The Underground Comix era began in the late '60s in response to the heavy censorship of the medium due to the presence of the Comics Code Authority. People wanted to make books that looked like their lives, and so, as we had the indie explosion in cinema, so did comics see their own groundbreaking era of creativity. Some of these comix aged well, most of them haven't, but all of them existed in the spirit of disrupting the status quo of the medium.
When discussing an era of experimental and groundbreaking autobiographical works in the comix scene, queer comix by queer creators so often fall by the wayside. While many artists of this time period went on to have illustrious careers, queer creators get nary more than a footnote. In hopes of changing the conversation for the better, we bring you Pride-ographies, a series of deep dives into queer comix history.
Jennifer Camper has been steadily producing work since the '80s. A mighty feat, considering that Camper herself has stated that becoming a cartoonist wasn't exactly something she set out to do in life. Her family supported her artistic experimentation, and she did strips during her school years parodying teachers and other students, which may have laid some groundwork for the irreverent vibe of her later works. It was in those teen years that she started finding issues of Gay Comix, which showed her that there was a greater world of independent queer comics out there. As Camper said, "I never doubted that there was room for my own voice in comics."
As such, Camper is someone whose aesthetic was already being informed by gay comics before she appeared in Issue #2 of Gay Comix. Editor Howard Cruse, well known for providing the stepping stones for many queer cartoonists, gave tips and advice to Camper in her early days. Her works appeared through many outlets, like Gay Comix, BitchMedia, and her own self-published anthology Juicy Mother, but have been collected only sparsely.
Much like Roberta Gregory, Camper made a point of gently mocking stereotypes of serious or militant lesbians while very clearly identifying her own beliefs. In comics like Well-Mannered Dyke, Camper joked around about things like group sex and kink, but in a way that also helped to normalize them in a time when discussion of queer sexuality was not exactly prevalent. Mocking societal expectations while using "shocking" language and gallows humor to communicate important messages is a trademark of Camper's comics.
Meanwhile, there is always a touch of the personal and finding some beauty in the mundane. In Saturdays With My Sister, she tells a story from a little brother's perspective. He tags along with his sister and her friends as they sneak into movie theaters and drink. Late at night, he wakes up and sees his sister kissing another girl in the kitchen, and goes back to sleep, thinking little of it. In Night Shift, she shows a woman working late nights, including all the trials of being woken up during the day by unknowing neighbors. These stories are simple and don't have driving plots so much as they simply tell snippets of people's lives. Importantly, neither of these stories draw any conclusions and exist exactly as-is.
Camper's comics are about queer issues, but also about her Lebanese heritage, and how that affects her life as a queer woman. Some of these comics comment on the shocking racism toward all people of Middle Eastern backgrounds in post-9/11 U.S. culture. For BitchMedia, she did a comic titled I'm Not a Terrorist, which jokingly takes down many of the very real and often frightening stereotypes and hate speech that pervaded much of the political conversation of the time. In Ramadan, we follow her feelings of being an outsider. She practices fasting, which prompts her girlfriend to note, "I don't know why you bother." Camper goes on to draw parallels between being Lebanese and being queer, noting that while some things are very different there is still a defining line that connects her complicated feelings around both.
Camper eventually assembled her own anthologies, Juicy Mother and its sequel, which published stories by a number of her queer contemporaries. The Queers & Comics Conference, a biennial gathering of queer cartoonists co-hosted by Justin Hall, was also founded by Camper. Building community remains much in the spirit of Camper's work throughout her career.
Like so many queer cartoonists of the time, it's difficult to track down Camper's work, but you can read snippets on her website and her many interviews are always a delight. One running theme of almost all early queer artists is that they had day jobs to make ends meet because life as a groundbreaking comic artist didn't exactly pay the bills. Despite its scarcity, Camper's work is incredibly important in helping to bring queer themes and discussions of racism to a wider audience when mainstream and even underground comics barely addressed such things.