2013-10-21 17:00:04

Not Oprah’s Book Club: Anything That Loves, Comics Beyond ‘Gay’ and ‘Straight’

Inside cover design by John Lustig

Inside cover design by John Lustig

Anything That Loves: Comics Beyond “Gay” and “Straight” is a collaborative project at every level.  Charles “Zan” Christensen, the editor, raised the money to print this gorgeous, full-color, two hundred page comic anthology via a Kickstarter campaign that generated a thousand backers and tripled Christensen’s $10,000 ask. Almost forty comics creators contributed work, and some of the comics themselves are the result of writing/illustrating teams. These artists will donate all royalties from the book to PRISM COMICS, a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ comic creators and readers. In a society where bi-erasure remains a ubiquitous problem, the myriad of supporters behind Anything That Loves establishes incontrovertible queer and bisexual presence. But even as it diversifies the terrain of sexuality, the anthology perpetuates a queer identity limited by race, ability, and class.

The collections’ title spins the stereotype of bisexuals as lusty animals willing to get with “anything that moves,” and alludes to the prominent 90s era magazine, Anything That Moves: Beyond the Myths of Bisexuality. Debunking myths and stereotypes about bisexuals is a large part of the book’s political project. For example, some are up for threesomes (and one of Ellen Forney’s contributions “How to Have a Mind-Blowing, Decadent, All-Day Threesome!!!” is an excellent guide), but bisexuality doesn’t automatically translate into that kind of kink. The comics included combat the pervasive assumption that bisexual men are all closeted gays, and the stereotype that bisexual women’s years of “sexual experimentation” are just a phase (hence Erika Moen’s comic: “Erika is a L.U.G.,” or “Lesbian Until Graduation,” that “shameful phenomenon”). They illustrate the constant invalidation that keeps bisexuals doubly alienated, rejected and undermined by gay and straight communities alike.

Excerpt from Erika Moen's piece

Excerpt from Erika Moen’s piece

However, the anthology frames itself not “Beyond the Myths of Bisexuality,” but “Beyond ‘Gay’ and ‘Straight.’” Instead of cementing the meaning of bisexuality, Anything That Loves seeks space outside and in-between stable categories. Many contributors find refuge in “queerness.”  This moniker solves much of the baggage associated with the term bisexuality: as many contributors explain, their attraction isn’t always divided 50/50 between men and women, and it doesn’t always extend to both men and women at the same time. In “Queer: A Game of Ambiguity,” Agnes Czaja depicts herself straddling a huge crevice: “Being bisexual doesn’t feel like a unique identity. It’s more like being a mix of two identities—gay and straight—both at once.” “Queer” claims the in-between space of groundlessness Czaja straddles, unspecified but also open and unlimited.

Perhaps most importantly, queerness cuts across the gender binary that seems embedded in the “bi” of bisexuality. Narratives about and by trans and genderqueer characters confound the usually fixed vectors of sexuality, and the sexual interactions depicted by queer, gay, trans, and bisexual characters decenter attraction from its assumed “biological” grounding in genitalia. As Kate Leth explains (in creative fonts), “I’ve liked girls, boys, dykes, sk8er chicks, masculine he-men, drag kings, butch grrls, glam rockers, femmes, lolitas, and dignified older men…but none for what they had between their legs.” Time and again, from comic to comic, the protagonist settles on a self-understanding that eschews labels, with various versions of the repeated phrase: “I just like people.”

Excerpt from Sam Orchard's piece

Excerpt from Sam Orchard’s piece

A few of my favorite comics in the anthology complicate the idea of “just liking people”: collapsing not just the gay/straight or male/female binaries, but the human/nonhuman binary as well. In MariNaomi’s comic, “Mango,” the narrator describes the first time she felt sexually attracted to a woman: watching a female colleague eat a mango. Stunned, she phones her boyfriend and has him pick up a dozen mangos from the store, eating them “one by one, over the kitchen sink.” The sensuousness of the watercolor, the succulent mango, and the sound effects (“peel ~ peel ~,” “nom nom nom”) inflect the fruit with an undeniably arousing force. In her next comic, an excerpt from Kiss & Tell, the narrator describes a hard-sought date with an intermittent lover, where she spends the entire time—hours—distracted by the roommate’s adorable dog. “Kissy Kissy Kissy!” she croons to the puppy, little hearts emanating between them. Later, her sister asks her about the date: “Omigod the doggie was so cute! It even had a fresh puppy smell!” she responds. “Are you dating the girl or the dog?” asks her sister. These, among other stories, explore inanimate and animal erotic possibilities, dispersing sexuality and erogenous zones across bodies, plants, and plastics. This notion, that any-thing can love, genuinely takes us “beyond ‘gay’ and ‘straight.’”

Excerpt from piece by MariNaomi

Excerpt from piece by MariNaomi

These works decenter sexual attraction from certain genital configurations, certain genders, and even from the human body itself. It is in this destabilizing motion that the comic anthology shows the political potential of its form. In her contribution, Roberta Gregory writes, “This is the perfect medium for fun with gender! How can you really tell from drawings and dialogue what an androgynous-looking character actually IS? You don’t hear their voice…no pronouns.” Putting aside the idea that a person ever “actually IS” something beneath how they self-present, Gregory has a point. Comics offer a unique realm for gender play, and several of the artists in Anything That Loves mix outward signals of gender identity to challenge readers’ assumptions or suspend gender categorization altogether. Gregory continues, “How human is a drawn character?” Just as comic representations question the gendered meanings we attach to the human body—they can also question what constitutes a human body at all. Each comic deploys a different visual vocabulary, displays a new way to imagine the human body, and each reveals the human body, ultimately, to be nothing more than a construction.

Yet, amidst all the possibility for a diversity of forms, I was disappointed by how incredibly narrow the field of representation in Anything That Loves turned out to be. Two hundred full color pages and almost all the protagonists are white? Nearly forty different artists depicting human bodies, and almost all of them are thin and able-bodied? Too many of the artists come from the same cultural milieu (graduates of liberal arts colleges where “lesbians until graduation” are a thing), the same gay or lesbian subculture (alt piercings and haircuts become a new norm), the same domestic middle class existence. In Sam Saturday’s piece, he offers his own subtle critique of the anthology. The comic’s protagonist, seated streetside, holds a cardboard sign that says “Will Anything That Loves For Food,” with the accompanying speech bubble, “Hey I’ll suck your cock for twenty bucks!” By radically de-contextualizing the anthology’s feel-good title, Saturday highlights the rift between sexual self-discovery and sex work and points to a wider class-bias in the text.

Excerpt from Kate Leth's piece

Excerpt from Kate Leth’s piece

Most egregious were the multiple instances in which the stories figured some non-Western, pre-modern “Other”-ized space as one of free-flowing libidinal energy and possibility. In Maurice Vellekoop’s “A Date with Gloria Badcock,” the titular character is whisked away from a boorish oil tycoon when she inadvertently invokes the genie in her gemstone-ring, wishing she were “6,000 miles away.” A floating carpet carries her to a harem-like, Oriental bedroom, where she uses her second wish to have riotous lesbian sex with the genie. Finally, best of all, Ms. Badcock uses her last wish to grant “freedom for my dear genie.” Sure, master/slave relations can be fun bedtime play, but in the context of a sexually submissive Orientalized Other, “Your wish is my command” carries some deeply troubling historical context. That Badcock deigns to free her little genie-sex-slave (who of course is overjoyed) only fortifies the absolute authority of the liberal-minded, civilized Westerner.

This, alongside the anthology’s many other blind spots, belies the presumed universality of the comic book’s wider claims, that its authors “just like people.” In fact, only certain race-, class-, and body-privileged “people” are entitled to be desiring subjects in this volume.

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