There’s something queer about this comic book art, and, well, that’s the point.
In “We Are More: Stories by Queer Comic Artists” — on view through September at the California Humanities offices in Oakland — visitors can explore the work of Bay Area artists Trinidad Escobar, Lawrence Lindell, Ajuan Mance and Breena Nuñez, who bring their unique voices to the LGBTQ subgenre of the comic book industry.
“Comic books are such a special way to tell stories and make connections,” said John Nguyen-Yap, who organized the exhibit as part of California Humanities’ “Art of Storytelling” program series. “The stories from these artists reflect aspects of queer identities that are often unseen and defy categorization.
“Plus I love comic books!” he said.
While free and open to the public, the exhibit has limited hours. It’s not in a gallery or museum, but in the all-business setting of the organization’s offices on the second floor of the Swan’s Market complex in Old Oakland. So it’s only open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the second Friday of the month (to coincide with the farmers market), or other days by appointment.
The exhibit also features clips form the forthcoming documentary, “No Straight Lines: The Story of Queer Comics,” by filmmaker Vivian Kleiman, exploring the evolution of LGBTQ comics from marginalized underground scene to mainstream status.
If nothing else, enjoy the comic selections on display as beautiful artwork. But it’s best to take a deeper dive into the stories they illustrate. Indeed, contemporary comic books are more than meets the page, venturing beyond mere superhero screeds into complex adventures, fantasies and even real-life issues.
“I love the medium,” said artist Mance, professor of African American literature at Mills College in Oakland and a lifelong artist and writer known for pushing past stereotypes to the nuanced lives of her black, queer and geek/nerd communities. “I never have kept a journal because I get bored writing about myself. But with comics, I found my medium to talk about things that matter to me.”
Her image, “Hattie and Nell Sit by the Pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt,” is an endearing scene of two smiling full-figured women of color wearing vibrant green-and-yellow bathing suits. It depicts actresses Hattie McDaniel and Nell Carter who did not know each other in real life, but who Mance believes would have been friends.
“Both were praised for their skill, even as each woman’s career options were limited by her intersecting identities as fat, Black, and female,” Mance writes in the image description.
Nuñez of Oakland comes from a family of comic book lovers, and even credits Archie Comics for helping her mom learn English. “My spirit animal for most of my youth was Garfield the cat,” she said, laughing. “He taught me to be unapologetically happy about my body image.”
As a non-binary artist, Nuñez’s work is inspired by her experiences as a Central American who has often felt she didn’t fit in. In an image from “La Matriarca,” there’s a charming overhead scene of her younger self splashing in the waves at Half Moon Bay, meant “to show people of the Central American diaspora living in sheer joy, without the need to include constant narratives of warfare and trauma.”
Lindell, who started the Bay Area cartoonist collective The Baylies, says he uses his comic-book art as a form of therapy and a way to talk about issues like mental health and healing, dealing with “heartbreak, finding one’s self, standing still and starting over,” he said. In “The Garden,” a magical garden set in Compton, the inner world of an artist comes to life with a swirled pink creature growing from the ground, a flower emerging from his head.
Escobar is an Oakland cartoonist, poet, mother and author of the graphic memoir, “Crushed.” One of her pieces on display is “Seven Moons,” a black-and-white image depicting the seventh moon from Visayan mythology as a feminine entity, embracing a young woman with a gentle touch. “This is how I feel when I spend time with the moon: nurtured and seen,” she said.
California Humanities, a partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was founded in 1975 to promote the humanities, conversations and learning through grants and special programs with a focus on education and public engagement.
“We Are More: Stories by Queer Comic Artists,” on view through September at the California Humanities office, 538 9th St., Suite 210, Oakland; open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the second Friday of the month (coinciding with the farmers market), or make an appointment by contacting John Nguyen-Yap, email@example.com, 415-391-1474, ext. 301; www.calhum.org.