While scientists argue over the causes of sexual orientation, most gay kids know at an early age (or are quickly made aware) they’re gender non-conforming, and their attraction towards the same sex also begins in childhood.
But children’s literature is still pretty squeamish about admitting this. Gay tales of self-discovery first found a home in young adult literature, the genre that by inventing “problem novels” provided a foot in the door to mainstream publishing for many nonconformist stories. But picture books – even playful picture books like King and King, or scientifically factual ones, like And Tango Makes Three – remain at the top of challenged and banned book lists.
Rainy Day Recess (Northwest Press) compiles Dave Kelly’s “Steven Comics”, covers and drawings, which ran from 1995 to 1998 in gay and alternative newspapers. “Steven’s Comics” are for teens and adults, but like Lynda Barry’s work, concentrate on the social life of kids. Steven grows up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s (and seventies fans will revel in Kelly’s astute attention to detail…remember record music clubs? Donnie and Marie? We are Family?) His life isn’t ideal; his parents’ divorce means an extend stay with his grandma, and Steven is often uprooted and distressed due to his parents’ instabilities.
Over the course of the comic, Kelly shows us Steven’s coming of age as a sensitive, queer kid. For example, we see Steven’s excitement when he discovers a Wonder Woman doll in the store next to the Spiderman doll his brother craves.
“At last, “ he thinks to himself. “…a doll I could get without being called a sissy…There was no way Mom could say no.” Steven’s indulgence is short-lived; sibling teasing eventually provokes Mom to take away the doll. But what sticks is the inspiration – Kelly includes a later Comic-Con sketch of Steven clad as Wonder Woman. And Kelly tips readers that his comics “Starwoman” are borrowing both from Wonder Woman and a superhero creation that he invented in his childhood.
“I remember my brother and his friends finding my Starwoman comics and being embarrassed, so I hid them and eventually lost them. I really wish I had them now!”
Though both Kelly’s and Steven’s creativity and queerness get pummeled by the bullies of childhood, they inevitably bubble up around the seams, and that is what these comics share with readers. In his introduction to the book, Dan Savage says about Kelly: “His work movingly brings to life the particular experiences of the outsider, the fantastical inner life of a kid whose essential, defining difference both isolates and liberates.” Like Savage’s It Gets Better project, this comic is one that bridges generations to let young LGBT kids know they’re not alone.
Though Steven survives, my only sadness is that due to the brevity of the comics (since they ran in newspapers), we don’t know what happens to many of the other kids he encounters. His crushes, his pals, his girl buddies, and most of all some of the other kids bullied by kids, or worse, by their parents, I wanted to know it gets better for them too. But I’m glad they had such an observant and talented friend as Steven (or as Kelly) to relay their tales to younger generations and by doing so, thwart the homophobes and bullies of today.
Rainy Day Recess
by David Kelly Northwest Press Paperback, 9780984594023, 120pp. January 2011