We’re living in a golden age of queer comics and queer comics creators. Queer superheroes have gone mainstream, and even some smaller titles have landed mainstream attention — like Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper, recently adapted as a buzzy, instantly renewed Netflix series, or Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical classic Fun Home, a New York Times bestseller that became a Tony-winning Broadway musical.
But while a few titles get the attention, so many other creators are out there bringing queer themes and characters to the comics industry, in stories ranging from fantasy and horror to mainstream drama and erotica to autobiographical comics that go far beyond the usual coming-out stories. Polygon recently reached out to five of our favorite queer comics creators to ask what they consider the best queer comics from the indie world, from small-press publishers to webcomics to self-published work and more.
Tillie Walden is one of the best-known creators in queer indie comics. She’s a prolific writer and artist, known for books like the swoony road-trip fantasy Are You Listening, the science fiction epic On a Sunbeam, the autobiographical graphic novel Spinning, and most recently, the Telltale Games tie-in graphic novel Clementine.
What do you look for in a queer indie comic?
Tillie Walden: I look for something really different than I used to when I was younger. When you’re fresh off coming out, I think you look for existence, baseline “Oh my god, a queer person exists! I love this book! It’s my new favorite book!” What’s fun about getting more comfortable in your identity is, I can be pickier. I can start to really think about the queer stories that draw me in. I find I’m very much drawn to queer stories that are positive and happy. Because so much of the queer experience is full of tragedy and trauma, finding stories about queer joy really just takes the cake for me right now.
Sometimes the way stories are marketed to people, it’s like, “It’s a coming-out story!” or “It’s a trans story!” And that reduction is so frustrating for me, because so many queer stories have so many facets. So I look for all those different aspects of queer experience that aren’t just about relationships, coming out, or struggle, but are about the mundane part of our lives, of existence. I think that happens with every marginalized community that gets their stories told. It always starts really narrow. But now, the breadth of queer experience and queer identity, and how that intersects with other identities, is finally really coming to the forefront in comics.
This is a Drawn & Quarterly book, and I love it because it’s drawn in a really raw way. It’s about queer experience in the early 2000s, and it’s very much about the intersection between being religious and being queer. I don’t come from a particularly religious background, and the religion I have is Judaism. This is about Christianity. But there’s something about it — the drawings of the gym teachers, the drawings of the cars and the church, and the way people relate to queerness in the early 2000s, specifically, like the pop culture of that moment. I was so taken by this book and Jessica Campbell did such a good job of expressing all that all that ache.
Everyone knows this book, but I will continue to recommend it. Most people have already read it, but it still stands out, because of the way it intersects queerness with the ideas of immigration and family and fairy tales. It made me realize there is so much to be done with the idea of history and magic with queerness. And it’s starting to appear even more. I feel like I’m seeing it in more books.
I really think The Magic Fish is a book we can consider classic, which is crazy, because it’s been out for only a few years. But it is already, to me, in the vein of books like Maus and American Born Chinese, when you think of graphic novels that are going to affect the graphic novels that come out later. I mean, all the kids who read The Magic Fish are going to be like, Well, I’ll make a graphic novel about a fairy tale and about my identity.
Part of what I love about queer comics right now is the range of ages they’re available for — the rise of the middle-grade graphic novel and the availability of early-reader books. Not a lot of women and queer people make comics right now, and you don’t see a ton of books about queer boys. This is a book about acne on the forefront, and about how your body looks and how to deal with it, but it’s also about asexuality and fitting in.
It’s just one of those stories that kids can read so fast. I mean, that’s what’s so frustrating — these books take so long to make, but they soak them up so quickly, as we see with Raina Telgemeier’s books. But A-Okay really stands out for me, because it’s starting to open up a niche we don’t see as much. It used to be like, “Comics are for boys!” Then it became “Comics are for girls!” Now it’s like, “Gender isn’t real, comics are for everybody!” This book deals with how your body changes, specifically dealing with acne and how your face looks, while also dealing with asexuality. It’s just a fascinating intersection.
That’s another Drawn & Quarterly book. The Big Four — HarperCollins, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan — have done a good job of publishing queer graphic novels, but D&Q especially. The Contradictions is definitely for older readers. It’s for sort of teens-plus. It’s about that time in your life when you meet someone who activates you politically. Sophie goes to France to just be abroad, and learn things, and have sex. And Sophie starts to meet radical European queer teens.
I think in a lot of movies, the way the story goes is like, you become radical, you fall in love, everything is big and beautiful. But in this book, it’s so much more nuanced. There’s so much melancholy to it. And there’s so much about people with radical political ideas. Even if their ideas really work for you, they might still not be good people. So it’s really good if you’re looking for a book about the hard part of queer relationships, especially in your 20s, when your ideals are starting to mean so much to you, your identity is starting to mean so much to you.
It helps that the backdrop is France, and it’s drawn very beautifully. It’s just one of those books that was not on a ton of people’s radar, but I really enjoyed it. And it’s so compulsively readable. Both Rave and The Contradictions are black and white. And I’m very much drawn to black-and-white comics, because it’s so nice to appreciate the line art of the creator.
Melanie Gillman is an illustrator and writer-artist known for the webcomic-turned-book As the Crow Flies, and for tender, memorable short comics about everything from dark mermaid romance to parenting issues. (Their online comic Pockets is an incredibly layered drama that takes in everything from poverty to politics.) Their new book Other Ever Afters is a collection of short queer fairy tales.
What do you look for in a queer indie comic?
Melanie Gillman: We’re lucky to be living in a time period where the bar is so high for the quality of visual work artists are doing in the field. The people I tend to gravitate toward as a reader are doing phenomenal work as both storytellers and visual artists. I also am very attracted to strong character studies. I’m very interested in stories with characters who have rich complexities, and who are not strictly good or bad people, but rather people who have texture and intricacy and layers. Certainly all the people I chose here do that very well.
E.K. Weaver was incredibly influential on the current, I would say, millennial generation of queer cartoonists. This is her best-known work — an extremely popular and extremely well-done webcomic that was running from 2009 to 2014. It has been finished for a number of years. The level of character acting, storytelling, and relationship drama that E.K. Weaver is able to communicate in her comics work is honestly on another level. I would compare it to watching a really intense, extremely well-crafted, dramatic relationship movie. Her character studies are rich, breathtaking, and incredible.
Her work was extremely influential on me when I was a young creator, and also on tons of other queer cartoonists in my overall age cohort. She’s currently working on a new webcomic, a new long-form, queer relationship story called Shot and Chaser, which only started up a couple months ago, I believe. It has all the hallmarks of her particular style and her storytelling sensibilities: beautiful artwork, rich and complicated portraits of characters, a nuanced, complicated relationship story at the heart of the narrative. And just fantastic visuals, fantastic scene-setting.
E.K. Weaver also loves to set stories in parts of the United States that you don’t often see comics set in. Shot and Chaser is set in rural Texas, and The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal was a road-trip story that ran through a lot of rural America, from the West Coast to the East Coast. You get a very strong sense of place through all of her stories, and it’s also areas of the U.S. that you wouldn’t normally associate with queer narratives and queer relationship stories. Obviously there are queer people everywhere, though, so it’s exciting to see stories located in rural areas, in the South, in places that don’t always get a lot of the spotlight in our queer comics canon.
Otava Heikkilä, Shattered Spear / Letters for Lucardo
Otava is a another queer cartoonist who specializes in relationship comics, and also in erotica. His work is supremely magnificent on a visual storytelling level, and it dives into a lot of genres that I really deeply love as a reader. It goes into erotic stories, horror stories, fantasy stories, also historic fiction from periods you don’t often see historical fiction from. Shattered Spear is a beautiful Paleolithic drama comic that I adore.
One of the wonderful things with Otava — his work is incredibly nuanced, and he has a very subtle approach to his storytelling, where a lot of things are communicated through trusting the reader to pay close attention to the events and the characters’ motivations as they’re unfolding on the page. He never spoon-feeds anything to his readers. He always has a restrained, subtle touch with the stories he’s telling, and that allows them to have this rich, engaging, dramatic complexity on the page, which is thrilling once you get into it. So beautiful work, absolutely wonderful storytelling chops.
And his erotic work is, I think, genuinely some of the best that’s coming out of the entire queer comics landscape right now. So if you’re looking specifically for erotic queer comics recommendations, you really can’t do better than what Otava is doing right now. Two thumbs extremely up for his work in particular.
What Otava is best known for right now is a series called Letters for Lucardo, published by Iron Circus Comics. It is, for lack of a better term, a gay vampire erotic romance. It’s very much about a very powerful, vaguely medieval court of vampires and the humans they interact with. More specifically, it’s about a romance between a vampire and an elderly human man who is facing all of the mortality issues that you would imagine would be a complicating factor in a vampire/human romance. So, very good drama there.
Olivia Stephens, Artie and the Wolf Moon / Darlin’
If there’s one younger queer cartoonist where I would say, “This is the person you want to be watching very closely,” this is who I would put in front of everyone’s eyeballs right now. Olivia Stephens’ work is visually breathtaking. She works in a lot of themes — in particular, queer Black people’s connection to the histories of colonization in the U.S., and histories about the way the natural world has been a factor in the lives of Indigenous folks and Black people in American history.
So she’s doing a lot of historical fiction with fantasy elements. She loves doing werewolf-related stories in particular. She has a wonderful middle-grade graphic novel, Artie and the Wolf Moon. It’s a super-sweet, funny story about a family of Black werewolves in the Pacific Northwest, and about Artie, the main character, discovering that her family’s full of werewolves, and also dealing with issues of found family, queerness, and her connection to nature too. So all very rich, exciting things to see in a middle-grade graphic novel.
Olivia also does quite a lot of really exciting small-press or self-published adult work, including a series called Darlin’, which is historical fiction, also about werewolves in the American West in the 1800s. That’s a much darker and more violent type of story, because it’s an adult storytelling. It touches on a number of complicated issues around American history and colonization, and ecological destruction, and things like that, but done with just breathtaking visual chops, character work, and narrative storytelling ability.
Every time Olivia puts out a new comic, you just see her growing by absolute leaps and bounds on the page. The level of storytelling that she is achieving is work I don’t see being done anywhere else in our industry right now. It’s so polished, and so nuanced and complicated and breathtaking. I keep using “breathtaking,” but that is by far the word I most associate with her pages.
Even just getting to touch on the ways wolves have been eradicated in the U.S., and the history of that as a form of ecological destruction in the United States, and then putting that into the context of a werewolf narrative that also touches on the history of Black people in the American West — she just brings together all these really rich themes, and finds a way to weave them all together. It’s wonderful work.
Hien Pham is a recent arrival to comics who’s writing and drawing warm and compelling personal work about queer life, from the digital graphic novel It Will Be Hard to various online and anthology shorts. He’s a frequent contributor to Oh Joy Sex Toy, where he publishes extremely personal comics: NSFW explorations of fatphobia and self-acceptance and exploring his own body and sexuality, alongside SFW vignettes about mental health and friendship and navigating relationship grief.
What do you look for in a queer indie comic?
Hien Pham: I really like fluff. I really enjoy things that are gentle, optimistic, or happy in tone or ending. Because I’m stressed out really easily. Honestly, when I watch a TV show that’s too stressful, I have to read up on it first, to keep my heart in check. So I really like something that’s fluffy and sweet.
And honestly, nowadays, I like something that’s shorter, that’s concise and precise. I really like the idea of short-form stories, because it’s harder to get right. You have to be inspired by the limitations of how long your book can be. So I really like that idea of limiting yourself so you can improve and grow more. And even though none of my actual recommendations have these, it’s a selling point for me if a comic has a fat, brown gay dude in there. I’m like, “Please, God, I don’t want to be the only one who’s doing this! Someone else make it, so I can read it!” [laughs]
This was originally an indie zine that got a bunch of extra content added to it. It’s sweet, it’s short, and it builds upon characters I already know and love. And it reminds me of the fan-work zine-trading culture and community. When I was younger, I started doing comics by making my own Doraemon stories. And I just love this kind of stuff. So it makes these characters gay, with these sweet, short moments of domestic bliss.
This one’s been recommended already in your series, but it’s my favorite graphic novel of all time, the kind of story I want to make when I grow up. It’s so good! It’s 500 pages — I got the hardcover, and it’s huge. The first time I read through it, I put it down, then picked it up and read again immediately, then did it again, three times consecutively. It’s a slow-burn romance road trip. So low-stakes, casual character studies of these two characters, both as individuals and together. So it’s not just like, Oh, they’re a couple — they’re also their own people. One is a person of color, and the other has struggled his whole life. It’s just people trying to see the best in each other. But they don’t ignore the worst parts, either. They just accept who they are in the present, and try to work forward.
It doesn’t have a set ending. The author made a zine that explores three different endings for this comic. But the open-ended tone of the graphic novel is optimistic. Maybe the characters aren’t fully happy or satisfied the way we want them to be, but they’re still optimistic. I really like that — hope and optimism are things I always look for, in any kind of media. It’s also very sexy, so that’s cool.
Another shortish one. I don’t fully understand what this story is about, and I almost don’t want to understand it, but I just keep coming back to it. It’s about a woman who buys a robot to be her partner. That’s the premise, but then it goes into questions like, “OK, so why does she do it? Who is this robot developing into? What is her relationship with the robot?” It goes into a bunch of character-driven stories, which is my favorite thing. I don’t really have the attention span to do long world-building stuff anymore. I’m kind of old and cranky. Casey Nowak makes such amazing, beautiful comics. This one was eventually collected into Girl Town, which is an amazing graphic novel. I super highly recommend that one, but this is my favorite story from it.
The art is just so beautiful, so loose. Not quite the antithesis of my style, but something I wouldn’t be able to do myself, because this is so very cartoony. It helps me feel like, “If I could loosen my style a little bit, it would be amazing.” And the story makes me cry. It’s about, What do you mean to your partner? What is your use inside a relationship? Great stuff, I love it.
This one’s comedic, super funny. It’s kind of this fantasy-fulfilling thing for me. It’s like, I live in a frat house with these guys I find really attractive. They like my baking, and we go on adventures and find love. But it’s funny, too. When you talk about queer comics, so often they’re centered around pain. When we start making these things, especially at the very beginning, because no one has been listening to our pain, we explain it through our stories. But in this — there’s some pain, but mostly it’s just really fucking funny. It’s the kind of thing that feels not too realistic. It’s more wish fulfillment: I have this crush on this guy, and I’m doing things to get his attention, and then my crush is reciprocated. But it’s not this one big, grand, romantic thing — it’s more like developing a friendship. I grew up watching vloggers, so I like the premise of the main character being a vlogger, and then going to uni and doing hockey. That drew me in immediately — that really good character-driven stuff.
Trung Le Nguyen (aka “Trungles”) has worked for DC on Wonder Woman Black and Gold and Aquaman, among other titles. But he’s best known for his 2020 debut graphic novel The Magic Fish, a compelling magical fable that’s also an autobiographical coming-out story.
What do you look for in a queer indie comic?
Trung Le Nguyen: I love it when they’re just deeply indulgent. I like it when I can tell that a creator is having fun with a thing that they love. I don’t necessarily really look for things that are queer in content, but I do love picking apart what queer creators are making. So the queerness, for me, comes very naturalistically and organically. It’s not something I have to look for on purpose — I can just find queer creators and consume their work.
I have a particular bias in that I love for comics to be both beautiful and also very visually legible. I’m a big believer in comics looking like the creator’s handwriting, like it’s a handwritten book. I would like for the pictures to be a text, and for the text to be beautifully written. I don’t necessarily search for creators who are highly skilled and very strong technical draftsmen. That’s not a huge priority for me. But I do like for them to do interesting things on the page, either with page compositions or with the ways they have decided to articulate the characters, and what kinds of shortcuts they like to take. So I like looking at those little bits of decision-making when it comes to indie creators.
We’re living in such an exciting time, where there are so many different comics that everyone can seek out, and everyone gets to find their own thing. And it’s really lovely. It gives everyone an opportunity to dig into their own personal priorities when it comes to storytelling.
Melanie recommended Artie and the Wolf Moon by Olivia Stephens, and I want to shout that out again. I feel like that book hasn’t gotten as much attention as it really should have. That can be a little crossover recommendation. But I’ve come up with a few more of my own. I’m a huge fan of Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s work. She’s done really wonderful work with Mariko Tamaki on Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me. But I actually want to shout out her solo work. What Is Left and Don’t Go Without Me are two fantastic short stories. They’re both really, really beautiful. They have similar beats, but in totally different settings.
Her stories tend to be about redistricting your own boundaries and reassessing your intimate relationships. And there’s always something incredibly surreal about the journeys the characters have to take to get there. It really showcases Rosemary’s incredible skill at depicting things that are intensely gorgeous and sometimes really gnarly, gross, and scary. So all of those things put together create an incredibly engrossing experience.
You’ve already talked to Tillie, but one of the other books I was going to recommend before I saw the other recommendations — I’ll still recommend it! On a Sunbeam is gorgeous! I love Tillie Walden’s work. Spinning is another book of hers that I really, really enjoyed. I just have an incredible love for the way she populates fantastical and science fiction universes. On a Sunbeam has this really lovely combination of being an exploration of relationships between young people, in ways that could be described as slice of life, but the setting is done in a way that really takes you to a different place. I love that about her work. It’s pretty accessible — it’s a webcomic that’s been collected into a full volume.
Linette is a really fantastic illustrator and artist. And I think this might be her first long-form graphic novel. It’s for slightly younger readers. But one of the things I really adore about the ways Linette approaches her work is that she has a very clear visual aesthetic. And a design background, I want to say — I don’t actually know what her artistic journey is, but her work reminds me a lot of old Little Golden Books children’s books from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s got such a specific kind of texture, and it looks watercolor-y. It’s cartoony in a very accessible way. It’s a kids’ adventure story, so it’s not quite in my reading range, but it’s a joy to look at.
I love that comic book artists use their medium to call back to different points in iconographic history, in ways that maybe the reader wouldn’t immediately appreciate. But you put that into someone’s head, and they can say, “Hey, this reminds me of this other thing.” And it sparks a curiosity that I really appreciate. I love it when artists can do that in their work, and they make you excited to look for patterns.
Mainstream comics fans may be familiar with James Tynion IV from his extensive DC Comics writing on Batman and Detective Comics, Justice League, The Sandman Universe: Nightmare Country, Constantine: The Hellblazer, and many more. But he’s also the writer behind a variety of mesmerizing horror and fantasy series from smaller publishers, including the ongoing magical epic Wynd, the completed fantasy-horror The Woods (about an entire high school pulled into a world packed with lethal monsters), the extremely gory horror story Something Is Killing the Children, and the lighter surreal high school comedy The Backstagers. He also has his own Substack for writing and comics, The Empire of the Tiny Onion.
What do you look for in a queer indie comic?
James Tynion IV: I primarily write horror comics, and I like stories that make you uncomfortable, that show the ugly sides of humanity, that lean into human discomfort. I like very human stories, where humans have to grapple with the parts of themselves they don’t particularly like.
Even in my big sci-fi stories, each of those stories is me unpacking something about myself. A good example is my series The Nice House on the Lake — the villain of that series is entirely based on me, the other characters are based on my friends. That gets right at what I’m looking for in queer representation right now. I am looking for something that feels like the rough edges haven’t been sanded off. Because living a life surrounded by queer people, our rough edges are not remotely sanded off. We have plenty of them. And I like seeing them in stories.
This has a little bit of crossover [with your existing list], but it’s been of the books that’s had the largest impact on me in the last few years. Tillie’s work in general just really speaks to me. I gravitate toward younger characters dealing with difficult and complicated emotions. It’s incredibly valuable storytelling to me, and I don’t know that anyone’s doing it better than Tillie right now. Everything she’s written and drawn over the last few years has just been stunning, and when a new book comes out, it goes right at the top of my list. But On a Sunbeam in particular — if that had come out when I was a teenager, it would have been probably my favorite comic ever. Even reading it in my 30s, it’s still one of my favorite comics that I’ve read in the last five years.
This is another series I’ve really loved in the last few years. It’s put out by Aftershock Comics. It’s about an MMA fighter who accidentally kills his opponent, and then is trained by a man who was homophobic to his father when he was a kid. I’m friends with Steve Orlando, and he’s referred to as a kind of gay Rocky. It really captures powerful human emotions, and it’s just a beautiful book. It’s violent and rough around the edges, but I think it’s a really, really emotionally powerful read. I would almost call it a sports comic. It’s like an MMA fighting comic for adult readers, but older teens would get a kick out of it, too.
Max Graves, What Happens Next
This is definitely one where I would caution readers to check in about, to see if it’s in your comfort level. This is one of the most uncomfortable and human horror stories I have read in the comic space in a long time. Especially in the webcomics space. It captures a lot of the rough edges of the kinds of webcomics I grew up reading in the late ’90s and early 2000s. It’s about a character who was wrapped up in a murder along the lines of the Slenderman killings a few years ago. Someone who got pulled into the orbit of someone who did something horrible, and is dealing with the guilt of that, and with their online presence and their queerness. It just grabbed me. I’ve been astonished with the brutal honesty of the whole piece, while still being a really, really great read.
This is part of the larger Black Hammer series of stories Jeff Lemire has been putting out. It was written by Tate Brombal. It’s the story that made me find Tate, and now I’ve hired Tate to work on my spinoff of Something Is Killing the Children, called House of Slaughter, and on a series I’m running digitally right now, called The Oddly Pedestrian Life of Christopher Chaos. Tate just writes such beautifully human characters, and the book is so beautiful and sad and moving. It [assembles] some superhero pieces and some core science fiction pieces, but it looks at the history of gay liberation from the eyes of a Martian who’s been exiled from his home planet due to prejudice. It’s a really beautiful story. It was nominated for an Eisner when it came out.