Metro Weekly

The Pride of Awesome Con: 14 LGBTQ Artists on why Pride Alley matters

We asked the artists of Awesome Con's "Pride Alley" what sets their LGBTQ work apart

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Editor’s Update: For reasons as yet undisclosed, Pride Alley does not actually exist at this weekend’s Awesome Con and the artists have been scattered throughout the convention center. Metro Weekly was unaware of this until Saturday morning. However, the LGBTQ representation is still there, you’ll just have to hunt down your favorite artists. We’ve included a list here with their booth assignations, ahead of the article to help you find everyone more easily once you’re in the artists showcase area. You will also find this information, along with a map of the full con, in the free Awesome Con program booklet available to all attendees. For extra convenience, we have also included the booth numbers after the first instance of a person’s name in the Q&A following the floor map.

Rage Gear Studios – Booth Q-12

Simon Graves – Booth E-14

Marta Mickelsen – Booth G-10

Yinza Voris – Booth D-07

Foxlight Studios – Booth D-06

Lovely Lady Artist Studio – Booth C-08

Dale Lazarov/Sticky Graphics Novels – Booth B-05

Joan Comics – Booth M-04

Vicious Poodle Pin Up – Booth U-10

Portfoli-Mo – Booth E-05

Shop5 – Booth H-10

F.T. Lukens – Booth J-14

Thirty Seven Stars – Booth W-09

Shelby Wolf Designs – Booth D-06

BleedGeek – Booth W-06

Relemenopy – S-06

If you have never been to Awesome Con, it is a magnificent, sprawling array of illustrators, artisans, geeks, cosplayers, science fiction, science fact, and oodles and oodles of celebrities from both the past and present. The extent to which it has grown — indeed, exploded — over the past few years can be overwhelming, and it fills the Walter E. Washington Convention Center this Friday through Sunday with a glorious, imaginative buzz that dazzles the senses as fans collide with the very stuff from which fandom is forged.

The three-day celebration of all things geek is an array of costume contests, gaming tournaments, kid-centric activities, an Awesome Con Short Film Fest, and talks with a galaxy of celebrities, comics artists, scientists, and science-fiction stars. This year’s highlights include appearances by Matt Smith (Doctor Who), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk), Val Kilmer (Batman Forever), Ralph Macchio (The Karate Kid), John Barrowman (Doctor Who), Kate Flannery (The Office), Tom Payne (The Walking Dead), Milo Ventimiglia (This is Us, The Gilmore Girls), Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica), Michael Biehn (The Terminator), Anthony Michael Hall (The Breakfast Club), Susan Egan (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway), Brent Spiner (Star Trek), KJ Apa and Cole Sprouse (Riverdale), and Grammy-winning pop parodist par excellence “Weird Al” Yankovic.

A few years ago, Awesome Con’s organizers instituted Pride Alley, a corridor amongst the hundreds of artists present, dedicated specifically to the LGBTQ community and curated by Geeks OUT, organizers of New York’s LGBTQ-focused Flame Con.

We approached this year’s Pride Alley participants and asked them a series of questions to learn more about their art, their lives, and why Awesome Con is so important to them. Their answers, in edited form, along with examples of their artwork, appear on the pages that follow.

What originally drew you to Awesome Con?

Rey Arzeno and Eric Guerrero (Rage Gear Studios), 44/35, Gay, New York, Awesome Con Booth Q-12: Eric Guerrero, co-founder of Rage Gear Studios, grew up in the D.C. area. When we learned that there was a convention that also meant seeing family, it was really good news. Pride Alley was the cherry on top. 

Erin Whitt Hilker and Erica Love (BleedGeeks), 36/37, Queer, Maryland, Awesome Con Booth W-06: We loved that it was close and had a blend of fandoms. One year they had gender-neutral bathrooms, which made us very happy, but the following year it was back to gender-exclusive bathrooms, which is perhaps our only disappointment.

Dale Lazarov (Sticky Graphic Novels), 54, Gay, Chicago, Awesome Con Booth B-05: After five years of failing to place in a Chicago comics convention’s Artists Alley as a writer and art director of gay erotic comics with, at the time, six hardcovers published through Bruno Gmünder, friends suggested I try booking in a coastal con before I gave up trying. Awesome Con was the first mainstream comics convention that booked me to exhibit. I wasn’t planning to do more cons if the experience didn’t merit the effort or expense, but I sold out of 80 hardcovers by Sunday afternoon! I’d never experienced such love from fans.

Morven Moeller (Portfoli-Mo), 22, Queer, Virginia, Awesome Con Booth E-05: I was newly blooming with my identity. I had always figured I was queer, but I finally knew enough of the LGBT+ pantheon to construct a multi-faceted identity for myself. And I was broke — too broke to go to FlameCon in New York. But in my vicarious life on Facebook, I followed Geeks Out, and they advertised a Pride Alley at a D.C. Convention. I thought to myself, what a great way to find the intersection of nerd, geek, and LGBT community. As luck would have it, it was an amazing time. I’ve been back every year since.

Kristin Noell (Foxflight Studios), 29, Asexual/Lesbian, Awesome Con Booth D-06: I love the welcoming atmosphere, especially once I heard about Pride Alley! Any geeky space that strives from the outset for inclusivity is automatically going to draw me in.

London St. Juniper (Vicious Poodle PinUp), 30s, Queer, D.C., Awesome Con Booth U-10: My wife and I are regular cosplayers, and sought out AwesomeCon as a venue for cosplaying. Our first experience was overwhelmingly positive, and it became our favorite local con.

Shelby Wolf (Shelby Wolf Designs), 28, Asexual, New Jersey, Awesome Con Booth D-06: One of the things I love the most about Awesome Con is the wide breadth of spaces to showcase various groups — Pride Alley, obviously, but also the maker’s market and Awesome Con Jr. Everyone and every interest has a place at the table.

Describe the kind of art or work you create.

Arzeno and Guerrero: Rage Gear Studios uses years of geeking and arting to produce innovative images that appeal to fans of multiple genres. We aim to refresh the familiar so that it can be seen with new eyes — a queer lens — and in the process contemporize nostalgia.

Joan Cooke, 30, Bisexual, Delaware, Awesome Con Booth M-04: I create fantasy art with influences from surrealism and sequential art. I do commissions and draw people’s D&D characters a lot.

Hilker and Love: We make quality cloth reusables in fun prints. Our specialty is our super comfy reusable cloth menstrual pads, but we carry other reusable things, too, and we’re constantly expanding our collection.

Lazarov: Sticky Graphic Novels are wordless, gay character-based, sex-positive graphic novels for an international audience. Since 2006, I’ve collaborated on 16 hardcover Sticky Graphic Novels and 42 digital editions with distinctive and evocative gay comics artists from around the globe.

F.T. Lukens, 39, Bisexual, North Carolina, Awesome Con Booth J-14: I write young adult sci-fi/fantasy novels that feature queer protagonists.

Rel MNOP, 29, Queer, New Jersey, Awesome Con Booth S-06: Rel likes to make cute and funny art. She likes to make comics that make people laugh.

Moeller: I tend to make pieces using bright colors, bold lines, and sparkle, showcasing themes of positivity and acceptance. I’ve even turned to using words as my medium, writing coming-of-age stories that explore what it means to be on the outside, on the inside, or simply confused.

Noell: I make the work I wish I had when I was a teenager. Primarily I’m working on the LGBT Armory, which is an affirming series for queer folks who love DnD and weaponry.

Mileena Owen (LovelyLadyArtist Studio), 24, Panromantic/Asexual/Nonbinary, Virginia, Awesome Con Booth C-08: My studio does a wide variety of art. I do primarily digital art, animations, and webcomics. My fiancé, Caitlin Hinson, does primarily illustrative traditional art but also dabbles in digital art. She also crochets while I sew so we do have some handcrafted items available for sale.

St. Juniper: Vicious Poodle PinUp designs and creates “creepy cheesecake” retro fashions for any human who thinks that comic aprons and coffin pockets are just what they need. The aesthetic is playful (“cheesecake”), and celebrates an intersection of identities between retro enthusiasts, geek culture, and horror fans (“creepy”). While femme in design, Vicious Poodle does not believe clothes should be gender-specific, and encourages everyone to don their fluffiest petticoats and twirl in a three-headed-poodle skirt.

Yinza Voris, 32, Queer, Maryland, Awesome Con Booth D-07: I love drawing people, with a focus on celebrating sapphic relationships and female characters in general.

Wolf: I’ve always been drawn to fantasy, far off fantastical places where anything is possible. For my illustrative work I tend to channel that. Product wise, like my pins and patches, I tend to create products that I would like to see in the world. Whether it’s fun, space-themed pride pins or witch merit patches.

One of three Metro Weekly Awesome Con covers — Illustration: Rage Gear Studios

What is it about your art that you believe speaks to people?

Arzeno and Guerrero: In one word: quality. We put our best into every piece of art in our catalogue. Not just in terms of the visuals, but in narratives as well. There is a story to be read in the drawings. Our work invites people to decipher the elements of the combined genres — like puzzle pieces. When they get it, we can see it in their faces before they say a word. Most often with a big smile and eagerness to figure out the next one.

Hilker and Love: Many people are looking for a way to leave pointless trash and waste behind in their past, and this is it. It’s a real upgrade, and a needed one. Surrounding ourselves with art and characters that affirm our own stories lets us see old friends where previously we just saw trash-in-progress.

Lazarov: So many comics about gay relationships are desexualized or rapey and/or dehumanizing, that showing gay erotic comics that smile is a radical act of resistance against both extremes of alienation. People want to see gay relationships that are not alienated from gay sexuality and want to see a diversity of romantic and recreational contexts for gay sex that they don’t see in popular culture or gay porn. People also want to see different body types, ages and colors in their gay comics.

Earlier in April, at ICE CREAM [the Iowa City Expo for Comics and Real Eclectic Alternative Media], a con attendee told me, “Your work is important.” This made me cry. I’ve received letters from folks who were inspired by Sticky Graphic Novels to go out and date again and then found love with another man, people who were stuck in companionate marriages who had forfeited on their sexuality in exchange for security. Knowing that our hard work is having the intended effect of causing gay liberation is spectacularly affirming.

Lukens: I believe that every reader, especially young readers, deserves to see a representation of themselves as a hero in media. Historically, queer characters in narratives are sidelined or sidekicks, only present to prop up the story line of the cis-het protagonist. Though this has changed significantly in the past few years, especially in young adult publishing, there is always room for growth, and for books that highlight queer characters as heroes that don’t necessarily center a coming-out story. As an author, I strive to write queer characters that are protagonists, the heroes, that have daring adventures then receive their happy ever after. I write the kind of stories with characters that I wanted and needed as a young adult.

Moeller: I would love to say that I’ve hit peak Miyazaki, and that I manage to convey the beauty in the mundane. Or that I’ve managed something akin to Jen Bartel’s work, that anyone can slay, both literally and figuratively. But, in honesty, this question stumped me, so I asked my mom. She said that my artwork reminds her that there is beauty in being you, whoever that is. And, perhaps that’s the perfect mix of my lofty goals. To show people that they are indeed beautiful — their regular, unaltered, mundane selves are absolutely beautiful.

Noell: People have come to me with extremely touching stories about how much my work means to them, as LGBT folks and as geeks and dungeon masters and sometimes even ren faire reenactors and stage combat fighters. I love that my message of strength and solidarity comes across.

What does it mean for you to be able to express your sexuality/gender identity through your art?

Arzeno and Guerrero: Being able to express our sexual identity through our work means validation. Growing up as fan of comic books, we didn’t see ourselves in the characters. The intersectionality was extremely limited then. Now, we can create worlds that do reflect on different aspects of each of us — as Latino Men and as gay men.

Cooke: It’s important to me to be able to express my sexuality through my art because it’s part of who I am. It’s part of humanity. All of my characters have their own relationships with their own sexuality and gender identity. I try to keep that in mind to create three dimensional characters and a diverse, interesting world.

Hilker and Love: It’s super important, and has been at the forefront of our efforts from the beginning. Our primary product is reusable cloth menstrual pads, so on top of that intense collection of taboos, there is what one might call “aggressive gendering” in the mass market disposable options. A person with a uterus may or may not identify as a woman, or even as a ciswoman might be heartily tired of pink. Having options that are not only comfortable, but styled around who we are instead of what we’ve been assigned, is a huge relief. We’re all about comfort, and comfort isn’t just good design and pleasant materials. Comfort is being welcome to be unapologetically yourself. That’s what we’re here to give to our community, and we’re totally dedicated to it.

Lazarov: It was my way of owning my sexuality and aspirations. I was a comics nerd who thought sex happened to other people. Now I am a comics nerd with a fiancé and fans that call me The Stan Lee of Gay.

Moeller: Interestingly enough, I take it for granted. My parents always encouraged me to show my true colors in everything I did. I am both extremely grateful for that and often confused by the struggle that others have to go through, not having the same accepting parents. It’s put me in a position that allows me to reach out and help others in our community, a privilege that I wish more young LGBT persons could enjoy. As for my art, it means that I can display a true experience, that I can show young people that it will get better, that they are beautiful, that they are deserving of love, even if their current situation is neither beautiful nor loving.

Noell: I started making my primary series because I wanted something that represented me, specifically, and was something more than just a pride flag. It has been so incredibly special to share that journey with everyone in the community, and has made me feel so connected to people all over the world in really surprising ways.

St. Juniper: Fashion is an amalgamation of art and performance that expresses markers of identity in a lived space. Having clothes that accurately represent interests and self-identification is empowering, and allows people a greater sense of agency. I think it’s important to feel like yourself whenever you dress, and however that may shift on a daily basis. Fashion can be a wonderful tool for building and communicating a sense of self.

Voris: With fanart for media that already represents me, it allows me to express my love and appreciation, to connect with it on a deeper level. But, in a lot of other cases, it allows me to create space for myself, to show that I exist. There are a lot of things that I love, but unfortunately don’t include characters or experiences that I can relate to, especially as an asexual creator.

One of three Metro Weekly Awesome Con covers — Illustration: Caitlin Hinson / LovelyLadyArtist Studio

Have you ever faced backlash for your art?

Arzeno and Guerrero: Yes. For years it has been the “norm” at conventions to see art that celebrates, sexualizes or objectifies the female body. So much so that we’re desensitized it. Plenty of heroines and villainesses fighting crime in swimsuits and stilettos. When the same is done to their male counterparts, people are surprised, taken aback or made uncomfortable. The most vocal opinions are expressed online. “This is too gay.” “You’ve ruined Captain America for me.” At the conventions, some point and laugh, others cover their children’s eyes and rush by to the safe familiarity of an upshot of Supergirl’s underwear.

Hilker and Love: Oh, yes. We challenge habits, norms and taboos, and while some people simply keep walking, others decide to share their issues and objections and can be quite rude. Pride Alley keeps it to a minimum though, as many of those people just don’t enter our row. It’s nice, and lets us focus our attention on our community.

Lazarov: Someone from the Comicsgate crowd — the racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic arm of comics fandom online — put out a video that deliberately ridiculed and defamed both the graphic novels and myself as a comics creator. But the fact that they noticed me means I am doing something right.

Noell: Yes, because the Armory is so incredibly unapologetic about being badass and gay, I’ve faced some online backlash, especially. Sometimes it comes from within the community. It just honestly fuels me to keep making more and more inclusive weapons and keep expanding.

Do you cosplay, and if so what character do you play?

Cooke: Yes, sometimes I’ll cosplay as Marceline from Adventure Time and Death from Sandman.

Hilker and Love: We do! We have several cosplays we enjoy, but none so much as our Steven Universe cosplays! Erica cosplays Garnet, a powerful black-coded femme character who is the literal embodiment of queer love. Erin cosplays Rose Quartz, a fat bisexual mom and leader who trades privilege and power to defend Earth and freedom found there.

It’s such a beautiful show with much needed representation, not just of queer people and queer love, but queer happiness. It has helped us immeasurably as parents to be able to show our children what it means to honor the uniqueness of themselves and each other. And cosplaying with our kids is a joy.

Moeller: I do a lot more “costuming” than “cosplay,” wherein I dress Cyberpunk or Steampunk or Decora Kei, not as a specific character. As someone who identifies as transgender and who has been going through gender-affirming hormone therapy, I’ve become much more comfortable in my body, which has led to more costuming. I remember the last time I tried to cosplay, and it went very badly. At the time, one of my doctors was making a last stand to try to get my natural hormones to behave in a pattern acceptable to my assigned gender at birth, so they put me on sex-affirming hormone therapy. It sucked. I don’t really remember much of that month, only that I was miserable and an absolute asshole. So, because of that experience, cosplay hasn’t been a huge priority for me, but we’ll see what the future holds.

St. Juniper: I am an enthusiastic cosplayer and nerdlesque performer. Within the last year I’ve worn, or performed in, my Sally Jupiter Silk Spectre, Rule 63 Joker, the TF2 Pyro, a femme Frank from Donnie Darko, Maleficent, Mr. DNA, Dr. Alan Grant, the Grinch, Slenderman, Goatman, the Brain (Pinky and the Brain), and Adam West’s Batman.

What, if anything, do you think the major comics and graphic novel publishers are doing right in terms of LGBTQ representation? What could they do better?

Arzeno and Guerrero: Lately, there is so much more representation in comics and graphic novels. We love that more women are involved and showcased as artists and writers. There are many more LGBT characters in books. It used to be just the Canadian mutant, Northstar. Now, we have books featuring the Iceman, a gay member of the X-Men, and America, starring a Queer Latinx heroine, written by LGBT authors.

Cooke: I think comics publishers are improving in terms of LGBT representation. There are small, vocal communities that resist it, but the representation is improving. I think there could be more improvement in including LGBT characters who simply are who they are, and not using that identity as a plot device.

Hilker and Love: One of the things that Steven Universe does so well that I’d like to see elsewhere is not just LGBT representation, but a wealth of it. When there’s multiple femmes, non binary folks and queer relationships, then no one of them has to stand in for their entire community. It allows a depth in each portrayal that you don’t often see.

Lazarov: It’s safe for comics companies to have characters that aren’t fully heteronormative but not so much that aren’t completely disruptive of norms. Given the history of LGBTQ content being excised out of superhero movies before they are released — the Black Panther movie was de-lesbianized — I am not holding my breath. I expect Hercules’ bisexuality to be erased for his movie appearance because China is a big market for capey capers and they are not fond of non-conformity. This follows the recent declaration that Hercules will no longer be bisexual in the comics.

MNOP: I think that they are trying somewhat, which is better than not trying at all. I think the best way for major publishers to move forward is to make sure to hire a truly diverse team of artists, writers, editors, and other creatives.

Moeller: Well, I don’t really read the “major” publishers for that reason. What the major publishers need to do is hire LGBT writers and artists to write and draw LGBT stories.

Owen: One great thing is that they are including more in terms of character numbers and in the spectrum of LGBT+. By also allowing LGBT+ authors and artists to create and work with these characters, we get more genuine interactions between them, other characters, and their environment. What they could be doing better is not killing them off or making them a plot device for the story to progress. We’ve also seen LGBT+ characters get their sexuality changed in an attempt to either add more diversity or to just erase their sexuality.

One of three Metro Weekly Awesome Con covers — Illustration: Dale Lazarov / Sticky Graphic Novels

What is your favorite thing about Awesome Con having Pride Alley?

Arzeno and Guerrero: Our favorite part of having Pride Alley at Awesome Con is not being alone. It’s 2019 and we are still very much a minority in the comic convention circuit. In Pride Alley we have the support and companionship of our peers.

Cooke: Pride Alley is such a positive space. There is a vibe of acceptance that encourages people to speak freely and be themselves.

Hilker and Love: As members of multiple demographics that are often dismissed as being not truly present or profitable, having this big sign above us that proclaims that we’re here is pleasantly affirming. Not only can we easily find each other, but we can’t be erased.

Moeller: Camaraderie. Community. “They/Them” and Pronoun Write-In name tags. The artwork. The colors. The swag. The merch. The networking. I just love all of it. I get to meet people who are accepting or passionate about the community and hear their experiences. And, honestly, I feel like I have some back-up if someone decides to say something cruel or nasty about the imagery in my artwork. Of course, I also find lots of camaraderie and community outside of Pride Alley too. Shout out to DreamPunk Press (O-12) and A Steampunked Life (1643), who always foster loving and judgement-free atmospheres at conventions.

Noell: I like that there’s a visible attempt at inclusion! Especially since mainstream comics spaces can sometimes feel unwelcoming to queer folk, it’s so awesome that there’s a visible space for us.

Owen: It allows more celebration of the LGBT+ community, as opposed to fetishization which can be seen with most fanartists.

St. Juniper: Representation matters, and making space for queer artists normalizes identities and gives queer art a platform to share and engage with audiences.

Awesome Con is Friday, April 26, from 12 to 8 p.m., Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 28, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. At the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Place NW. Tickets are $40 to $55 for a single-day entry or $80 for a three-day pass. VIP passes range from $150 to $574.99 are also available. You can find all of the artists (and more) represented in this article at Pride Alley presented by Geeks Out. All works reprinted in this issue with permission of the artists.

Metro Weekly’s André Hereford will be moderating an hour-long Q&A discussion with Lou Ferrigno, the original Incredible Hulk, on Friday, April 26, at 2:30 p.m.

For more information on Awesome Con, call 202-249-3000 or visit www.awesome-con.com.

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