There are waaaaaaay too many reasons to list why we chose Jude Valentine as Gay League’s first “Featured Member” — but when you read their first interview with us below, it will all start to become quite clear to you (that is, if you weren’t already aware of their awesome contributions to this site and the Gay League Facebook group).
Jude’s extreme passion for comics is not only clearly evident, it’s contagious — and they’re exactly the kind of fan the world needs more of. They’re not only dedicated to comics, characters, cosplay and more, but they’re a firm believer (and fighter) for more inclusion, diversity, and representation in the comics world — and that makes them a superhero already in our eyes.
Read on for more about Jude, their secret origin, their dreams for the future of comics, and more:
GAY LEAGUE: Every comic nerd has an origin story. Care to share yours with us?
JUDE: When I was six years old my older brother Ryan sat me down on the stoop outside our laundry room and walked me through an X-MEN comic book. I don’t remember which one exactly, but it was a piece of the story arc where ninja-Psylocke and Revanche were fighting over who was really Betsy Braddock – perhaps not the most coherent introduction to X-Men continuity one could hope for. Luckily I was pulled in by all the pretty girls with purple hair and very easily hooked on the books. Through middle school I mostly just read the books Ryan was into, but by high school I started trusting my own taste and we diverged. So I feel like I have a two-part origin story. The first one is definitely my brother instructing me on what books were the best, and the ret-con has me venturing into a comic book shop on my own as an insecure teenager to buy BATMAN comics and hoping I wasn’t “wrong” about my choices. I feel the need to point out that Ryan never pressured me about having a girly taste in anything; we used to have our X-Men action figures interact with My Little Ponies and Barbies all the time. It was the jerks actually selling the books to me who used to make fun of me for liking girly comics.
Do you have a favorite story or character?
Jude: My favorite character is Hartley Rathaway/Pied Piper from THE FLASH. I identify with him. You don’t see that many openly gay preachy leftist superheroes getting on their soapboxes to tell their lovably obtuse straight friends they need to think about social issues.
Favorite story is a bit harder. I think it’s either TEEN TITANS #14: “Requiem for a Titan” or THE FLASH #19: “A Meeting of Rogues” (and yes, I picked a Flash story that Piper doesn’t appear in). The Titans story is one of those old ones where they speak in that ridiculous slang that only a middle aged man could assume sounded anything like a real teenager. I encountered it in a big SHOWCASE PRESENTS trade and it stands out, because sandwiched between all these ridiculous, campy stories there’s this really serious one that’s completely different in tone from the others. It goes right back to the same old camp after #14, and the story didn’t fully succeed in capturing the dramatic tone it would have liked, but the difference between it and the other stories collected in the trade is stark. A supervillain named the Gargoyle convinced the other Titans that Robin had been wrongfully imprisoning bad guys to make the Titans look better, and once he planted suspicion in their minds he was able to control them and make them all turn on Robin. Robin fought his teammates and the Gargoyle by himself, and at the end their minds were wiped so they don’t remember turning on him. There are still elements of ridiculousness to the story, but overall I like it and it impressed me as a storyline that could come back in current comics and have a lot of impact. It says something about the team dynamics if they could all turn on one member so easily. The Flash story is much lighter. It starts with Wally’s girlfriend of the moment, Connie, bugging him to take her out somewhere, so he takes her to a Rogues gathering. The Rogues are celebrating Captain Cold getting out of jail, and the Trickster sent Wally an invitation as a joke figuring he’d never actually show up. It’s a funny, light hearted one-shot, and in my opinion is everything a Rogues-centric Flash story should be.
What’s your best nerd experience or memory (aside from anything that may be related to your origin story) that you’d like to share?
Jude: When I was in college I did my research and writing seminar paper on the introduction of LGBT characters into mainstream comics after the 1989 code revision (I was proud of it at the time but it’s not a very good paper; I’ve thought about trying to revise it for publication but haven’t had the time for the project). I had the opportunity to present the paper at a few conferences, the last one being the national Phi Alpha Theta conference that was being hosted in Orlando. So yes, my school flew me to Florida in January to talk to a bunch of academics about gay superheroes.
Sometimes it’s good to be a historian. Most of the papers at the conference were on fairly conventional and well-trod historic subjects, so my panel was kind of a catch-all, and since they didn’t have any kind of pop culture expert to chair the panel it was headed by an expert on Mormon history. I wasn’t too bothered at first, but the first day of the conference one of my classmates was presenting on a panel that the Mormon expert sat in on, and some other kid made a mistake and instead of going easy on him, like the experts usually do with undergrads attending possibly their first conference ever, he really laid into the kid and made it known to everyone in the room that he got his facts messed up. So I was nervous after that, and I kept going, ‘shoot…Mormons aren’t always friendly towards gays. What if I’m being chaired by a homophobe?’ My classmates and professor knew I was nervous, so the day of my presentation they all came to my panel to cheer me on. I showed up stupidly early since I was anxious, and another group was still in the room so I had to wait. While I was outside, the scary looking old Mormon historian and his wife joined me, and he very politely asked if I was one of the presenters. I said that I was and hesitantly told him the title of my paper. His whole face lit up, and he said something along the lines of, “so you’re the young lady who studies the funny books? Tell me, do they still make Captain Marvel comics? His were always my favorite when I was a boy.”
Since I covered gay characters as their inclusion related to the Comics Code, I’d spent a lot of time in my paper on the Code’s history and all the craziness with Wertham and the Senate hearings, so he found the whole thing really fascinating and nostalgic (based on his age, he was of the pre-TV generation that would have been absolutely hooked on comics during the height of their popularity). So I chatted with him about Billy Batson a little, and then when the room was open I went in to set up. My friends from Salem were there to cheer me on, and since they missed the “scary” Mormon chatting with me about Captain Marvel, they all assumed I was still scared and that the guy might be biased against my paper. He was actually really into it, and apparently I killed it at the panel. Some of the people in the audience sneered when they heard I was going to be discussing comics, but I gave a good presentation and represented my school admirably. Turns out the Mormon professor wasn’t actually mean to undergrads; he just couldn’t stand hearing an undergrad misrepresent his field of study. The kid from the first day was presenting on Mormon history, and their interpretations weren’t in agreement.
Name a comics creator you’d most like to meet.
Jude: I’ve accomplished that goal already, actually. Gail Simone has been one of my heroes for quite a few years now. Not only does she write amazing, sympathetic, realistically flawed and strong characters you can identify with, but she also breaks ground for under-represented groups in comics. I loves me a talented writer with a flair for activism. I got to meet her at the Free Comic Book Day event the lovely folks at Double Midnight Comics in Manchester New Hampshire held last year.
In the future I’d like to get a chance to say hey to Janelle Asselin, Kelly Thompson, Sophie Campbell, and William Messner-Loebs. And since I grew up in the ‘90s, giving Bruce Timm and Paul Dini hugs and thanking them for my awesome childhood is on my geeky bucket list.
When you’re not reading comics what captures your interest?
Jude: Writing fan fiction, crafting, obsessing over a folk/punk musician named Frank Turner, and studying social history. I’ve got my toe in the door of the museum field and someday I’d like that to be my career instead of a part-time job. I’m studying African American social history. I’d like to put that knowledge to use in improving museum interpretation on some of the difficult issues relating to race in US history. A lot of museums struggle with interpreting slavery to the public, and I’d like to be a part of changing that. It’s an exciting part of the museum field, but jobs aren’t exactly plentiful.
How have your perceptions of and relationship with comics changed over the years?
Jude: Oh loads. When I was a kid being a girl reading comic books made you an oddity. Even though most of the boys at my school didn’t read comics themselves or obsess over the X-Men cartoon the way I did, they still seemed to feel that by virtue of being male, their passing interest was more valid than my consuming obsession. It was a little lonely and often confrontational, being a little girl who read comics. Needless to say, it’s very different now. I see little girls proudly wearing Batgirl T-shirts everywhere, and I’ve got a great community of adult women I talk comics, costuming, and attending cons with. There’s still some hostility to girls in comics, of course, but I think of all the tantrums as an indication that we’ve made progress. There wouldn’t be pushback like that if we weren’t making progress. So yeah, I don’t feel so lonely or weird for being a girl who reads comics anymore and I’m generally treated better than I used to be. Accordingly, I place more trust in my own taste in comics. I haven’t been concerned about the shame of buying a “girly” book in ages. Now I find it rather exciting that books are being made to appeal to girls, which is quite the contrast from me embarrassedly picking up YOUNG JUSTICE and NIGHTWING comics and being mocked for my feminine taste by the men who were selling them to me.
What directions or trends do you see — or would like to see — in comics and fandom today?
Jude: I’m seeing a trend towards inclusivity in comics fandom and it makes me really happy. I’d like to see it continue. Right now we’re in an uncomfortable growing pains period. There are still gatekeepers making hell for women in the industry (as Janelle Asselin can testify) but once this period passes, things will be so much better. Another trend I’ve noticed is that books put out by companies other than the Big 2 are getting more attention than they used to. I’d love to see that continue. Much as I love my superhero books, I think it’s only healthy for the industry if people remember that comic books are a medium, not a genre. I also think web comics, digital books, and self-publishing are all really exciting. My brother’s been drawing comics pretty much since he could write up dialogue bubbles and he’s only had mild success professionally so far. A lot of the work he found wasn’t very satisfying creatively, but self-publishing books has allowed him to get his work out there while keeping his own voice and style. I don’t know how lucrative it’s going to be for him, but it’s certainly better than a pile of rejection letters.
Imagine yourself as a comics publisher (whether it’s your own business or an existing one that’s either mainstream or an indy company). How do you envision your company and what do the series and books that you publish look like?
Jude: Hmm…I think I’d probably model myself off of Janelle Asselin’s FRESH ROMANCE project. I like the fact that she’s reviving an old comics staple that fell by the wayside, the romance comic, that specifically appealed to girls. I also like that inclusivity is a clearly stated goal of the book, both in the storytelling and for the creative team. I mostly read superhero books, but when I sit down to write most of my stories are slice-of-life-ish love stories with maybe a supernatural element or two, so FRESH ROMANCE is the kind of product I could actually make. I could also see me putting out anthologies that feature collaborations with my siblings. My brother and I have talked about a possible collaboration for one of his books, and one of my sisters is a digital artist with a flair for romantic dramas that meshes well with my style of storytelling.
I’d love if you would discuss the evolution of female heroes, empowered costumes, cosplay, and how male writers and artists have treated — and are still treating — female characters as accessories for male characters or ‘fridging them.
Jude: There’s a lot going on in this question so I’ll have to approach it in pieces.
So to start with empowered/practical female costumes, I’m a pretty vocal fan of those. It’s not to say that I think absolutely every costume needs to be practical; I recognize that the superhero genre is a fantasy one, and too much realism is cumbersome to the storytelling. In my opinion, storytelling should always be the priority. However, since I’m a woman who enjoys escapist fantasies just as much as your next comic book nerd, I have a fondness for stories where the people who resemble me get to be empowered and not just victimized all the time. Sexy costumes can certainly be empowered, but historically they haven’t been, so the recent trend towards practical costumes is a welcome one. It’s adding some much needed variety to the style of female superhero costumes, and it shows that individual character traits are being considered as well — I mean, it just makes sense for these women to have different tastes in fashion from each other. I especially love when teen superheroes get to wear more substantial clothing than your typical skimpy bit of spandex, because it’s just kind of weird to me when characters that are canonically like fifteen are over-sexualized to the point of looking like porn stars.
The trend towards more practical costumes ties into some of my cosplay feels rather nicely. I cosplay myself and overall I think it’s wicked fun. It can be a bit dramatic sometimes and I think it’s often misunderstood outside of its little niche community, sometimes willfully so. There’s this confusing mass of voices who think that we’re somehow not real fans and that we want lots of attention. In my personal experience cosplaying I can assure you all that 1) we are very loyal fans of our fandoms and 2) many of us are just as socially awkward as your average overly-obsessed-with-some-faction-of-geek-culture-prefer-to-talk-to-people-online-rather-than-in-person fan. It seems a little illogical, but despite the fact that I’m walking around a convention floor in spandex, thigh high boots, and a bright purple wig, I’m actually not good at striking up a conversation with strangers and my initial reaction to someone asking for a picture is going to be stunned confusion and some kind of mumbled response aimed at the ground. Cosplay is a pretty obvious statement of your fandom allegiance though, so it can be a nice icebreaker when you’re not very good at striking up conversations with strangers. Works in reverse too. Complimenting someone else’s costume or asking for a picture is an easy way to introduce friendly conversation when you’re feeling anxious, and crowded cons definitely trigger my social anxiety.
One of the reasons I really appreciate practical costume designs for female characters is because I am such an awkward cosplayer. Like pretty much every woman who’s lived through adolescence, I have body image issues and dressing up like my favorite female comic book characters forces me to confront them in a way that hasn’t always left me in the best headspace. A lot of my friends adopt diet and exercise plans that let them be “cosplay ready” for con season. Sometimes it’s a good motivator to stay healthy, but I think this mentality flirts with a dangerous headspace, especially if you’ve got a history of eating disorders. Of the costumes I’ve made, I think my Huntress and Psylocke are in the best shape, but I feel the most comfortable wearing the ones I’ve made of male characters. My Robin costume shows just as much skin as the Psylocke one on a technical level, but the silly green short-shorts are more forgiving than the blue leotard, and, well…the Robin costume isn’t sexy. I’ve never been hit on or leered at while wearing it before, but that’s a constant problem when I cosplay Betsy. I like the thought that there are more and more cosplay options for girls who want to dress up as female characters accurately without kicking up the issues I’ve dealt with doing Huntress and Psylocke. I’m planning on adding Stormer from Jem and the Holograms to my cosplay repertoire, and I love the fact that if I don’t lose my winter weight in time for con season I’ll actually look more like the character as she appears in the comics, and I can still look beautiful because Sophie Campbell’s drawings depict a larger girl who is always impeccably dressed and fabulous.
Fridging and female agency in stories is definitely a complicated issue and I don’t think it’ll ever go away entirely. Rescuing people is the focal point of a superhero’s job description, and since so many of the classic characters are heterosexual men there are going to be female love interests that need rescuing, because putting someone the hero loves in danger is just a basic, fun way to ratchet up drama and tell a good story. It’s challenging to keep that basic framework in play while also depicting the female loved one as a strong, capable person with agency, but it’s completely worth doing and worth the challenge. In my opinion, the stories are always way more satisfying when as many characters as possible have depth and complex motivations, so giving everyone agency is important. So by all means, put the damsel in distress. Just have her rescue herself from time to time, or participate in the rescue equally or, shocking idea, have the story be about her if something truly traumatic happens to her. Not only do you get better storytelling that way, but you get the added bonus of respecting your female audience and making us feel like real human beings with complex feelings and emotions. I think people are starting to get the hang of female agency and how to avoid a fridging, and it certainly helps that there are more women working on high profile books than there used to be (even the most well-meaning of allies can have a blind spot, so having women, people of color, trans people, and other under-represented folks participating in the storytelling is certainly a nifty idea). Overall I’m seeing improvement in the industry, and I think it’ll only get better with time. It’s also pretty cool that we can have these conversations to begin with. Comic books really are for everyone now, which is definitely in the industry’s best interest. Now if only we can get that memo to all the lingering gatekeepers out there…