The Queerness of Awareness

I’m finishing my Master’s thesis this semester. It’s due in twenty-one days. I’m not freaking out, but I should be. My discomfort outshines the actual work on the page. My confidence exists below the surface. Here in the problem space of research, I would more so turn on the lamp than unveil the curtain to shed light into the room.

My thesis is a case study on Lynda Barry’s What It Is. Like Maggie, I’ve been drawn to comics since I was much younger. I didn’t grow up as the typical bookworm who would now be in an English MA program. I was in remedial English during elementary school and couldn’t focus on anything other than the TV. But, the pages that kept my attention were the funnies.

Frank at twelve years old looks over his left shoulder at the camera where a Sugar Glider perches on that shoulder for dear life.
Me at twelve (I think) with my then roommate Ramesees the Sugar Glider.

Sunday comics seemed to exist between television and writing not only in their visual form but in their pacing. With television, I didn’t control the pace in which I watched a program – Judge Judy did the work for me. Books required too much effort and made me work for the involvement they desired. Comics, though, existed in a controllable environment where I decided my own pace of consumption with the comfort of visual shorthand at play. Yes, I could admire the formatting of a chapter book or the directing cuts of courtroom comedy, but my admiration of the margin and box formed as twelve-year-old me skipped along the panels of my used copy of It’s the Thought That Counts, a collection of For Better or For Worse comics by Lynn Johnson.

Like Barry’s books, Johnson’s collections never exist solely in one genre. In It’s the Thought That Counts, after a hundred pages of pre-published, colored-in greatest Sunday hits, Johnson had a three page spread of prose titled “Lawrence’s Story” where she gave background into a four-week story about one of her son’s friends, Lawrence, who came out as gay. Johnson writes, “although I have focused on the lighter side, it has been important for me to explore those things in life that are not necessarily laughable, but, things that pose a challenge, things that must be dealt with seriously and worked through” (106).

This photo is a birds-eye view of two books seated on top of a round, quilted place mat on a yellow, laminated kitchen table. The book on the left is Lynn Johnson's book It's the Thought That Counts, and the book on the right is Lynda Barry's what it is.
From left to right: Johnson’s It’s the Thought That Counts and Barry’s What It Is

It was in this moment of reading about Johnson’s relationship with Lawrence that I was experiencing both the dysphoria Lawrence felt but also feeling compelled to approach the challenge of expression. In this moment, twelve-year old me learned more of being a writer than being a Queer person, but he internalized that both experiences, writing freely and loving freely, were inherently connected.

The idea I’m supporting in my thesis is that Barry’s What It Is is a Queer text even though Barry is a straight woman. Queer composition in academia has a lot of definitions, so when people write about Queer composition, they have to redefine it each time. There seems to be a consensus that Queer Theory, whether that be people applying a Queer lens to texts they are reading or creating, is anything that deviates from “the norm.”

This implies that heterosexuality is the norm in comparison to Queerness and that most texts are heterosexual if they aren’t pushing any boundaries of form. My thesis seeks to argue that Queerness does not exist in comparison to heterosexuality but instead exists as a common occurrence of valuing self-perception as a “norm” rather than privileging the “norms” of a society, and my evidence for this claim is Barry.

She asks big questions that force me to linger on the page like “What is the difference between awake and asleep? Where is awareness? What is awareness?” (Barry 55). But after posing questions, she adds in these moments of storytelling, before going back to asking big picture questions, where she reflects on her own life and when she encountered experiences that forced her to linger just as I am lingering on the page.

Showing me, her reader, how she lingers on her past images, how she juggles an awareness of her memory, makes What It Is Queer – not that it’s a published book where every page is a painted legal pad. By looking at her understanding of herself and her memory as guidance for the future on the page, Barry is acting on that same value system that mandates Queer self-policing.

“Lawrence’s Story” taught me everything I needed to know when I was twelve. The comics themselves showed Lawrence getting kicked out of the house and fighting with crying parents under this veil of situational wit that funnies need to have which prepared me for what I might experience when I eventually would become a teenager.

Johnson’s prose discussed the reception of the comics by her fans and following; she had a mix between the support for her bravery and the complete shame on her and her newspaper. Although she is ultimately supportive of Queerness rather than combative, Johnson put into words the thoughts and realities that I had been subconsciously using to self-police. Johnson writes, “if I had shown one of the characters shooting another in a school yard, there would have been some reaction, I am certain, but it would have been nothing compared to the controversy started by this story” (107) and “some [letters] came from people, who had been violated as children, equated homosexuality with pedophilia and thought I was in support of something that bad destroyed their lives” (107).

Was that who I was? Worse than a school shooter? I thought. Can I really have this effect on people? Destroying their life?

I still shy away from children and bring my own sexuality up with anyone as little as possible. I walk with no shame, but my footsteps are still light with fear of the power people hold in their reading of me. I compose myself and gauge the reception of my readers both from the education I received by my experiences and perceptions. Funny thing is, though, so does everyone, not just Queer people. What twelve-year-old me thought was Laurence and I’s cross to bear, turns out was just common insecurity fueled by very real danger. The self-policing wasn’t what was Queer, it was the reasons behind it – that’s what makes Barry’s work so powerful.

What It Is is the research of the mind. Barry shows her readers on the page the connection between those common feelings that provide insight on those big questions and the experiences that develop those feelings. Barry’s work is not Queer for mirroring self-policing, nor is her work Queer for asking big questions to unlock the mind. Barry’s work is Queer because it makes apparent the connection between the self-policing and asking big questions. The curiosity is not Queer, we all experience it. It is the control of the curiosity that is Queer.

Johnson writes something beautiful on behalf of comic artists that I believe academics can appropriate into their own perception of Queerness. Johnson writes that through writing “Lawrence’s Story” that “I learned that our work [as comic artists] is taken seriously, and despite the reduction in numbers and size, the comics matter a great deal. Those of us who produce these panels have a responsibility to ourselves, our syndicates, our publishers, and our audience to use this space with conscience and with care” (108).

The production of any composition under the umbrella of the academy needs to reflect this common, Queer self-understanding and caring, public responsibility whether that be a Master’s thesis or a English 102 research paper. I truly believe every opportunity for students to write is an opportunity to push beyond expectation and push into the realm of the mind:

Research matters.

What does it mean to search?

What does it mean to research?

What does it mean for something to matter?

Who is listening? Are you listening to you?

Barry, Lynda. What It Is, Drawn and Quarterly, 2008.
 Johnson, Lynn. “Lawrence’s Story.” It’s the Thought That Counts: For Better or For Worse Fifteenth Anniversary Collection, Andrews and McMeel, 1996, pp. 106-108.  

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