'No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics' Champions the Legends
The new documentary celebrates the artists who put it all out there so others could follow suit.
Hi, friends. Put No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics on your radar. The film just screened as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, and it got our brain cooking.
You wouldn't know it by looking at him, but Howard Cruse was a ferocious talent and an essential figure within comic books. In 1979, working with publisher Dennis Kitchen, Cruse radically altered the industry as editor of the anthology series Gay Comix. The tiny, quiet, bespectacled man gave everything of himself to his comics, and his epic Stuck Rubber Baby should be on the shelves of each of you reading this sentence. Every line on the page was stripped from his person. Every panel contained his soul. To see them is to stare into the man who made them, and in doing so, you might find some of your humanity there as well.
Cruse died in 2019. He was 75 years old. He was loved. And he's still loved. Not only will his comics forever be reprinted (Stuck Rubber Baby just had its 25th Anniversary edition from First Second Books), but his artistry and spirit exude in the countless cartoonists that came after him. He was a titan, and he deserves our attention.
Thankfully, we have No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics to keep his memory and influence at the forefront. The short documentary (the runtime clocks in just under eighty minutes) succinctly underlines Cruse's impact on the craft while also highlighting several other critical players. We see how Cruse connects to Rupert Kinnard and the Brown Bomber, to Mary Wings and Come Out Comics, to Alison Bechdel and her inevitable musical, Fun Home.
Scattered between the legendary figures and their stories are a myriad of other contemporary artists: folks like Dylan Edwards, Meggie Ramm, Taneka Stotts, and Gaia WXYZ. They're primarily present to provide context regarding the icons. We catch glimpses of what they're doing today, and you'll be scrambling to keep track of the insane amount of new titles you'll need to add to your collection.
Special bonus, No Straight Lines is a cinematic extension of the Fantagraphics collection of the same name. That book's editor, Justin Hall, serves as a co-producer on the documentary. If you find yourself merely tantalized by the film, your next stop must be the book, where you'll find several, if not all, of the doc's participating cartoonists.
Director Vivian Kleiman does not appear interested in a deep-dive discussion. The film sometimes rushes over its subjects, but that could also be a natural result of our interest. On this watch, I found myself wrapped with attention around everything Howard Cruse.
When the doc stepped away from Cruse's story, I experienced a sinking feeling. "No, don't go." But then I'd be onto another person and another story, and I'd get transfixed by their narrative. Then, they'd be gone, and if Cruse was back, I was ecstatic, but if Cruse was not, and it was someone else, my enthusiasm had to ramp up again.
Howard Cruse could and should support his own documentary. But so could Mary Wings and Rupert Kinnard and Alison Bechdel and Jennifer Camper. No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics is more concerned with keeping a record. Kleiman is tracing history, connecting the dots between these figures and the generations that came after. Watch the film. Get jazzed for the work. Go buy the work. Go buy more work.
The No Straight Lines documentary, like the Fantagraphics book, is not meant to be the end of a conversation. It's a beginning. Whether these artists are new to you or not, their appearance here ignites tremendous enthusiasm. The film is an enticing adventure through the most utterly human comics this medium has to offer. It's easy to flip through Hall's anthology and marvel, but Kleiman's film reveals the extraordinary climb folks like Cruse and Wings took to make such a beautiful book a reality.
As such, No Straight Lines as a documentary feels necessary. We need more champions like this film. Kleiman's love is infectious and worked on me like the best creative curator. "Oh, you think this is cool? Well, check this out." Okay, thanks. I will.