Bi The Books: James Tynion Pulls Back The Curtain on Erasure and Queer Haircuts [Flame Con]
After a successful and sizzling debut last year, the LGBTQ-focused Brooklyn-based comics convention Flame Con burst back onto the comics scene in a technicolor blaze earlier this month. The New York Marriott Brooklyn Bridge Hotel's halls and exhibitor floors housed rainbow decor, subversive cosplay, smiling volunteers, and at least one sign denoting accessible "Professor X & Oracle" elevators.
It also hosted some of the industry's most prominent and prolific creators, such as comics writer James Tynion IV. In just over four years, he's written on Batman, Constantine: The Hellblazer, Talon, and several series at Boom Studios. He currently writes Detective Comics, The Woods, and his new queer-inclusive Boom series The Backstagers with Rian Sygh.
In the first of a series of interviews from Flame Con, Comics Alliance got the chance to sit down with Tynion to talk about queer comics, Boom Studios, and... world domination?
Comics Alliance: What does it mean for you personally to be at a convention like Flame Con?
James Tynion IV: Wow. It means a lot. I think it’s one of the worst kept secrets in comics that comics has a huge queer community. I think there’s something about the kind of outcast nature of comics as a medium and also the fact that — superhero comics in particular, but — comics of all shapes and sizes tend to tell the stories of outsiders.
I think that seeing that grow to the point where now there are enough creators to fill a convention hall and not just, you know, not a niche press ... but like, creators in the mainstream working on major properties and also their own personal works. It’s something really special, and it’s something I genuinely think I never would’ve expected even fifteen years ago when I was just a kid reading comics.
If I had known there could be a major queer comics convention, that would be something special. And that’s why I was thrilled to be part of it last year and the second I heard there’d be a follow-up, I knew I’d be involved.
CA: Absolutely. And that it can expand from one year to another, and not just remain niche. And that it can grow to a bigger venue and have two days.
JT: Yes. Absolutely.
CA: Queer franchise characters, especially those who are bisexual or pansexual, kind of have a long history of facing erasure — whether by characters not having their sexuality acknowledged for years or runs at a time, publishers being unwilling to put a name on it when there’s a lot of subtext, even to the point where the creators behind the Constantine television show were dodgy about naming it. In your very first issue of Constantine: The Hellblazer, he acknowledges that he’s flirting with another guy. Is acknowledging a character’s queerness hard?
JT: Yes. It’s hard in the literal process of writing it in a book. It’s an awkward line to throw in the middle of conversation. But do you know what else is awkward? Having a character name themselves in every issue, and that’s something we seem to get around doing just fine in comics.
When working on a franchise character in particular, like John Constantine, it’s a character I know has been through this more than most characters, where different writers write a different John. Everyone who approaches a character when they’re writing them for the first time, they come at the character through their interpretation of what they’ve read and what they’ve loved...
[T]here are a few small stories over the course of [John]'s history that acknowledge his bisexuality, but there are a lot more where it just never comes up. Therefore, when you’re constructing a John out of all of those favorite stories, you have to deliberately approach it. You have to deliberately name it. And that was important to me. And, frankly, it’s also the simple fact that as a bi creator, the stories that mattered to me the most, that went to influence my take on the character, were the stories that did acknowledge.
I can understand from the perspective of — it can be difficult, especially in a story that does have John with a female love interest, which, there have been many of those stories, and many of them are great. I understand the difficulty, in that story, of finding a place to call out something that isn’t relevant to that story, but I would push that creator to be creative in a way to acknowledge it. In a very simple way, I think it’s important for people to know.
CA: In ensemble series with big names like Batman, it's easy for the bigger characters to take up more of the oxygen. But Detective Comics, specifically even this arc, has had a significant focus on Batwoman. And even in every issue, every other character at least gets a character beat or a personally tailored moment. What prompted you to focus on Batwoman this arc, and will there be a revolving character focus throughout the series?
JT: There are definitely different arcs that focus on different characters, but Batwoman will always be fairly front-and-center. The larger mystery behind the backbone of the series is very deeply tied in Colony and the secret battle between Colony and the League of Shadows, which will have ties to another character in the series — but those ties haven’t been revealed yet — so, Batwoman, just for simple plot purposes, she will remain front-and-center and her relationship with her father is something that will continue to drive the book.
I think, honestly, one of the biggest reasons that it’s built this way is that there are two other Batman books right now. Frankly, I like Batman as part of an ensemble, especially in a book where all the characters are inspired by him in different ways and they’re shaped by him in different ways. And allowing him to not be up front-and-center and not being in his head in every issue, it allows you to see Batman in the same way that they see him. Because all of the other characters emote more than Batman does, these are characters who can talk about what they feel about Batman, what they feel about the legacy of Batman.
The second arc’s going to be pretty brutal to the idea of what Batman does. The second arc is called "The Victim’s Syndicate," and it’s about a group of villains that comes forward who all of them had their lives destroyed in the crossfire between Batman and his villains. They’re the forgotten people who literally, like, a stray bullet would go out and the strike them. And you have to realize that happens every single time Batman fights the Joker, someone innocent gets hurt in that. It’s someone coming forward and is just like, “You have to stop, you have to stop putting the city through this, you can’t allow that kind of damage to happen.”
Especially in a team that also has a character like Clayface, who has literally done terrible things to people and it’s just — the impact of Batman is so core to this series and what it means to different characters, and especially what it means to Kate --- and how Kate, in some ways, could be a better rallying symbol for this next generation of Bat-heroes, is something I’m very interested in exploring.
CA: In the area of queer presentation politics, I have to ask: what prompted, either in-text or out, Kate’s transition from a hard femme bob to a more butch, shaved look?
JT: We'll be seeing Kate in more of the — I do like the high femme. There’s a moment in, I think it’s #943, where there was an initial outline of Kate in a more standard dress and it was just, “We got to boost this up” because that’s so much a part of Kate. ...
I wanted to get at a raw form of Kate in formation. Something that would harken back almost to the idea of Kate at bootcamp, Kate at the beginning of her story, even though this isn’t Kate at the beginning of her story literally, it’s the beginning of a new chapter. That was something that it was a deliberate choice, but we will see her spirit coming out more through her fashion and style.
CA: You’ve been the writer behind at least four different queer-led series at Boom Studios: Cognetic, Memetic, The Woods, and now The Backstagers. What has made Boom such a fit for all these queer stories?
JT: Honestly, the biggest reason I ended up working with Boom is the simplest reason: they’re the ones that came to me when I was back working on Talon. They asked me if I had any ideas of things I wanted to do, and I think they were looking for just a simple four-issue series pitch.
And instead I pitched them a three-year epic series [The Woods] and they actually decided to take a chance. And they gave me a twelve-issue order and then once it actually launched and launched successfully, they gave me a contractual guarantee that it would go all the way to its intended ending with #36.
And then when I came back to them the next time with Memetic, I came to them like, “I know you typically do four-issue miniseries, how I want to do this is three issues that are 32 pages each.” I think I asked them for 38 pages, and 32 is where we negotiated down to.
I wanted to do it in a strange format, because that was how the book needed to be told. It was either do it as an OGN, or do it three days to the apocalypse and each issue’s a day. It couldn’t have worked in 22-page chunks. You need something more expansive. And once again: Boom said yes.
I think at this point I’ve built up at least a moderate following, but I think at that point I was still so brand-new and the fact that they were invested in me and invested in my ideas was the reason I went with them.
I think that speaks a lot to some of the corporate culture there, which is the fact that they have one of the most diverse editing staffs of any company in this business. I remember when The Woods first came out, the thing that I like to point to when looking at the whole Boom line at the moment was, when I imagine comics as they will be in ten years, that’s what Boom is publishing now. And being a part of that, being a part of people who are looking forward and looking towards, “Yes, there is a valuable market in diverse content, yes there is a valuable market in all-ages content.”
Which, I think, when the history gets written of the comics era in this moment, one of the most important things will have been the Adventure Time series that Shannon Watters put together for Boom, and that launched KaBoom, and then Boom Box and all of that, which then brought in the entire webcomics community into mainstream published comics. It completely changed the landscape immediately.
And it all comes down to Boom getting the Adventure Time license. And that all came down to Shannon Watters walking into, I think, [editor-in-chief] Matt Gagnon and [CEO] Ross Richie’s offices, and just being like, “We need this franchise, this is tapping into something that nothing in the comics industry is tapping into, but every comics reader would be interested in.” That foresight, all of that, is why I allied myself with Boom.
And I’ve been very happy there. All of my work comes from DC and Boom right now, and I’m happy in that arrangement.
CA: As an all-ages comic with queer male protagonists, The Backstagers is a pretty unique item on the comics landscape. What prompted you to create The Backstagers and what are your goals for it?
JT: Goals are world-domination. [Laughs] No.
[T]hey announced Boom Box while I was working on the first few issues of The Woods, and I was immediately fascinated by what this new line could be.
At that point, all-ages comics tended to all be licensed properties. There were outliers, and important outliers like Bone, but they were few and far between, or they were part of the book market. They were part of functionally a different industry. And seeing that rise up, I knew that it was something I wanted to take part in.
It took a while for me to realize what story I wanted to tell — all of my work, it all comes from me, it’s all representing different aspects of myself and different anxieties and all that. And I lean very much towards horror and angst in a lot of them, and the idea of a challenge, of writing something that speaks to the best of us — something that is rooted in positivity — it was really important to me that I do something in that space.
It was figuring out that if I wanted to do that, I didn’t just want to represent myself, I wanted to represent — there is not a lot of content out there that shows how diverse young male queerness is. ... In this book, I wanted to narrow the focus to just show: if you zero in on this, you can see how many different types of young queer boys there are.
And it’s the simple fact that it didn’t exist. That was the reason I wanted to do that. And I knew I wanted to do something with the backstage world. Stage crew was such a formative experience for me. It was the heart of what I wanted to do.
There’s the other all-ages Raina Telgemeier Drama book that deals a bit with stage crew and the drama scene and all that, and that was very grounded, it teaches you life lessons and it’s amazing. I love that book, I love everything that Raina’s done. But I wanted to do something that was a little weirder and more fantastical, and something that was rawer around the edges. That was the heart of what I wanted to do there.
CA: What would you like to see from the industry — whatever that means to you — in terms of supporting queer creators and queer stories going forward?
JT: The biggest thing we’re seeing right now is that the trans community seems to finally be finding a voice in the comics market. And that we’re in such nascent stages of that, but the fact that there are multiple trans creators that I know and that I’ve worked with, including on The Backstagers, it’s something that’s really, really exciting to me, because it is an entire realm of experience that could lead to hundreds and hundreds of new stories that I couldn’t write. That nobody has tried writing before, than no one would think to try to write.
Just being greedy for more good comics, that makes me really excited. The thing that I hope to see in the future is, I do hope that the major companies find those voices and give them a spotlight. That would be my number one hope in the next few years.
There are still tremendous issues in terms of queer representation, but we’re also getting to the point where — not to toot my own horn — but I’m an openly queer creator as the head writer on Detective Comics, which is co-starring a queer lead. And you have creators like Steve Orlando on multiple titles for DC. You have Phil Jimenez.
The queer voices are coming forward, and I think in terms of the young generation of comics writers and artists, they’re, frankly — and this just might be the bubble I live in — but it seems like queer is the new majority. And there is something very exciting about that. And I’m excited to see where it all leads.