One of the first class of Maia Kobabe’s MFA in comics is about writing autobiographically, leading em to object, ‘nope! No one gets my secrets. They are mine!’ Eir sketches from this class, about eir ‘demons,’ were so embarrassing and awkward that in eir sketchbook e taped paper over them. The prologue ends with those bits of paper being torn away, revealing the title under them, “Gender Queer;” Kobabe is letting us in on the secrets.
Written & Illustrated by Maia Kobabe
Colours by Phoebe Kobabe
In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em.
Now, Gender Queer is here.
Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears.
Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity—what it means and how to think about it—for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.
The secrets come pouring out with ease, they were so close to the surface. Kobabe’s style, in the art and the words, is direct and confident. Bold, simple lines, soft panel edges, and block colours (by Maia Kobabe’s sister Phoebe, who is a prominent character in the book herself) give “Gender Queer” a childlike openness and sense of exploration. When Kobabe letting us into eir secrets, e isn’t whispering hidden shame into our ear, rather e is taking us back, showing us things that were secret even to em revealing themselves in the real time of the story. ‘Secrets’ almost feels like the wrong word to introduce the book with, a ‘secret’ implies a resistance to share, but the confidence of Kobabe’s approach makes it feel like there is little hesitation in eir willingness to tell eir story.
Maybe this is to do with how memoir works — to make a memoir, you have to be willing to share in a way that feels unconditional. The timeline of “Gender Queer” can be a little unclear at times; that class at the start was in 2014, and the way it is framed makes it seem like we’re looking back from that point, but then we go beyond that point in the narrative and it isn’t clear where the crossover happens, when Kobabe becomes willing to show those taped over pages of sketchbook. It leaves that opening section, that at first seemed a nice way to frame the book, feeling awkward and sort of pointless. I think this is illustrative of my biggest problem with the book, the structure is a fuzz. Page to page, moment to moment, “Gender Queer” is compelling and moving, but trying to look at it as a 240-page unit feels difficult. I’m not sure what shape I’m looking at.
To an extent, that might be okay. It’s memoir and life is largely lacking in holistic story structure. It’s queer, and queerness is full of fluid shapes. In fact, some of the most memorable parts here are when Kobabe breaks with the sequential structure of the comics page, introducing more abstract imagery in splash pages about eir own thought processes. These pages aren’t really comics, there’s no sequence within them, but they are effective. On one such page, we get introduced to people, eir parents, figure skater Johnny Weir, with annotations pointing out the things that Kobabe finds interesting about them. On another a snail-shell-esque spiral is populated with questions of gender confusion, making you spin the book around in your hand to read as the questions spin.
Finding the answers to those questions is the heart of Maia’s journey in the book. A fluid queer identity can be hard to navigate, I know this from my journeys through queerness. Sometimes you want to live in a firm, answerable place, but part of the beauty of being queer is that you get a bespoke relationship to sexuality and gender. Kobabe and my experiences don’t map perfectly onto one another, but they do have similarities, I didn’t see myself in “Gender Queer” as much as I thought I might, but I did recognise some of it on a personal level, and I do think it is vital to be able to see varied queer perspectives in print, for young queers to be able to find models for themselves, and allies to understand. Kobabe’s story is unique but can speak to wider trends of queerness.Continued below
By the end of “Gender Queer,” Kobabe is comfortable in eir queer identities, but still has certain anxieties about the constant process of coming out (coming out isn’t a thing we do just the once, we reaffirm our queerness over and over). There is a poignant moment right at the end where a mother comes up to eir after a class e ran teaching comics to young girls and thanks her for being a woman role model. Kobabe considers correcting the misgendering, but chooses not to, allowing the woman her moment. Picking your moments is something you have to do as a queer person, and as a memoirist. A life has so many moments that all make up our perspective on, and memory of, our lives, the memoir sorts through those and tries to make them into a story. It has feel whole but, necessarily, leaves things out. While Kobabe may be happier now letting us in on eir secrets, e still can hold onto some.