Graphic novels have come a long way in recent years. From Lynda Barry’s “The Good Times Are Killing Me” to Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” to Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” the graphic novel is here to stay. Putting the graphic sexuality into graphic novels, gay writer Dale Lazarov and his various illustrating collaborators have created a series of homoerotic books that are sure to satisfy readers of all queer stripes. The two newest books, “Adversaries!” (Sticky Graphic Novels, 2018) and “Comrades” (Sticky Graphic Novels, 2019) are welcome additions to the series. I spoke with Lazarov about the books, collaboration and the exciting world of Comic Cons.
Gregg Shapiro: According to your bio, you are known as “The Father of American Bara Comics.” For the uninitiated, what are “bara comics”?
Dale Lazarov: “Bara manga” means “rose manga” or “gay manga” in Japanese. The label is associated in Japan with “men’s love” comics in general; most people in the U.S. think of it as muscle-man gay erotic comics that play with themes associated with hypermasculinity that I find problematic and wanted to reinvent in a sex-positive context. I was described, rightly or wrongly, as “the Father of American Bara Comics” by fans and it has stuck, whether it recognizes the qualitative difference between “You raped me and made me love you, daddy” Japanese comics and what we do or not do. We do have protagonists that are within the visual tropes of bara manga (older men or muscly-hairy bodies), but put them in a narrative context of relatedness that involves consent, egalitarianism and a certain generosity of spirit and play. In that way, we are significantly *not* in the same mode as rapey bara manga found everywhere on the Internet.
GS: What’s the average span of time for a Sticky Graphic Novel to go from concept to execution to production?
DL: It depends on the artist. Usually, I get four pages a month from my collaborators, so it depends on the length of the book. We all have day jobs, so the pace of production is flexible. I am good at project management, so I have, for the immediate future, a new book in the fall and a new book in the spring.
GS: For more than a dozen years, you have collaborated with “distinctive and evocative gay comics artists from around the globe.” What can you tell me about your process when it comes to finding a collaborator?
DL: Oh, for me, it’s like making new friends: some come to me, some I approach, some take time to develop and some hit the ground running. Say, I was approached for a collaboration by Enrique Nieto, who was a romance comics artist in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the U.S. market and now draws astonishingly hypermasculine comics in his retirement. One of my lifetime goals was to work with old-timey romance comics artists, so I was thrilled by the opportunity. Luckily, I had a script handy that combined both phases of his [Nieto‘s] career: “Comrades,” which takes the unintentionally homoerotic, manly-man imagery of Sino-Soviet poster art and turns it into a shamelessly romantic narrative about the intensity of finding someone with common aims both sexually and emotionally. Hyper-manly men doing hyper-manly things to each other in the context of the romanticism of Communist propaganda art was in Nieto’s wheelhouse so it’s both hot and charming.
GS: How would you say that that process has evolved over the years?
DL: As far as the process of collaborators goes, it’s a mutually-agreed on process where I art direct some aspects of the comic — I, at minimum, edit the character designs and layouts of the comic — and the artist has the freedom to interpret the script in linework and colors as long as he, she or they keep to the character-based narrative beats and the sexual choreography of the script.
GS: Does your interaction with your collaborator change when it’s a woman?
DL: Nope! I sometimes have to provide reference for sexual positions not seen in contemporary video clips but, thankfully, there’s plenty of ‘70s gay erotic loops and recent amateur clips that show sex as people have it with each other and not for a camera.
GS: Have any of your male collaborators been straight?
DL: Yep. But I am sworn to secrecy [laughs]!
GS: The three previous Dale Lazarov books that I have in my personal library, including “Fast Friends,” “Manly” and “Nightlife,” were put out by Bruno Gmunder. Your 2018 and 2019 titles, “Adversaries!” and “Comrades,” respectively, are published on your own imprint — Sticky Graphic Novels. How did that come to be?
DL: After the 2014 bankruptcy that Gmünder went through, I was asked to return. One of the conditions of my return was an imprint for my titles so I could publish books more often and escape how I and my collaborators were typecast as Gmünder authors. Say, I was prohibited from doing non-slice-of-life characters and situations up until 2012 because Gmünder had too many fantasy, SF and superhero gay erotic comics. I was their “slice of life” creator and they limited me to one book a year or two. I still do slice of life — “Carnal” is definitely in that mode — but now I also get to play with monsters, capes and robots.
Once Gmünder went bankrupt again, I walked away with my own imprint and platform, and started getting booked to comic cons, where I met my current print partners, so I could go indefinitely without a traditional publisher. I do miss having publicity and marketing, but everything else is taken care of, currently. I wouldn’t turn away a traditional publisher, but it would have to work on our terms and not theirs.
GS: Speaking of “Adversaries!,” the book takes a superhero versus villain approach to the storytelling. Can you please say something about the erotic nature of superheroes and villains and how you see that fitting into the work you do?
DL: Anyone who knows me well knows that DC Comics put its bullet in my heart at a young age. And that Vartox, one of Superman’s villain-turned-hero colleagues, was a primary influence on what I desire in the illustration of men in comics. Playing with capey comics tropes was an easy transition for me. But I have a fetish for originality, so I had to find my own twist on it. If I am going to do capey erotic comics, we have to make it new in the context of the carnality, sweetness and wit that our fans expect from us.
One of the tropes of superhero erotica is that the protagonists are ordinary people who have a fetish for costumes and/or are cosplaying as heroes and villains. This is as old hat in this day and age as putting on tiny underpants and a cape towel and prancing around a comic con floor like you’re cosplaying when you’re just an unemployed actor. What makes “Adversaries!” unique is the connection between the sex that’s had and the characters’ hero or villain persona, their superpower, and relationship as hero and villain. So, my take is that gay sex between metahumans would be grudge fucking featuring preternaturally attractive buttocks, super-sexual prowess and massive property damage. And, also, fetish cosplay [laughs].
GS: While we’re on the subject of superheroes, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature a few days before this interview took place. As someone with some expertise in the area, do you think it deserved to win the Oscar?
DL: I haven’t seen it, yet — I am not a Marvel guy, so I wait for most Marvel movies to hit cable — but my friends who are Spidey fans loved it and loved the diversity in the characters.
GS: What would it mean to you to have a Sticky Graphic Novel adapted into an animated feature?
DL: That someone has money to burn as animation is hella-expensive and time-intensive. To be honest, the only adaptation I can imagine working or happening is turning “Fast Friends” into a wordless dance piece.
GS: Of the Sticky titles with which I am most familiar, the newest, “Comrades,” which is set in Russia, might be the most political. In terms of making a statement, how much of the setting has to do with current situation of anti-gay violence in Chechnya and how much of it has to do with Trump’s relationship with Putin?
DL: I wrote the script as a response to Putin’s law against “gay propaganda” since Russian propaganda is homoerotic as hell, and I couldn’t resist mocking it while affirming homosexuality with actual Soviet gay propaganda. All that followed the writing of the script are unfortunate coincidences that make the book more timely and necessary than ever.
GS: From now through the fall, you have several comic-cons on your schedule. What are the best and worst things about attending comic-cons?
DL: Oh, the fans are the best. Seeing that we have a direct impact in the environment makes me happy — even lesbians and bisexual couples buy our books. The fact that Sticky Graphic Novels are now welcome in mainstream comic cons — we’re even in Comic-Con International San Diego this year! — means that we have a place at the table that we did not have before. People better not dare say what we do isn’t activism! For some people, Sticky Graphic Novels are the first visible representation of same-sex relationships as loving, wholesome, affirmative and spectacularly hot.
The worst thing is the con food, the long hours and the ridicule or hostility we have to tolerate from homophobes who would rather we stay invisible and unheard. Fortunately, I enjoy sassing them in the great tradition of queer tricksters. For example:
Guy walking past my booth: “I didn’t have to see that…”
Me: “I didn’t have to see you…”
Guy flees [laughs]!
Dale Lazarov will be exhibiting at HeroesCon Charlotte at the Charlotte Convention Center, June 13-16, and at Raleigh Supercon at the Raleigh Convention Center, July 24-29.