It’s pretty rare that you really ‘find yourself’ in a book. ‘Queer, a graphic history’ is one such book. However I mean this both literally and figuratively.
Look – this wonderful character looks just like me! However what was even more bizarre while reading it was finding people who I know actually in the book. They didn’t just look like the figures, they actually were the figures. I’ll explain more about this in a bit, but let me first quickly explain what ‘Queer, a graphic history’ is all about.
‘Queer, a graphic history’ has been published by Graphic Guides and is written by Meg-John Barker, activist-academic from the Open University and practising psychotherapist. Check out their blog Rewriting the Rules https://rewriting-the-rules.com/ (and the book of the same name). The incredible graphics in ‘Queer’ is the work of Julia Scheele who is also responsible for One Beat Zines (@juliascheele and @megjohnbarker).
This book is a graphic history of queer theory. It is not to be confused with a history of queer as a word, or a history of queer lives, though it does touch upon both of these things in the beginning. The book aims to describe, explain and to untangle queer theory whilst simultaneously exploring how it’s an untameable beast that rejects definitions, categories and singular interpretations. Queer theory refuses to stay still long enough to get a grip on it, so how can you write a book, a short graphic one at that, about its history and meaning? Meg-John and Julia achieve what no amount of reading original texts, research group discussions and corridor panicked discussions has taught me. I think I finally have a comprehensible understanding of queer theory, and most excitedly for me, a very good idea of its history.
Only a few weeks ago I bumped into friend in a panic about their lack of understanding of queer theory. Relax, I said, ‘no one really gets all of it’ and then directed them towards the only thing we students had to date which introduces queer theory in a compact and introductory format: Judith Butler, explained with cats. (https://binarythis.com/2013/05/23/judith-butler-explained-with-cats/) I kid you not this is what students have. Cat images adorned by the always fantastically hair-do’d Judith Butler. Judith Butler explained with cats is a phenomenon – I am convinced thousands of queer theory students have studied this one page explanation, if only it could be reliably referenced in academic papers its citations would be out the roof. But now, we have a new text. Students everywhere rejoice! For we have an explanation of queer theory that is simple, comprehensive, critical and inclusive – Queer a graphic history.
This book has it all. As a bit of a graphic novel nerd I am absolutely in LOVE with the design of the book – it’s beautiful, inclusive and accurate as well as having popular culture references to make the ideas stick. As I know some of the people featured in the book I can authoritatively say that the figures are spot on – I recognised Peter Hegarty and Gavi Ansara instantly. The writing is also impressive, Meg John gets so much complex information in such a short space. It is, appropriately, a critical book, and recognises and discusses issues, complexities and critiques of queer theory. It touches upon all sorts of areas and is mainly chronological so you get a sense of when sexology, critical race theory, feminism, kink/BDSM, crip theory, trans, intersectionality etc all integrate and interrogate queer theory. When intersex first popped up I thought it could do with greater development but lo and behold a few pages later there’s a little bit more. Generally there is a real balance of the breadth and depth of the subject with additional resources at the back for those who seek a little more.
The running theme throughout the whole book is ‘Beware the binary!’ Binaries are pointed out left, right and centre and I think this really has the potential to shift (or dare I say queer) reader’s thinking to realise the limits of many common societal discourses. Towards the end Meg-John and Julia state how their hope is that the book can go some way to bridge the gap between academia and activism. I think this book certainly has the potential to do just that. Its my hope that at some point we will be able to include the explicit actions and thinking of activists in the further development of queer theory. Academics are so often keen to disseminate their knowledge but reluctant sometimes to listen to the activists themselves, but I think this book (along with the other brilliant work of Meg-John) has potential to really blur the boundary and dismantle the binary of academia and activism.
This book really is an excellent teaching tool as well as an introductory text to activists, the public and other interested parties. From now on it’s ‘Queer, a graphic history’ that I will be recommending to queer theory confused students. Original readings of Wittig, de Beauvoir, Lorde, Butler, Foucault etc are important, but I do wish I had had this first. No student/activist/academic (or combination of all of these, but ahh I don’t want to get into identity politics) should ever feel as lost as my friend again and she’s the very first person I’m going to offer my copy to.