"Bent-Con started out of a desire of a bunch of a queer geeks who were tired of going to cons and being the niche within the niche within the niche," says Sean Holman, who organizes the convention that took place at Downtown's Bonaventure Hotel last weekend. "We said, let's start our own convention so that we can promote our work and bring our fans to us."
The first Bent-Con took place last year. They had 19 vendors and expected, maybe, 100 people. They got 500.
"The book that I brought to read," says Holman, "I never picked it up once."
Earlier this year, Bent-Con officially became a non-profit. Now there's no stopping Holman and friends' mission to create a home for LGBTQ work.
"I want Bent-Con to be a destination every year for queer geek culture, queer-friendly geek culture and everything in between," says Holman, who publishes the "sci-fi, fantasy adult odyssey" comic Myth under his artist name Sean-Z.
Bent-Con's reach extends far beyond comic books. The convention screening room featured a number of LGBTQ-friendly film and series. Amongst the special guests was writer/producer Jane Espenson, whose credits include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Torchwood and the new web series Husbands. Despite the inclusion of other forms of entertainment, the mighty comic book rose to the forefront of last weekend's convention.
In the past few decades, mainstream publishers have made some effort to incorporate gay and lesbian characters into their expansive universes. An even greater variety of comics with LGBTQ themes has risen from the indie and self-publishing communities, including web comics. Still, the common perception, and common stereotype, of comic book fans is straight and male. Anyone who has gone to a fan convention, though, knows that this isn't the reality.
"When we go to bigger conventions, the gay presence there is huge," says Chance Whitmire, founder of the LGBTQ geek culture community, Fanboys of the Universe. He adds that while general comic conventions may only have one panel that discusses gay perspectives, that panel can draw 500 people.
"It's a huge subculture within a subculture," he says.
While the audience for LGBTQ media is there, it's not always easy to find the work.
"You'll see an LGBT section," says former Amazing Race contestant and convention regular Kent Kaliber.
"Even at something as big as [San Diego] Comic-Con, they have a little alley," adds Kaliber's Amazing Race teammate, Vyxsin Fiala.
For Steven H. Garcia, an artist who specializes in "comic book and video game-inspired erotic pin-ups," the difference between a general comic book convention and a gay convention was obvious.
"I think at regular conventions, it's a little too homoerotic," he says of the perception of his work. At Bent-Con, though, he sold a piece before the convention technically opened.
The exhibit halls at anime conventions can be a bit more inclusive, particularly with the popularity of genres like yaoi (male-male romances) and yuri (female-female romances). But, it can be difficult to get attention for new work at these events.
"At anime cons, they're looking for already established, large, incorporated works," says Emy Bitner, author of the web comic Trying Human.
Whitmire says that, of the fan conventions, fantasy and horror events tend to have the best presence of LGBTQ work. He points out that while there are gay fantasy and horror conventions, he hasn't seen any gay comic conventions before. That was a sentiment echoed throughout the convention on Saturday afternoon. And people were really excited.
"This helps," says Whitmire. "Bent-Con really raises awareness that there are gay fans of genre entertainment."
The diversity of comics within the convention was impressive as well. At Bent-Con, I saw everything from the sweet, slice-of-life comic Skipping Out to erotic work with characters that could make Tom of Finland's men look puny. Of course, there was also some yaoi available.
Alex Woolfson is the writer and publisher of Yaoi 911 graphic novels. He says that while in Japan, yaoi is typically produced by and for women, that's not necessarily the case in the United States. His audience tends to be "a 60/40 split between women and men."
"[Yaoi] came over to the States and became popular, particularly with college women," he says, "but also with some gay men who were looking for something that was more character and plot-based and perhaps more realistic body proportions."
The anime influence at Bent-Con wasn't limited to yaoi, though. JD Saxon co-created Mahou Shounen Fight with Dusty K. Smith. Their comic, which I bought, is a wonderful send-up of the Magical Girls genre, influenced by series like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, but featuring male characters.
"We decided what this comic is really the story that we wanted to read when we were teenagers," says Saxon.
Saxon's boothmate Bitner also wrote Trying Human, which she describes as "a romance/mystery about Ufology and alien folklore," as the comic she would have read as a teenager.
"But that's not my audience now because they grew up with me," Bitner adds.
Coming to Bent-Con has given them the opportunity to promote their original work to an audience who understands what they're doing.
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"You don't necessarily have to explain yourself," says Saxon. "You don't have to say, 'Oh, there are gay characters in the comic.'"
More importantly, though, the success of Bent-Con is proving that comic book fans don't fill the very narrow demographic that some may think they do.
"I hope that this con gets bigger and bigger every year and that the diversity of the audience for comics becomes more visible," says Saxon, "especially so that the Big Two-- Marvel and DC -- will start to see that their audience is more than 17-25 year old boys."