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How Comics and Graphic Novels Are Changing the Way We See LGBTQ+ Characters in YA Fiction

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 06: Ngozi Ukazu, Mariko Tamaki, Cathy G. Johnson, Colleen AF Veneable, and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell speak at the "LGBTQ+ YA Comics and Graphic Novel" panel during 2019 New York Comic Con at Jacob Javits Convention Center on October 06, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Butterfield/Getty Images)
Paul Butterfield/Getty Images

In recent years, Young Adult (YA) fiction has certainly taken strides in representation, the LGBTQ+ community included. With impactful stories such as Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan in 2010, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (later adapted for film with 2018’s Love, Simon) in 2015, and When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore in 2016, there’s more opportunity to find characters and plot points young people can connect with than ever before. 

But beyond the mainstream lives even more great queer stories for the YA reader, and that’s in comic books and graphic novels.

During New York Comic Con 2019, five wonderful creators sat down to discuss the rise of queer stories in a different medium than your normal book for a panel called “LGBTQ+ YA Comics and Graphic Novels.” Moderated by Mariko Tamaki (author of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me), she spoke with Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (illustrator of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me), Colleen AF Venable (author of Kiss Number 8), Ngozi Ukazu (author of Check, Please!), and Cathy G. Johnson (author of The Breakaways), to discuss the way they create queer characters and break gender stereotypes.

These panelists know a thing or two about characters readers can relate to, no matter how you identify. In Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, we see how a relationship you might think you want so badly might not actually be the best option for you. Kiss Number 8 follows a story of how difficult it can be to manage romantic relationships when you're struggling with your sexuality, on top of family drama. Check, Please! is about beginning college and trying to figure out the next steps in starting adult life, particularly with joining a sports team and navigating sexuality. And in The Breakaways, we follow a sports team who aren’t exactly the best out there, but pave a way for themselves and learn lessons along the way.

All of these stories focus on what’s real for young adults trying to figure out who they are and what their next move will be, all while also trying to find a space where they belong. As Valero-O’Connell pointed out, it can be difficult to not react to everything growing up, as you don’t always have control (or even the knowledge) of all of the things that influence you. This brought up an interesting discussion on the stereotypes behind bullies or the “mean girl” in YA fiction. We all mess up and say things we regret sometimes, especially in those transformative years. Anyone can be a bully, even a main character the reader relates to and admires. These real stories speak volumes louder than patterns we’ve seen in fiction time and time again.

But that’s not to say some tropes aren’t important, even in queer stories. Tamaki asked an interesting question about a scene that’s often replicated in LGBTQ+ YA works, which is that of a character coming out. While she admitted she had strayed away from these previously, she acknowledged that her fellow creators had included them in their stories (and successfully!), asking if they’re good to add in. There’s certainly no right or wrong answer, but it opened up the conversation of how creating a story with real characters and real conflicts can still work with age-old themes.

While the classic story of a central character coming out and facing hardships can still make for a great book, incorporating different examples of the other ups and downs in life brings new light to the journey the reader will go on, and hopefully create a space—no matter how small—where they feel at home. Growing up (queer or not!) is tough, and everyone is just looking for a place they belong.

Be sure to follow these awesome creators on social to keep up with their work:

  • Rosemary Valero-O’Connell on Twitter