by Sean Zimmerman
“This is definitely the most important book I’ve ever put out.”
I was speaking to Mark Minor and Joe Glass about their newest anthology, Young Men in Love, and that comment from Minor stuck with me well after the interview. Because this work is important.
Both are experienced comics creators – Glass created the award-winning series The Pride about a group of gay superheroes, while Minor has edited a number of anthologies, yet this book is special. “Every creator on this book, from the letterer and logo designers through every writer, artist, colorist, is a queer male or a non-binary person,” Minor told us.
“Often you find these kinds of stories, which aren’t written by queer men, or non-binary people… they are good, sometimes, most of the time… But I feel like, what’s often missing from them is this level of reality,” Glass explained. “In a book filled with romances, even with some featuring ghosts and pirates, [that authenticity] helps them hit just a little bit truer… and I think that’s what really makes it special.”
He continued, “We touch on the reality of being a gay male, a gay or bisexual male falling in love with other men, and how that feels… When the two of you find each other, that’s unique and special in its own way. Because in a world where a lot of what’s considered normal is not you, then it’s that extra bit special when you find someone else like you.”
The anthology has twenty stories, and the creators I spoke with were just as excited for the book as the editors. Oliver Gerlach, the writer of the story The Treasure Map to my Heart told me “The decision process [for joining the anthology] took about 0.1 seconds. Getting involved was the easiest decision I’ve ever made in my life.” Anthony Oliveira, who wrote Act of Grace, told me, “I said yes with a quickness only measurable by the most sensitive of instruments.”
You can feel that excitement throughout the stories – they feel different than the usual mass-market fare. “Look at how many queer stories are being done by other comic companies… and they’re all kind of the same. It’s always about coming out and never about the things which gay men are actually experiencing,” Glass said. “There’s so much more to the queer experience than coming out.”
Gerlach agreed, “As I kid, I think I’d have got bored of queer stories about introspection and queer identity. I wouldn’t have got bored of stories about gay pirates that happened to also be about queerness. That’s what I want to do with the vast majority of my work; tell stories that are fun adventures, where the characters just happen to be queer. Our stories don’t have to be entirely about our identities. We deserve to be pirates, or wizards, or adventurers, not just sad introspective teens.”
One of the things that helps the anthology shine is the diversity of the stories. There are fantastical stories about gay pirates, superheroes, and personified seasons alongside more grounded (yet no less charming) stories of scavenger hunts with one’s partner, or more series discussions of queer body issues. Glass and Minor both have stories in the anthology, and Glass explained “we both went straight in with the stories that we wanted to tell. We both had specific ideas which hadn’t really been seen anywhere else, like [Minor’s] Punk love story, and then there’s my story dealing with a body issue.”
Each of the artists and authors submitted their own ideas, though some were later shifted around to avoid duplicates or stories that were too similar. When I asked if there was a common duplicated theme Minor answered immediately, “theater kids. Yeah. Surprise.” Glass later added that it was “a very common theme. I think there were four or five different [theater kid] pitches.”
Glass and Minor said they recruited the creators for the book themselves. “All the creators were curated,” Minor explained. “We reached out to people… we wanted to make sure that everyone was hand selected to be in this book.”
When asked if the writer and artists teams were assigned by them, Glass explained it was a mix. “We would ask people if they had anyone in mind [to work with] … In some cases, it was people we knew, people we’d met…” Glass said thought that once they told people about the book, “people seemed excited… I can’t say we had any difficulty [finding people] at all.”
While there’s been an uptick in queer characters in the last several years, gay male characters remain rare. “I think that’s because lesbians are fetishized and gay men are considered gross by the world at large. And it’s disgusting and not cool,” Minor explained. “I think that’s exactly why you see more queer female content out there, because you know gross dudes are going to buy it.”
Oliveira, when asked why we don’t see queer male characters often, gave a similar answer. “Male queerness offers its own unique challenges… because it excludes even the capacity to excite the more prurient gaze of the straight male eye, which has been so long allowed to dominate markets.”
Even when queer male stories do exist, they often aren’t accessible to younger readers. “With queer male content, when it does exist, it’s so often sexualized,” Glass added, stating that so many stories reduce male queerness to revolving around sex. “I think that’s why a lot of people avoid telling queer male stories.” Even when queer male stories exist, when they include sex and sexuality in comics they often do it in a way that makes it harder for younger queer male audiences to access.
That was a running theme in both my interviews with the editors, and in conversations with contributors – the desire to push back on how male queerness was so often associated with sex. Daryl Toh, the artist for The Treasure Map to my Heart, explained part of the reason stories like this one are so important was because “we need to take down the outed mindset in society that associates queer stories and characters with sex and porn. We need to normalize queer relationships and romances aren’t taboo, but have unique and common struggles, like straight ones.”
Part of the way the book addresses that is its focus on romance. Minor felt it was important that they stuck to romance, and avoided sexual content, because they wanted something that was accessible to all ages. “It’s great for adults who need a little romance in their lives, but also great for younger readers, who might have especially cool parents looking for a book where their queer son can be represented.”
“We wanted his book to be an accessible to someone who is young and needs it, who needs representation, but also to tell this queer story about the other aspects of our queer lives, and that romance is very much a part of our lives,” Glass commented.
That was another common theme in talking to creators – the desire to make something both accessible and for those that need to see themselves in comics.
When I asked why representation was important, Oliveira responded “I lived my whole life not seeing our stories anywhere. I think all I want to do is make sure no one else has that same lonely, debilitating experience. If someone reads something I write, or comes to a film I program, or hears some echo of themselves in a poem I teach, and thinks “There it is. There I am,” then I think my silly little life will have been worth it.”
“It’s a really hard time to be a young queer person right now,” Glass said. “Whether that be a queer male, a non binary person, or any kind of queer person, frankly. What I’m hoping for with Young Men in Love is that it can give some young queer person out there who finds it in the comic shop… just a few minutes of respite from a world which really feels like it’s trying to shut them down.”
It’s not always easier for older people either. Toh, who is based in Malaysia, commented that comics media had been one way he’s able to interact with other queer people. “While queer comics or queer representation is still not acceptable in Malaysia, through the access of online art sites and webcomics, they provided me with safe spaces and opportunities to express myself and share my work with the wider queer community out there.”
Minor said simply, “my goal for the book is for young queer kids to feel less alone in the world.”
He added later, “I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised at how amazing the book is, how touching the stories are, and how great it is for adults and for younger people… And for parents to discover that they can go ‘Hey, we can get this for our son, who’s having a hard time…. We don’t want them to feel so alone.’”
The book achieves that goal, in part, by focusing on the joy of queerness. “We wanted this book to be about joy and queer happiness,” Glass explains. “There’s no stories that I would say are overtly sad, because that’s another thing we wanted to avoid.”
While there are many challenges for queer people in the real world, the book is, at its core, a celebration of queer men and their stories. And one that’s absolutely worth your time.
Young Men in Love is available in both bookstores and comic shops now!
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