In a polarized cultural milieu, the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters in popular media for youth and children is sometimes contentious.
In March, for example, the Disney corporation was criticized for covertly supporting Florida legislation that bars instruction about “sexual orientation or gender identity” for young schoolchildren. This comes on the heels of controversy about the treatment of queer characters in Disney films.
But some comics artists writing for younger audiences have found critical and financial success telling stories about LGTBQ+ characters.
Important role for fiction
Fiction has historically been a pivotal site of resisting demands that young people who exist outside of perceived sex and gender binaries must assimilate, argues professor of English and queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton in her book The Queer Child.
Media professor Tony Kelso describes how scholars studying portrayals of queer youth in media “have convincingly argued that representations in the media have a socializing influence on young people’s development of their notions of self, whether in regard to race, gender, class, sexual orientation or other identity categories.”
He notes that particularly for emerging queer youth growing up who may have few role models, “LGBTQ+ images in the media take on especially heightened importance.”
Strong queer representation in youth-oriented comics has the potential to play a significant positive impact on the health and well-being of queer-identified or sex and gender-questioning youth.
Role models, community
The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning young people, notes that having positive role models and a sense of community serve as protective factors that enhance positive development or resiliency for LGBTQ youth.
Fiction can offer role models, and fandom forged around comics can also foster community.
Many creators of comics with young queer characters say that their creative motivation includes speaking to the well-being of queer children and youth in ways that they themselves may not have experienced.
Here are four comics works that foreground the representation of queer youth experiences:
1. Backstagers (BOOM! Studios)
The comic book series Backstagers follows the stage crew at an all-male high school. The series includes gay, bi and trans characters who are white, Black and racialized.
It’s penned by James Tynion IV, who is well-known for his work on DC’s Batman and who won the Eisner Award in comics in 2021.
In an interview with School Library Journal in 2017, Tynion said:
“I wanted to write the book that I needed the most, particularly in middle school and when I first started reading comics … I always wanted the book to be about misfits, misfits are great, but I wanted to have different forms of queer masculinity.… Growing up, not being able to see yourself in the media you consume, you feel like there’s something wrong. Seeing yourself in these worlds is so empowering.”
2. The Prince and the Dressmaker (Macmillan)
The graphic novel The Prince and the Dressmaker by author and illustrator Jen Wang tells the story of a powerful friendship between a humble dressmaker and an esteemed young prince. The prince lives a secret double-life as “Lady Crystallia,” Paris’s latest (and most mysterious) high-fashion icon.
The Prince and the Dressmaker earned a place on many best books lists of 2018.
Like Tynion IV, Wang desribed her inspiration in a 2018 interview with Nerdist as a sort of retroactive intervention in her own life:
“"I wrote this book for my teenage self so I’m really excited for young people to read this! … I hope readers who connect with it are able to indulge in the fairy tale fantasy but also feel known.”
3. Nimona (HarperCollins)
ND Stevenson’s graphic novel Nimona, developed from their earlier web comic, uses the concept of a shape-shifter in a medieval universe.
The story explores the damaging potentials of perceiving humanity and human relationships in terms of pre-established categories, including categories of sexuality and gender. Stevenson currently identifies as transmasculine and bigender.
Nimona is a New York Times bestseller, won an Eisner Award and is slated for a Netflix film adaptation.
As Stevenson told Vanity Fair in 2015, the shape-shifter represents a key way to threaten and destabilize such norms through the body: “Nimona is about identity and if who you are is defined by what you look like.”
The comics series, Lumberjanes, launched in 2014, traces the adventures of campers at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types.
The series focusses not on one particular character but on a circle of five friends from diverse backgrounds of class, race and structures of family.
In Issue 17, the character Jo counsels a “Scouting Lad” from across the lake named Barney who is struggling to identify with their fellow all-male campers.
Jo reveals that she herself transitioned from male to female. Jo used to be a Scouting Lad as well before finding peace and acceptance among the Lumberjanes. Barney requests to join the Lumberjanes and finds similar peace and acceptance, while also adopting the pronouns they/them.
The group of friends also includes two girls who develop a romance. Literature scholar Aaron Kashtan notes the series assumes a feminist and anti-racist way of seeing while deflating feminist killjoy stereotypes.
Shannon Watters, Lumberjanes co-creator and one of several writers on the series, said in a 2015 interview for the feminist, queer and trans folks-run media site Autostraddle:
“We write Lumberjanes like it’s somewhere we wish existed, all while hoping that maybe the mere fact of its existence in fiction might make it easier and better for some humans who live in the real world.”
A host of creative talent worked on this series: Stevenson is another co-creator and writer of the series, and Wang wrote for a 2016 Lumberjanes special, Lumberjanes: Makin: the Ghost of It.
Lumberjanes had a a sold-out first printing, won multiple Eisner Awards and has earned an HBO Max animated series adaptation. In 2017, a Lumberjanes novel series was launched, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Brooklyn Allen.
In all of these comics, and many more, we see the potential for contemporary media portrayals to provide important mental and physical well-being interventions in the lives of LGBTQ+ youth — and thus another reminder of why representation and relatable stories matter.