Queer: A Graphic History: Revolutionising how we ‘do’ queer theory now

The ‘queering’ of the graphic novel, or comic book, is not an alien concept in today’s world. Think, for example, of Alison Bechdel’s pioneering Fun Home, or of the ripples that Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series has caused in today’s generation of young queer readers. The idea of queer theory being illustrated through the medium of the graphic novel, however, seems to break new ground. This is the approach taken by queer activist and academic Meg John Barker and cartoonist Julia Scheele in their 2016 book Queer: A Graphic History. Providing a comprehensive yet bite-sized guide to the ideas that have surrounded the LGBT+ community both past and present, Barker and Scheele discover the relationship between our community and our theories, and the ways in which we can engage with theory in the present. 

A few months ago, I wrote a research project on queerness in Medieval art for my largely (as you can imagine) straight, perhaps somewhat ‘stuffy’ department at university. I remember chuckling with my friends at the idea of having to provide definitions of queer terminologies – even the simplest like ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ – in the footnotes, anticipating that my supervisor would otherwise be lost wading through this unknown territory. However, as obvious as this all sounded to me, I found that I struggled to define these terms, these labels and lines of thought that supposedly make up an important aspect of my identity. I was left with a sense of head-scratching confusion, staring at my screen, unable to find words to define even the umbrella term for the field I incessantly engage in: queer theory.  

Queer: A Graphic History. Novel by Meg-John Barker

This is where Queer: A Graphic History comes in. For this powerful, yet delightful little book, ‘finding words’ extends to ‘illustrating’ them visually. Tracking the history of queer theory and the terminologies that have come to surround it, the book begins with a discussion of what ‘queer’ has meant, what it means, and what it may mean in the future. As if writing for an extra-terrestrial intended audience, it begins with these assumed ‘basic’ notions of queerness, taking care to explain everything without taking it for granted that its readers belong to the privileged sphere who has had access to this ivory tower. It then continues its queer journey, with remarkable ease, peppering a range of influential figures in the field, such as Alfred Kinsey, Monique Wittig, Audre Lorde, Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam, and more. It weaves a linear history of queer theory, from early sexology, domino theory, and post-structuralism to intersectionality, without succumbing to this future-oriented outlook. Theories discussed at the start are constantly brought back into discussion with contemporary ideas. These ‘saints’ of queerness communicate with each other through their ideas, across time and space. No chapter in our history is definitively closed; indeed, one of the book’s most refreshing aspects is its ability to problematize every school of queer theory it discusses, with an objective yet critically engaging tone. Foucault’s and Butler’s praises are sung, but criticisms of their works on gender and sexuality are equally pointed out. In line with its chosen medium, the book ‘sketches’ out queer theory in greyscale, steering clear of the black-and-white of the printed word. 

There’s also something electrifying about hearing your heroes speak to you with the help of speech bubbles. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick peeks out of her titular closet, of whose epistemology she writes in her most seminal work, in graphically-embodied form, to discuss her ideas with you, today. Later, Foucault-as-superhero battles Lady Gaga, a showdown that is mediated by Jack Halberstam who holds the iconic telephone from Gaga’s beloved song. This contributes to a sense of presentness in the book. Queer heroes who have never met but who nevertheless share a space in our queer fabric, are woven together, allowed to literally interact, bringing us into their discussions too. This becomes ever more important when we consider, with a tinge of sadness, queer figures who died before they could see, and live, the fruits of their labour – Audre Lorde, Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, among others. Embodying them graphically, the book manages to immortalise them as well as their ideas. 

Queer: A Graphic History is perhaps the book of queer theory that is most representative of our generation of queer thinkers. It not only achieves critical depth whilst remaining readable, but equally engages with, as Halberstam argues, ‘low’ culture, putting it face-to-face with theory. There is a running visual theme of Wizard of Oz, the queerly-reclaimed cult film championing community on the margins of heteronormative society, as well as a scene from the TV series Sherlock used to illustrate the theory of ‘queering’ established cultural works retrospectively. The book itself shows that queer theory does not have to be inaccessible. A graphic novel is as much a product of queer theory as Gender Trouble. 

 Queer: A Graphic History is much more than an introduction, or a brief historical primer to queer theory. Sure, it is a useful book for both people who have a background in this realm and those who want to discover it, and both for queer people and allies. A useful book to give to my Medieval art history supervisor. But, it also engages with the very form of this theory, questioning why our theory was produced a certain way in the past, and anticipating how queer theory will be produced moving forward. Bringing in Butler’s ideas, the book’s epilogue reminds us that ‘queer = doing, not being.’ Perhaps now, we should think not about how we can ‘be’ queer theorists, but how we can ‘do’ queer theory using new and creative forms. 

Buy Queer: A Graphic History here. 

 

Review by Miruna Tiberiu. 

Miruna Tiberiu is the managing editor of GAY45. She is a student at Cambridge University. Tiberiu has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Tiberiu is currently in Paris carrying out her dissertation research on Franco-Romanian cinema and intends to continue this work as a postgraduate at Cambridge. 

 

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