Julia Scheele & Meg-John Barker
QUEER: A Graphic History is the gender and sexuality textbook every school library should stock–on every shelf. It runs at an unrelenting pace, if you keep turning the pages, but each leaf has enough information and suggestion packed into a short paragraph of text and a large illustration to get a brain whizzing. QUEER does not pretend to deliver all the information. It presents itself as a guide to previously existing scholarship, a guide so that its reader may better navigate longer, drier texts, or (as many teenagers prefer) begin to stake out their own thoughts on and evaluations of the subject.
QUEER also does not pretend that it is presenting an “unbiased” view of the history of queer scholarship. This is not a backhanded compliment; it’s one I quite intend. QUEER takes a stand and backs it up. The authorial voice is clear, and confident: Queerness is good. Natural, unsinful, real, appropriate, acceptable, whichever formulation of language you need to deeply reassure you (or your peer, parent, or pastor) that queer is not to be feared. Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele present this gist so as to create a truth unmistakable.
When relaying the work of Freud, for example, his breakthroughs and progressive introductions to popular sexology are positioned as admirable scientific work that is held back by the negativity it still contained for queer desire. Freud is not granted the grand authority often invoked by his name, but rather given a “you tried” place in the chronology of mainstreaming queer awareness. And history marches on.
The shortness of each page’s text component is a blessing, as the conceptual grappling on many topics might easily overwhelm if each isolated subject were given enough discussion that it began to seem isolated. Scheeles’ illustrations (each page, essentially, centres an image half-illustration, half-political cartoon elucidating on the subject it shares with the text) emphasise nuance and vastness, despite the micro-bite, encyclopaedic style. Meg-John ponders in the introduction, “There are multiple queer theories rather than one queer theory. Several of these actually contradict each other.” Motion and shifting definitions are suggested as well as primarily described: Sherlock Holmes’ description of his brother Mycroft (who is queer as in strange) coming soon, in history and on-page, after queer (as homophobic pejorative) began the trial of Oscar Wilde ensures the liminality of definitive queerness is coded into the form of the book. It is purposefully unforgettable.
Three pages on Kinsey zip through his introduction as a sex-positive researcher in a time of sex-negativity to his legacy. The second page, in three paragraphs of three lines each, begins on an introduction to the Kinsey scale and ends on the scale’s failure to interrogate the gender binary. The next three pages are titled Simon and Gagnon’s Sexual Scripts, Bem’s Androgyny, and Black Feminists, which quickly coalesce inter-relevantly on page forty-three: Multiple Identities and Marginalisation.
Scheele’s cartooning endeavours to decentralise “normalcy” as much as the introduction affirms as the book’s manifesto. Both Barker and Scheele appear fairly privileged within the queer community–both white, British, apparently able-bodied, and not fat–and the cover of the book (and its starting point in Western scholarship) reflects this. In socially educational cartooning, the appearance of privilege and the appearance of oppression are the goals of the craft. If this were simply a textbook textbook, it would be enough to write about diverse thought and multiplicity.
Scheele profiles each listed thinker with a portrait, making their faces as well as their wisdom, retained or otherwise, recognisable. Learn familiarity with Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak and Cathy Cohen, if you know bell hooks already. And you will learn, because when a thinker’s thoughts are reintroduced so is their face–the second time, without a nametag. The brain is challenged, the brain accepts. Where Scheele is drawing imaginary characters to help define terms and concepts, diversity of identity may appear more or less obvious depending on how you parse her minimalist linework. The context, these characters’ placement in a book of purposefully intersectional queer theory, nudges the reader towards the relinquishment of specificity. That individual looks like that and is queer; let’s accept them. Or this character looks like that, and I’m learning to think queerly, so I won’t assume that the “obvious” signifiers are so.
Nothing is left alone long enough to seem like the whole of the thing; a speedy full read followed by a languid flick back and forth, a dip in here and there as one’s own perspective forms and evolves, seems like the best possible study experience. When a previous entry becomes relevant to a later one, or might help contextualise it, on-page callbacks reinforce queer theory as subject many, varied people have been working earnestly on since, without doubt, before you were born.