The Gender Bent Justice League. Photo by Pat Loika
The most interesting things for me at Bent-Con—the annual Los Angeles-area LGBT comic convention held last weekend—were (no surprise) the cocks and asses. There were comic book drawings of hyper-muscular red-skinned devils showing off their cocks, a guy dressed up as Cyclops from the X-Men shaking his ass, zombies with undead semen dripping off the heads of their decaying dicks… You get the picture.
The convention is still in its early years. Its mission is to give space for LGBT creators and fans of comics and speculative fiction, sci-fi, and horror. It rests squarely in the deep cultural overlap between geek and queer communities, both of which are on display in all their full-frontal glory.
“More people are photographing me than the celebrities here!” said one among the hundreds of registrants, a guy dressed like a reptile. The costume was almost esoterically specific—he was a Sleestak from Land of the Lost—but plenty of people, myself included, got the reference. There were people dressed as wolf-headed manga characters, Game of Thrones gays, and Joss Whedon web series villains. It was a blend of a particular and detailed kind of language with over-the-top spectacle, hyper-real against the beige convention center walls. In other words, it echoed a sort of condensed LGBT culture: A culture that languished in its own hidden cues and communications in a former age and has increasingly settled into the happily exaggerated politics of visibility.
Warning: The next image is a fantastical illustration of an iceman ejaculating into his own mouth. If you're at work, and your employer would be upset with you viewing such an image, we'd wait until you get home.
"The Iceman Cummeth," by Jezza Smilez
But what was up with the devil dicks? Not to mention the books about guys with human bodies and fox heads having sex, or the paintings of Captain Kirk lifting his shirt to show off his six pack. (William Shatner should probably send the artist a thank you note.)
It would be easy enough to dismiss all the fucking, I suppose. But if there’s one thing comic conventions teach you, it’s that everything inconsequential is actually very important. I don’t just mean the way geeks overvalue detail (like when they say things like, “Hey, in issue 274 of The Amazing Spider-Man, why does Spider-man’s webbing dissolve after only fifteen minutes instead of two hours?” or whatever). I mean that what geeks understand better than most people is that themes of pop culture have serious influences on everyday life. That’s why there were discussions on how Wonder Woman influenced feminism, how Nightmare on Elm Street 2 is actually one of the first mainstream gay movies, and how Superman gives us hope that people with white privilege will use that privilege to help others.
A group that gets this as much, if not better than, the geeks are people in LGBT communities, whose entire lives are shaped by pop culture. Media representations of gender expectations and demands to be in typical straight-people-style monogamous relationships have defined LGBT struggles. What I’m saying is, if there are a bunch of comics featuring werewolves with huge boners for sale at a queer comic convention, there’s a reason.
The author, right, with Eternity, the Big Gay Universe
Sex, of course, has been a mainstay and defining aspect of gay culture since people began to acknowledge there was such a thing as “gay culture.” But it’s not exactly obvious why people would want to see their favorite fantasy characters, including inhuman ones, banging each other.
“All I knew as a little kid is that I wanted to hug Freddy from Scooby-Doo,” says Phil Jimenez, one of the world’s best-known superhero comic illustrators, and Bent-Con panelist. “Hug him really tightly.” Some comic book scholars suggest that the less detailed a work of art is, the easier it is to project onto it and have a relationship with it. In other words, the less perfectly human something looks, the easier it is to imaginatively interact with. So comic and cartoon characters, unlike living, breathing people might provide an easy receptacle for the sexual fantasies of developing LGBT youth.
Or maybe it’s about power—super or otherwise. Jimenez suspects that, because sex, gender, and power interrelate, sex is a natural theme for marginalized people and the art they engage with.
“I met this woman from New Jersey at an Italian comic book convention once. She was the muse of an Italian comic artist and she was dressed like a barbarian. Like Conan, but with huge boobs and big nails. She told me that as a girl, everyone around her wanted to be a cheerleader, but not her.” Fixated on being more powerful than a mere cheerleader, “she was fantasizing about being a barbarian.”
Gender-bent Luke and Leia. Photo by Pat Loika
LGBT people often experience similar fantasies, of being someone that stands out for who they are, rather than hiding their true selves away. Since a major aspect of sex is power dynamics, superheroes, who, after all, are super-powerful, are inevitably sexualized. And while mainstream comics prominently feature female characters with huge breasts and pert asses, the iconography at Bent-Con is decidedly phallocentric. But since it’s all tied up in super-ness, in powers and fantasy, it comes across as masculine, but not really male. Many women at the conference—including some lesbian-identified ones—engage with the dick-and-butt show naturally.
In the vendor room, the Tom of Finland Foundation featured its iconic images of gigantic guys with anaconda-sized bulges. A few booths down, Anne Ishii displays the work of Japanese comic-bondage artist Gengorah Tagame and others. It’s part of her efforts to bring Japanese erotic comic art to American audiences. That a woman was doing this work might still seem atypical elsewhere, but not at Bent-Con. Her booth doesn’t express overtly sci-fi work, but the drawings themselves are speculative and fantastic. The world of these gigantic men in compromising positions is a fantasy world, and their presence at the comic con doesn’t seem remotely out of place.
As the long second day of the convention wraps up, there’s a costume contest, and the sexuality and spectacle of the geek world makes me realize how much of LGBT life (including my own) is spent fantasizing. Fantasizing about a world where we fit in, and also a world where the drama of being an outsider is exciting rather than frustrating. And of course, fantasizing about sex.
The contest is fun and hilarious. Lex Luthor in green tights and a jiggling package struts around. A woman takes the stage dressed as Harley Quinn, the Joker’s insane female sidekick. Her face is clownish and she carries a baseball bat, which she shoves down her pants. Deadpool (maybe a woman, maybe a man—the costume is sort of genderless) fake shoots him/herself in the head and a sexy Death comes up to the stage and escorts him/her away. Someone dressed in black and a curving headdress takes the stage. There are stars all over the outfit, which is tight, and even though it totally obscures the attendee’s face, it’s still revealing. It’s Eternity, the character who represents the living embodiment of the entire Marvel comic book Universe. It’s not the most elaborate costume, but it’s my favorite. At Bent-Con, the whole Universe is queer, and it looks kind of awesome.