The Subcultural Versus the Minor: Intersections in Queer Digital Culture

November 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

I love Ariel Schrag. I am so happy that she is on Twitter. I am so happy that she is now writing for AfterEllen. And I really hope she won’t be too disappointed by the confused, disjointed comments she received over there on her first piece, an essay about queer identities in comics, as well as a long form review of Erika Moen’s Dar: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary. In the essay, Schrag explores the controversy surrounding Moen’s work, which is twofold: firstly, she told a story of coming out as a lesbian who ends up falling in love with and then marrying a man. Secondly, she drew a comic called “Transmen Are Ridiculously Hot.” This second part was simply an error in judgment, I’ll say, and Moen crossed the line, although it was clearly without malicious intent. Trans issues are almost completely invisible in popular culture, and this is a space where Moen needed to realize that she is widely-read and respected, and has a responsibility to represent pressing social issues more sensitively. That’s all I have to say about that — others have said more, and still more needs to be said by someone better-informed.

So let’s get back to the lesbian-turned-married woman thing. This part is frustrating for some if only because there are such relatively limited representations of flourishing lesbian life and community in popular culture, as well as because the experience of lesbians seems to be implicitly discounted by such “conversion” narratives. Of course, the draw of autobiography is that it allows writers to offer their own always singular experiences of shaping their identity over time via interactions with the terms and categories they encounter in the cultural landscape. Indeed, a “diary” is not even quite an autobiography; it is not understood as being crafted from start to finish, polished at the end in order to make the narrative cohere. Rather, it is a compilation of serial installments — Moen obviously did more than print out her day by day webcomic in order to compile the book, but the basic thrust is more of a collection than a graphic autobiography. Form alone does not explain the frustrations surrounding the sexual identity trajectory in Dar, of course; one of the most positive representations of lesbian community in comics is Alison Bechdel’s long-running serialized strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, which has changed significantly over time, often sending beloved characters in previously unfathomable directions. That strip is so seemingly comprehensive, it could be said, that now that young lesbians have it, as well as The High School Chronicles of Ariel Schrag and other true stories about lesbians with happy lesbian endings, is it not a bit backwards to expect an artist like Moen to stick to a lesbian party line that may no longer make sense? But it’s only true that we have collectively taken Bechdel and Schrag into account within certain culturally savvy privileged subcultures — and even then, both of them have focused primarily on sexual identity issues at the expense of talking in a sustained way about race or national status, for example. The work of telling the story of lesbian life is ongoing — not everyone has the privilege to go to graduate school and be introduced to Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Gloria Anzaldua, tatiana de la tierra, Leslie Feinberg, Lilian Faderman, or those from earlier generations of the struggle for representation, like Ann Bannon, Rita Mae Brown, and even Patricia Highsmith. (Some are lucky enough to encounter more than one of these authors in high school or college, but I was not.)

And here’s where the intersections I want to talk about come in: Moen is part of a new generation, hailed in Scott McCloud’s 2000 Reinventing Comics, who has taken part in the digital comics revolution. It’s awesome that she and others made such advancements in popularizing webcomics, and also finding print publications for them. It’s no wonder, then, that McCloud’s praise appears on the cover of Dar: He says, “Erika Moen’s comics make me feel like dancing!” Of course they do, because McCloud (who I should make clear I value deeply as an intellectual hero, and place in a category with Henry Jenkins and others who have made it possible for me to study what I study) has what I see as a typically masculine version of tech-utopianism: their argument goes something like, “now that we’ve got the internet, everyone can tell as many stories as possible, and the ones that are really good, and are what people really want, will surface to create this amazing democratic archive of our age.” And I can’t even type it without believing it a little, myself, but that’s why I think it’s so important to see how it bears out in comparison with a particular subculture that has been struggling for representation for quite a few decades before we all had a URL.

More specifically, I feel compelled to weigh in from my own perspective, as I am a huge fan of both Schrag and Moen’s comics, as well as a huge fan in general of the intersecting categories of women’s culture, autobiography and memoir, comics, and queer-authored representations of queer experiences in literature and popular culture. Even naming the categories is tough. Just in terms of medium: at first I was going to say “non-superhero comics,” but I obviously love the Buffy S8 comics, and Buffy is a superhero as far as I can tell. Then, I was thinking of saying “comics with female protagonists,” but the comic I loved most this year was the intensely boyish Alias the Cat!. (Boys are okay with me as long as they intersect with other subcultures with which I feel a kinship, which he does.) And so, I just went with comics, because, like Schrag, I believe that the form is “deceptively powerful. The nature of comics is also why Moen’s lesbian fans felt so betrayed when their favorite lesbian cartoon character turned straight and married a man. When you read a comic the cartoon hero is not a representation of its elusive, flesh-and-bone creator. It’s a circle face with expressive lines for eyes and a mouth, bursting with universal emotion. Simplicity makes the cartoon hero the easiest thing in the world to project oneself on to. It’s you.” (5)


And this brings me to why I think people were disappointed with Dar. I found the print version in a store. The day previous, I’d had a funny experience: my sister had bought me Schrag’s Definition and Potential (a signed copy! *g*) for Christmas, and when I opened them, I instantly said “oh cool, lesbian comics.” She smiled at me saying something like “oh, everything’s about lesbians for you.” I laughed at myself, agreeing, and opened the book to look inside. “Nope, this is definitely about lesbians, I proclaimed triumphantly,” pleased to have my instincts confirmed. The word “potential” is a total lesbian word, I explained.  And when it’s combined with an image of a wide-eyed, sloppily haircutted young girl, you can be pretty sure about what you’re getting into. This kind of “coding,” as it would have been from the 50s, was what drew me to The Beebo Brinker Chronicles during my Master’s degree. (Okay, that was in the context of a Lesbian Lit class, but I was excited to imagine women in the 50s seeing the word “twilight” on a pulp novel and picking it up immediately, knowing it was for them. Now, of course, that word means something different, but, you know…) And this “coding” is the problem with Dar. I picked up the book and saw a lesbian on the cover. I saw the word “secret.” I saw the word “diary.” I thought it might be a book about a teenage lesbian and her high school experience. (I love teen stories and always have, since before having been a teen, and I still do now, 7 years after having ceased to be one.) It turned out that that is what I would get in Schrag’s book — Moen’s was something entirely different. And as I said, it’s something I like, too. I love her honesty about sex, her body, her behavioral particularities, her life as a graphic artist in Portland.

When I returned from visiting my sister, at the New Year, I had a small all-lesbian get-together at my apartment (my male roommate was still away). I lay my comics out on the table, excited about the opportunity to read them together with my friends, to share what I had found in California. My friends may have first editions of the classics of lesbian poetry, but I could show them my comics. Each of us picked one, according to our tastes. One girl picked up Dar, and I experienced a moment of panic. Should I tell her what was inside? Should we talk about it? Should we pretend it didn’t happen?

I didn’t end up telling her, and she ended up liking the book as much as I did. But I really think that this is because we are all so fortunate to have so much access to the stories we need, as well as the ones we want. It’s a wonderful thing to encounter Dar if you’re within Moen’s milieu: if you have safe queer social spaces to inhabit, time to read, degrees in the humanities, or any combination of the aforementioned. But it does raise questions about the recombination of formerly subculturally specific codes of address in the digital age. And I think that there are better and worse ways in which “minor” writers (I use the term because they write in a minor form, non-Marvel/DC comics, or in a minor space, webcomics, or from a minor social location, that of queerness) can handle this. I think that the reason some fans have been so disappointed by the Buffy comics is that they have borrowed too much from fanboy-oriented comic book tropes, rather than continuing to work with the queer-friendly pastiche on which the television show, at its best, was formed. I have argued that The Guild handles the combination of elements better: both being honest about the frustrations of gender relations in MMOs, but also honoring a woman-oriented “slice of life” comics aesthetic, in order to create a more symbiotic relationship between the discrete media origins of the story.

And this is the core of my take on Moen: to modify something Adeleke Adeeko said a few days ago, “don’t only take from lesbian culture. Also bring something back.” So, because her work will likely appeal to lesbians and other readers looking for a certain kind of lesbian narrative, it would be nice if Moen spent some of her admirable creative resources on contributing positively to the (literary, social, artistic) community that helped her get through the lesbian years, however brief. I’m not asking for a guide to lesbianism from a queer married woman, exactly. But I think that it would be nice to see more connections between the two parts of her story — the part that inaugurated her sexual honesty and willingness to think differently-than-normatively about gender, and the part where she gets to live a life she herself has described as “boring” because she is married. (Yes, I assume she was kidding – but hey, I’m being polemical.)

One author who I would argue has done this in a really fascinating way is Roberta Gregory, who published one of the first lesbian comics in the early 1970s, and has since produced lots of comics about sex with men without ever entering the territory in which anyone would read it as a conversion story. Partly, this is because Gregory writes “alternative” rather than autobiographical comics, but in any case. She’s someone I’m drawn to precisely because of her remarkable ability to talk about having sex with people of multiple genders without ever falling into conversations we’re all tired of having about the inadequacy of the term bisexual. And she even has a website, although it’s not nearly as comprehensive as Moen’s. We can all learn from each other, or something :).


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