Today, both readers and writers are passionate about making sure all readers feel represented on the pages of books. But for many creators, their first experience with seeing themselves reflected in the stories they read happened when they wrote those stories themselves. Here, Carly Usdin talks about writing the characters she needed as a teen into her new comic The Avant-Guards, which follows a ragtag team of queer basketball players.
Earlier this year, on a panel at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Washington, DC, I was asked to recall the first time I really saw myself in comics. I had to think about it for a hot minute before realizing that the first time I saw myself in comics was when I wrote my first comic book, Heavy Vinyl.
I went to middle school and high school in the 90s. I loved the 90s! As a decade, it ranks very high for me in terms of pop culture influence but fairly low in terms of queer representation. As a teenager realizing I was queer, I clung to anything I could find that felt relatable, regardless of how gay it actually was.
I loved Batman’s campy villains. I loved the X-Men’s fight for mutant equality. And of course, there was Alison Bechdel’s iconic The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, though as a teen that world felt very distant. I devoured books at that age; I had a copy of Annie on My Mind that I read and re-read more times than I can count, and I really identified with Kristy Thomas in The Baby-Sitters Club series. But that was kinda… it.
TV was only slightly better than books and comics. I remember watching Ellen DeGeneres’ big coming out episode with a weird feeling in my stomach, and I definitely related to Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but everything else was just subtext and queerbaiting (or was straightwashed in its English translation like Sailor Moon). Indie film was eventually where I found the characters and stories that would stick with me forever. Films like But I’m a Cheerleader and All Over Me changed my life and showed me that I could actually maybe tell queer stories someday.
So I guess all of these 90s pop culture references are to say that: 1) I love pop culture; and 2) this is why I’m like this. The lack of queer representation that felt truly relatable to me growing up is why I create the stuff I do today.
Heavy Vinyl was total wish fulfillment—I had always wanted to work in a record store when I was in high school. I took some things I really, really loved (Empire Records, The Baby-Sitters Club, and Sailor Moon) and smashed them together and made them GAY. The main character, Chris, is basically me with a couple of tweaks.
Next came The Avant-Guards. This series is even more queer than Heavy Vinyl. I remember asking my editor Shannon Watters if it was too queer when I was fleshing out all of the characters and she said to me, “if you don’t do it, who will?” I have a feeling that’s gonna stick with me for a long time too.
And then last year I was fortunate enough to be one of eight filmmakers selected for AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women. I wrote and directed a short film called Misdirection that incorporated a lot of elements of my own life into a sweet, funny story about a queer college freshman who does close-up magic. Tonally and thematically it shares a lot of DNA with both Heavy Vinyl and The Avant-Guards.
At which point I took a step back and looked at all three projects more critically, and I realized some things about myself and my work: 1) Write what you know. Ok, sure, that’s pretty obvious. But it might not be the case forever. I am clearly working through some stuff from my youth, for better or worse, and I’m curious to see where it takes me; and 2) Write what you want to read and watch. Over the past few years I have been steadily creating the things I wish I had when I was growing up. Stories about weird queer teens who have a lot of big, confusing feelings and are trying to figure out who they are and where they belong, whose conflict has nothing to do with their identity, who all find something resembling happiness in the end.
It’s exactly what young Carly would’ve wanted.
Carly Usdin is an award-winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her first feature, Suicide Kale, won the Audience Award for Best First Feature at Outfest 2016. After playing over 30 festivals worldwide the film is now available on iTunes and Amazon Prime. In 2017 Carly served as showrunner and director for the scripted series Threads, produced by New Form for Verizon’s go90 platform. The 20-episode horror and comedy anthology series brought to life outrageous stories from internet forums like Reddit. Carly is also the creator and writer of two comic book series for BOOM! Studios: Heavy Vinyl and The Avant-Guards. Heavy Vinyl was nominated for a 2018 Prism award, honoring the best in LGBTQAI+ comics.