Prizm News / July 22, 2019 / By BJ Colangelo

Exploring queer comics and commix with Valentino Luca Zullo

When it comes to understanding and educating the masses on queer representation in comic books, there are few that can hold a candle to Valentino Luca Zullo. As an educator at Kent State University, a therapist at Ohio Guidestone, and the American Editor for the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Zullo has recently added the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) as a spot to catch him educating about queer comix. In honor of Flaming River Con coming to the CPL in September, Zullo will be hosting bi-weekly book club meetings focusing on different comic books for the rest of the summer. Prizm spoke with Zullo to get a little more insight into the world of comic books, why they appeal to him, and where new readers should start their queer comic education. 

PRIZM: What draws you to queer representation in comic books as compared to other mediums?

Valentino Zullo: I am drawn to queer representation in comics because for too long mainstream popular culture ignored the lived experiences of queer people. For decades comics, especially “underground comix” were the place to go for queer stories. These comix challenged perceptions of queer identity, they asserted the presence of a life that were ignored by so many in an accessible form. These stories represent an otherwise undocumented archive. Plus, what I love is that when a person tells their personal story in comics, they have greater control over the representation of that story and how they want others to see them. 

While much has changed, I still turn to comics because I find the form so endearing and inviting. No other form’s structure is so accessible. The reader quite literally holds on to the frames of the panel while reading, touching the art, holding it close. I love when comics play with this idea, too, asking you as reader to physically move your body in cases where you have to turn the book upside down to read a panel. Of course, there are other media forms, such as film or the novel that will often draw attention to its own construction, but for comics this is the base state.  It is impossible not to see the pieces and parts of a comic. Some creators lean in to that, leaving eraser marks or playing with the frame, and others try and hide it, but even that is interesting in its own way.

PRIZM: How do you curate which comics you discuss?

VL: So, there are a lot of factors that go into this. The first thing I have to do is talk to my partner in the Get Graphic program, Nick Durda, library assistant in the Literature Department at Cleveland Public Library. We have to determine if the preliminary list of comics we want to read can be bought by the library as a set for the book club, as in, is it sold through one of their distribution channels. Then there is deciding if this is a comic that we could read as a group and easily understand. What I mean by this is that there are few problems with mainstream comics that I have come up against in book discussions. First, there are those series that have long backstories that make it difficult for a new comics reader to understand. Second, there is also the problem of picking the first volume of a series when there is not enough content to discuss because you need to read 3 volumes to even begin to discuss the series. The final concern we have when are picking series is that we try to offer books that span a wide spectrum of representation. I always want to be sure that we have different types of comics that we are exploring as well as authors and characters that represent diverse peoples. I recognize that I have not always succeeded, but we are learning as we go. That has been the best part of leading the Get Graphic program for going on 6 years, this has been an education for me in so many ways. 

PRIZM: What is the essential “beginner’s guide” for getting into queer comics?

VL: This is such a difficult question. I know I am going to miss essential books and then I am going to get hate mail about this, so I am going to pick some of my personal favorite books that I think are important beyond some of the favorite go to books like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or Greg Rucka and J. H. William III’s Batwoman

So, first, I have to again give credit to the underground comix movement where so many stories of queer people were told for years before mainstream comics really took on the subject. The Complete Wimmen’s Comix collects many lovely stories about queer people, including the first story about a lesbian character, “Sandy Comes Out,” by Trina Robbins. I am still waiting for a collection of the original Gay Comix, which you can find scans of online, but we need a complete collection. The best place to go to find some of the best underground comix is Justin Hall’s collection, No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics. Hall’s book is the best introduction to queer comics that we have and goes far beyond the underground. I recommend starting there.  

As for more recent series, I adore Sina Grace’s Iceman (and if you love that book you should check out his new series, Jughead’s Time Police published by Archie Comics and Ghosted in LA published by Boom.) Iceman, along with Sina’s other series remind us that comics can be fun, the stakes can be high, the social critique powerful, but all of this does not need to be wrapped in unnecessary violence in order for it to be taken seriously. 

Marc Andreyko’s Love is Love, an anthology honoring the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, is an incredible collection by contemporary queer creators. If you buy the collection, the proceeds to go to a foundation that supports the victims and families of the Pulse shooting. 

I recommend America by Gabby Rivera for many reasons, but in particular because she will be here in Cleveland on September 7 at Cleveland Public Library. So, read her work and come out to meet her! 

Other notable mentions that I have really fallen for recently are On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden, Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St. Onge, and Joy San, Snagglepuss by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan, Unstoppable Wasp by Jeremy Whitley and Elsa Charretier, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell.

Most of these comics, besides On a Sunbeam, are all print comics, of course there is a whole world of online comics that I am not even addressing here. 

PRIZM: What are the biggest things people can learn from learning about (and continuing to read) queer comics?

VL: The importance of community and solidarity. Queer comics including so many during the underground era, or series like Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For notably promote community and interpersonal relationships. I believe that is one of the most important things I have learned from queer comics: the focus on community and supporting one another. That being said, these are comics, and there is a lot of division in our queer communities that continues to cause so much pain. I understand that. We have so much to learn, but I think we can learn this from queer comics. I think one of the most important things we can learn from these comics is not only about the pride and bravery we show in coming out as individuals, but in standing with one another. 

PRIZM: What do you foresee in the future for queer comics?

VL: Oh, this is difficult. I see more of a focus on intersectionality, which has been explored, but has also been ignored as white, gay, cisgender men have often been the focus of queer comics in the mainstream. That is changing, though, no question. I am ready for more of these stories. What I would also like to see more of in the future is a focus on companies getting behind queer creators, consumers, and characters. For example, we just had another Pride month pass us by and neither Marvel nor DC did anything notable. They do not put enough money behind their books starring queer characters and then they wonder why the sales are not where they want them to be. These companies are often still invested in telling the same stories with the same characters, and we need to see them invest in their queer characters, creators, and consumers, which will pay off, I guarantee that.   

You can check out the Queer Comix series the first and third Thursday of the month at the Cleveland Public Library at 4:00 p.m. on the second floor. The August 1st title is Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles and the August 15th title is Abbott.

BJ Colangelo is a social emotional theatre teaching artist with Cleveland Play House and a professional horror film journalist and theorist. Her work has been featured in publications like Blumhouse, Medium, Playboy, Vulture, Birth.Movies.Death, Bloody-Disgusting, and has contributed essays to the books When Animals Attack!, Creepy Bitches, and Hidden Horror 101.