A quick history of gay cartoons and graphic art

I’m doing a bit of research into graphic art and the representation of gay men in cartoons, comics, and manga.

It’s kind of fascinating.

There’s obviously been examples of the celebration of gay men throughout the world’s known history — with plenty of examples from the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans onwards. However it wasn’t really until around the mid-20th century that graphic artists began to find an outlet and an audience for work that focused on gay men.

Tom of Finland (Touko Valio Laaksonen) is obviously one of the best known names, with his work distributed by Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial. However From the 1970s onwards, it was really the work of manga artists in Japan that began to realise the potential and build the audience for graphic art, comics, and novels that focused on gay men. The manga sub-genre of Yaoi tends to be fairly romantic boy-on-boy stuff (aimed more at a female audience), whereas the sub-genre of Bara focuses on big, burly, masculine guys.

Today, you can see a real mix of styles emerging — with everything from romance, relationships, science fiction, fantasy, and hard-core porn.

I really like the work of Dale Lazarov, and also Class Comics. Both focus on characters and story-telling, but also include high-quality artwork with a really fantastic sexually-charged edge.

Here are a couple of examples of other gay graphic art that caught my eye while researching:

Superheroes get sexy

My super hero fantasy

Dale Lazarov is creating a new dialogue for graphic art

Writer and editor Dale Lazarov has been publishing gay literature since the 1980s. In 2005 he made the move into graphic art with Sticky — a collaboration with artist Steve MacIsaac.

Now focusing primarily on this genre, Lazarov researches and develops the story and then collaborates with an artist to draw the scenes.

Simplistically you could describe these works as gay erotica, and there is an undoubtedly sexual edge to Lazarov’s work, but these are also unique and compelling stories that explore modern gay life.

One of my favourite releases from Lazarov is Fast Friends — a collaboration with artist Michael Broderick. I recently caught up with Lazarov to explore the inspiration for the story and how it connects to the tradition of gay literature and graphic art.

You specialise in graphic art that is ‘wordless’, telling stories with images not text. Why do you make that decision — to create wordless stories?

Wordless comics allow us to market internationally. Also, no one else seems to be doing gay comics without dialogue and captions so we stand out in the marketplace. One of my recent hardcovers, Greek Love, was a best-seller in a gay bookstore in Poland and they asked me to send them autographed bookplates to give away with my books.

I do have an idea for a graphic novel where the dialogue during sex is an essential part of the story, but I first want to establish my brand with international standing as a writer and art director of gay character-based, sex-positive graphic novels before I tackle something that would require translation.

When I first tried writing gay comics about ten years ago, I struggled with dialogue for the sex scenes because it seemed so artificial and reminded me too much of bad porn dialogue, but I think I might be ready to tackle it in the near future because I’ve thought of a story that makes the word/image relationship essential for it to work on multiple levels.

Tom of Finland did practically all his comics without dialogue and captions as he published in North American magazines. I decided to follow his lead and let readers invest the images with their own dialogue, to make the experience more immersive. Comics are such a supple narrative form that we can use body language, facial expression and the design of the page to tell a story based in character.

The men you draw are generally fairly masculine, slightly older, very real. Is that because it is the type of guy that you are attracted to or is it the type of guy that you think will appeal most to your readers?

Because of my history, I have a rather wide spectrum for what I find attractive — what I call ‘the manly continuum’ — so my comics reflect that spectrum. This is one of the reasons why our comics eschew popular labels for masculinity or use them in a complicated way. Part of what limits — at least in the US — social, romantic, economic and sexual opportunities is how gay culture has been obsessed with using language and image to micromanage desire and treat gay taxonomy as a kind of caste system. I call that ‘the dating app effect’. Creating categories to create participation is one thing, but turning them into categories for doling out visibility and access defeats their whole purpose.

I am very attached to the hope that our comics undermine such material distinctions because I just love men on their own terms rather than love some ideal of men that a man can represent for me as if he were an accessory to my value as a gay man. If I have my druthers, I will find a collaborator who can draw a hot swishy guy and a hot nelly bear in a sex-positive context as a response to people who insist that being ‘straight-acting’ is the only choice people have if they want to be considered attractive, safe to like and interact with on a personal level.

How has the internet, and the impact that this has had on the way that people access and share information and images, changed the way that you work?

I met my first collaborator in comics through a message board, so the impact has been foundational. Also, it wasn’t until the internet that I saw homoerotic illustrations that looked like me and were presented as desirable and loveable so they served as a springboard of confidence for me.

With so much gay porn freely available through the internet these days, why do you think that erotic comics and graphic art still have a strong appeal?

Because Tumblr can’t give you a resonant narrative experience; it’s fragmentary, disorganised, inconsistent in quality and doesn’t engage you on a sustained or deeper level like a graphic novel can.

The bottom line is that comics are more immediate than prose narrative and more interpersonal that the moving image. The illustrators I collaborate with infuse their drawings with more than material hotness because they use wordless storytelling to show the possibilities of gaiety with a richness of feeling and thoughtfulness. I know that sounds like hype, but I’ve been doing this for a while so I really believe we have something extraordinary to share with readers.

How long have you lived in Chicago?

It’s been 15 years since I moved here for work.

I’ve stayed because the quality of life is high for what you pay. It has all the great things a city usually has — restaurants, book stores, night life, cultural opportunities — less so than in the past but they are still there. New York City didn’t get the David Bowie exhibition, Chicago did.

My only complaint about Chicago is that it seems not to be able to handle promoting sex-positive graphic novels. I could pick up the phone and get a book signing in San Francisco within minutes but it’s impossible to promote my brand here. I can’t get a table at the local big comics convention, even though I am a local author with six hardcovers out. I am basically invisible here.

If I found work in Barcelona or Madrid, I’d move there since I love those cities and they’d treat me like the gay comics celebrity that I am.

Does living in Chicago influence your work in any way?

I would say that the hyper-segregation of this city — a term that was invented to describe Chicago, by the way — fuels my desire to break down the categories people use to make, say, older men invisible or segregate bears to one night a month. There’s no gay bar for middle-aged guys in Chicago nor is there an after-work gay bar — two kinds of bars that I had when I lived in New York City and depended on for my pool of friends and romantic interests. Heck, I moved out of a neighbourhood in Chicago last year because the bars I went to either closed down because they weren’t classy enough or got de-gayed by management.

For many people, Tom of Finland defines gay erotic comics. Is your work similar to Tom of Finland?

What we have in common is that Tom of Finland made porn that smiles — something you rarely see in media about gay sex — and presented an articulate sexual choreography without dialogue or captions.

What’s different is that we spend more page-space on the context of relatedness between the characters and that context varies from story to story. Fast Friends is very much about the sexual and romantic tension between the protagonists, as it was inspired by gay pulp novels and romance comics of the 50s and 60s. Greek Love is a lighthearted comic that plays with the power differentials between the characters, so it’s more like Tom of Finland and Marvel Comics fight-and-then-make-up stories.

I grew up reading lots of different kinds of comics and graphic novels so my influences are vast and varied although the dominant nature of my books is to show human interaction and intimacy between gay men

Fast Friends is available via Amazon or from Sticky Graphic Novels.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

Gay Yakuza

He-Man: Master of the Universe