Dear Readers, OCCASIONALLY
It’s no secret that we at the Monolith love comics and their screen adaptations (I mean, how many wonderful articles has Quigs devoted to comic book movies and their successes/failures?!). In this spirit, today I’m throwing my cards down into our ongoing discussion of comic books as they appear in cinema/television by writing about one of my favorite on screen uses of comics and how it relates in important ways to gender and sexuality. Also, important to know, here I use “queer” and “gay” fairly interchangeably even though they are obviously not one and the same, but I can talk about that more another time.
Ok; away we go…
Much has been written recently on the trauma of gayness, particularly with regard to queer subjectivity within popular culture (check out books by Ann Cvetkovich and Heather Love for more!). The textuality and creation of queerness in literature and cinema has been largely defined by the tragic destruction of the protagonist through traumatic enactments of depression, isolation, and sadness. Queerness becomes a condition equated with negative affect; an unwanted circumstance that must be overcome in order for a text to provide a calm assurance for the correctness and necessity of straight life. Trauma becomes a defining characteristic of popular queer representation, an easy solution to the problem of gay intrusion into a world dominated by heterosexuality.
Here we find value in the effects of sadness, depression, and isolation; a welcome rhetorical subversive infiltration that articulates the hopeful impossibility of complete heterosexual dominance. Trauma, then, becomes the glue that holds the modern queer narrative in place, making it a powerful tool for cultural production; a text that highlights the emotional connections and identifications made through pain and everyday occurrences of violence.
[From left to right: Justin, Michael, Brian]
Given this new attention to trauma and negative affect, Showtime’s groundbreaking drama Queer As Folk becomes an ideal case study for such narrativity. It highlights and does not diminish the more devastating aspects of gay sexual acts and identities (not the same! Thanks Leo Bersani for showing us this…brilliant!) through its depiction of hate crimes and socially sanctioned mundane homophobic discourse (like screaming “faggots!” at gay couples holding hands as they walk down the street). Curiously, Queer As Folk not only gestures this new attention to truth via its dialogue and realistic negotiations with issues such as HIV/AIDS , but through its use of comics – particularly the creation of the ultra violent gay-themed comic book series Rage. This imagined community of queerness committed to retribution and confrontation directly responds to the lived experiences of its creators Justin and Michael, allowing for the addition of a parallel storyline; one that re-imagines and re-interprets that which has occurred in the “real” universe of the show. In other words, Rage becomes the show’s internal commentary and mechanism for reconciliation with the oppressive regime of dominant of heterosexuality.
Premiering in 2000 to much critical acclaim and popularity, Queer As Folk follows the lives of several gay men and lesbians in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as they attempt to reconcile the successes, disappointments and distractions typical of late 20s to early 30s urban adulthood (with the exception of Justin who is 18 and still in high school at the show’s beginning), with the ongoing challenges of being gay. The show quickly became a hit with the queer community and many straight women, paving the way for later queercentric programming like The L Word (real and original), Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and even Queer Eye For the Straight Guy.
Though an adaptation from a popular British version of the show, the series remains an important milestone in American gay representation in a variety of ways, from its explicit sex scenes between both male and female couples to its sensitive articulation of living with HIV/ AIDS. Although the show presents a rich ground for analysis on a variety of topics, sexual, social, and cultural, the focus of this article, Dear Readers, will be Queer As Folk’s subversive and powerful use of comics, namely Rage, the original comic that is created by Michael and Justin. In addition to the more overt desire to mend broken hearts (as both characters are in love with the show’s central protagonist, the beautiful Brian Kinney), Rage endows its creators with a powerful tool and weapon for combating the hate they encounter in their daily lives. Their graphic illustrations and storytelling detail gay characters gaining redemption and revenge on those who have wronged them, allowing Michael and Justin to articulate the everyday violence of their lives.
From the show’s inception, comics are woven into prominent and defining spaces in the narrative. For example, one of the first things the viewer learns about Michael early in the series is that he has an unabashed love for comics – particularly Captain Astro – a personality trait and hobby often misunderstood and mocked by his friends. When asked to present to a college course about homoeroticism in comics by his future husband Ben, he has trouble articulating the theoretical concept, instead casting aside his note cards in favor of a more casual approach, saying:
This moment is vital to Michael’s characterization, particularly in light of the viewer’s understanding that Michael is closeted at his job as an assistant manager at a Walmart-like discount store and as a result is miserable due to his double life that is bookeneded by wild nights at Babylon, the gay club of choice among his friend group, and boring dates set up for him by his co-workers who are completely unaware of his sexuality. No matter how out he is in his personal life, the threat of being discovered as gay looms dangerously overhead. This daily dance between truth and fiction wears heavily on Michael throughout the first two seasons of the show, leading him to eventually open his own comic book store, making comics a site of liberation. Michael’s intense attachment to comics speaks to the greater issue at hand: how those who are oppressed actively cope with their oppression. Michael does not merely retreat to his personal apartment to consume his comics; he crafts a distinct and new space for these activities. The comic book store becomes emblematic of Michael’s personal development and his emancipation from the stifling conditions of his past job. The omnipresent specter of the closet never entirely dissipates, but Michael is certainly less haunted by its thick glass walls.
[Brian and Justin at Prom moments before Justin's attack]
Perhaps even more vital to the narrative than Michael’s swift acquisition of his comic book store is his and Justin’s creation of Rage, their jointly produced comic. The comic, which features fictionalized versions of various characters of the show – namely Brian, Justin, and Michael – provides an outlet for their many feelings of isolation, disappointment, and, most of all, as the title suggests, rage. If negative effect is no longer a prison but an opportunity for profound growth and potential, the characters’ execution of the comic provides an excellent example of a revisioning and dominance over trauma.
Like Michael, Justin has also faced a number of frightening circumstances – most horrifically the vicious attack by another student in the parking garage after his high school prom, an incident that leaves him on the verge of death in the final episode of season one. The audience is left to wonder if Justin will live or die in the interim time until the series’ return; a nod to the ever unpredictable nature of homophobic discourses and offenses. Much like those who are victims of hate crimes are shocked and unprepared for the psychic puncturing of such actions, the audience also experiences a similar shattering when Justin is assaulted. The show considerably highlights this shock in that moments prior to the violence Justin and Brian dance, laugh, and kiss in anticipation of what promises to be a memorable night for the sometimes unstable couple. The episode closes and the viewer cannot help but understand that Justin will be forever changed by his experience of trauma, but how exactly this will occur is a mystery.
Unlike Michael’s slow and constant mental bruising through his job, Justin’s lightening-quick initiation into the world of un-ignorable violence occurs in seconds. As he makes his recovery, the once joyful boy is filled with anger and resentment at his straight counterparts; a personality trait that does not escape him as the show progresses. It is this anger that informs Rage and its own brand of ultra-violent rhetoric, a thinly veiled analogy to his own lived realities as a young gay male. Rage does not function as a happy revisionist narrative of sorts; instead it serves as a reminder of the lingering and dissatisfied queer presence on the peripheries of cities, identities, and cultures. Justin and Michael narrate violent tales that allow gay characters the ability to act rather than react, an important distinction. Rage (the main character of the comic) sodomizes enemies, acts without concern for others, and as a result is allowed full subjectivity. It is a dangerous subjectivity that terrifies and threatens dominant straight masculinity; the same masculinity that creates and in some instances celebrates conditions like Justin’s assault and Michael’s hostile work environment. In Rage, the opposite is true; straightness now becomes the enemy. Queer trauma paradoxically motivates the action inside and outside the comic, simultaneously isolating its producers yet allowing them the freedom to create an alternative history that for the first time permits a trajectory of victory rather than defeat.
[Rage demonstrates his powers]
In Queer As Folk we see Rage acting as a real-life healing force; a meta narrative that allows for both commentary on and a renegotiation with past traumas. Despite the fact that the comic in itself is ultra violent – much like the events that have happened to the characters in the show – we must not dismiss Rage’s ability to grant subjectivity to its two gay male creators in their distinct ownership and retelling of modern queer mythology and legends of survival. Michael’s words and Justin’s drawings are not merely text and image on a page, but are transformed into moments of social justice and awareness. Rage, while being aggressive and violent, ultimately acts as a force for good within the universe of the comic, saving various male characters from danger, both through his sexual prowess (or as one of my colleagues once said, “He literally fucks him back to life!”) and physical strength to ward off the enemy (homophobic straight people). The gay character of yesteryear who was long classified as damaged now uses his very brokenness to demand a better world for his comrades. Justin and Brian’s creation of Rage is the crucial act; their ability to articulate and rewrite the traumatic instances of gay life, rather than merely respond to that which happens to them or others’ interpretations of the events.
[Rage cover art]
Queer As Folk’s infusion of comics into the central landscape of the show serves as an important intersection of queer studies and comics. The series’ trailblazing content, as well as its protagonists’ ability to maneuver, negotiate, and comment on the action through Rage, speaks to the subversive power not only of comics – whose content has always been rife with social commentary and implications – but also queerness. Queer As Folk needs Rage as Rage needs Queer As Folk: a symbiotic relationship of creator and created; real and imaginary; reader and viewer; on screen and off screen. Trauma, violence, and negative affect are the foundational texts of Rage, yet they are not sources of disempowerment – in fact, the converse is true. Justin and Michael gain redemption in the black and white space of the comic: a place where trauma is rewritten to show the true victors of homophobic violence; those who have overcome it and lived to draw the tale.
What other subversive potential do you see in comics (and their screen adaptations)? Are comics just entertainment or do they tell us something more about society at large? What are your favorite comics/comic adaptations? AND, most importantly, what IS the deal between Batman and Robin?
[Need I say more?]