‘Gay Genius’ edited by Annie Murphy

Gay Genius comes with its own definition at the back of the book. The Romans thought genius was a guardian spirit, but it also means an influential person or one with high mental ability. Readers are given sample usage as well: “Your gay genius astounds me” or “ Last night my gay genius appeared to me in a dream.”

But it’s also the work of this compilation to define the term. Editor Annie Murphy has gathered twenty plus comics (including her own) to share personal accounts and record biographies, true or fictional, that exemplify gay genius.

In the late eighties, zines like Holy Titclaps and J.D.s burst forth to redefine gay role models, creating gay punk idols to surpass the gay clones and disco divas of the seventies. Gay Genius pushes these role models into the new millennium of transgender identity. Most of these comics explore what it means to meld, vacillate, erase and experiment with your gender, and what happens to those experiments in various surrounding worlds.

Many of the entries here fair better as art than as comics; the creators are not necessarily cartoonists, and readers expecting pages of readable panels may be frustrated by illegibility and amateur technique. Ironically, this book about genius seems to have forgotten more accomplished cartoonists who speak to these same issues; including someone like Joey Sayers would have given the book more reach. Like zines, the stories here that connect do so mostly because of their direct, individual voice.

Ellery Russian’s comic about Tanis Doe, an exemplary queer with disabilities, and Samantha Jane Dorsett’s autobiographical comic work as shout-outs to genius we can learn from, and genius that would be overlooked without these personal recordings. Leroi Newbold’s “Because we have Two” is an astute remembrance of negotiating gender in childhood, and includes a great drawing of a dream castle banquet filled with cats – every queer kid’s escape hatch when the going gets tough. Like hands of Fatima talismans, Edie Fake’s artwork of gloved hands, with knuckle tattoos inviting  readers to over come, and come over, work as true protectors of LGBT from the evil eye.

Murphy’s full color comic, the most comic book-like of the entries, follows the amazing adventures of Babe Bean, a true historical account of a woman who lived as a man in the early 1900s, only to be discovered when she is autopsied at death. “Babe Bean was the slickest piece of furniture that was ever in this police station,” a sheriff declares, and readers might agree, as Babe uses gender as a fluid disguise. Like women pirates and Civil War soldiers, back then, changing one’s gender didn’t involve surgery. A haircut, a pair of pants and keeping one’s mouth shut—literally, by acting mute—could carry you far, especially on the new American frontier, where information and communication lagged.

Other pieces are shorter, fragmentary, less formed. Sarah Sass Biscarra-Dilley’s art stands out, honoring the Mohave healer Masahai, while Elisha’ Lim’s “100 Butches” remembers butch geniuses with short bursts of written bios and sketches.

But like zines, it’s the record of unrecognized voices that makes this collection most noteworthy. The mainstream press is sadly ignorant about one of the real innovations of this new century, going gaga for Google and Facebook, but somehow dumb to the fact there are now people who have lived as both genders, who’ve merged both sexes into human, and who have something to tell us. Past generations would have formed religions worshipping these abilities. And future generations may be more affected, and interested, in the kinds of changes Gay Genius records, as evidence of the beginnings of a new social network, one unrestricted by two genders, not online but among humans.

Gay Genius
Edited By Annie Murphy
Sparkplug Comics
Paperback, 144pp.
April 2011