Monday, May 17, 2021

The Negative Zone (comic strip)

From "The Negative Zone"

This is the foreword to "The Negative Zone", a sixteen-page comic created for my Comic Theory/Queer Studies course at Kent State, Spring 2021.

At the tender age of thirteen, I was frequenting coffee houses after dark with friends of friends, smoking cigarettes and consuming far too much caffeine, and listening as these strange cohorts discussed the philosophy of STAR TREK, made catty remarks about the entrances and exits of familiar faces, and whether or not “to pork” was an appropriate synonym for fucking. 

Pengo, age 14
No one described themselves as queer, but they weren’t exactly straight, either. A self-identified witch claimed she could never get pregnant because she could menstruate at will, a twenty-one year-old hipster had no issues getting my fifteen year-old girlfriend to tongue kiss him, sitting right there in front of me. The rules were not familiar, I did not know what was all right and what was not.

What does “all right” mean, anyway?

As found families go, this one was somewhat toxic and my takeaway included some bad wisdom. Around the same time I was introduced to NORTH STARR COMICS, which was first operated out of this guy’s basement, and later in the storefront of a motel. It was the kind of place dudes (pretty much entirely dudes) might hang out all day. It was a place of safety for nerds where we could eat crap and talk shit and read all the comics and crack jokes and watch movies and just be ourselves.

Pengo & Serena
Up to a point. Our sexuality, ourselves, this remained an awkward subject. This “Bronze Age” of comics, where even the mainstream producers like Marvel and DC were exploring issues of race and class through titles like Cloak & Dagger and the New Teen Titans and the explosively popular X-MEN (and its countless spin-offs) they still served a dominantly heteronormative, binary gender paradigm.

Alternative comics were actually worse. Unburdened by the COMICS CODE AUTHORITY these books could freely offer images of sex and sexual violence with impunity, and of course, even in such high-brow and critically acclaimed titles as V for Vendetta and Sandman, women were the subject of degrading abuse in a manner the men characters never were.

And so many of us (I include myself in this number) were homophobic and sexist by upbringing, if not by nature. A comic shop was a much an example of Foucault’s beloved PANOPTICON as anywhere else in the larger society where, by awareness of constant observation by others, we were still self-governing our behaviors and statements, for fear of judgement or punishment by the larger group -- even if the standards of that behavior in a comic shop was alternate to that which was found in school or on the streets.

Pengo, age 52
THE NEGATIVE ZONE is a fictional space, inspired by the comic stores I frequented: Kovacs, North Starr, Cosmic Comics, Mr. Fantasy’s. A place where teenagers mingled with adults who shared a common interest, and in many cases had a greater opportunity to be their true selves, even when they weren’t sure who that was yet, even as they were in the process of becoming. To quote my man Jean Paul SARTRE, “A person who claims that they fundamentally have a certain identity is in bad faith.”

Many genres and subcultures came together under such roofs, the superhero FANGIRLS AND BOYS and the science fiction geeks, the fantasy seekers and their Wiccan counterparts. And yes, there were online systems back then where computer aficionados from different communities could chat with complete anonymity and pretend to be whoever they wanted to be.

If this all sounds perhaps a little risky, the underage and the aged interacting so far from the watchful eyes of parents and guardians, it was that, too. As it is in our schools and churches, and halls of government. But for those who sought the freedom to explore and to discover brave new identities, it was a haven, a sanctuary, a laboratory. We were IN THE ZONE.

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