man, -person, and we enjoy you know the fuzzy little animals. You know, Snoopy, what’s not to like?
How did you figure out how you were going to weave things together?
Most documentaries are really structured ultimately in the editing room, however, a good documentary has a structure or at least a goal of a structure in place before you go out filming, so as to be focused as much as possible. For me, I knew that I wanted it to be something that was for the new generation that did not know the history necessarily. I also knew that the material was well-trodden by, there are wonderful films about art history. But I knew that this was also going to offer a different facet. And so the question was how to wrestle with that.
The biggest structure is usually chronological. I wasn’t shuffling the cards entirely, I wasn’t doing it thematically. So there is a beginning and an ending, but within that what I tried to do was shuffle the cards, and try to not just have it go “And first this happened, And then that happened, then the other happened.” Because that cadence itself creates a kind of tediousness for the viewer who will lose interest after about a half an hour.
So then the question of shuffling the cards was a challenge. And that’s what we worked with a lot. It felt like it was building as the viewers’ relationship to the subject was growing and at the same time taking side excursions, but not going too far. I like to think of it as like a river rafting down the Grand Canyon. You’re going down the river, but you stop at night to camp and you can go hike in the side canyons but you can’t go too far or you’ll lose your boat.
There were over 70 artists in that anthology. So how do you pick and choose?
So figuring out how far a departure we can take from chronology was a big process. And then peoples’ lives, you know, Howard Cruse for example. He was productive in the seventies up through recently. And it was like, are we going to pick and choose? Are we just going to use him for the early years? So those are different questions that I hammered out initially in terms of themes and who’s going to tell what, which person we’re going to focus on, which aspect of their lives, as opposed to trying to get everybody to talk about everything.
The real problem was that there were over 70 artists in the original anthology. So who do you pick and choose? And that was the real challenge for me as a filmmaker, my value is not so much in being encyclopedic. My goal is to tickle the viewer’s imagination, to get them curious about it, invite them to be curious about a subject, maybe pose questions, maybe provide some more information and stuff that people didn’t know about, and have an emotional resonance with the people whose stories are being presented.
So with that in mind, it was a very difficult task to narrow it down to five people, five main artists to focus on. And even with that, there isn’t equal weight with each person, but there couldn’t be, or else it would be a series.
Right, which it should be. That’s what I want.
Yes! Go tell some funder, would you?
Hell yeah! It’s just so interesting to hear someone like Alison Bechdel saying “Yeah, I had a job at this paper and then it went under, and I had a job at this other paper, and then it went under.” With the Internet, those jobs that provide basic income for queer cartoonists are completely gone. I feel like there’s a series here, starting with this history and then sort of going into like, how the Internet has both made it way more accessible and also made it a lot harder for these artists to get paid fairly to do this very painstaking work.
Yes, you just named it in a way I never could’ve, I’m going to quote you. That is exactly the conundrum that a whole generation of artists face. Now there’s the possibility of international readership, and I can read somebody’s comic that was just put up a few seconds ago in Moscow or St. Petersburg, Florida even! At the same time, who’s paying for it? That’s the question for all of us who are creators in the face of the Internet.
The one thing that I really loved about each of these stories—and I just want to say also that in terms of the selection process, I was very much attentive to who was a good storyteller. What kept coming back is that it wasn’t enough for a person to be a good artist. They had to be both a good artist and a good storyteller because I didn’t want to have an outside narrator in this film. Sometimes they’re useful, but in this film I wanted the story to be told by the artists themselves in their own voices. And so, in order to make that work, you need to have somebody who’s fun to listen to and uses language in a fun way and has fun things to say, or poignant things to say.
Yes, and like, who can look back at their career in their life and be like, “Oh, this coincided with this” and make those connections. And loved that almost every subject in the film could point to Howard Cruse and Mary Wings being a huge inspiration, and then you see it the influence on the screen. Because it is like, as much as it’s a huge world and there are so many comics to read, it’s like you can go back and see like how this one person doing this one thing did like sort of set something off, and somehow everyone managed to see that work, and to seek it out.
And not just Cruze’s work but, his mentorship. The important thing for you to hold on to is that he was not just a great artist, but he was a great mentor, and those don’t always inhabit the same person.
But one thing I want to add about Alison is, at one point, I had an initial editor who only had a limited amount of time available to help. And when he assembled the first sequence he excluded Alison’s comment about how she thought she was going to have to quit being an artist because of the Internet and how it was her book editor, who told her “No, no, no. Actually now graphic memoirs are becoming popular, you should do a graphic memoir.” And you know, the editor, it didn’t resonate for him. And I said, “No, no.”
Yeah, no, that’s essential.
Absolutely essential. I say that not to brag but to give you and perhaps anybody who’s going to be reading this article, a sense of the relationship between editor and director. That it’s a back and forth, a give and take, usually very respectful. And if there’s something you disagree with, you discuss it and sometimes you change each others’ minds. And in that case, it was just a matter of “No, I’m the director.”
Yeah, because it is so important to that story. I love that she’s just like, “Well, I guess I’ll do this memoir whatever,” and then it’s like this masterpiece that changes the course of life as we know it.
Isn’t that amazing? And then goes on the cover of Time magazine the same year.
Yeah. Born out of necessity. I love that comic where she’s like, “I forgot to get a job and have a baby.” Like, to me, I’m always looking at that and being like, “That’s my life.”
You have company on that train.
Yeah, exactly, relatable. But yeah, I think it’s a beautiful film, and I genuinely feel like this needs to be a series.
I will find the funders.
Please! Put that in, put that in there. Mandatory.
I’ll ask around.
And I promise the next one will have just as good storytellers. ♦