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‘No Straight Lines’ Traces Transformation Through Comic Books

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Woman with short hair and glasses in suit in front of wall plastered with comic drawings
Alison Bechdel with a wall of her comics. (M. Sharkey)

Pop culture, by definition, is disposable mass entertainment, yet it frequently tackles crucial subjects. Horror movies, for example, express the latent fears of a society. Comic books, especially gay and lesbian strips, tell stories and make characters visible that don’t exist anywhere else.

“You have to understand that as a kid I read Superman, Batman and the nicey nicey ones like Archie,” Vivian Kleiman relates. “By contrast, queer comics were about us and our lives. We couldn’t talk to our family, or if we did we feared all kinds of stuff. My older sister agreed, when I came out to her, that if I told my mom I was a lesbian she would say the Prayer of the Dead over me. She would sit shiva, as a good Orthodox woman would do at that time.”

After she left her hometown of Philadelphia, Kleiman gravitated to Berkeley. Like so many lesbians in major cities around the country in the ’80s, the first queer comic strip she discovered — in the feminist press, which was colloquially known as the lesbian press — was Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For.

“To actually find our voices and our images, though compressed and consolidated in these little haiku, three or four-panel stories, was such a gift,” the East Bay documentary filmmaker marvels. “It was literally a lifeline.”

East Bay filmmaker Vivian Kleiman. (Compadre Media)

Kleiman’s latest work, No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, closed the Frameline festival at the Castro in 2021 (after premiering at Tribeca) and eventually screened at nearly a hundred festivals. The doc receives its national television broadcast Monday, Jan. 23 on KQED in the Independent Lens series (then streams online for free through April 22).


Kleiman adapted Justin Hall’s 2012 anthology, No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics, which featured some 70 artists. Hall imagined the collated images would translate onscreen, but Kleiman wasn’t interested in, as she puts it, “an encyclopedic list of who did what when.” Instead, she narrowed the field to five cartoonists: Mary Wings, Howard Cruse, Jennifer Camper, Rupert Kinnard and Bechdel.

“My goal was to give the viewer a more intimate relationship to some of the artists’ lives,” Kleiman explains over coffee drinks at a café near her Berkeley home. “Through their personal stories we also get a history of the art form, starting from somebody seated on their couch scratching away with pen and paper [all the way] to web comics.”

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In addition, No Straight Lines is a social history. Cruse, then a Madison Avenue graphic designer, was on Christopher Street in 1969 when the Stonewall Inn’s clientele got fed up with police harassment. He later recounted his experience in comic book form. In the ’70s, Kinnard wrote a popular weekly strip featuring a Black hero for his Iowa college newspaper — and revealed the character was gay.

Along the way, we get a tour of counterculture and DIY publishing from underground comics to alternative weeklies, on to ’zines and graphic novels (notably Cruse’s award-winning Stuck Rubber Baby and Bechdel’s best-selling Fun Home). All economics is personal: Self-expression was the artists’ primary driver, but making a living was important, too.

Several elements elevate No Straight Lines above the typical historical doc. The five artists don’t recount familiar (to them) anecdotes but vividly re-experience their pivotal moments — how it felt to create and draw queer experiences and encounters, or discover them for the first time. First-person testimony from good storytellers can’t be topped, least of all by dry analysis.

“I had a lot of pressure to include academics,” Kleiman recalls, “who would tell us what the meaning was behind all the stories we were hearing. And I knew from the absolute get-go there would not be one academic or expert in the field. People don’t need outsiders to explain themselves.”

But Kleiman came to recognize that another group of voices was necessary: Younger cartoonists.

“When I had the first or second rough cut, I took a look at it, sat back and thought: Interesting narrative, well-edited. But I wouldn’t watch it a second time. What’s missing? A sense of vitality and gutsiness and rawness, which is what the comics were about and what the artists themselves were about.”

Kleiman’s five subjects, now in their 70s, 60s and 50s, didn’t have the edge, the hunger, something to prove like they’d had in their 20s. So when the international Queers & Comics Conference was held in the Bay Area, the filmmaker tried a low-cost experiment. She hired a crew and set up a camera, and conducted 10-minute interviews with a parade of next-generation comic book artists.

“I didn’t know their names, I didn’t know their artwork, I didn’t know anything, and we just started to talk,” Kleiman says. “They didn’t know a lot of the pioneers’ work. I had expected an attitude that I had at their age, which was ‘the old people don’t know nothing. We don’t need them. They have no meaning to us.’ Instead, each and every one was grateful and acknowledged how they were the beneficiaries of the work the others had done and the challenges they had faced and overcome.”

Their presence in No Straight Lines provides more than youthful energy. They lift the film out of the realm of history and into the perennial present. Self-acceptance, self-expression, coming out — themes that queer comic book artists explored from the beginning — are both universal and timeless, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation or physical appearance.

The prevailing direction of No Straight Lines, as with many docs about the queer experience in America, is that things have gotten better. In particular, Alison Bechdel’s unlikely career path to mainstream acceptance marks a breakthrough for lesbians. Close to throwing in the towel after her alternative newspaper outlets folded, she published an unexpectedly popular graphic novel that, even more improbably, birthed an acclaimed Broadway musical.

Maia Kobabe, one of the young artists interviewed by the filmmaker at the Queers & Comics Conference, likely has a different view of progress. “Gender Queer: A Memoir, Maia’s first published graphic memoir, today is the most banned book in America,” Kleiman says. “It walks you through the process of Maia coming to the realization that Maia is gender-queer. I don’t think there’s any exposed body parts [that prompted objections]; it was the [book’s] candor and the acceptance. Meanwhile, sales have skyrocketed. It’s wonderful and it’s horrific.”

The telecast of No Straight Lines offers another measure of current conservative attitudes toward art. PBS standards for prime-time broadcast now exceed FCC regulations, Kleiman says, so she had to cover the multitude of unclothed body parts in the comic book art. (Instead of black bars, she amusingly employs rainbow patches.)

Early in her career, Kleiman worked with the late Bay Area filmmaker Marlon Riggs on his renowned documentaries Tongues Untied (1991) and Color Adjustment (1992). The former film is a personal, poetic meditation on Black homosexuality that includes sequences of physical affection.

“So Tongues Untied,” Kleiman declares, “which was broadcast nationally on PBS in 1991 without one change to the director’s cut, today would not be given a slot on prime-time television without some blurring and bleeping.”

Of course, Kleiman is nonetheless elated that her film is airing on television. She doesn’t come out and say it, but she won’t be surprised if she meets a young artist one day who was inspired to draw comics after seeing No Straight Lines.

“The wonderful thing about comics is that it’s totally accessible,” she says. “It doesn’t take much. It can be as simple as pen and paper, which many young people still do and prefer. Some people do it without any training at all.”

With a smile, Kleiman adds, “And some people benefit from a class, and having critical feedback that helps them learn more about narrative and structure and using the shape of the page.”


‘No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics’ airs on Independent Lens on Jan. 23, then streams online for free through April 22. Details here.

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