Whether crafting elaborate drag personas or drawing a provocatively apple-bottomed rendition of He-Man nemesis Skeletor, fantasy is clearly a specialty for San Francisco artist Diego Gómez. For those already familiar with Gomez’s penchant for amphibious femme makeovers and slutty superhero art, a decidedly earthbound subject like American history may initially seem a drab departure for a debut comic book. But Gómez's 1963 Is Not An End, But A Beginning is not your standard Scholastic funny book.
From Larry Gonick’s old-school A Cartoon History of the Universe to Kate Beaton’s hilarious Hark! A Vagrant, historical comics aren’t new terrain. Comparisons to Nate Powell’s award-winning March, a three-volume magnum opus covering the '60s civil rights movement, may immediately spring to mind (side note: behold the photos of March co-creator and Congressman John Lewis cosplaying as himself at Comic-Con 2015 and become reborn).
But whereas March dives deep into a single chapter of the civil rights movement, Gómez, who evaluates the year 1963 as a current-day drag performer and founding member of POC performance group Yum Yum Club!, paints this comic with broader strokes. In fact, most events included here from 1963 are given equal billing, regardless of their traditional importance. Presented in a classic timeline style, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is given the same amount of panel space as lesser-known events like the birth of transgender artist & activist Mx Justin Vivien Bond and the publication of Wonder Woman No. 136.
With 1963 Is Not An End, But A Beginning, you may have bought a ticket for the history lesson, but Gómez's talent for illustration is the star attraction that keeps you in your seat. Nearly every panel could be framed and stand on its own. Gómez's realistic style tethers an interest in the celestial and experimental to the organic, keeping the frequent shifts in subject engaging and relatable.
KQED Arts caught up with Gómez to learn what it is about 1963 that inspired a trip to the drawing table.
So many reasons! Originally, two major events brought me here. X-Men, my lifelong obsession, was first published in September 1963, and Gloria Steinem was a Playboy bunny then, undercover! I love me some espionage. After that, I was like “Hmm... I wonder what else happened?" Turns out, the March on Washington! That was the point of no return for me. So many important events happened in '63 and I never saw anyone talk about them as a whole, so I decided that I would.
A few months before I finished my book, I saw a documentary about 1964 which was great, and I thought, “Oh no — I picked the wrong year!” (laughs). But I think '63 is still more interesting. It really informs '64.
Can you talk a little about the multimedia aspects of the book?
I illustrated the book in 13 different styles. The main one is a nod to “the paper bag test” which is based on Colorism, and is a major theme in 1963 is Not an End, But a Beginning. The rest were dependent on the events or subject of their respective pages. For instance, the fashion page was illustrated using makeup. There’s a coloring book spread on one of the pages where a girl is drinking from a “colored only” water fountain. There’s a page illustrated in the style of Jean Cocteau where he’s featured and there’s a page you read with 3D glasses.
For a fully immersive experience, you can even listen to a playlist of the music of 1963 while you read.
Is this your first history comic? How does it differ from your other work?
It is. And it’s my first solo comic in general. I’ve lettered, colored & drawn comics for Tweaker.org, Pride High, Gravity Faggot, Glamazonia, and Superstar Health Education. Tweaker.org and Superstar Health Education are sites for harm reduction and sex ed. The others are fun LGBTQAI superhero comics. 1963 is the first comic that I’ve written. I’ve always loved documentaries, musicals, and comic books. This is all of that rolled into one.
If there's one theme that stands out in the book, it’s transformation. From Gloria Steinem’s undercover Bunny operation to the Casa Susanna cross-dressing sanctuary to superheroes. Was this intentional?
Yes, I’m glad you caught that. I always love when there’s a transformation scene in movies. I love secret identities and the suggestion that changing your clothes and attitude can be a disguise. Gloria Steinem is played by Kirstie Alley in her biopic “A Bunny’s Tale” and it has one of my favorite transformation scenes ever. The fictional character I created for 1963, Scarlet Sparrow, has the ability to morph. They’re the throughline of this book.
Let’s talk about your choice of color. Is there any significance in the change in color scheme halfway through the book?
A few things happened in June of '63 that were “game changers,” and I figured it would be cool to switch up the art style to reflect this: the first woman in space, a variation of the "I Have a Dream" speech, and Leave it to Beaver getting canceled. I know this last one sounds small in comparison, but this cancelation has been called the “end of the '50s” and I can see why. The Cleaver family was really the face of the media portrayal of the '50s, and that didn’t fit into the '60s. The illustration style of black-and-white paint on brown paper has a nostalgic sepia-toned photograph feel, whereas the following month’s stark black-and-white illustration takes the reader to a shocking image of Vietnam, which hadn’t been discussed since the first page.
When did you first start drawing comics?
I’ve drawn comic-book-style characters since I was a kid, but the first time I drew sequential art was with the Glamazonia trade paperback, which came out seven years to the day before I sent 1963 to print.
Which came first — drag or comics? Does one inform the other?
One TOTALLY informs the other. I’ve been performing in drag for eight years now and have been published in comics for seven. I’ve been reading comics since 1992 with the relaunch of X-Men No. 1, and I had been secretly putting on my mom’s clothes since I don’t know when. Almost all my comic book characters look like drag queens, and my drag is predominately cosplay based off comics, movies, television, and books. In fact, my drag family and I are starting a cosplay drag party this month at the Stud bar called BoobTube.
RuPaul is always saying "drag doesn't hide who you are, it reveals who you are." Superman's "disguise" is actually taking off his real disguise (of glasses and office-drag) and showing his true self of having superpowers and wearing his family's crest on his chest. My drag is often political, sometimes sad, and really flamboyant, whereas day to day, I’m pretty mild-mannered.
A recurring image in 1963 is the Sugar Shack. What’s up with the Sugar Shack?
“Sugar Shack” is a really cute song recorded in 1963 by Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs that's very visual, so I wrote it into the story as a cafe where one of my characters works.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope readers will be inspired by the civil rights leaders of '63 and take to the streets to protest, resist and vote. My title, taken from a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington, says it all: “1963 is Not an End, But a Beginning.”