• An illustration from 'What They Knew'. (Hiro and Elliot McMahon)Source: Hiro and Elliot McMahon
A recent Australian comic book festival highlighted the influence of activism for many queer illustrators.
Stephen A. Russell

3 May 2016 - 11:00 AM  UPDATED 3 May 2016 - 11:00 AM

Between Batman and Superman’s blockbusting spat and Iron Man currently duking it out with Captain America, you’d be forgiven for thinking comic books were all about buff blokes in spandex beating each other senseless.

While there’s certainly plenty of that out there, it’s not representative of the entire scene, as any visitor to last weekend’s Homecooked Comics Festival could attest. Held at Melbourne’s Northcote Town Hall by open comics studio Squishface in conjunction with the City of Darebin, it showcased the work of Australian creators with a phalanx of LGBTQI talent represented.

Sonja Hammer, who heads up fan club and advocacy group Queer Geeks of Oz as well as presenting JOY94.9 queer radio show Sci-fi and Squeam led a feisty panel discussion on civil rights activism in queer comics dubbed "Humour and Humanity". Hammer was joined by cartoonists Kenton Penley Miller, whose long-running Bent at the Knee strip in gay men’s magazine Outrage tackled everything from a lack of diversity in community representations to the HIV/AIDS crisis, and bisexual anarchist Jo Waite, who spent much of the '80s drawing sexually charged cartoons for anarchist and feminist magazines. They represented the old guard of Australia’s queer comics.

“They’re both just phenomenal in what they’ve been doing for many decades now,” Hammer enthuses.

Growing up in Napier, New Zealand, Hammer was initially drawn to Superman comics before stumbling across a certain Amazonian warrior princess. She’s currently devouring Harvard history professor Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, an illuminating text placing the superhero in the context of the feminist movement and also exploring creator William Moulton Marston’s polyamorous S&M relationship with Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne.

Sci-fi and Squeam started off looking at the spandex set, but soon broadened to become a welcome platform for a host of local comic book talent doing things a little differently. Hammer says that rather than caped crusaders, most queer comics tend to be intensely autobiographical, with a personal favourite being Alison Bechdel - she of the Bechdel Test, which rates a movie’s feminist cred by mandating there must be at least two named female characters who talk to each other about anything other than a man. “She’s become a household name with Fun House adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway show. Fun House is quite dark, with the complexities of a graphic memoir, and I also love her 1980s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For.”

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Locally, she points to the likes of Sam Wallman’s politically charged work on Pen Erases Paper. “He’s looked at confronting issues like queer suicide, homelessness and how environmental issues affect us. His work, and a lot of other artists coming through, quite political, which is really interesting to watch.”

Penley Miller also rates Wallman. “He’s one of the most progressive queer cartoonist whose intersectionality is fantastic. A lot of the gay political movement has been swayed towards the marriage issue, so those of us who are not fixated on that start to come across as too left, because marriage is, after all, a conservative institution. To raise issues around youth homelessness or racism within our community, as Sam does, is challenging.”

The push for diversity is a hallmark of Penley Miller’s work. “I wanted to show that gay male relationships were more than just two monogamous white men,” he says. “You could be sex positive with people who are serodiscordant. I wanted intergenerational, polyamorous relationships, bisexuality and I managed to sneak all of those things in. It was some of the only visions of that, because the articles were all about ‘How to keep your man happy’.”

He says Grindr has a lot to answer for. “The Grindr buttons are a recipe for ‘I want this, this and this but not this, this or this.’ The irony is that when the interwebs first started happening, people would hook up with men they couldn’t when they were out in the venues, because for example it was more dangerous to be seen by your friends going out with that bloke who’s 30 years older than you, whereas online you could hit him up.”

He copped a lot of flack from within the community for drawing on gallows humour during the HIV/AIDS crisis. “Cartoons try and make people laugh at themselves and sometimes our identities have been so much under threat it’s really challenging to ask people to lighten up. Back then I’d have people say, ‘you’re so disrespectful, I’ve lost friends to this and you’re making jokes.’”

As Penley Miller pointed out during the Humour and Humanity discussion, he lost many friends too, stopping count after 40 funerals. Jo Waite says the criticism was unfortunate. “It’s sad people thought it was disrespectful as I feel like usually people let you get away with stuff if you’re on the inside, but our community is uniquely offendable and just a little over-sensitised. There were certainly straight cartoonists on the outside laughing at us.”

Increasingly inspired by more melancholic, long-form comic book, like the work of Chris Ware, Waite has moved away from the erotic lesbian material she was known for during the '80s and says getting the balance of pain and happiness right is important in her new work. “I think passion’s very dangerous,” she laughs. “I want to put it in, but I want it to be carefully confined. I’ve never had a lesbian audience for my work, so it’s never encouraged me to make more of that.

"I was coming from an anarchist perspective, which was about making the personal political, but also flattening out the hierarchies of patriarchy, race and sex. The way you do that is to represent and to show us how we are, but you also try to be positive as well, because cynicism is part of what keeps us passive and separated from each other. I wasn’t very good at it though, because I’m a very cranky bitch. Kenton was much better.”

Both artists mourn the loss of the sexual liberation of the '70s and the steady march of conservatism in the queer community. “The '70s in Australia were very much full-frontal nudity on television,” Penley Miller says. “In the '80s there was still roll-over from that but HIV/AIDS happened and in the longer term that has contributed towards sexual conservatism in a, ‘see, we told you if you had sex in the woods you’d die,’ wonderfully Friday The 13th approach to life.”

Penley Miller says these days he’s the one being educated about the possibilities of what’s out there. “My young gender diverse friends catch me out and say, ‘you’re using the wrong language,’ and I recognise all of that anger and think it’s fantastic to be on the receiving end.”

Identifying as gender queer and using the pronouns they/them, Hiro Mcl is a 29-year-old Fitzroy North-based comic who was showcasing at Homecooked’s artist market on Sunday. With a background in graphic design, after two years in comics, it’s still a new medium for them, with swapping money still something of an alien concept. “In terms of my personal politics, I like the idea of comics being for free, so I always have mine on my Tumblr and website.”

Tumblr is a useful distribution platform for many LGBTQI comic creators, Mcl says. “It attracts a lot of people with radical politics and I’ve found really great comics just by going on there. I wish Tumblr was a thing when I was a teenager, because you just have so much access to information.”

“I’m not really into the superhero thing, because the depiction of women is often really horrible and over-sexualised. Their whole character is built based on what men are interested in. There’s no depth.”

Growing up, Mcl was into Garfield comics, but these days prefers the memoir-like approach, “My comics are semi-autobiographical. As well as identifying as queer or non-binary, I also explore themes like mental health and I’m mixed race, so I look at that too.

“I’m not really into the superhero thing, because the depiction of women is often really horrible and over-sexualised. Their whole character is built based on what men are interested in. There’s no depth.”

Fellow comic creatives Mcl recommends include Lee Lai, Elisha Lim, Heidi Cho and Kevin Czap. The visual aspect of the medium appeals as a way to challenge limited vision. “It’s really important in terms of representation of minority groups, because with a lot of visual media it’s always the same sort of people represented. Whether it’s mainstream comics or on the television, it’s always white people, often thin and able-bodied. With my comics I always try and think outside of that and draw more people of colour, queer narratives, people who are gender non-conforming.”