As today is June 1st, Sequential Magazine would like to show our support for all LGBTQ+ comic creators and fans in Canada. The best thing we can do is to continue to buy and support the comics being made by queer Canadian creators so their voices and perspectives can continue to be reflected in the Canadian comic community. Queer creators have a long history in Canadian comics as outlined in our article in issue 8 of Sequential Magazine by gay comic enthusiast Brian Montgomery. To spread this information even further you will find the entire article further down in this post. We have also donated a print copy of the 8th issue with this article to the ArQuives, one of the largest independent LGBTQ2+ archives in the world and the only archive in Canada with a mandate to collect at a national level. Also all of our issues are eventually archived with Library and Archives Canada.
Also the article below covers Queer Canadian comics from the 1970s-2000s, so to complete this history Brian has written a follow up article in our upcoming issue 9 coming out later in June. That issue will also feature Tiana Warner and April Pierce as the feature interview. They created the Ice Massacre graphic novel which includes a lesbian romance. They won Best Graphic Novel at our 2020 Sequential Magazine Awards, while Commander Rao by Fell Hound (a queer creator) and Letter Squids won Best Comic Book.
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Queer Comics and Creators in Canada: the 1970 to 2000s
Research by Brian Montgomery (Cis Gay Male He/Him/His)
Quick name a Canadian Queer (LGBTQIA+) comic book creator, creation, or publication?
What?!? Northstar from Marvel Comics you say? Oh, pansexual Deadpool? Yes, both are fictionally Canadian characters, but sorry Marvel is an American Comic publisher. I am talking Canadian Queer comics and creators we can call our own here in Canada…and not all of them wear tights.
Canadian Queer comics and publications are out there and have existed for several years, at least since the 1970s before the bigger expansion and acceptance of Queer life and Queer comics in the later 2000s. Stories published and told can range from queer superheroes, fighting censorship and activism, telling our own queer stories, erotic and non erotic stories of our lives, or collected stories in anthologies. Some of these are written, created, and published by Queer writers, inkers, and creators or created and supported by our straight allies out there.
Queer Comic Anthologies are a great way to get introduced to Queer comics and their creators. There are a number out there worth reading. Queer Press Toronto’s A Queer Sense of Humour (1993), Justin Hall’s No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics (2012), Robert Kirby’s QU33R (2014), Sfé R. Monster’s Beyond Anthologies I & II (2015, 2018), Andrew Wheeler’s Shout Out Anthology (2019), and Ad Astra Comix’s Rainbow Reflections (2019) are just a few of the anthologies out there worth checking out.
Hard to come up with a handful of names? Well let me introduce you a sample of some that come from our Canadian history of Queer comics. This article is an attempt to scratch the surface and rediscover who or what some of our Canadian Queer Comics and Creators were creating in Canada and to recognize, support and educate comic fans out there on the contribution of Queer Comics to the Canadian landscape as part of celebrating 80 years of Canada Comics in Canada.
Before we begin, let me be upfront and provide some larger background context. A good amount of Canadian Queer comics, creators and publications have and continue to deal with acceptance and censorship. Acceptance of Queer life, stories and comics faced challenges in the comic publishing industry – through the Comic Book Code Authority (CAA), from Canadian laws and statues – Bill C-150 (1969) decriminalizing homosexuality before Stonewall, The Charter of Rights and Freedoms Section 15 (1982), various Provincial Human Rights Codes and Acts (1986-2009), Bill C-38, the Civil Marriage Act (2005), Bill C–16 on “gender identity or expression as a prohibited ground for discrimination” (2017), and acceptance by society, our co-workers, our families and within the Queer community. Acceptance still plays out today in recognizing the rainbow of diversity, colour, love, understanding, and companionship within and outside the Queer Canadian community from our big cities and rural places to our bedrooms.
Any mention of homosexuality or queer nature in mainstream North American comics was forbidden by the Comics Code Authority (CCA) between 1954 and 1989. Mainstream comics, creators and publishers could only subtly hint or subtext regarding a Queer character’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It was not until 1992, three years after a major revision to the Comics Code, that the door opened to depictions of Queer characters. Hence Marvel finally got Northstar “out of the closet” and embraced his Queer lifestyle in 1992, even though hints were there since 1983. Today, the CCA seal of approval has been abandoned by publishers. Both the seal and intellectual property rights belongs to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
The 1970s: A Vancouver Canadian hippie hero fights for gay liberation… and Gay Guy appears.
The underground or alternative comix scene of the 1960s and 1970s were able to skirt around the CCA as they were independently created, small runs and not distributed through publishers. In Canada, out on the west coast, Rand Holmes (1942-2002) was producing underground comix for the Georgia Straight, and the Body Politic, one of Canada’s first significant gay publications that played a prominent role in the development of LGBT and Queer communities in Canada. An installment of The Continuing Adventures of Harold Hedd, by Rand Holmes in the Georgia Straight in 1971 stands out as a starting point for Canadian Queer comics. This Harold Hedd installment is considered a significant point in Canada Queer Comics for its clear and positive depiction of homosexuality featuring explicit mutual gay sex acts and promoting gay liberation.
The Harold Hedd comic caused controversy. The Georgia Straight had to publish it in a censored form, with sex scenes removed because the printer refused to publish them. The comic was reprinted in the August 1975 issue of the Body Politic with the issue ordered off the newsstands by the Toronto Police Morality Squad. The next issue had an article about the previous issue’s censorship and ran a partially censored panel from the Harold Hedd strip on the cover. A second print run of the Body Politic was required to meet demand. This infamous Harold Hedd strip dovetailed with the growing emergence of gay and lesbian activism in Canada. You can find a reprinted uncensored version of the Harold Hedd comic in the 1973 Canadian sex comix anthology – All Canadian Beaver Comix from Last Gasp Eco-Funnies.
Rand Holmes also contributed the cover to the first issue of Gay Comix (1980 to 1998) . edited at the time by Howard Cruse (1944-2019). It was a significant North American comix series as it featured works by Queer comic creators featuring gay and lesbian stories together with several having an autobiographical theme.
Before Northstar, Alpha Flight and even his work on Uncanny X-men, John Byrne created a superhero parody comic called Gay Guy in the 1970s while attending the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary for the Emery Weal, the college newspaper. Gay Guy appeared in 1971 and poked fun at the campus stereotype of homosexuality among art students. Gay Guy (alter ego Gaylord Le Guye) worked out of Beauty Salon, was inspired by a Butterfly, and his enemies included Ruby the Dyke, Charisma and Snowbird (yes, before Alpha Flight). Not quite politically correct by today’s standards. But another point in Queer Canadian Comics history.
The 1980s: Telling our stories….
The CCA did not apply to comic strips printed in magazines and newspapers. In the 1980s Queer Canadian newspapers and magazines published and run by queer collectives were starting out in cities like Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Vancouver, and Toronto, giving a voice and images to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. Publications such as Perceptions (1983-2013), Xtra (1984 – 2015), Swerve/OutWorlds (1984 – 2019), Angles (1983 -1998) and the Body Politic (1971 -1987).
It was in these publications that Queer Canadian comic creators such as Noreen Stevens and Sean Martin (1950- 2020) found a voice and a medium to tell their stories and thoughts on being Queer and Queer Lives in Canada to Canadians and abroad. In 1985 Noreen Stevens started writing the strip– Local Access Only, in the University of Manitoba student newspaper, The Manitoban. It was her outlet, to express the exasperation she felt “as a recently uncloseted bull dyke trying to get a straight job” (source).
As her life in Manitoba unfolded so did her strip, which morphed into The Chosen Family in 1987. The Chosen Family (1987 – 2004) centered two characters — Kenneth-Marie, the original voice of the strip, an earnest and political lesbian in the late 80s to 1990s, and Weed, an antagonistic lesbian of postfeminist queer politics. The relationship between Kenneth-Marie and Weed was a dynamic fluid partnership of counterpointing lesbian partners/friends that changed over time (monogamy, bisexuality) with the strip leading them to parenthood in the adoption of Rosebud and her unnamed little brother in the last couple of years of the strip in the 2000s. The Chosen Family served to comment on the legal and cultural boundaries of Queer lives in Canada through the characters in around 400 installments from late 80s through the end of the strip in 2004.
Queer zines blew up across North American starting in the 1980s and 1990s, and Canada has a history of queer zines to be discovered. The most famous and influential Queer Canadian zine was J.D.s (1985-1991)— a Toronto-based zine created by Bruce LaBruce and GB Jones, which sparked the queercore movement. Other notable Queer zines of the time include the Toronto Rag published by Bill Elderado, This Is The Salivation Army edited by Scott Treleavan, and King Of The Fairies by Glendon McKinney. Several Queer Canadian creators started off making zines first such as Maurice Vellekoop (Fear Comics, Guilt Comics) and Eric Kostiuk Williams (Hungry Bottom Comics).
The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives and the Western University Pride Library’s Queer Graphica collection both host a rather large collection of Queer Zines to explore.
Sean Martin (1950 – 2020) introduced Doc and Raider in 1987, which is the story of a male Canadian couple François “Doc” Ambrose, a writer of romance novels and Broadway shows, and his boyfriend Raymond “Raider” Deere, a construction worker. Their lives together were steeped in rodeos, leather, wrestling, and domestic arrangements. Throughout the series, Martin explored topics like leather contests, dating, and life with cats. He also did not shy away from serious subject matter like AIDS, safe sex, gay marriage, domestic violence, and violence against gays through his characters. One of the major storylines of the series dealt with Doc testing positive for HIV, and the strain it put on the relationship with Raider. Later in another storyline Raider is gay bashed.
Significantly, Doc and Raider’s appearance in newspapers and magazines around the world allowed it to fund gay-related causes; an arrangement Martin had with each publication. They were free to run the comic, but they had to contribute to the local queer community as compensation (Source). Doc and Raider appeared in safer sex education campaigns in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the original Doc and Raider strip ran in publications from 1987 to 1997. Doc and Raider: Caught on Tape (1994) and Doc and Raider: Incredibly Lifelike (1996) were collected editions published by Queer Press in Toronto.
Doc and Raider were revisited and revised as 3D characters in their own web comic online in 2007 at docandraider.com with even more characters and Queer topics and politics introduced. With 5,600 episodes, Doc and Raider is one of the longest-running LGBTQ comic strips in history. In Canada it is only surpassed by Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse (1979-2008) comic strip.
1990s: More stories emerge and fighting censorship…
In 1993, a four-week storyline in Lynn Johnston’s mainstream comic newspaper strip For Better or For Worse (1979-2008) explored the coming out of Michael Patterson’s friend, Lawrence Poirier. The story begins with Lawrence revealing to Michael that he is gay and arguing over Michael’s insistence that Lawrence comes out to his parents. Hearing the news from Lawrence, his parents react with desperate denial, and his father throws Lawrence out of the house, challenging him to see if “his kind” will take care of him the way his parents have for years.
The story was controversial for its time. Many homophobic readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions and over 100 newspapers either ran replacement strips or canceled the comic. Lynn had prepared for this by working in advance with her editor to provide alternative strips of the series to newspapers that declined to run the story.
The Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning board in 1994 said the strip “sensitively depicted a youth’s disclosure of his homosexuality and its effect on his family and friends.” Lynn Johnson in her 1994 book – It’s the Thought That Counts reflecting on the story states “It felt right for Lawrence to be gay. He was like so many people I know who have had to deal with this traumatic realization and who have done so with courage and honesty.”
In 1992, Leanne Franson from Saskatchewan introduced us to Liliane, Bi-Dyke (1992 – 2004), a naïve bisexual woman who brought her perspective to the queer scene of the 1990s on topics such as interracial relationships, having children, and bisexual butch representation. Somewhat semi-autobiographical, Liliane was first created in Franson’s sketchbooks while attending Concordia in Montreal, Quebec from 1982 to 1985, and then became more prominent as a self-published mini comic and monthly strip in Montreal’s Lesbo Info, as well as being adopted by the bisexual women’s group she helped coordinate from 1991-1994. Liliane has been featured in over 35 minicomics and three trade paperbacks: Teaching Through Trauma (1999), Assume Nothing: Evolution of a Bi-Dyke (2000), and Don’t Be A Crotte (2004). You can find Liliane, Bi-Dyke online at liliane.keenspace.com
Around 1993, Katherine Collins emerges. Katherine transitioned from the cartoonist “formerly known as Arn Saba” who brought Canadians the lovely musical characters of Neil the Horse in 1975. The strip ran in 30 newspapers and Neil the Horse Comics and Stories hit comic stands in 1983. Katherine, as Arn, spent more than 15 years combining the love of cartooning with the love of music to produce the adventures of Neil, a dancing happy go lucky spindly legged horse who loved bananas and his friends. The characters persisted in comic books until 1991 when Saba began transitioning into Katherine and left comics.
Katherine Collins was inducted into the Joe Shuster Awards – Canadian Comic Book Creator Hall of Fame in 2013. In 2017 she was inducted into the Giants of the North Hall of Fame by the Doug Wright Awards for Canadian Cartooning. Conundrum Press published The Collected Neil the Horse in 2017.
Around 1994, the first Queer Canadian independently published superhero (not a parody superhero) comic appeared – Go-Go Boy the Go-Go dancer with super speed! Oh you thought it was Northstar? Sorry! Go-Go Boy was created by Neil Johnston in Vancouver. This short-lived comic (three issues and an ashcan version) featured the super speed superhero fighting for the city against the conglomerate known as C.C.R.A.P. (Corporate Criminals, Rednecks and Politicians) and the mad scientist, Dr. Dioto. With the help of superheroes Power Tool, the Invisible Lesbian, Spoonettra, and Number Woman.
In 1997, Vellevision appeared. Maurice Vellekoop, an artist and illustrator in Toronto, had his work covering an 11-year period published in Vellevision A Cocktail of Comics and Pictures. Vellekoop may have the distinction of being the only artist to appear in every issue of Drawn & Quarterly’s 1990 anthologies. Vellekoop is known more for his fun gay erotica work and pin ups found in ABC A Homoerotic Primer (1997), Big Business and Artist and Models his Mensroom Reader issues (2002), and Pin Ups (2008). Vellekoop also introduced us to the world of a fictional opera with his divas and divos in A Nut at the Opera (2006). But the most interesting character of Vellekoop’s work is sexually liberated Gloria Babcock and her adventures (time travel! lesbian fun! three ways!) starting in Vellevision (1997) and making her triumphant return in The World of Gloria Badcock (2011).
During the 1990s, Little Sisters Bookstore in Vancouver, one of Canada’s longest operating queer bookstores, began a long legal battle with the Canada Border Services Agency over the importation across the U.S./Canada border of what the agency labeled “obscene materials” – LGBTQIA+ books and comics that either disappeared or were held indefinitely. The first trial concluded in 1996 with a judgment for Little Sisters finding their shipments had been wrongly delayed or withheld due to the “systemic targeting of Little Sisters’ importations in the Customs Mail Centre.”
2000s: The censorship battle continues, and a gay Canadian Publishing House emerges.
In December 2000, the Little Sisters Bookstore case was heard in the Supreme Court of Canada. The court found that the customs had targeted shipments to the bookstore and attempted to prevent them from getting in. Consequently, the government was found to have violated Section 2 of the Charter. However, the court found the violation was justified under section 1 of the Charter. The case established that the onus of proving that expressive material is obscene lies with Canadian Customs.
In 2001, Canada Customs seized and banned two issues of the gay anthology series Meatmen, one of the longest running anthologies of male erotic and humour comics from 1986 to 2004 featuring European and North American artists. Little Sisters returned to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2002 to challenge Canada Customs regarding the seizing of the two Meatmen comic books and two other books deemed offensive. The 2002 return to the Supreme Court of Canada asked for advance costs to cover the appeal, as well as a systemic review of Customs’ practices to reverse Canada Customs’ obscenity determinations and a declaration that Customs had been construing and applying the relevant legislation in an unconstitutional manner.
To support Little Sisters in the 2002 case, Arsenal Pulp Press published two anthologies, What’s Right and What’s Wrong, with contributions from a few Queer and non-queer Canadian creators including Patrick Fillion, Sean Martin, Steve MacIssac, Glen Hanson, Colin Upton, Ho Che Anderson, and Pia Guerra dealing with the issue of censorship. Proceeds went to the Little Sister’s Defence Fund to assist in their legal challenge. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the Little Sisters Bookstore’s 2002 appeal.
In 2000 Class Comics, an independent queer erotic publishing house of Patrick Fillion and his partner Fraz, appeared on the Queer Canadian comic scene out on the west coast. Patrick had been creating and self publishing his queer superhero creations in Vancouver since 1992 as Class Enterprises but was frustrated by the lack of character-driven adult gay comics. It was not until Patrick and Fraz met that the publishing house came about. Patrick’s notable creations include Camili-Cat (a feline male alien) appearing in 1986, Naked Justice (2002), Ghost Boy, Locus, Space Cadet, Zahn, and his super team of the Guardians of the Cube (known as the Cube in 1995) and the Brigayde (2016). Fraz has brought the Initiation (2008), the Beautiful Dead (2013) series and the Pack (2015) to the Class Comics universe. Since 2006, Class Comics expanded and has gone on to publish and work with a range of queer artists producing gay erotic comics of superheroes, demons, ghosts, barbarians, zombies oh my! The Class Comics Universe is multi-layered and includes characters of all sorts of backgrounds and walks of life, because diversity is extremely important to Class Comics. You can find Class Comics at: www.classcomics.com
2000s to 2020: The Queer Comics Explosion of Choices….
In the last 20 years, and more so in the last 10, a growing emergence of queer stories, comics and creators have come out in format of printed collected stories, zines and various web platforms. Stories that go beyond white and gay, lesbian, and bisexual stories but emerging voices of colour and diverse nationalities and backgrounds from Transgender, Pansexual, Asexual. Non-Binary, Indigiqueer, 2 Spirit, Cisgender, Genderfluid, Intersex, Questioning and Ally voices bringing forward more visibility, diversity, understanding and fighting for acceptance to the Queer and non-Queer communities.
Elisha Lim is a queer trans artist and currently finishing up their PhD in Toronto, whose work promotes the leadership, dignity, and sex appeal of queer and trans people of colour. In 2011 they, with artist partner Coco Riot (1979), successfully advocated for Canadian gay media to adopt the gender-neutral pronoun “they”. Both Elisha Lim and Coco Riot created original art of video, stop-motion animation, comic, illustration, clay-animation etc. to celebrate trans queer love and to advocate the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun through their former 2011 transgender art blog “Call Me They”. (http://www.shift.jp.org/en/archives/2012/07/call_me_they.html)
In 2014, Koyama Press released 100 Crushes that compiles five years of queer comics by Elisha Lim, including excerpts from Sissy, The Illustrated Gentleman, Queer Child in the Eighties, and 100 Butches.
An era of queer comic acceptance is emerging, and many comic reviewers have stated the feeling that the mid 2000s is the era of Queer comics, at least in North America and in Canada, from 40 years of insular Queer cartooning that ran parallel to mainstream comics and publications. From a Vancouver Canadian underground comix hippie hero fighting for gay liberation in the 1970s to challenging censorship and the Canadian government and a “Gay Marvel” publishing house emerging in the 2000s, queer Canadian comics and creators are out there and always have been and will continue to be out there with our stories.
I have barely scratched the surface of queer comics in Canada (a lot has emerged in the last 20 years) and hardly even touched many works across the country from coast to coast to coast that may reside in personal collections or archives, including anything that may exist dans la bande dessinée Québécoise. But hopefully I have provided you with some names and helped us rediscover some of our Canadian Queer Comics and Creators out there and their contribution to the Canadian Comics landscape for the 80 years of Canadian Comics celebration.
Finally, there are several great Queer comics, publications and zines that exist and are stored in several Archives in Canada that are worth visiting. These include:
The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives in Toronto, Ontario https://arquives.ca/
The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa, Ontario https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/
Western University’s Pride Library in London, Ontario; https://www.uwo.ca/pridelib/
University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan https://library.usask.ca/uasc
The BC Gay and Lesbian Archives found at the City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver, British Columbia https://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/