Curbside Boys: The New York Years by Robert Kirby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
With Gary Trudeau publishing his forty year retrospective this year it is hard not to be impressed by syndicated cartooning. Charles Schultz is the only other syndicated cartoonist that comes to mind who has a more impressive collection of work, but there are many who have benefited from syndication, becoming national bestselling cartoonists, despite breaking conventions in the system. All the same, writing for mainstream newspaper media seems a breeze compared to the challenges faced by Gay and Lesbian cartoonists who also want to tell their stories.
I learned about Robert Kirby's "Curbside" back in the mid-ninties, years after I'd begun collecting gay comicbooks. I was immediately impressed, because his formula of telling simple stories about relationships between gay men was something I'd attempted to do at the same time, but never found my voice or stride. Robert had something I didn't have, which is a real drive to be published in as many newspapers as he could manage.
The Gay press media landscape has changed over the years, but there has never been a syndicate, that I know of, that have helped the careers of gay cartoonists in the same way that Trudeau, Schultz and other mainstream cartoonist careers have. Kirby and others who want to see their work in print have to hit the pavement and talk to editors first hand, convincing them to make room in their papers to publish their comics. And I know first hand that newspaper editors will make room for paying advertising long before they will print cartoon strips.
Ultimately it depends on the artist and his own discipline to regularly produce quality work and send it out. So the real heros in the cartooning world are people like Kirby, who syndicate their own strips to unsympathetic editors, often for no immediate compensation. Nowadays, newspapers are finding it difficult to maintain their readership. Here in Seattle, we no longer have dedicated gay and lesbian owned bookstores where you know you can find the major gay newspapers. Instead you have to rely on adult bookstores and bars where these things are left on faith that they will get into the hands of the people who need them.
But because Robert Kirby did all this work in the early nineties, he eventually found publishers like Cleis Press who were willing and interested in collecting his strips into published books. "Curbside Boys:The New York Years" is the second such collection. The first collection is incidentally selling for about seventy dollars at Amazon.com, although I would like to point out Mister Kirby is not getting any money from these used copies.
This second collection is a complete story, where the protagonist and his roommate meet, fall in love and then move on. It stands on its own more than anything Trudeau or Schultz ever wrote. Having read the original "Curbside" many years ago it is difficult to compare, but this feels more mature and studied than his earlier strips.
I really enjoyed seeing young men struggling to connect with each other in these stories. Nathan and Drew, the main characters seem fickle twenty-somethings and yet like all young men, vulnerable to the opinions and reactions of others. Their relationship counterpoints the supporting characters lives, Kevin and Rain who break even more stereotypes about black men than I've seen before or since in a gay comic strip. All the same, the drama is difficult to sustain within the context of six to eight panel stories.
Kirby returns to the story-telling techniques that worked for him in earlier strips, bringing back his own "greek chorus" character modeled after himself. He keeps the same squared nose on this character from earlier strips, which helps clue the reader into the fact that this character can directly editorialize for the cartoonist. All the same, he returns to telling the story rather than spending a lot of time with back-story, allowing the characters to tell their own stories.
"Curbside Boys:The New York Years" is a must read in the lexicon of gay comic books. The themes are adult and there is a lot of male sex, but the images are clean and appealing. Anyone who happened to pick them up might keep reading because the emotions and situations are universal.
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