Vancouver artists help shift the sexual politics of comics

Originally published at Openfile.ca

When you think of gay Vancouver men, your first image probably isn’t of a drag queen Poison Ivy squealing excitedly over $10 reprints of a Wolverine sketch in the middle of a crowded comic book convention.

But she, known on Vancouver’s nightclub scene as drag sensation Raye Sunshine, and her entourage of costumed queers are practically bigger attractions than Vancouver Fan Expo’s impressive roster of celebrity guests. Her posse, collectively dressed as Batman’s worst nightmare, can barely take ten steps without being stopped to allow awestruck convention-goers to take their pictures, or to pose with the young children of enchanted tourists.

Sunshine and her friends are among the roughly 10,000 people geeking out at Vancouver’s first-ever Fan Expo because, she says, “It’s so free and accepting here. There’s no judgment or prejudice. It’s an environment you can really feel safe in to be whoever you are.”

Or whoever you aren’t. Sunshine’s a master of makeup, though her strikingly accented cheekbones and the feminine arch of her drawn-on eyebrows can’t hide the decidedly manly, muscular bulk on display in her green leotard. She says when she speaks and her masculine voice comes out and confirms her actual sex, people get a bit of a shock. But she adds it’s a thrill for her admirers and she gets off on their wonderment, considering it affirmation of gender play well-executed.

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Not so long ago, safety and acceptance within the fanboy world might not have been so easy to come by. The comic book industry and superhero culture were traditionally straight boys’ clubs, and are only just beginning to open up and include their dedicated gay following. Like many modern gays, comics had a repressed adolescence and are blooming late. But at last weekend’s Fan Expo, Vancouver showed off its leadership role in the progressive sexual politics of comic books.

Consider it the final frontier of popular mass media. Today, a few homegrown, trailblazing artists are boldly going where no stereotypical superhero nerd has gone before: over the rainbow.

Vancouver-based artist Stephen Sadowski made his name re-imagining some of DC’s classic characters for a revamped Justice Society of America series.

On the first day of Fan Expo, I can’t interview him from across the table that lines the back wall of Vancouver Convention Centre ballroom E for fear of being swept along with, or trampled by, the unbroken current of portfolio-perusing fans coursing down the row of comic artists. I sneak in behind the curtain and kneel next to him while he signs prints and chats with his enthusiastic devotees, most of whom are too timid to interrupt the interview to get a piece of their idol. Lucky, otherwise there would be no break in the flow of exuberant fans.

Sadowski, a bearded bear-type (for the layperson, bears are gay men, usually hairy, over 30 and sturdy of frame) is known for his realistic work on some of DC’s most popular characters. At least once at every convention he attends, somebody compliments his hairy-chested version of Hawkman. Sadowski’s signature aesthetic is a sensibility, he says; he puts just as much effort into making his male superheroes look sexy as he does his female characters. And that means drawing parts of the anatomy that mainstream artists have typically been uncomfortable with: Sadowski may be one of the first of his contemporaries whose superheroes are actually packing some male genitalia in their skintight shorts.

Soon, a dreamy-eyed fan in a green jumpsuit and bowler hat covered with handsewn felt question marks shuffles along artist’s row and eyes Sadowski’s portfolio. Instantly captivated by the pencil detail and the vibrant colourwork by Sadowski’s partner Shane Rooks, he flips the pages greedily, gushing about Sadowski’s “badass” Wolverine, or the ferocious action that leaps out of Sadowski’s new John Carter, Warlord of Mars panels. But a palpable change crosses the fanboy’s countenance when he flips to Sadowski’s famous Wildcat pinup. The golden-age staple stands naked, in all his hairy musclebound glory, in a tastefully steamy shower with a come-hither grin. The fanboy pauses a moment, looking blank. Then he giggles self-consciously and hurriedly turns the page.

Stephen Sadowski's Wildcat pinup.

Stephen Sadowski’s Wildcat pinup.

It’s a common occurrence at Sadowski’s convention appearances. Many fans are still shocked by Sadowski’s equitable stance on objectification within a culture that has pandered to a pretty narrow slice of its actual base for so long.

“Comics are basically straight boy power fantasies,” Sadowski says. “A lot of big-titted women, you know. So a lot of times when you see male characters, you see they have no crotch. Well, why are the women always so built with the big boobs busting out and why don’t the guys get the same treatment?” He says more importantly than the titillation factor, it’s simply ridiculous to flatten the male characters’ naughty bits, but he also wants the industry to know what it stands to gain by catering to a more diverse market. He says he hasn’t yet met with resistance from editors, signifying the industry is opening up whether fans are ready or not.

Also Sadowski’s main collaborator, colorist Rooks agrees.

“From a marketing perspective it’s become kind of natural for a publisher to feel comfortable allowing that to work its way into their intellectual property. It started edging itself into successful TV shows,” Rooks says, and it’s grown to the point where a show feels unrealistic and weird if it doesn’t have LGBT storylines.

To some degree, of course, comics have always been gay. In Fredric Wertham’s 1954 anti-comics tirade The Seduction of the Innocent, the psychiatrist famously posits that Batman and Robin must be homosexuals because they live in a mansion together with floral arrangements. Cartoonist Ken Boesem, who contributes a semi-weekly strip to Xtra! West, notes gays essentially embraced that reading. He adds that common themes of secret identities, living a double life and being outside normal society are particularly resonant for queer folk.

Yet out, mainstream gay superheroes are still woefully underrepresented as leads for their own titles (save for Batwoman, an out lesbian, whose leather-clad escapades are well-received by straight male fans for obvious reasons). The good news is, Sadowski and Rooks can’t agree on whether it’s Marvel or DC who has the most realistic, well-written queer storylines. Ideally, they say, the next step is devoting entire plot arcs and miniseries to queer characters that don’t involve anybody coming out of the closet or getting HIV. Society’s past that. Such stories are rote.

Canadian historian John Bell argues due to a history of censorship and suppression, comic books were once Canada’s lost culture, but they’ve finally matured. At least in one way, he speaks too soon. Thanks to Sadowski, Rooks and others like them, though, the days of camp and innuendo a-la Wertham are numbered.

Though she glows through her green body paint from all the attention, Raye Sunshine takes momentary refuge in a nearby food court from the paparazzi-like mobs of admirers demanding her picture.

“I’m glad [Fan Expo] is bringing comic culture into the mainstream,” she says as she catches her breath. “But really, I just like putting on cute clothes.”

It’s just playing dressup, one of her friends insists. It doesn’t go any deeper than that.

Just then, a straight guy, a total suburban bro in a baggy jersey and ball cap, walks by. He ogles Sunshine on his way past.

“Awesome,” he says.

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Dragonette

In June I interviewed Martina Sorbara of Dragonette for V-Rag, British Columbia’s largest LGBTQ arts and entertainment monthly. You can click that link and check out the q&a as it printed in this month’s addition – but below I have included the unedited article, with a few questions and answers that didn’t appear in the mag due to space restrictions.

Dragonette are: Dan Kurtz, Martina Sorbara, Joel Stouffer.

If you haven’t heard of them, you’ve almost certainly bobbed your head in blissful ignorance when one of Dragonette’s tunes played on the radio over the last four years.

The new-wave synth-pop hipster darlings originated in Toronto before relocating to London to lay down their 2007 debut album, Galore, which was critically praised as “The Killers fronted by Gwen Stefani”. Their 2009 follow-up Fixin’ to Thrill garnered increased attention and better chart performance, and solidified Dragonette’s place at the top of the heap among the kind of cutting-edge lesser-known homegrown bands that snobby futurists and digital boomers enthusiastically embrace and hope never break the Top 40.

Indeed, Dragonette didn’t score a chart position outside of Canada or the UK until the smash collaboration “Hello” with French DJ Martin Solveig, which went to number 1 in several European countries, peaked at 8 in Canada, and saw Dragonette finally entering rotation on U.S. airwaves.

The hit track has given Dragonette fuel to boost their steady ascent out of counterculture and into a warm worldwide reception, but they don’t forget to give back to their fans – Dragonette will perform at the closing ceremonies of the 2011 North American Outgames in Vancouver this summer.

Frontwoman Martina Sorbara says the LGBTQ community has always shown support for Dragonette.

You’ve played Pride events across the globe and now you’re closing the North American Outgames in Vancouver. Why are queer people so fond of  Dragonette?

I don’t mean to generalize, but aren’t the gays known for their good taste?

How are Canadian gays different from London gays?

They have a distinctly different accent.

It seems sex has a big part to play in your music, but what would you say motivates and inspires the songwriting?

When writing lyrics for a song I am always either trying to find themes otherwise not sung about, or else I like to try and take a very common theme and unravel it in a way that people can see/hear it in a different light.

 How does your take on sexuality differ from how other mainstream female-fronted pop acts or singers use it?

I’m not actually interested in conveying sexy or sexuality per se. What interests me is showing people that there are more sides to the feminine than mainstream media generally puts out. I guess some people call it feminism, which is not a term I mind at all. But I just see it as being true to what attracts and inspires me visually, artistically and emotionally.

“Hello” with Martin Solveig blew up into Dragonette’ best-charting and, arguably, most popular song. You’ve had other relative hits – do you ever feel pressure to replicate big successes?

There can be the nagging feeling while writing music of “wouldn’t be great if I could just spit out another  X or Y radio hit?” But ultimately my creative is most excited by surprising itself. And there’s not much surprise that comes with writing the same song over and over again. So if that kind of thinking occurs while trying to write a song, we do our best to banish it.

Will you keep working with Martin Solveig? What’s next?

We have a few more songs on his record and, who knows, maybe he’ll turn up on ours.

How do you spot a Dragonette superfan?

By their wild eyes and sweaty palms.

Would you tell us about your favourite moment with a fan?

Well, last week a fan of ours let me squeeze her brand new fake boobs. Very exciting. But not, perhaps, as special a moment as being given homegrown purple fingerling potatoes. 

What might fans be surprised to know about you?

I lost my virginity at 21.

 What do you do to stay sane on the road when you and your bandmates are living in close quarters?

We find excellent interesting places to eat. And the good thing is we all like each other, and we all like eating.    

Dragonette seems effortless in its ability to pluck tropes from other genres, incorporating country twang or Bollywood-style instrumentals into previous releases. It’s a pretty exciting sense of limitlessness. How are those ideas born? And, how do you know they’re good?

I think we just like to see what whacked out ingredients we can make taste good together. And whether other people like it or not doesn’t effect whether it gives you that satisfying feeling. If I get that ‘uh huh’ feeling then I’ve succeeded, because that’s all I’m ever really looking for: Uh huh.

Alfred Hitchcock was often baffled by the symbolism people would dig out of his work. You’ve said the “Fixin’ to Thrill” video was just “funny shit” you could get away with. Are you frequently surprised by the meaning people find in your music and videos?

There’s actually lots of personal meaning and metaphor intended in the “Fixin’ To Thrill” video. I think the ‘funny shit’ remark was referring to the fact that it was just my friend and I coming up with ideas and having exactly zero regard for whether other people could follow our drift. But on the other hand, I love and cherish the thought that there could be as many interpretations of that video as there are Youtube hits on it.

Favourite musicians growing up?

Sinead, Kate Bush, Zappa, Bjork, Cyndi.

What do you miss about Canada?

As it’s summertime, I find myself missing lakes and cottages and big Canadian shield rocks and chipmunks and raccoons and wild blueberries.

Getting back to gays, a huge Dragonette fan begged me to pose you this question. Marry, fuck or kill: Britney Spears, Cher, Lady Gaga.

Marry Brit Brit, just cause you know at least there’ll be drama. Fuck Gaga, ‘cause if we got married I think we’d turn into one of those couples that accidentally dresses alike every time they go out. Kill Cher, ‘cause I didn’t realize she was still alive.