Drawing queer love: Illness politics and practices of care in graphic AIDS narratives

I’m working on my paper for the Graphic Medicine Conference in Brighton. The theme of this year’s conference is “Que(e)rying Graphic Medicine.” To get in the spirit of the theme, check out the book title in this panel from Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For from 1997. Over 20 years ago, Bechdel was already Que(e)rying Everything, so Graphic Medicine is a little late to the party!

Here’s a description of the larger project, though I probably will only have time to talk about Making ItDykes to Watch Out For, and Taking Turns at the conference.

One definition of queer, according to the OED, is “not in normal condition, out of sorts; giddy, faint, or ill.” Thus, among other things, queer is an ill feeling that undoes identity categories. If we consider queer not in terms of a particular sexual identity—that is, not as a form of being but as a mode of doing—then we can expand the affective and effective possibilities of the concept. What might it mean to do queer rather than be queer, and how might this doing create new forms of not only queer sexuality but also queer love? In this paper, I explore these questions in particular within the domain of the illness politics and practices of care that emerged out of the response to AIDS as represented in hybrid verbal and visual narratives from the 1980s to the present: Cindy Patton and Janis Kelly’s Making It: A Woman’s Guide to Sex in the Age of AIDS(1987); Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For(1983-2008), David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook’s comic 7 Miles a Second(2012); Jaime Cortez’s Sexile(2004); and MK Czerwiec’s graphic memoir Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371(2017). Patton and Kelly’s guide to safe sex incorporated comics drawn by Bechdel in the style and tone of her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and Bechdel’s strip, which began its long-syndicated run in 1983, dealt with safer sex and AIDS activism on several occasions. 7 Miles a Second was also a collaboration and documents Wojnarowicz’s experiences of hustling, homelessness, art, and illness in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. Sexile is an HIV-prevention publication created for the AIDS Project Los Angeles and Gay Men’s Health Crisis and features the story of Adela Vásquez, a Cuban transgender person and AIDS activist who came to the US as part of the Marielito boatlift in 1980. Taking Turns draws on Czerwiec’s own experience as a nurse on an AIDS unit in Chicago, as well as her interviews with other practitioners and patients. I argue that these graphic AIDS narratives draw queer loveby depicting a multiplicity of practices of care, art, and politics.

Graphic Trauma: Drawing as working through sexual violence

I’m looking forward to the Comics and Medicine 2018 conference in Vermont in August. This is one of my favorite conferences and I try to attend every year. I love the cross-disciplinary, cross-practice (health, art, conceptual) aspect of the conference. This year I’m presenting a paper called “Graphic Trauma: Drawing as working through sexual violence.” Here’s my abstract:

Stories of sexual harassment and assault are currently reverberating through US cultural and political life, and #metoo has become shorthand for the hard work of testifying to experiences of violence and trauma and the difficult working through of feelings of pain and anger. We have also seen in recent years the publication of several graphic narratives that deal with sexual violence and its aftermath. In this presentation, I will explore some examples of what I call graphic trauma, a process of drawing as a form of working through the experience and event of sexual violence. In a conversation between comics critic Hillary Chute and comics artist Scott McCloud, Chute uses the phrase “the secret labor of comics” to emphasize the hidden work involved in what McCloud describes as the choices comics creators have to make in terms of “what moments to include in a story and what moments to leave out.”[1]

A key aspect of the comics form, then, is the necessity of what Chute describes as the work of condensation and distillation. Thus, I want to explore the possibility of graphic narratives as a medium well-suited for rendering trauma, and in particular the trauma of sexual violence as exemplified in Una’s Becoming Unbecoming and Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! These works show how young women often first experience sex and sexuality as traumatic, because at the moment they are becoming sexual, their sexuality is taken away from them by a violent experience. Drawing for Una and Barry becomes a means by which they demonstrate resilience, the hard work of accessing what one can’t remember and what one can’t forget at the same time.

[1]Hillary Chute, Interview with Scott McCloud, Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 29.