Comic books have always been assumed to be a boy’s hobby — the comics industry is dominated by guys telling the stories of beefy, macho, heterosexual superhuman heroes. Today, divergent and emerging artists use the internet to hone their craft, establish a fan following and shake up the status quo.
Austin-based EK Weaver is a prime example of this new breed. Her web comic — The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal — is a queer spin on the road-trip story. After Amal comes out to his parents, breaking up his arranged marriage and getting disowned in the process, he goes on a bender, meeting the mysterious TJ. A drunken pact results in a cross-country journey, with Amal travelling to his younger sister’s graduation and TJ’s plans remaining a mystery.
“The whole thing grew out of the characters,” Weaver says. “I drew the first sketch of TJ back in late 2006 as a joking response to dull, repetitive character designs I’d seen in some yaoi manga.” Yaoi, also known as BL (“boys’ love”), is a genre of Japanese comics (manga) that focuses on homosexual and homoerotic male relationships. The genre is sometimes criticized for using formulaic gay male tropes, melodrama and idealized fantasy relationships, and the characters are frequently generically pretty.
Weaver’s characters definitely break that mould. TJ is a white and dreadlocked, aviator-sunglasses-wearing, classic-rock-loving, enigmatic sweetheart; Amal is a stylish, muscular, neurotic Indian guy studying to be a doctor. “Originally, it was just a series of doodled gags and deadpan snark moments, wacky situations . . . any romantic elements were part of the comedy,” Weaver says. “But as I played with the characters more, they got more three-dimensional, and I was driven to tell their story.” Now, the comic is almost 500 pages long, with two print volumes and other merchandise already released.
Weaver, who will be selling a print version of the third and final volume of TJ and Amal at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, says she’s often asked why a female artist would explore gay male romance: “I’m not sure if women writing gay romance is a phenomenon any more or less notable than anyone of any gender writing science fiction or straight romance or tragedy or comedy or detective pulp or fantasy. For some reason, though, it seems to get singled out for examination, as if there were something especially strange about it.”