Community Repair Through Queer Prisoners’ Comics-Making: ABO Comix as Queer Utopia

e remus jackson - transcript for talk on 07/25 at Comics/Politics, the Second Annual Conference of the Comic Studies Society.

Powerpoint PDF: https://www.dropbox.com/s/ss27rcy99kxcig9/jackson_css2019.pdf?dl=0

INTRODUCTION

“The here and now is a prison house.” (1)  

Munoz uses the prison as a metaphor for the oppression of queerness under heteronormative society, to propose the need to look to the future for what he terms queer utopia—a potential horizon where queerness can fully exist. But I open my talk with this quote, because for LGBTQ prisoners, Munoz’s metaphorical here and now is reality. To address the full extent of the relationship between the carceral system, queer abolition movements, and Munoz’s queer utopia, I will be analyzing a collection of comics by currently incarcerated queer prisoners, the ABO Comix anthology. The ABO Comix anthology is a collection of 26 comics made by, in the editors’ words, “22 currently incarcerated queer prisoners from across the US.”

However, before I delve too deep into the comix, we first need to establish an understanding of the prison regime, mass incarceration, and its impacts on queer lives in particular.

 Mass Incarceration/The Prison Regime + Specific impacts on queer lives

A full explanation of the United State’s prison regime is well beyond the scope of this talk. Nevertheless it is important to understand how the prison regime functions as a system of state-enforced white, cis/heteronormative supremacy in the United States. Angela Davis in her seminal text Are Prisons Obsolete (published in 2003) maps the connection between the modern system of incarceration in the US — what social historian Mike Davis terms the Prison Industrial Complex — and slavery, noting that “the post-Civil War evolution of the punishment system was in very literal ways the continuation of a slave system, which was no longer legal in the “free” world.” Critical prison scholar Dylan Rodriguez further conceptualizes the prison regime as “a specific mobilization of (state) power that relies on a particular reified institutional form (’the prison’) while generating a technology of domination that exceeds the narrow boundaries of that very same juridical-carceral structure” (40). This echoes Davis’ point: the prison is not simply a physical location, but a symbol of a particular system of power enforced by people in various positions, both governmental and non-governmental. For instance, a teacher may enforce the carceral system through punishing students — black and brown students and disabled students being significantly more likely to receive detention or expulsion for the same behavioral issues their white and abled peers are not punished for; or a CVS security guard following certain patrons (likely nonwhite) around a store.

 Understanding that the prison regime extends beyond the prison, I want to briefly highlight the specific impacts of carcerality on queer and trans communities. In their introduction to Captive Genders, Eric A. Stanley notes that trans and gender-nonconforming youth are (quote) “born into webs of surveillance.” They continue: “The gendering scan of other children at an early age places many in the panopticon long before they enter a prison” (13). Stanley, and scholar Regina Kunzel both draw attention to the ways criminalization and surveillance of queer and gender deviant existence force LGBTQ people into perilous situations, leading to their entering into the prison system. Consider my previous example of the teacher — teachers are often strict enforces of gender normative behavior, and gender variant children, especially children read as girls, are significantly more likely to face punishment for behavioral issues. [Slide 5] 

The 2014 report “Coming out of Concrete Closets”, compiled by Black and Pink, an organization dedicated to supporting LGBTQ prisoners + promoting queer abolition, illuminates the material realities of imprisonment for queer peoples. [Slide 6] Of course we don’t have time to go over the full report, but I find that statistics are helpful in conceptualizing these situations, so I wanted to at least share some of the key findings, seen on the slide behind me.  

Radical abolitionist and queer communities have often formed in resistance to this regime, as documented by scholars like Susan Stryker and Dean Spade.  However, the prison is an isolating, disruptive force, and connections between queer people on the inside and outside communities are fraught.

 ABO Comix, Queer Prisoners + Community Repair

Here’s where ABO Comix comes in. I argue that ABO Comix works as a new model of community repair to begin to heal the disruptions caused by the carceral system. It was put together by the ABO Collective, a group of anti-prison artists and activists who describe themselves as aiming to “keep queer prisoners connected to outside community and help them in the fight toward liberation — liberation from the prison regime. To do this they draw on a philosophy of “mutual support, community, and friendship,” engaging with DIY (do it yourself) “punk-zine” culture. Zines have long been used by radical and marginalized groups as modes of self-articulation, expression, and resource sharing. Because they are made outside of capitalist modes of cultural production — ie, corporate publishers — they serve as material objects representing community formation, engagement, and activism. There is already a long lineage of zines made by prisoners, both currently and formerly incarcerated, which ABO Comix falls within — context that is important for considering ABO Comix’s publishing and distribution.

ABO Comix makes queer prisoner lives visible to the outside queer community, in a time when mainstream gay politics have moved towards assimilation, away from engaging with radical abolitionist movements.  By placing 26 comics by 22 incarcerated artists into one anthology, ABO creates an avenue for dialogue between them by the reader, presenting a form of queer collectivity. In addition to distributing the anthology to an outside audience, the ABO Collective places copies within prisons, circulating the voices of queer prisoners throughout the prison system nation-wide.

This redistribution of queer prisoners’ voices across the boundaries of the actual prison represents a model of resistance to the fundamentally isolating experience of carcerality, creating new boundaries of community within the carceral system itself. Re-articulating communities across the “inside/outside” divide allows us to reconsider how queer communities create methods of community repair that function both as resistance to the  prison state and as new support networks that centers incarcerated LGBTQ people.

This collective engagement is not without tension, as there is an asymmetrical power balance within imprisoned and non-imprisoned communications. Dylan Rodriguez writes that engagement with prisoner writing by outside activists, scholars, and in this case, artists, is always exploitative, quote, “for there is little material benefit and much potential punishment in store for their authors.” But he notes that nonetheless this exploitation is quote “endorsed and encouraged by their imprisoned counterparts” (37-38),  in order to allow incarcerated writers and thinkers to generate political subjectivity through the spread of their work. However, I suggest that ABO Comix presents a new model of inside/outside communication that may challenge, at least partially, this necessary exploitation, through emphasizing the importance of putting queer prisoners in contact with each other by supplying the anthology to other queer prisoners in lieu of merely focusing on “raising awareness” of outside queer communities. Furthermore, ABO’s editors continually recenter the voices and experiences of the incarcerated contributors — such as when they include the page I have projected above, dedicated to contributor Mecca, whose work was quote “misplaced” by the prison while he was in solitary. Although Mecca does not have a finished comic to contribute to the book, he is nonetheless made visible through this dedication, which also reminds us this work is an ongoing project for Mecca and for all of the contributors.  [note - point out that they also include some of his art along with the editor’s drawings.]

Using comics as the basis of this communication enables these artists to develop new drawn subjectivities that  visually articulate their experiences of imprisonment. They also generate new potential understandings and solidarities both between queer prisoners and between free and incarcerated queer people. This allows them to serve as witness to the conditions of their imprisonment, capturing visually the spaces hidden from non-prisoners. This further allows them to visualize new realities, incorporating elements of genres such as fantasy, science fiction or even magical girl manga, that enable them to create different existences for themselves that destabilize the violent, repressive force of the prison regime.

Comics Making as Queer Abolition

To unpack this, I want to specifically consider comics by contributor Krysta Morning Starr. Both of Morning Starr’s comics in ABO document her reality as an incarcerated trans woman while gesturing toward a horizon of queer utopia. José Munoz describes queer utopia as participating in a “[herme-new-tics] that wishes to describe a collective futurity, a notion of futurity that functions as a historical materialist critique” (26). For Munoz, queer utopia could be glimpsed in everyday life as the rejection of the quote “here and now” of heteronormative capitalism in favor of new future possibilities that allow for queerness to exist. Morning Starr’s comics, which record the injustices of her present, push us to consider the queer futurity Munoz is arguing for within the structure of carcerality.

 Her first comic, “Episode 1: The Prince Daniel Makeup Scandal,” captures her experiences being punished for using home-made makeup. As Morning Starr depicts her makeup routine, she leaves notes on her process, such as “*black color pencil sometimes comes off easy when wet” for eyebrow color (49). She creates, subtly, a how-to guide for other incarcerated trans femmes, generating within her comic a form of trans collectivity that not only expresses the ingenuity of incarcerated trans people to a free queer audience, but may in fact help other trans prisoners who read her comic. [its important to note - still tense/opens herself to punishment as well]

Like many of the other artists’ in the book, Morning Starr depicts her daily life in the carceral regime, capturing the hidden interior of the prison. Her drawings show the hostility and surveillance she faces as an incarcerated trans woman from the correctional officers, yet she reframes her experiences through the comic in a way that allows her control over the situation. In Episode 1 she utilizes the “magical girl transformation” of Japanese mahou shoujo to rearticulate herself on the page in the way that she understands herself to be. Briefly, the magical girl is akin to a superhero, and her transformation is the signal that she is in “hero” mode as opposed to her every day self. It is a hyper-feminine transformation - key here for Morning Starr  as a woman having to present as male within the prison - and suggests an adoption of femininity as strength and empowerment in the face of oppressive masculine structures. Her “true” self-portrait is displaced through the use of the mirror as a symbol of dysphoria rather than a “real” or authentic image of her. The post-transformation avatar becomes the “authentic” Krysta, both within the panels that show her daily life, and as a narrator that moves beyond the bounds of the panel to speak to the reader directly.  

Her avatar’s role as narrator also works to destabilize the power dynamic of her experience as a prisoner. Morning Starr’s tone is tongue-in-cheek, partially neutralizing the terror inflicted on her under the prison regime. When her contraband makeup is discovered, Krysta on the page looks thoughtful, commenting, “I’ll take this as a lesson learned, and watch out for this guard next time!” (50). This wrests control from the guard inflicting punishment back to her, as she is able to articulate a sly resistance — not that she will stop using makeup, but that she will hide it better, demonstrating a refusal to comply totally with the terms of her imprisonment. She further articulates new community bonds within the prison itself, drawing the other prisoners as noticing her appearance positively, suggesting some sense of community support from her fellow inmates (49). Here her relationship with the other prisoners is contrasted against the oppressive force of the C.O.s, gesturing towards a collectivity that works in opposition to repressive heteronormative structures.

In “Episode 2” of her Diatribe, Morning Starr complicates the relationships she depicts, pushing back on the divide between “inside” and “outside” of the prison. Drawing herself in an imagined pastoral scene, she writes, “prisons are said to be the yard-stick of the society you live in,” but that for her, quote “the problem I run into the most, however, is transphobia” (144-145). Morning Starr articulates transphobia as the most damaging force in her life — not the prison. The prison, she suggests, “concentrate distill [sic] the extremes of behavior & emotion” (146). While “Episode 1” documents Morning Starr’s specific experiences with transphobia in the prison, she uses “Episode 2” to link oppression of trans people outside of the prison with her inside experience, further emphasized by her decision to conjure a neutral meeting space for the reader to quote “have lunch” with her (146).

Through her comic Morning Starr creates a scenario for community building — a conversation during a picnic with her — putting herself on equal terms with the reader regardless of incarceration status. She directly critiques what she sees as the cause of transphobia, articulating a vision that can be read in Munozian terms. Munoz writes that queer utopia does not look away from the present, but needs to “map our repression, our fragmentation, and our alienation—the ways in which the state does not permit us to say “the whole” of our masses” (55). Morning Starr’s proposal that “if you understand yourself, and you understand your enemy, you can control the outcome of the battle” invokes a similar impulse, while the use of the terms “enemy” and “battle” write the reader into solidarity with Morning Starr, transcending the boundaries of the prison system and the “inside/outside” community divide by making her readers allies with her in the struggle against transphobia (146). It is in this vision of a world where we, the reader, can have lunch with Morning Starr and look to a future that strives to unlearn transphobia that we find a glimpse of utopia.

Queer Abolition as Utopia

  In the introduction to ABO Comix, contributor E.L. Tedana writes “none of us can change our past—yet together—we can all create a  better future” (4). While not every comic articulates a political vision of futurity, recurring conceptualizations of community between inmates, between prisoners and non-prisoners, and between prisoners at different prisons gesture towards the creation of new community lines that transgress the boundaries of social death caused by the prison. The prison regime works to isolate and disappear those trapped within it. Projects such as ABO Comix resist the violence of the prison regime — and encourage us as readers to engage actively with the goals of abolition.

 ABO Comix ends with a list of activist organizations that work towards prison abolition, asking the free reader to join in their efforts (147). For the incarcerated reader, this list ca n also be an indication of outside community efforts—a reminder of solidarity.

 ABO’s efforts to create and repair queer communities through creating new dialogues between queer prisoners and radicalizing the broader outside queer community invite us to consider the ways the prison alters communal relationships. As a project that promotes a vision of abolition, ABO also draws attention to how abolitionist efforts are themselves a struggle toward utopia, as abolition asks us to envision a world without the prison system. For LGBTQ people, who are bound in carcerality through networks of repression and surveillance, abolition is queer utopia.

Conclusions/Further Reading

I wanted to reserve this conclusion to highlight important resources. First, I encourage everyone in this room to check out Black and Pink and the critical work they’re doing with LGBTQ prisoners. The ABO Collective also recently published the second ABO Comix anthology, and just as with the first one, it is possible for folx on the outside to purchase a copy for those on the inside. Maia Kobabe prison culture website. 

[ For full references please see PDF of my powerpoint, available: https://www.dropbox.com/s/ss27rcy99kxcig9/jackson_css2019.pdf?dl=0 ]