The secret got out about Secret Headquarters on a chilly Friday night last month. Cartoon enthusiasts from as far as Fullerton gathered in the cozy comic shop along Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake to celebrate the launch of the first issue of Queer Babes of Cartoons: A Fanzine. Grade-school-style paper valentines sprinkled the shelves and balloons with mushy messages greeted visitors as they packed in, bumped into each other, apologized, and made friends. It couldn’t get much sweeter — there were even cupcakes.
Queer Babes anthologizes the work of over 25 established, up-and-coming, and hobbyist artists each responding to the prompt: what does representation of girls, femmes, or non-binary individuals in cartoons mean to you? The resulting tributes to the characters of the artists’ ’90s and ’00s childhoods are soft yet unflinching, nostalgic but anchored in a current, hard-won sense of self-respect. We share in Catra’s and She-Ra’s adolescent anxiety (“Should we kiss now?”), and we admire Spinelli, smirking and rebutting our gaze, a spiked mace dangling casually over her shoulder. To view these characters is to fall in love with them falling in love. The glass raffle jar on Secret Headquarters’s checkout counter filled quickly with the names of attendees vying to take home a print. All of the proceeds from the zine are being donated to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.
Queer Babes of Cartoons is a passion project of Moriah Benton, a production coordinator at Cartoon Network, multimedia illustrator, and my dear friend. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, she continues to explore themes of sentimentality, impermanence, devotion, the grotesque, self-sabotage, and vulnerability in her work. The best-selling item in her online shop is a t-shirt she designed of anime Dolly Parton, and she occasionally hosts witchcraft workshops around Los Angeles. I invited her to talk about her motivation behind Queer Babes of Cartoons, the importance of zines, and the art of friendship.
KELLY PEYTON: Why did you start this zine?
MORIAH BENTON: I had noticed the emergence of these fanzines, which are these really collaborative spaces where artists come together and produce work based on a common theme. I was trying to think, what would I like to collaborate with other people about? And of course there are a lot fanzines that focus specifically on cartoons, but how can I take it a step further? Representation is something that has been very important to me. Even in college, as a queer woman, I was trying to grapple with the question, how do I talk about my own identity, and where or how or should I bring that into my work? I wanted to facilitate this project where people could explore their queerness, explore their identity, in a form that they feel comfortable with. That idea went into this fanzine as well — where is a place you go that you feel comfortable? Well, cartoons, this comfort of childhood. That was a space where we could comfortably imagine who we are or might be.
This was also a way for you to introduce these artists, people who are members of the queer community, to an audience outside of the gallery system — something they’ve been excluded from in the past.
Absolutely. That’s what makes me especially happy about this project is that we worked with a lot of artists who haven’t participated in fanzines before, who don’t really have a lot of their work out. That’s what we wanted most — accessibility. It doesn’t matter if you’re a super successful artist. It doesn’t matter if you know exactly what a zine is or how to make them. And I was really impressed by how many artists met at the launch and really connected with each other. They might not have found each other otherwise.
How did you select the art that would be featured in the end? Because even with inclusion as a goal, there are page numbers. So how did you select, and did you know all of the artists personally before the project?
I did know a handful of these artists. That’s where I started — of course as an illustrator, I know other illustrators. I also have some friends who work in mixed media, who work in pattern making and medical illustration. I wanted to draw from a variety of different artistic backgrounds, but I also did an open call on social media and invited people to submit whatever they wanted through a Google doc. We had a lot of really great entries. What was really incredible to me was that many artists recommended other artists to participate. Ultimately, I tried to demonstrate a range of experiences and skills with the network I had available to me.
Could you say more about the organization you’ll be donating the proceeds to?
Yes! GLSEN is the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. What they really work on is educating kids — both queer and non-queer identifying — and encouraging them to question what is normal and who the default is. They want to teach students to find commonality and how to be active for everybody and help them understand what marginalization means. And they keep supporting them as their identities continue to shift.
Why do you think a zine was the most effective way to communicate that message? What is special to you about this form?
I have loved zines for a very long time. It is something where an idea can just pop into your head, and then you can find a printer, you just copy it, staple it, and pass it out. It’s based on this ideal that everyone contributes, and I think GLSEN has the same goal.
Zines are one iteration of this longstanding practice of self-publication. I’m thinking as far back as colonial leaflets like Common Sense. It’s often cast as an act of resistance, a political act. Do it yourself, speak for yourself, publishers be damned. Do you share in that position?
Oh, definitely. And I think the kind of freeing thing is, you’re not thinking about who’s willing to buy this. I’ve been able to explore a lot of different topics that I thought that no one cared about or no one would buy except me — until I published them! With zines, you can produce for the sake of experimentation. You can produce for the sake of being able to be seen, even it’s initially only for yourself and a couple of other peers. I think when you’re able to put ideas down, push them around, morph them, and continually revisit them, it’s an art form that doesn’t have to stay the same either. You can keep making new copies.
So zines have helped you see your identity as an artist as this evolving thing?
Yes, absolutely. I have found zines to be totally comprehensive. I’ve been able to explore feminism and social justice issues. I’ve been able to exorcise some of my own demons through that platform. I’ve been able to make comics just for the sake of fun. And for all of those to meet is incredibly satisfying.
I also wanted to talk to you about this amazing graphic history that zines have. Back in the 1930s, all these dissatisfied readers of science fiction magazines began circulating their own stories and appropriating existing journals’ imagery, like collages. 1970s punk zines and 1990s Riot Grrrl zines kept turning this type of traditional mail-art on its head. So, we can’t talk about the rise of zines over the 20th century without talking about the parallel rise of different art movements like Surrealism and Dadaism. What do you think of that relationship between art and publishing?
Oh, I love that question!
I thought you would!
I think right now, both are these attempts to make sense of this thing that lives for a very short time. Traditional publishing is a long process. It’s going through multiple different channels, multiple forms of approval. But things are moving so quickly and ideas are being explored in a matter of weeks, days, hours…the notion of self-publishing, you can jump in on that as quickly as possible and insert yourself. You can skip the line.
You know, it’s so easy to talk about this project on a big scale, but there is also something so remarkably intimate and personal about this zine. It’s like a scrapbook or a diary or private sketchbook. Do you feel that way?
I do. And I don’t just feel that way about this zine. I was really inspired by an online project called the Millennium Girls Zine. We want to share these characters that we grew up with and loved, and we want to show our gratitude and appreciation for what they’ve meant for us. My own identity was carved out by exploring my own relationship to the cartoons I loved as a child. And with the submissions for this zine, you get these incredibly intimate pieces — each person’s experience of being queer.
And expressing love.
And being able to connect to others. And it is this medium where you can make the personal more public, which I think a lot of people are scared of, but it is important because we’re changing the way we assert ourselves in creative circles. And I think that’s what zines are all about: you’re making space for yourself in publishing and you’re making work for other people who need it.
Zines emphasize this really personal connection between the author and the reader. The work doesn’t stand alone. At the launch it was very clear to me that everyone there came with the intention of meeting others.
It was really a celebration of, hey, we’re all here. But it isn’t just about experiencing ourselves as a community; it’s okay to make something for yourself. It’s okay to be indulgent in that way. I think so often we’re told that making these things for yourself is inherently self-obsessed. And it’s not. It’s just reaffirming that love is special in whatever form that it takes for you — in friendship, in a relationship, on your own. And there is nothing more magical than finding other people that are experiencing love in the same way that you are.
Who do you hope will read this?
I really wish my 12-year-old self could read it. As a very closeted girl growing up in the rural South, I needed something like this. It would have allowed me to be forgiving of myself. I hope it will reach a lot of kids.
Could you describe a couple pieces from the zine?
I do in particular want to talk about my friend Hannah Michael Flynn’s piece, which has Gori and Washimi from Aggretsuko. This piece is really important to me. We had a very thoughtful conversation before she even started her piece because she was worried. She thought, they have this really important female friendship — am I ultimately distorting that by turning it into a queer relationship? And we both agreed it’s a funny notion both of romance and friendship — that one has more weight than the other. I think so often we think we are changing something when we each have our own experiences of these relationships we see on screen. We are simply offering our perception. I mean, in this piece alone, it can be both friendship and a really romantic female relationship. There’s intimacy at both levels and they’re both important and they’re both true. What’s important is that these two women have this love and special connection that isn’t being distorted by a gaze that is ultimately oppressive.
I had some questions from people submitting to the zine. What if people aren’t kissing, what if they aren’t being romantic? But that’s not what this is about. Even the notion of existing happily and fully as a queer person is a worthy, publishable piece of art.
And you flip through these, and they’re all so sweet. I feel like I’m 13 reading it, but also really aware of me, right now, looking at it with a fresh understanding.
And I think that’s exactly what I needed. So often these images that we get of relationships, specifically between femmes, are aggressively sexualized. It’s intended for a cis, straight, male audience. And I think that’s why so many of the artists in this book came from this really tender, compassionate place because it’s an affront to that. This is what these moments mean to us; they are often really vulnerable.
So you chose Secret Headquarters for the launch — this very small, intimate space in itself. Why there?
I absolutely love Secret Headquarters. I cannot sing their praises enough. I have actually been working with Julie Sharron there, and she was super supportive from the start and wanted to make this work. She said too, “This is what I needed.” They were all about approaching this from a community-oriented perspective. Who are we reaching, who is this for? We were talking about hosting some zine-making workshops with teenagers. So that’ll be coming soon, keep a look-out for that!
The difficult part about zines is they rely on existing distribution networks to succeed. Do you think this would have been possible without social media?
I definitely think that it’s possible, but not at this level. I mean, the zine is made up of artists across the globe and from a variety of communities. I don’t know if I would have been able to reach that far through traditional networks. I was able to reach out to artists that I admire and respect. I was surprised to find so many people who said, this is important to me too, and I would love to do this. And that just completely revolutionized my world, because something as simple as reaching out, something I couldn’t have imagined doing 10 years ago, is suddenly a possibility. And it made me realize that there are so many other projects that can be possibilities. It’s just a matter of putting the word out there and asking, is anyone else game?