Few readers enjoy their agency in a polity of literature more completely than does the child holding a comic book. Left alone with “childish things,” the comic book reader is unpoliced and unimproved. You can see it in the glare of resistance they offer, looking out from behind their colourful pages to cast a skeptical glance at the adult question, “what are you reading?” The answer—nothing—is childhood’s mantra of freedom. If the child’s fancy is for mass-market comics, they enter a world shared by millions of other readers who also care passionately, while differing wildly in the sense they make of their favourite stories and characters. The sense that they make is their own, and it will last a lifetime.
As a kid, the editor of ArtsEverywhere, Shawn Van Sluys, read Archie comics, and he made of Jughead, Archie’s wistful and easy-going, asexual friend, a richly imagined boyhood crush. As Shawn matured into his gay teenhood, he brought Jughead along with him, a life-saving fantasy in the homophobic world of Calvinist rural Alberta, where Shawn grew up.
A few months ago Shawn came across a complete collection of a circa 1980s “underground comix” called Gay Comix. Nothing like it had ever reached him in boyhood Alberta, but he recognized at once what it must have meant for the men, whom he calls his “gay ancestry,” to have used these comics as a polity of literature in which to engage the collective questions of gay identity. In this contribution to the Polity of Literature series, Shawn looks at the special features the comics form brings to politics—from speech bubbles to the “mask” of comic faces to the indeterminate empty spaces between panels—and the uses various North American countercultures have made of them. His essay is accompanied by an op-ed, “Gay Ancestry.”
1 March, 2022