It's always great when a young comic reader sees themselves in a story, but this can be a little harder for LGBTQ+ kids. Historically, there has been a real dearth of queer representation in comics, especially in children's and young adult books. That's starting to change, as highlighted at a high-spirited and impassioned conversation at New York Comic Con's LGBTQ+ In Children's Graphic Novels panel on Thursday.
Ryan Mita from the Children's Book Council, who sponsored the panel, got started with a warm welcome filled with gratitude ahead of the important, needed conversations that soon followed. The CBC is all about making books available to children, and that – of course – includes LGBTQ+ children. They have as much a right to stories that are about them and their lives as heterosexual children do. But sometimes, those stories are hard to find.
"We have a long way to go, but we're heading pretty quickly in the general direction," Estranged writer and illustrator Ethan M. Aldridge said, wonderfully conveying the general sentiment of the panel. He was joined by an excellent representation of queer creators, sitting alongside Natalie Riess (Space Battle Lunchtime, Dungeon Critters), Mariko Tamaki (Lumberjanes, X-23, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me), and Brooklyn Allen (Lumberjanes). Gina Gagliano of Random House Graphic moderated the conversation.
"They're just sort of pervasive, you almost can't get away with it." Aldridge laughed when asked how LGBTQ+ themes come into his work. Estranged is a fantasy changeling story about two boys and an angsty thinly veiled coming out metaphor. "Queer things are everywhere [in it.]"
Riess agreed with the sentiment. "If you are a queer creator, it's a sauce that's just going to be all over everything you do." She explained how she creates what her 12-year-old self would have wanted (and needed) to read.
As for Lumberjanes, Tamaki and Allen agreed that it's "sort of lesbian therapy for Grade 5 and up." But their targeted audience goes beyond that. "We want to focus on more intersectionality, for sure." Allen added. They said they wanted to get Lumberjanes into the hands of people on different levels of the queer spectrum.
And getting these graphic novels into LGBTQ+ children's hands is indeed one of the major problems, as would-be readers are stifled by banned book lists, principals who remove queer novels from school libraries, and parents refusing to buy them outright. Luckily, the panelists all agreed there are superheroes trying to fight this injustice: Librarians.
Aldridge told the story of a librarian he met during Flame Con, who asked for recommendations. She wanted to curate a broad and diverse library for her school, but the administration was filtering out queer and LGBTQ+ books from her online orders. So, to beat the system, she went to trade shows and conventions and bought the books herself, sneaking them onto the school shelves.
Tamaki followed up with a sneaky librarian tale of her own, as she and other teachers would literally sneak into the principal's office to steal back LGBTQ+ books that he had taken from the shelves. "They're willing to special ops this stuff, smuggle it into the hands of kids that need them."
The conversation turned then to how representation has changed, and while all the panelists agreed it'd gotten better, there's a lot more still to be done. Specifically, Marvel and DC were called out for lagging behind other studios and webcomics. Tamaki praised Iceman for its representation, as well as the Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy romance, but the big two studios still have a lot of catching up to do.
"There should be more queer graphic novels. There just should be," Tamaki declared.
How, then, do readers convince studios to publish more work by queer creators about queer stories? The panelists encouraged buying the work that was already out there, as sales always help signal to stores and distributors there's demand. Also, they encouraged being vocal online about what you want to read, and to support queer creators at their booths and at smaller prints. The more LGBTQ+ creators succeeding means more LGBTQ+ stories being able to be told.
And finally came the recommendations. What stories do the panelists think are the ones to read?
Brooklyn Allen suggested DeadEndia by Hamish Steele, the story of a trans protagonist living in an amusement park that also happens to have a portal to hell. Mariko Tamaki swooned over Molly Ostertag's 2018 Ignatz Award Winner for Outstanding Story How The Best Hunter In The Village Met Her Death.
For Natalie Reiss, it was The Prince and the Dressmaker from Jen Wang, a gender-queer tale of a prince and the dressmaker hired to make them dresses. And for Ethan M. Aldridge? He says he's halfway through Ngozi Ukazu's web-comic-turn-physical-comic Check Please, the tale of a former figure skater turned hockey player and pie baking-fiend who develops a crush on his captain.