I’ve put off writing this column as a result of procrastination rephrased as preparation. My usual routine is to decide on a topic to write about and then wait at least a few hours before starting. I tell myself that my waiting is a means to let ideas simmer in my head a bit before I start writing, so that I might begin with a better idea of what I intend to do and why I intend to do it. Granted, it is also true that I sometimes put off writing because I want to read or to watch something. Even more often than that, I don’t want to rush a piece out of fear that its quality will suffer as a result. Today has been a prime example of me adhering to this routine. Rather than reviewing a comic book series as per usual, this week I’m going to be talking about a graphic novel entitled Love Is Love.
Love Is Love is unlike any other comic book or graphic novel I have ever read. Its differences are numerous. First, it is the only comic I have read that could be specifically dubbed as being “for a cause.” Love Is Love was created in response to last year’s shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It was published by IDW Publishing in collaboration with DC Comics, and all proceeds from the book are donated to help victims, survivors, and their families. Rather than an overarching story constructed by a single creative team, the graphic novel consists of one-to-two page pieces from several dozen writers and artists. The book clocks in at nearly 150 pages, and reading it is a long experience that takes one across a myriad of narratives and emotions.
The types of pieces included vary widely. While a majority of the book consists of one-to-two page comic stories, this format varies to include full-page illustrations, essays, and even poetry. The content of the pieces is even more varied. Much of the book is rooted in real life, from touching tributes to specific victims of the shooting to creators’ reflections on their experiences as LGBT people or supporting their LGBT loved ones. Many pieces depict their creators’ initial reactions of horror and sadness upon first learning of the shooting through the news, and of how the event impacted them emotionally.
Other pieces in the book pay tribute to the shooting’s victims and to LGBT rights as a broad topic by incorporating fictional elements. Many pieces include well-known comic book characters pondering mankind’s struggles with bigotry, or standing up for the rights of the marginalized. Particularly impactful pieces in this vein include a one-page story by Liam Sharp starring Wonder Woman, and a one-page story by Matt Bomer and Cully Hamner in which Batman notes the similarities between superheroes and everyday real life LGBT people. There is also a beautiful illustration by Ivan Reis in which members of the Green Lantern corps stand in front of a rainbow background and affirm the values and strength of diversity.
Love Is Love’s mixture of formats and content helps the collection maintain a sense of variety even as its dozens of contributors all work toward the same goals: honoring the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting, and affirming the humanity, importance, and strength of LGBT people. It is impactful to read passionate nonfiction pieces, as they allow one to remember that, even though LGBT people are discriminated against and even killed because of who they are, there are still many who are willing to stand up for the rights of everyone regardless of sexual orientation. These nonfiction pieces carry all of their authors’ and artists’ love, and the resultant full collection feels like both a love letter and a manifesto to the concept of hope. These messages are also profound when delivered through superheroes. To see characters such as Superman and Batman, who are cultural bastions of morality and doing what is right, stand up firmly and fiercely for the inherent value of LGBT people’s lives, adds weight to feelings that the reader, whether LGBT themself or a supporter,is not alone.
The emotional effectiveness of Love Is Love is further enhanced by knowledge of the industry that produced it. Prior to the turn of the century, there were very few LGBT comic book characters, and even fewer who were notable by any definition. This was largely because, for a long time, mainstream comic books were expressly forbidden from featuring LGBT characters or plot points. In the 1950s, following cultural backlash regarding the appropriateness of content published in comics, the Comics Code Authority was established. For decades, comic book publishers submitted their books and issues to the CCA in order to have their content assessed. If the comic was approved, the publisher was permitted to include the CCA’s logo on the comic’s cover, thus indicating the product’s adherence to the CCA’s standards. One hallmark of the CCA was its disapproval of explicit sexuality of any type, to include the rejection of any and all types of “sexual abnormality.”
The Comics Code Authority is now defunct, but its influence, along with that of homophobia as furthered by specific editors and general societal stigma, greatly impacted the way LGBT themes were (and more frequently, were not) handled in comic books. While homoerotic innuendo can be found or argued over as far back as the Golden Age of comics, the contemporary concept and actual existence of LGBT superheroes is very new in the scheme of things. Over the last two decades, as comic book publishers have begun to tackle LGBT characters much more frequently, they have often done so poorly. From blatant homophobic stereotypes to depictions of queer characters that reduce them to nothing but their orientations, the history of gay representation in the comic book industry is far from spotless.
With that said, over the last decade or so, the industry has progressed immensely. There are more well-written and popular LGBT characters now than ever before. There may not be very many headlining their own titles, but there are some, and that is a far cry from LGBT characters being nonexistent as a matter of homophobic policy. Comics, like larger American society, has grown comparatively much more accepting in a short period of time. I am old enough to remember the days before there were any mainstream comics starring major LGBT characters. I am old enough to remember a period when even Democratic politicians refused to endorse same-sex marriage. I am old enough to have grown up in a time and place where being a young gay person meant having almost no LGBT role models in the media or in my everyday life.
Here’s the thing though: there’s still not very much LGBT representation out there. There are still little kids being taught to hate gay people, who will grow up thinking of themselves as faggots and sinners before they even come out and get called those words by others. There are little kids growing up right now who are being fed the hateful attitudes and pressures that will contribute to their deaths by both hate crimes and suicide. Countless LGBT people across the country, myself included, exercise extreme caution in terms of public displays of affection for fear of conflict and even physical harm. About half a year before the Pulse nightclub shooting, I was canvassing for an LGBT rights organization when a stranger told me that no one is homophobic anymore. Chances are high that, regardless of all the evidence against that ridiculous statement, he still feels the same way.
There’s still a lot of work to do. There’s still too much fear in the world, and too much violence. There is however, love and hope in spite of those things. If you’re ever in need of a sense of hope, delivered through beautiful artwork and writing, I highly recommend Love Is Love. From personal tributes and narratives to paintings of superheroes proudly carrying rainbow flags, the collection is a testament to the inherent value and beauty of LGBT lives. You can currently buy it online for under ten dollars, and it is easily worth every cent.
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.