Review: 'No Straight Lines' Draws a Thrilling Portrait of Queer Comics

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday January 21, 2023

Alison Bechdel in "No Straight Lines"
Alison Bechdel in "No Straight Lines"  

Director Vivian Kleiman draws a thoughtful portrait of LGBTQ+ artists in the 80-minute PBS documentary "No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics." Identified by clever word balloon subtitles, each interviewed artist shares stories about finding drawings and publications that gave "permission and a road map for exactly what I wanted to do with my life."

Butch female reporter Hank O'Hair was first drawn in 1942 for the "Brenda Starr Reporter" series, as comic art might have been in the vanguard of queer representation. Featured interviewee Howard Cruse, the "godfather of queer comics," thought that comic books were lowbrow in his early 20s, but appreciated newspaper comic strips. Yet, those publications were often censored, and 1954's Comics Code Authority placed similar strictures on the books, demanding no homosexual content and to paint law enforcement officers in a positive light.

Consequently, many queer artists started their own publications like zines as part of the counterculture, which were sold in head shops next to psychedelic posters. Those publications were full of drugs and sex, available only to adults, theoretically. Groundbreaking artist Mary Wings, shown in the film playing her accordion along with her singing dog, remembers reading those sometimes-disturbing underground comics from luminaries like R. Crumb. In 1972, she responded to a story in "Wimmen's Comix" — the "Sandy Comes Out" issue, about a lesbian but written and drawn by the straight cartoonist Trina Robbins — by creating her own "Come Out Comix," the first known lesbian comic book by an out lesbian. Using an offset press provided by two friends who ran a karate studio, other artists joined in and churned out subsequent titles like "Wet Satin," "Dynamite Damsels," and "My Deadly Darling Dyke."

Ajuan Mance liked early queer comics for "making people who aren't heroic," and Maia Kobabe added that they hated being photographed as a teen, but knew a drawing could be whatever they wanted. Ivan Velez, Jr. notes that there weren't any fairy tales to represent him, and Jennifer Camper echoes that she was always on the lookout for something that resonated with her perspective of the world. She was drawn to the villains, because they were "tough, beautiful, gorgeous, powerful, exotic and kickass women." Another cartoonist notes that she "wanted characters like her to be victorious."

Rupert Kinnard grew up in Chicago, and was known for his excellent youthful drawings of Batman and Spider-Man. But, being African American, he wondered why he was drawing white superheroes. His real-life heroes were boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, so, in 1977, he started drawing the Brown Bomber, after Louis' nickname, the first serialized queer Black comics character.

Early queer comics artists would publish in The Advocate newspaper before the Stonewall Riot. Some were even actually there in New York on June 28, 1969, and felt called "to show a world with gay people in it, so that every generation doesn't have to do that."

Alison Bechdel, popularizer of what's become known as the Bechdel test (in films, at least two female characters need to be named and to talk to each other about something other than a man), recalls that when she discovered gay comics, she realized that her own gay life was revolutionary. In this doc, she talks about her drawing process, which pens and inks to use to express emotions, and the analog joy of actually cutting and pasting, loving the challenge of "fitting into space." She is also adamant to destigmatize women's bodies.

Cruse thought his underground gay comics were an ideal way to come out professionally, remembering that "it was time to take some risks in service of truth." Plus, he wanted the scene to not just be a boys club, or necessarily camp or about sex. He sought representation for real humans with lives, works "about people, not penises."

Camper shares her painful memories of living through GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), later termed AIDS, first seen as a mystery, then a death sentence. Like many, she felt helpless, so she wanted to write and draw to bear witness, to use humor to deal with tragedy, as "death was in the air." The medium evokes lightness, and an interviewee says "I'm a dyke, so I do objectify women. If they got mad, then I was doing my job."

After 1987's March on Washington, Bechdel started keeping a spreadsheet to track creeping fascism like the Patriot Act to incorporate into her comics. In the 1990s, most major cities had an LGBTQ+ newspaper, so comics were able to be syndicated to national audiences. There wasn't much money to be made, but lots of creative freedom. After Art Spiegelman pushed "Maus," the graphic novel became another artistic avenue. Yet, overall, the "gay ghetto" of publishing was crumbling. But punk and the DIY movement led to more zines. Bechdel published "Dykes to Watch Out For," which started successfully, then was crushed by the onset of chain bookstores, Amazon, and other internet distractions.

Cruse's contribution was equally noteworthy; when he took on writing and drawing the graphic novel project "Stuck Rubber Baby," he thought he'd be done in a year or so; the book took four years to complete. This important, thoughtful film is dedicated to his "gentle vision and boundless creativity." Bechdel stands on his shoulders as the most successful queer comics artist to date. She had always wanted to tell the story of her family, and did so in the graphic novel "Fun Home." "I didn't know what I was doing," she said, but the book hit the New York Times bestseller list, reached a wide audience, and was Time's Book of the Year. The musical version of the story won a Tony on Broadway and toured the country. "I got to keep being a cartoonist," Bechdel said.

Kleiman's documentary shows queer artists as no longer "token sidekicks or sad stories." The form has emerged as a place for parents to find material for their transgender kids. The oeuvre was created for, and remains, "a space for complexity."

"No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics" premieres January 23 on PBS, and is also available for rent or purchase at

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at