Back in 2018, at the very first Small Press Expo I attended, there was a solo vendor who sold a small selection of handmade zines. One of them was called “The List,” which the vendor summarized as a breakdown of the 1,000+ books that the author had read in a year. I purchased a few zines from that vendor and followed the author’s account on Instagram. It turned out that vendor and author were one and the same, and that person was Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir).
Over the next couple of years, I followed Kobabe’s progress as e landed a book deal to produce eir own memoir… in comics form! It was neat to see so much progress based off the small zines from a few years prior. The book, Gender Queer, was published in 2019, and then fell off my radar for a number of months. It came up again in 2022 after being banned by a number of libraries across the United States.
As someone who had followed the artist’s progress through Instagram (Kobabe even mentions “The List” in Gender Queer) I was baffled that anyone could find offense in Kobabe’s simple style and willingness to expose eir vulnerabilities. Could I possibly find what some have deemed “the statutory definition of obscenity”?
Important for kids, but not for kids?
Thematically, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Gender Queer. Kobabe is painfully honest and exceptionally polite in eir presentation of eir personal problems; eir comics self Maia never scorns people who don’t understand what e feels. On multiple occasions, Kobabe admits eir own imperfections: e is not above forgetting people’s pronouns, and openly acknowledges that eir use of the Spivak e/em/eir is “rare.” The more violently graphic illustrations in the book aren’t indulgent, either. Rather, they often depict some discomforting nightmare scenario anyway, so to expect anything less would be a disservice. Sex is discussed multiple times but depicted in only one panel, and while that panel is more explicit than the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, you’d probably get more mileage out of the latter. This book is about one person’s struggle to fit their sexual identity in a world that they literally don’t understand. If you’re expecting some “damn woke liberal LGBTQ+ snowflake pushing an agenda,” you won’t find it here.
At the same time, it’s extremely likely that you are in this book. Yes, I mean YOU. You might not recognize yourself, but you are here. Maybe you identify as LGBTQ+. Maybe you’re one of the cisgendered background characters who shrug off the issue (and on whom the illustrated Kobabe does not focus.) Maybe you openly support your LGBTQ+ friends, family, and community, but draw the line at the whole “pronoun” discussion. Kobabe addresses all of these experiences, which makes Gender Queer essential reading for all adults.
And here lies one of the sad ironies of the book: it’s a book that many wished they could have had as a child, but it’s quite clearly written for adults (and by “adults” I mean people mature enough to recognize “context.”)
Perhaps the most famous objection to Gender Queer is its one panel wherein a grown man and a boy have a sexual encounter. Except, they’re not characters in the book and they aren’t even touching each other. In fact, they’re drawn as homages to more explicit Greek amphorae, which is only relevant because the scene is literally a fantasy encased in the fictional Kobabe’s mind, and clearly labeled as a reference to Plato’s Symposium. I suspect that in order to draw this reference to Plato’s Symposium, Kobabe has read Plato’s Symposium. I also suspect that detractors of this particular page have not read Plato’s Symposium, for the sensible thing to do when faced with a reference to Plato’s Symposium would be to REFER TO PLATO’S SYMPOSIUM!
Nothing is frustrating the way quote mining is frustrating. Faced with literally hundreds of pages of context, some people just can’t see the forest for the trees. Similar objections were raised in opposition to Maus earlier this year. Complaints like this are out of proportion and maddeningly obtuse.
As much as I support Kobabe’s story and eir telling of it, I do think that it suffers structurally. Gender Queer at times feels like one very long zine, rather than a set of ideas neatly portioned off into chapters and essays. Thoughts and/or narrative formats change every six to eight pages or so. You might be reading a story one page only to be confronted with an infographic the next. The changes aren’t drastic enough to throw off the narrative, but they occur without warning, so it sometimes feels like you’ve missed a section in the book. Characters sometimes suffer from this as well: Maia’s ninth-grade crush is introduced and considered for an entire page, but then goes missing for ten whole pages. When they do show up again, it turns out that the crush is only as significant as the springboard for Maia’s introduction to David Bowie’s music. This is unevenly balanced later in the book, as Kobabe gives noticeably more confident and stylish introductions to Jaina Bee and Patricia Churchland.
Still, this is Kobabe’s first book! E keeps a lot of good comics habits, like ending each page on a “stinger” that keeps the action going onto the next page. There are also some subtle plays with the format: comics Kobabe is asked an arresting question, which maintains a regular speech bubble, but its elongated tail wraps itself around Kobabe in a knot. There is a conscious effort here to make the most of the format, and Kobabe improves as the book goes on.
As someone doesn’t consider himself too concerned with (and occasionally stumped by) LGBTQ+ issues, Gender Queer was worth reading. Kobabe doesn’t ask for anything more than acknowledgement and support, which isn’t really different from what we all want, I dare say.
In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. Now, Gender Queer is here. Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears. Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity—what it means and how to think about it—for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.—Promotional text for Gender Queer