Holly's Favourite Comic Page: Queer Community
Fabian Nicieza and Rick Mays' Nomad #11 (1993), pp. 2-3
Choosing a favourite comic page was surprisingly easy. Choosing a favourite issue or story would be another matter, but having struggled my whole life with dyspraxia, analysing artwork is a relatively new skill for me, one I am still learning. I've chosen to talk about the page which opened my eyes to how effective artwork is in converying messages to the reader: the double spread which began Fabian Nicieza and Rick Mays’ Nomad #11 (1993).
The issue as a whole is important to me for the same reason it inspired my Master's dissertation: it is one of the very few early mainstream comics to portray queer people. The title, Nomad, is responsible for creating approximately half of the openly queer Marvel characters of the 1990s, and issue #11 focused on an entire community of transvestites at a time when queer people primarily appeared in isolated tokenistic storylines before fading into the background. It portrayed physical affection between queer people when the most common method of confirming a queer relationship was to kill off one half of a queer couple, and show their abandoned partner consumed with passionate, but necessarily celibate, grief. The requirement that mainstream comics be cautious in portraying queer affection had been removed from the Comics Code by 1993, but the unspoken rules about what was allowed were clear all the same. Queer people could exist within the pages of Marvel Comics, but sex, kissing and overt romance had no place in their relationships.
The panel which dominates pages 2-3 of Nomad #11 exemplifies the way in which the creative team managed to explore overt queer sexuality within their comic without technically breaking the rules. In order to walk this fine line, the scene leant heavily on the artwork of Rick Mays, who more than rose to the challenge. In particular, he drew human bodies in a way that was unusual to superhero comics, which typically portrayed their characters as built of pure muscle. In issue #11, however, all the characters, the titular Nomad included, are given a fleshy look which acknowledges that there is fat under the skin as well as muscle. It makes the scene real and visceral, and heightens the Mays' other efforts to show the scene as immediately queer. Every character is drawn with a traditionally masculine body, ensuring that each has at least one characteristic which presents as male, including elements often removed from superhero images, such as body hair. This appears on chests arms and legs, under noses and armpits, ringed around balding scalps. Bare skin and formfitting clothes reveal musculature incompatible with a feminine body, an impression aided helped by the fleshy look of Mays' art.
Over these masculine bodies, Mays ensured that each character had some mix of masculine and feminine in their presentation. Some are dressed entirely in traditionally feminine clothing, while others wear male clothes under made-up faces to indicate their femininity. This mixing of gender presentation continues in their body language, creating a dare and bold presentation of queer bodies and queer sexuality in a mainstream comic. Impressively, this is achieved with little actual touch or action, but built through small gestures, skirting the line of acceptability. One character ducks their head shyly behind long hair, while next to them another preens at the attention they are receiving. In the background the entirely male presenting bartender leans across the bar to speak intimately with his customer, clearly flirtatious.
The three figures to the front of page 2 encapsulate the queerness that Mays and Nicieza were trying to convey in this scene. To the left, a character sits in a clearly masculine stance, legs spread wide under flowing skirts, while above, chest hair peaks out from under a low V neck designed to show cleavage, and a pearl necklace. They smile fondly from underneath a moustache at the figure on the right; they are connected affectionately by linked fingers. The person on the right wears form-fitting women’s clothing in pastel colours, emphasising both their traditionally masculine body, and their traditionally feminine crossed legs; the juxtaposition is heightened by the copious hair on and under their arms, and the ring of hair around their half bald head. Their face is feminonely sexual, with shiny lipstick drawing attention to their lips, a feature usually underplayed on male faces, and one brightly-coloured eye winking at the figure across from them. The person in the middle leans over to kiss the second character's cheek. They code almost entirely female, with long hair held back by a band, but their clothing falls slightly from a chest flatter than the dress was designed for. Everything about the interaction implies sexuality, blurs gender lines, and is immediately queer to the reader.
This instantaneous recognition was markedly different from the earliest queer comic characters, who often hinted around their sexuality for months before it was confirmed, in order to avoid censorship. It was important that the overall scene shock the readers as much it shocks Nomad, aka Jack Monroe, because he serves as their proxy in exploring a culture he knows nothing about, and has unexpectedly stumbled into. The lower panels show him surprised and surrounded with queerness, but refusing to let that put him off.
This page was miles ahead of any other mainstream comic in terms of representation. It allowed queer people to be real, to be a community, to love and feel sexual towards each other. It was the beginning of an exploration of the community which did not end in acceptance, but began there. On a personal level, I will always return to this page for that reason. As a scholar this page represents an extraordinary outlier, deserving of further academic attention, but it is also the page which taught me the true value of artwork in comics.