Take a quick glance around SOMArts Cultural Center’s exhibition space on Father's Day weekend and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into one of Comic Con’s quieter afternoons -- visitors stroll around with gift bags full of comic book swag while artists and friends alike casually mingle over cellophane-covered prints and books.
A closer look and you’ll find more queer and minority representation on the comic book covers of one stand at SOMArts than all of Marvel and DC’s offerings combined. At one of the booths, an artist greets their guests with a kind smile and hands out a sticker with “the degenderettes" printed on, while an exhibition a few feet away celebrates large, queer men of color reimagined in the style of gay Japanese manga. Around the corner, there’s two all-gender bathrooms.
Queer Comics Expo is Comic Con at its most inclusive. This is Comic Con painted with all the colors of the Pride flag.
After getting pushed out of its old space on 655 Mission, the Cartoon Art Museum opened its third annual Queer Comics Expo (QCE) in collaboration with the Queer Cultural Center, which offered the event space as part of this year’s National Queer Arts Festival.
The expo began as a one day event in the Cartoon Art Museum’s gallery space and has since expanded into a full weekend after increased interest over the years, according to Cartoon Art Museum Executive Director Summerlea Kashar.
“We try to represent popular cartoons as well as those in the fringes,” Kashar says. “We want people to see the art and understand that their stories are important and have some relevance.”
Comic books allow readers and creators alike to explore alternatives to the identities presented in mainstream comics according to Emeric Kennard, an illustrator who tabled at QCE.
"As a trans person, I saw (mainstream) superhero comics as this almost grotesque hyper-inflation of the gender binary I was trying to get out of," Kennard says.
The medium also provides readers a more accessible way of engaging in difficult conversations, according to Tyler Cohen, the artist behind Primazonia, an art comic exploring the female gender.
"Comics are accessible for people financially and don't require a gallery to be seen," Cohen says. "It adopts the visual power of communicating on a gut level, of using pop iconography and symbols and humor to talk about hard subjects."
One such subject is the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, which happened less than a week before QCE's opening and had organizers reassessing safety measures for the event. Friday's reception began with a short speech and a moment for silence for the victims, and proceeds from rainbow ribbons sold at the event went to Orlando.
"There was some concern for safety, but ultimately it just made me want to do even more -- to be proud and visible and not afraid," Kashar says.
The loss of Latinx queerfolk in Orlando is a tragedy, but according to artist Diego Gomez, such threats are not new -- they're a reality that queer communities across the nation face every day.
"I used to lived in the Tenderloin, and I'd see people getting killed all the time simply for being queer or trans and the public not caring," Gomez says.
Artist-activist Kayan Cheung-Miaw says she believes that artists have the ability to not only engage the public in important and often painful conversations, but also help frame new possibilities and futures for a community reeling from tragedies like Orlando.
"Artists have the liberty to imagine and create a vision that we can work toward -- it takes a lot of optimism and hope, but that's what we can give our community," Cheung-Miaw says.
QCE offers readers and artists with common, niched interests the ability to network, but also a way for the queer community to be all the more visible, Cohen says.
"Hate terror is all about silencing, and many of us know how hurtful living in silence is," Cohen says. "When we’re connected and get reinforcement for the value our individuality brings to the world, we're stronger."