Runtime: 79 minutes
Director: Vivien Kleiman
By Joan Amenn
There is something very poignant behind the generally light, amusing tone of “No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics” (2021). Beyond the funny drawings and zany situations they illustrate is real pain, as the LGBTQ+ artists tell their stories for the camera in this sometimes heartbreaking documentary by Vivien Kleiman. It is also a loving tribute to the “Godfather of Gay Comics,” the late Howard Cruse. His journey as an artist, editor, mentor, and author is the framework that the film builds from, as other artists acknowledge that they continue to create standing on the shoulders of those who came before them.
And what a journey it has been for this collection of artists from the early 1970’s to the present day. In 1973, Mary Wing created the first lesbian comic book by an out lesbian, “Come Out Comix.” As she notes, in just ten years after she started publishing her work a whole creative community sprang up. The film lets the illustrators tell the story of their struggles just to be able to support themselves with their work, which was practically impossible until comic strip syndication started in the 1990’s. But just as quickly as syndication started to bring in money, Amazon grew into a threat for the small bookstores and independent sellers that were the support net these artists relied on. Between the 1970’s and the 1990’s the AIDS epidemic also took a horrific toll on the LGBTQ+ community, which is something still not easily talked about on camera.
Rupert Kinnard is a particularly fascinating artist who grew up loving comic books but saw that there were no LGBTQ+ African American superheroes so he created his own in 1977. Despite a tragic accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Kinnard was a trailblazing creative force and a very engaging storyteller. Alison Bechdel, who is a friend of Kinnard, is also wonderful in explaining her artistic technique and her inspirations. Of course, her autobiographical book, Fun Home, was a huge success which seems to still be a source of deep surprise to her. She recounts the experience of it being turned into a Broadway musical that won a Tony the way someone might dazedly describe a pig sprouting wings and flying. Her reaction is very endearing and completely genuine, making it one of the highlights of the film.
Director Kleiman keeps her camera moving in capturing reactions from the next generation of up-and-coming artists. A little more in-depth discussion of their work would have been welcome but overall, “No Straight Lines” provides a much needed recorded testimony of groundbreaking artists who have been too long overlooked for their contributions to the recognition of LGBTQ+ rights.