EDGE Interview: Director Vivian Kleiman Explores Queer Comics in New Doc on PBS

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday January 30, 2023

Alison Bechdel in a still from "No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics"
Alison Bechdel in a still from "No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics"  

EDGE caught up with Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Vivian Kleiman in the middle of California's recent extreme weather. The scheduled Zoom call didn't work as planned, causing us to default to the decidedly less 21st-Century option of speaking by phone, but Kleiman was fazed neither by the delay nor the lack of virtual face-to-face contact. "We're just lucky to have electricity right now in my neighborhood," Kleiman said cheerfully, before going on to offer reassurances that she was well-prepared for whatever Mother Nature had in store. "I have red wine, cheese and crackers," the filmmaker disclosed.

Earlier in her career, Kleiman was a collaborator with the noted Black poet and filmmaker Marlon Riggs. Among their projects was the groundbreaking film "Tongues Untied," which explored the topic of Black erasure in the gay community as well as the larger culture in America. "Tongues Untied" triggered intense backlash when it was aired by PBS, with the notoriously homophobic Sen. Jesse Helms trying to use the film as an excuse to gut arts funding.

Insofar as things have gotten better for sexual minorities, it's been a matter of visibility and representation; in turn, more LGBTQ+ Americans have kicked the closet door right off the hinges. As a result, the old stereotypes — though making a fierce attempt at a comeback lately — have less traction now than they once did.

While film, television, and books have been crucial to this new level of acceptance, other forms of art, including the oft-overlooked (and, some might say, lowly) art of comic books have also figured in. Kleiman's new documentary "No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics" charts the progress that out artists have made in telling queer stories from a queer perspective and doing so in the wildly imaginative ways that comics make possible.

Read on to find out what Kleiman had to tell EDGE about the doc's origins, the current climate in America as homophobic forces strain mightily to gin up anti-LGBTQ+ laws and social sentiment, and PBS emerging once again as a champion of arts and oppressed people by screening "No Straight Lines" on its documentary series "Independent Lens" this on Jan. 23. To watch, follow this link.

Vivian Kleiman
Vivian Kleiman  

EDGE: Justin Hall, who produces this documentary together with you, edited a comic anthology with a similar title, "No Straight lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics," and he's also created LGBTQ+ comics of his own. I wonder if he brought this project to you, or did you seek him out?

Vivian Kleiman: Justin had the idea initially to do a documentary based on all the research that he did for the anthology. He started it with a friend of his, Greg Sirota, who's a filmmaker I've collaborated with in other projects. In the end, it worked out such that Greg decided to move down to LA and earn a living as an editor rather than an independent documentary filmmaker, and Justin I proceeded to complete the film together.

When they first approached me, I was a little skeptical. Alison Bechdel's "Dykes to Watch Our For," a long-running strip in the queer and feminist newspapers in the '80s and '90s, was a lifeline for me and many of us who saw ourselves finally represented in pop culture. After that, I wasn't really involved in the comic scene, but then Justin encouraged me to attend the world's first international gathering of queer comic book artists, which was held, I think, in 2016, in New York. He was one of the organizers along with [out queer comics creator] Jen Camper. I walked into that gathering space, and immediately my stereotypes evaporated. My assumption about comic book artists was based on Robert Crumb — the notion of the curmudgeon, the snarky, snarly kind of person who was homophobic, [and] certainly misogynist, not somebody that I wanted to spend a lot of time with.

Instead, I walked in and the whole range of queer community was there — there was such joy and connection. For the next few days of the conference, as I attended the different presentations and met artists or heard their stories and saw their comics, I knew that this was a very rich subject. I was struck by the notion that, "Oh, a film about the history of queer comics is actually a cool way of telling queer history through the vernacular of a young generation." I thought that was really exciting, and I wanted to learn more about it.

EDGE: You've said that with this project you "wanted to create an intergenerational story of our emergence from rejection to acceptance and help LGBTQI youth feel safe." America's queer youth need that right now, because they are under such terrifying legislative and social attacks.

Vivian Kleiman: When we started to film, there was much more of a sense of optimism and hope for increased acceptance of the diversity of queer people. We had gay marriage happening, and all kinds of new legislation to protect people. And now, after the — what, five years? — that it took to create the film, we are looking at a completely different landscape. It's truly terrifying. My hope is that the film will offer some sense of inspiration, and the notion that we have more strength as a community to overcome these challenges.

EDGE: It might be a ironic measure of progress that the most challenged book in America right now is an autobiographical graphic novel called "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe, who identifies as non-binary and asexual.

A still from "No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics"
A still from "No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics"  

Vivian Kleiman: Yeah, and isn't that amazing? Maia was just honored as one of the two Comic Artists of the Year by the comic book industry. We actually included a little snippet of comments by Maia in the film, along with about a dozen other queer artists. Maia was great and articulate, and smart and sharp.

EDGE: I think it might have been Maia who said this, but one of the things that stood out to me was how one of the younger cartoonists interviewed in the film said that when you're drawing a comic strip, you can draw yourself as you see yourself, not as others see you. That is such a beautiful observation.

Vivian Kleiman: It's completely wonderful, and it speaks to the power of comics. And, you know, comics is a DIY art form. It doesn't take much to sit down and do it. In the old days, it was sit on the couch with Rapidograph pen [as pioneering lesbian cartoonist Mary Wings describes having done in the film]. Today, you can still do that, but you can also just pick up your mouse and work on your laptop and create images of your own life and your own world. It's such a powerful tool, because it's so accessible.

[The proliferation of] web comics has allowed there to be queer comic imagery created of in all different genres of the art, from sci-fi to little warm, fuzzy animals. As Jen Camper says, the joy now is that there's so many wonderful artists that you have the freedom to not read the works by some people because it's not to your taste.

EDGE: Was it a thrill to be interviewing people like Jen Camper or Mary Wings, as well as Rupert Kinnaird and Howard Cruse, among so many others?

Vivian Kleiman: One of the joys of documentary filmmaking is the opportunity to sit down and have a heartfelt conversation with folks who otherwise I'd have no business ever talking with. To get to spend some time with Howard Cruse, such a distinguished person, and so smart and so authentic, and so real — I can't begin to describe how much fun it is. Or Alison Bechdel, [who was] so generous with her time. To actually be there in their workspaces and to sit with them as they're demonstrating some of their techniques of drawing was truly a privilege.

A still from "No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics"
A still from "No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics"  

EDGE: It's a wonderful thing that one of the most celebrated new shows on Netflix at least is based on a webcomic, Alice Oseman's "Heartstopper."

Vivian Kleiman: Yeah, it's a brilliant series, and the thing about "Heartstopper" that I really love is that, yes, it was based on a comic book, but you don't need to even know that. It's just pure joy. It's at once our lives and everybody's lives, in a certain sense, because we've all gone through challenges and faced difficulties in our lives. For queer people to actually see those characters is just amazing. I pinch myself [over] where we've come to be.

Let me just add that, by contrast, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, all the main streamers, rejected "No Straight Lines." To their credit, it was national public television that sought out the film. They came to us, and I have only the highest respect for the folks at Independent Lens for their courage and bravery. We did have to tweak the images a little bit to conform to FTC rules and regulations, which the streamers are not obligated to conform to, but nothing was really lost in the process.

EDGE: I remember when PBS were getting raked over the coals by lawmakers because, supposedly, they had funded "Tales of the City." [Channel 4 in Britain funded production of that miniseries.] Now here we are again, with conservatives attacking our community, and PBS is airing your film.

Vivian Kleiman: Let me actually roll back even further in PBS history: My film partner was a controversial Black, gay filmmaker named Marlon Riggs. His "Tongues Untied" was a landmark documentary, and it also created a huge hue and cry in response to the announcement that it was going to be broadcast on National Public Television.

It's a personal documentary about being Black in America, done in a very poetic style, and folks like Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson were enraged that stories of Black lives were to be shown on public television. At the time, the leadership at national PBS defended and supported the broadcast. Not a frame was changed.

Fast forward. Marlon passed away in 1994; in 2019, it was 30 years since the release of "Tongues Untied," and there was some effort to try to have it rebroadcast on national PBS, but at that point the leadership at PBS felt they had to turn down that possibility because the situation has changed so much.

EDGE: I wonder what working with Marlon Riggs might have clarified for you about intersectionalities of race and gender and sexuality that you've explored in your work, including "No Straight Lines."

Vivian Kleiman: "Tongues Untied" was initially going to be a 12, maximum 15 minute, sort of a slideshow that was intended to be screened at three gay bars — one in Oakland, where he lived, one in San Francisco, across the bridge, and one in DC. The final piece was just shy of an hour. It won every top prize at the Berlin Film Festival; it got accolades from all corners of the planet. It really established a whole new language for filmmaking. But the big takeaway from "Tongues Untied" was that it was created for a very specific audience: Black gay men. Period. At every junction, every edit, the question was, "Is this moment in the film adding to the conversation among Black gay men, or is it explaining? Is it expository for the outsider?" If the latter, it was cut. If the former, it had all the credentials to stay in the film.

I've taken that lesson with me throughout all my subsequent filmmaking, and I think that's part of what infuses "No Straight Lines" with the vitality and life force that it has. It's ironic, and it's counterintuitive, but by adhering to that notion of this being a conversation among queer people and not trying to explain this to outsiders, we've created a welcome mat to outsiders because the piece is more authentic, more real.

"Independent Lens" aired "No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics" on PBS on Jan. 23. To watch the film, follow this link.

Watch the trailer below:

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.