The canon of mainstream superheroes is distressingly homogenous. Which makes the sudden appearance of Kickass Drag Queen, an Instagram comic about drag queens with superpowers, feel both praiseworthy and long overdue. The series sprang from the mind of Bob the Drag Queen, a.k.a. Caldwell Tidicue. The winner of the eighth season of RuPaul's Drag Race is known for her over-the-top camp and millennial wit. And she's sprinkled the same heart and sass, which endeared her to the fans of TV's best reality show, all over her new comic.
What's surprising is that Kickass Drag Queen was created almost by accident. Tidicue, who's a prolific stand-up comedian and actor, says he has about "a million ideas a day," constantly spitting them out to see what sticks. "First, the name hit me: Kickass Drag Queen, which I just thought was a funny name for a superhero. Also, I really like on-the-nose drag names, as you can tell, because my name is Bob the Drag Queen," Tidicue says. "There's just something funny about that to me. It tells you everything you're getting upfront. You know she's a drag queen. You know she kicks ass."
Comedian Matteo Lane, who illustrates Kickass Drag Queen, says he's floored by the response from Drag Race fans. He says that at a recent stand-up gig, the MC rattled off his comedy credits before mentioning Kickass Drag Queen. "A room of 100 gay men gasped like I was Mariah Carey," Lane says. "It was like, really?" Clearly something is resonating. Just six posts in, the Instagram account boasts more than 32,000 followers.
Kickass Drag Queen stands out through the way it swaps superhero tropes for drag references. "The fans will notice little stuff, like when I'm sitting there with my tip bucket, and there's just a burnt-out cigarette in it," Tidicue says. Villains and protagonists are thinly disguised versions of queens from RuPaul's enterprise. Kim Chi, a runner-up on season eight of Drag Race, morphs into Slim Chi, a nefarious makeup thief possessing the power of shade, throwing a mysterious, glittery fog in her wake. Visual sound effects like POW or THWACK are swapped for EDGES, SNATCHED, and YASS GAGA! RuPaul makes a cameo as supervillain Rude Paul. "If you can't pull off a heist for yourself, how in the hell are you gonna pull off a heist for somebody else?" he intones—a maniacal twist on the self-love mantra that closes each episode of Drag Race.
I talked to scholars about the history of queerness in comics, and they told me that while there's a rich tradition of LGBTQ representation in underground comics, Kickass Drag Queen is pretty much unlike anything else out there. "This question of representation is something that's big in drag but also huge in comics. We see it in conversations about superhero comics especially, and who gets represented and how around questions of gender. And when you bring drag into the mix, it gets really interesting," says Margaret Galvan, PhD, an assistant professor of visual rhetoric at the University of Florida.
She tells me that queer comics don't typically emerge out of mainstream spaces, rife with problematic representation, but out of alternative venues. In the 60s and 70s, they'd appear in hyper-local publications. The 90s saw the advent of zines. It makes sense that Instagram is a natural, digital-age extension of that. "To see this sort of innovation in the digital realm is really interesting and aligns to where queer comics are—they're always thinking of different spaces of community building and different ways to represent their work," Galvan says.
So far, just two episodes of Kickass Drag Queen exist on the internet. Fan engagement dictates if and when new issues will drop. Tidicue and Lane embargoed their second episode, for example, until the account hit 15,000 followers. The anticipation expressed by fans in the comments as they waited indicates a uniquely invested readership, another intrinsic quality of queer comics, according to Galvan.
"I've been doing archival research of letters sent to comics artists where people sent checks to pay for the comic to be printed," she says. "But they're also engaging with the plot of the comic and saying, 'I hope this happens or doesn't happen,' or 'Have you thought about this representation of your character?' […] Reader engagement is important throughout all comics, but there's something unique about how it gets wielded in queer comics. So when I noticed that callout to readers on Instagram, I thought that was really powerful."
One mainstream comic that helped lay the foundation for Kickass Drag Queen is the X-Men. In his book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, José Esteban Muñoz writes about the affinity queer readers feel for the series. "One of the reasons is because it breaks the form of the superhero team. Usually a superhero team has one female character and they're all homogenous, whereas X-Men starts off like that, but in the 70s, the team transforms and becomes very international, multi-racial, and even in terms of gender," Galvan says.
"There's something interesting, too, about the fact that […] queer people can relate to a lot of the storylines in X-Men. These are people who are hidden from society and can't reveal their true selves, because if they do they'll be hated for it, which is something that obviously a lot of people of color and queer people have gone through," Lane says. "So it's cool that we can now do a comic book that features a variety of characters of different backgrounds, and are queer, and play into a world that exists. This isn't something that's really done."
The popularity of Drag Race, and consequently Kickass Drag Queen, reflects a shifting cultural landscape in which depictions of queerness is increasingly mainstream. "I think what we're seeing now is a really cool turn toward bridging the gap between mainstream and underground comics," says Ashley Manchester, managing editor of ImageTexT and a PhD candidate at the University of Florida. "One of the downsides of underground publications is that they're easily written-off or ignored. When you have something like this bridging genres and tropes, it's harder to write off as an underground, radical publication."
In the wake of the deadly riots in Charlottesville and a Republican administration increasingly targeting minority communities, Tidicue feels strongly that even though Kickass Drag Queen started as a lark, there's a place for her in the canon of American superheroes. "If you look back at old Captain America comic strips, he used to fight Nazis, you know? The American ideal is standing up and saying, 'No, that is not the status quo, and we will not accept that,'" he says. "I believe maybe Kickass Drag Queen is the new Captain America. Like, America has changed. And now it's a big, black man wearing an Afro, wielding a magical purse that flies through the air."
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