Four youth-oriented comics with LGBTQ+ positive characters that break the binaries

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In a polarized cultural milieu, the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters in popular youth and children’s media is sometimes controversial.

In March, for example, the Disney Company came under fire for secretly supporting Florida legislation banning “sexual orientation or gender identity” instruction for young school children. This follows controversy over the treatment of queer characters in Disney movies.

But some comic artists writing for younger audiences have found critical and financial success telling stories about LGTBQ+ characters.

The role of fiction

Fiction has always been a central site of resistance to the demands that young people who exist outside perceived sex and gender binaries must assimilate, argues English teacher and queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton in her book The queer child.

Media professor Tony Kelso describes how researchers who study media representations of queer youth “have argued convincingly that media representations have a socializing influence on young people’s development of their notions of self, that whether in relation to race, gender, class, sexual orientation or other categories of identity”.

He notes that, especially for emerging queer youth growing up who may have few role models, “LGBTQ+ images in the media take on particularly heightened importance.”

Strong queer representation in comics aimed at young people has the potential to have a significant positive impact on the health and well-being of young people who identify as gay or who question sex and gender.

Role models, community

The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth, notes that having positive role models and a sense of community serve as protective factors that enhance the positive development or resilience of LGBTQ youth.

Fiction can offer role models, and the fandom forged around comics can also foster community.

Many creators of comics with young queer characters say their creative motivation is to talk about the well-being of queer children and young people in ways they themselves may not have experienced.

Here are four comedic works that highlight the portrayal of the experiences of queer youth:

In the wings

The comic series In the wings follows the stage crew of an all-male high school. The series includes gay, bi, and trans characters who are white, black, and racialized.

‘Backstagers’ Volume 1. (BOOM! Studios)

It is written by James Tynion IV, who is well known for his work on DC’s Batman and which won the Eisner Prize for Comics in 2021.

In an interview with School library journal in 2017, Tynion said:

“I wanted to write the book that I needed the most, especially in college and when I started reading comics… I always wanted the book to be about the misfits, the misfits are awesome, but I wanted having different forms of queer masculinity. …Growing up, not being able to see yourself in the media you consume, you feel like there’s something wrong. Seeing yourself in these worlds is so empowering.

The Prince and the Seamstress

The graphic novel The Prince and the Seamstress by author and illustrator Jen Wang tells the story of a powerful friendship between a humble seamstress and an esteemed young prince. The prince leads a secret double life as “Lady Crystallia”, the latest (and most mysterious) icon of Parisian haute couture.

“The Prince and the Seamstress” (Macmillan).

The Prince and the Seamstress has earned a spot on many lists of the best books of 2018.

Like Tynion IV, Wang described his inspiration in a 2018 interview with nerdist as a kind of retroactive intervention in his own life:

“I wrote this book for my teenage years, so I’m really excited for young people to read it! … I hope readers who tune in can indulge in the fantasy of fairy tales but also feel familiar.

Nimona

The Graphic Novel by ND Stevenson Nimonadeveloped from their previous webcomic, uses the concept of a shapeshifter in a medieval universe.

‘Nimona’ (HarperCollins),

The story explores the damaging potentials of viewing humanity and human relationships in terms of pre-established categories, including categories of sexuality and gender. Stevenson currently identifies as transmasculine and bigender.

Nimona is a New York Times bestseller, won an Eisner Award and is slated for a Netflix film adaptation.

As Stevenson said vanity lounge in 2015, the shapeshifter represents a key way to threaten and destabilize these norms through the body: “Nimona is about identity and whether who you are is defined by what you look like.”

Lumberjacks

The comic series, Lumberjackslaunched in 2014, traces the adventures of campers at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types.

The series does not focus on one particular character, but on a circle of five friends from various backgrounds of class, race, and family structures.

In issue #17, the character Jo counsels a “Scouting Lad” across the lake named Barney who has trouble identifying with their fellow all-male campers.

Jo reveals that she herself has transitioned from male to female. Jo was also a Scouting Lad before finding peace and acceptance among the Lumberjanes. Barney asks to join the Lumberjanes and finds similar peace and acceptance, while also adopting the they/them pronouns.

The group of friends also includes two girls who develop a romance. Literature scholar Aaron Kashtan notes that the series assumes a feminist and anti-racist outlook while deflating pooper feminist stereotypes.

Shannon Watters, co-creator of Lumberjanes and one of the show’s many writers, said in a 2015 interview for the feminist, queer and transgender media site Autostraddle:

“We write Lumberjanes as if it’s a place we want to exist, while hoping that the mere fact of its existence in fiction might make it easier and better for some humans who live in the real world.”

A host of creative talent worked on this series: Stevenson is another series co-creator and writer, and Wang wrote for a 2016 Lumberjanes special, Lumberjanes: Makin: The Ghost of This One.

Lumberjacks had a sold-out first impression, won multiple Eisner Awards, and won an HBO Max animated series adaptation. In 2017, a Lumberjacks A new series has been launched, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Brooklyn Allen.

In all of these comics, and many more, we see the potential for contemporary media representations to provide important mental and physical well-being interventions in the lives of LGBTQ+ youth – and thus another reminder of the importance representation and relatable stories.

J Andrew Deman is a professor of English at the University of Waterloo.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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