At the end of the Gay Genius anthology, its editor, Annie Murphy, uncovers some interesting definitions of the word “genius.” One of them, dating back to ancient Rome, is “a guardian spirit.” Reading this anthology, it felt as much like a ritual prayer or invocation as it did a series of stories. Throughout history, gay culture has frequently been underground culture–hidden, for fear of reprisals, yet always bubbling under the surface. In a sense, Gay Genius is the underground’s underground, invoking a number of storytelling devices not usually seen in the gay comics scene (or in the more conventional alt-comics scene, for that matter) that first arose in the ’70s and has become much more mainstream and prominent today. In discussing a number of transgender experiences, it also touches on some issues that are little-explored in comics (Joey Sayers being a notable exception). Murphy weaves together traditional comics narratives, cruder artwork that borders on outsider art, paintings that have a narrative quality, and nearly abstract images. There’s a sense in which this anthology resembles Kramer’s Ergot in terms of featuring work whose relationship to narrative is tenuous and is designed to challenge the reader. However, the book’s most prominent quality is its warmth and humanity; the work itself seems designed to invoke that guardian spirit for its readers as well as its creators. A better comparison in terms of purpose and composition of its artistic lineup is 2010’s Gazeta, another book that deliberately sought out artists little known to its target audience.
In terms of her design, Murphy aims for high production values mixed with a DIY feel. The front and back cover are by Edie Fake, an artist known for his beautifully stylized, colorful, and geometric drawings. The inside covers are by Pam Cameron-Snyder, who uses an intense pen-and-ink style as she likes to depict hair. However, the table of contents are in a handwritten scrawl by Sarah Sass Biscarra-Dilley, emphasizing that high and low coexist with no tensions in this book. The first piece in the anthology, Matt Runkle’s “Samantha” further exemplifies the book’s aesthetic and philosophy in Runkle’s autobiographical story about his adventures with artist/activist Samantha Dorsett. It’s a funny, touching story drawn with an exaggerated line that’s still fairly conventional in how it approaches the narrative. It’s one of several stories that touches on trans issues, but of greater importance was Dorsett’s commitment to guerrilla art and activism, all done with a relentlessly upbeat sense of humor. The book is dedicated to Dorsett, a woman who defied categorization and inspired those around her; in many respects, she’s the Gay Genius of this anthology.
From that traditional narrative Murphy then switches to a series of four paintings by Lee Relvas. They seem as much constructed as they are drawn and painted, and each tells its own story through both large primary figures and smaller background images. That’s followed by Leroi Newbold’s moving autobiographical stories about her struggles with race and sexuality, crudely drawn in a way meant to mimic children’s art. Race in fact is another prominent touchstone in this anthology, discussed in the context of “transformation and survival.” Those are two keystone concepts of this book, tying into the “guardian spirit” ideal. Transformation is obvious with regard to the transgender-related stories in the book, but it goes hand-in-hand with survival in that one’s transformation becomes a means of survival. That is, overcoming the threat of violence (emotional or physical) because of one’s identity almost necessitates a new identity, leaving behind the old, abused self that had no say in how it perceived & expressed itself.
Fake’s untitled piece is a typically clever visual pun involving a gloved set of hands and letters written on knuckles; the promise of sex and conflict are constant threads in Fake’s work. Ellery Russian’s “Tanis Doe” is about a queer, disabled activist who had a larger-than-life (even grating, at least in this story) personality but also possessed a powerful intellect and enormous compassion. Russian’s art is simple but clever, emphasizing characters and how they relate to each other in space. Elisha Lim’s “100 Butches” is an excerpt from a larger piece, but is here cleverly placed in between two longer works with more conventional narratives. Each page features a drawing of a woman with Lim’s text describing the impact that particular person had on her. This is followed by a series of drawings by Silky Shoemaker that touch on different aspects of gay life and gay icons; it feels superfluous considering the stories that surround it.
Clio Reese Sady’s “The Get-Together” is one of the major pieces in the book, detailing “the very first FTM [female-to-male transgender] get-together” in San Francisco back in 1986. It’s a clever story that painfully captures the awkwardness and nerves of the participants and the details involved both in their decisions to transition as well as the ups and downs of their sex lives. The wash and slightly grotesque figures capture the essence of a far-gone time, without descending too much into sentimentality. That piece is followed by another showcase, Murphy’s own full-color story about a woman named Babe Bean, who spent much of her life in the 19th and early 20th century disguised as a man. It’s a lively, interesting story about a period in US history where such gender bending was almost unheard of. I was a little disappointed that we only got the first installment of this story, but it seems like Murphy is planning a long-form work about Bean. Her line has become more confident and lively since her Xeric-winning I Still Live; she has always had a great sense of composition and design, but it’s her character work that has become far more bold.
After two consecutive long narratives, Murphy breaks things up with Cameron-Snyder’s “Wave Forms”: dense drawings of women with an emphasis on stippled backgrounds and hair. The first of two short pieces by Kubby, a fellow alumna of the Center for Cartoon Studies like Murphy, follows. “Giving In To Desire”, is a heartbreakingly honest strip about desire wherein the artist masturbates to the memory of a deceased loved one, bringing up all sorts of conflicting emotions. Her second story is one of the best in the anthology. It’s about trying to reconcile her identity as a butch lesbian of color with her family’s past, or, to use her metaphor, trying to connect to a family tree whose roots and branches were deliberately sawed away. Kubby compares that to the shelter she feels from multiple generations of queers who have blazed a trail for her as well as provided her a sense of “herstory” and continuity absent from her biological family. Kubby’s simple but expressive line is well-matched to the emotions she’s exploring in her stories. She’s a great example of an interesting artist who hasn’t been widely published, precisely the kind of artist Murphy was looking to promote in this anthology.
The anthology wobbles a bit toward the end. Biscarra-Dilley’s piece is visually stunning, but her idiosyncratic lettering is frequently hard to read. Sailor Holladay’s two-page story isn’t especially memorable, either in terms of the story told or art. The worst fit in the book is Mat Defiler’s “Ergot”, part of a larger work, and featuring a writing style so florid that it is a slog to read. The art is almost as cluttered as the writing. Things pick up again with Sady’s experiment, “Do Not Crush”, a short story about rescuing a bird wherein line disappears and color defines the narrative. Dorsett’s “Strap Yourself In” is a hilarious diatribe against the commodification of protest and a touching story about a sailor who understood his true gender identity and went AWOL in permanent fashion. Dorsett wasn’t much of a drawer, but the sheer energy of her line carries the narrative.
The anthology ends with three pieces that are more illustrated/constructed text than comics, which is not to say that they don’t have narrative qualities. Harmony Bianca’s “The Magic of Being” is heavy on collage and different visual approaches on every page, making explosive use of color. Adee Roberson’s “Quilt” aptly stitches together photographs, typewritten text and colorful drawings into a sort interpretation of dreams by way of personal statement of liberation. Finally, Jackie Davis’s “Ritual” uses double-exposure images to invoke a “ritual to cast out fear, a ritual to find new strength, a ritual to find new life … a ritual, a ritual.” It’s no accident that Murphy put this piece last; it’s that invocation I mentioned earlier in the review, a literal statement of purpose that in speaking out loud, might become reality.
Murphy takes a lot of risks in this anthology and most of them pay off; indeed, some of the more conventional comics here are the least rewarding. The book was one of the last published by Sparkplug Comic Books under the aegis of Dylan Williams, though it was Murphy who raised money through a successful Kickstarter campaign to make the book precisely as she wanted it. I’d love to see her take another crack at such an anthology, though given a choice I’d prefer to see another long-form work from her own pen first. Her voice is distinctive and is in evidence on most every page as someone who wants to comment on numerous forms of injustice but who does so as a storyteller, not a lecturer.