“It sucks” can be considered a gross understatement when said about being gay and in high school. And that’s just today—never mind in the 1980s. It’s bad enough for anyone to figure out where they are going and what they want to do with their lives. Teens also find themselves competing (however reluctantly) in a game of social survival among their peers in order to eke out a tolerable experience during their years in high school. But throw homosexuality into the mix during a time when AIDS was first being addressed by the country and largely blamed on homosexuals, and a gay high school student has some serious issues to confront.
That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Tales of the Closet. A fairly socially, economically, and racially diverse group of teenagers find solace in each other against the larger community of high school students in Queens in 1987. In this first book, the group forges bonds of friendship as they come to realize and ultimately admit who they are. But community alone will not protect them from the challenges they must face. While some look forward to new relationships, others fear being “outed” to family, friends, and the school. Their fear is legitimate and by the end of volume one, readers see some of the dangers they face as a group and individually as each character deals with the challenges brought on by their newly established identity.
Though the artist/writer Ivan Velez, Jr., jokingly berates himself in the afterword, he does so unjustly. This collection of the first three issues of the series exhibits a lot of good in addition to a positive social ideology. Within the first dozen pages, readers get a clear conception of the main characters through just a few short panels of interactions. One can understand and appreciate each of the main characters based on the little bit of dialogue and action seen thus far. And though Velez marks himself for overly talkative teens, it seems quite appropriate that this group talk a lot and “overprocess,” as he puts it. After all, their pent-up internal monologues now have an outlet.
The art throughout this black-and-white graphic novel stays consistent. While it is not necessarily groundbreaking, the art keeps readers engaged enough to absorb the theme through text and actions. The only real flaw in the art happens occasionally: certain pages appear a bit fuzzy or blurry as if the black ink wasn’t reinforced or used rigidly like in the rest of the book. This happens on only a few pages, and while it becomes obvious once recognized, it doesn’t significantly detract from the graphic novel as a whole.
Living during a time when our country seems to be slipping back into “conservative values,” social pieces like Tales of the Closet are necessary to remind the populace of what legitimate fears await all minorities who do not fit into the “American dream” of a heterosexual white male-dominated society. Neither preachy nor condescending, this graphic novel delivers insight to and understanding of a part of the population so often under-represented or ill-considered by mainstream society.