Vivian Kleiman’s documentary is a playful look at the art form that helped so many queer people find identity, even if only on the page.
(This review is part of our 2021 coverage of Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival.)
Few things seem filled with endless possibilities like a blank page with a pen in hand. Vivian Kleiman’s new documentary No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics sets out to sketch the ways queer people have used the comic medium to illustrate their communities, histories, and identities. The final result is a sensitive, stylized, and well-shaded outline of the people and publications that made and make queer comics what they are today.
Though the title suggests this documentary will be a linear march up to the present, we’re treated to a much queerer drawing of history that bounces back and forth between the wisdom of the elders and the enthusiasm of the new artists following their precedent.
Kleiman wants to underscore that comics, syndicated or DIY, bring a community together. Segments will often begin with influential artists like Mary Wings, Rupert Kinnard, Jen Camper, Alison Bechdel, or Howard Cruse sharing their stories of success and struggle. These are then followed by testimonies from the next generation of comic artists like Ajuan Mance, Maia Kobabe, Breena Nunez, or Dylan Edwards about how they were inspired and carry on the message of those that have come before.
Such intergenerational dialogue provides us with a rich mosaic of influential comics too numerous to mention in a brief review. Besides, part of the thrill of this documentary is being introduced to zines or strips you’ve never heard of and trying to find them as queers have done for decades. This documentary is also very much an invitation into the community as readers and/or artists.
Because its subject matter is so richly visual, even in the short eighty-minute runtime, Kleiman can successfully prove the thesis that comics are a space of unrestrained complexity. When the topics turn to different issues like sexuality, race, gender, and disability, Kleiman backs up the claims being made with a myriad of examples from a richly compiled archive of images.
The most precious takeaway from this documentary is that no straight lines exist. All comics need are a pen, paper, and an idea. With those accessible tools, we can draw ourselves in the world and how we want to be seen in that world. Kleiman and all the interviewees really embolden the idea that these comics, far from being simple drawings, contain radical possibilities.
Comics can be easily shared so that others might recognize themselves in the panels. They can speak truth to power in seemingly unending ways, as well demonstrated by the film’s emotional highlighting of how queer comics responded to the AIDS crisis. Though it’s a conventionally shot and structured documentary, No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics brilliantly showcases comics as a radically unconventional space filled with some of the most complex play happening in culture today.