Vivian Kleiman’s No Straight Lines feels like a documentary that has always needed to exist, so I’m happy it finally does, and that it is so damn good.
American comics have experienced massive mainstream success in the past two decades due, in part, to two factors — big-budget superhero adaptations bringing attention to the corporate side of things and image-based social media (Myspace, LiveJournal, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram) creating a new space for graphic artistic expression, particularly among those in the LGBTQA+ and other minority communities whose stories make corporations nervous.
The former has been mythologized to death by endless attention; it makes so much money! Only in the last few years has the latter found itself in wider culture because those who grew up in the online communities have advanced to positions of relative success and influence (and can make the money men money!). Successful art is broadly defined, at least in the United States, as art with commercial viability. We’re a month away from the first same-sex relationship in a multimillion-dollar Marvel movie. Look how far we’ve come, right?
No Straight Lines is the story of the people who have always been there. The underground, independent cartoonists who used the comics medium to tell the stories the mainstream wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Stories about coming out, about loving the people who love. Marvel Studios is going to show a gay kiss on screen in 2021? Artists like Howard Cruse were writing and drawing stories about the experience of being a gay man in the 1970s and his art has inspired hundreds of other artists. Those artists built a thriving community, one that informed and influenced culture at the highest level. American comics will never escape the specter of the superhero IP, but the medium is so, so much more than that, and through time, one of its strongest pillars has always been the LGBTQA+ comics community.
The truth about comics is this: Nobody gets into the medium to make money. The medium exists thanks to a bone-deep commitment from artists and writers. Success stories are few and far between, and mostly fleeting. Big-name characters are born from the minds of creators largely fleeced by the big publishers — and now multinational corporations — that own the copyright. Independent artists these days rely on Patreon, Substack or other models of crowdfunding just to work. The luckiest among them parlay modest publishing success into rights deals with studios for potential adaptations or leave the medium altogether for writing gigs in TV and movies.
“None of us made money. But we had a whole lot of creative freedom,” says Jen Camper, one of the five cartoonists profiled in No Straight Lines. Jen Camper wrote and drew Rude Girls and Dangerous Women and Juicy Mother, and broke ground depicting graphic lesbian relationships. Also profiled are Rupert Kinnard, whose work included an African-American gay character; Mary Wings, author of Come Out Comix; and the aforementioned Cruse, whose comics Wendel and Stuck Rubber Baby depicted a positive, diverse array of stories about gay men. Perhaps the best known of Kleiman’s interviews is Alison Bechdel, whose autobiography, Fun Home, was also adapted into a Tony Award-winning play.
These five are the predominant artists featured, but so many comic artists, past and present, make appearances to share their work and influences. The story told traces the rise of queer comics in the 1960s and 1970s through the 1980s (with some focus on the AIDS epidemic) into the 1990s and the rise and fall of zines and friendly publishing outlets, and then into the 2000s when big chain bookstores made it difficult to sell underground comics … until the internet gave artists an entirely new outlet and way of building culture. These days, the LGBTQA+ community in comics is one of the most powerful creative forces, defining the decade of the industry in many ways both large and small.
No Straight Lines is a straightforward, cleanly told documentary about a monumentally important, but relatively unknown, part of the comics sphere. It is a love letter to these artists and the world they build, and to the comic-book medium, where all the best stories are told. It celebrates the different types of success that art can have beyond the mainstream focus on financial lucre, particularly when modern artists are laboring in a medium whose most recognized icons cast a large shadow. Comics are the fucking best, and the LGBTQA+ community knew it first.
No Straight Lines is available as part of the Heartland Film Festival’s online offerings from Oct. 7 to Oct. 17.
An in-person screening will be held at 5:45 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, Oct. 12 at the Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie.