Students' superpower: bringing LGBTQ comic books to light

By Jessi Loerch Wednesday, May 16, 2018

“Representation matters. It’s a cliché, but it’s definitely true,” said Le Button.

Button and Aydin Kwan, both Information School Master of Library and Information Science students, have combined their academic knowledge with their personal interests in LGBTQ representation and comic books for their Capstone project. Together, they have created a database and website that will help readers, librarians and booksellers discover comics that tell a wide range of LGBTQ stories.

“For us, it’s very easy to find queer comics because we already speak the language of queer comics,” Kwan said. “But that’s not the way for everybody. For people who don’t already have access to queer comics, it can be hard to find representation. We are trying to make it easier for people who don’t already have fluency in queer comics.”

The Capstone project originally started as an assignment in their LIS 536 class, Metadata for Interactive Media. In their research, Button said, they discovered “there wasn’t really any centralized place to find comics that featured queer characters.” Button and Kwan wanted to fix that.

It quickly became clear, however, that their dreams for the project went beyond the scope of the class, so they continued the work with their Capstone project. Capstone gives students a chance to combine the skills they have learned throughout their iSchool education into a real-world project.

The students have carefully cataloged the comics in their database, where they include details on specific types of representation, including intersectional stories. For example, a reader could look for a comic featuring a lesbian character or a queer, disabled character. Kwan and Button have also included synopsis and content warnings; some of the comics have content warnings for homophobia, for example.

Populating the database with detailed information about each comic was a time-consuming process, but a task both Button and Kwan truly enjoyed. As comic aficionados, they were already familiar with many titles they wanted to include. To expand their list, they used social media, comic conventions and publishers such as Northwest Press, which publishes LGBTQ comics. Because they both already inhabit that world, collecting titles was easier for them.

The students don’t have time to include every LGBTQ comic out there, so when possible, they’re trying to include comics with representation that is the hardest to find, such as comics that feature people of color.

Button said that the iSchool has given him and Kwan the skills they need to make this project possible. Perhaps one of the most important skills, he said, was a strong focus on user-oriented design. They’ve worked carefully to ensure the website is easy to use and appealing to their audience. Test users have helped them to refine the site.

Kwan and Button praised their professors for giving them the room to focus on a topic they care about.  

“It’s been great to be able to put this amount of time and effort into something that’s important and we’re passionate about and that’s fun to do,” Kwan said. “Capstone can be stressful and frustrating, but we get to read comics and it’s going to be something that helps a lot of people.”

“Working on this project has really clarified the use of my education here,” Kwan said. “I can really see that practical side.”

The two students worked with Geeks OUT, which produces Flame Con, the world’s largest LGBTQ comic convention. Nicole Gitau, president of Geeks OUT, advised Kwan and Button on the project. She said that Kwan and Button have applied their iSchool training to a project that will make an impact at the exact right time. Comics are getting a lot of press, but many people don’t know where to start. She said the Queer Comics Database offers an easy starting point for those who want to learn about comics and diverse representation.

“For so many people, books are where they first see themselves,” Gitau said. “Comics can play an even greater role in self discovery, as so many of them are made for adolescents who are just starting to ask the big questions. An online tool that lets folks — old and young — find what speaks to them will make a real difference. And, as a former librarian, I can tell you that any resource that helps you cut through the noise and find the best book for your collection will be praised — and used often!”