In Part II of this article, we looked at some of the characters and how they might represent The Family in Issue #0 of Lawrence Gullo, Fyodor Pavlov, and Kelsey Hercs’ Bash Back: A Story of the Queer Mafia. Now, in Part III, we get to look further into what The Family itself might represent with regards as part of an LGBTQ+ fantasy of violence.
Where we last left off, we were looking at a panel where a violent homophobic hypocrite’s life is threatened with a knife inscribed with the words “That all my wounds be deadly.” And it could have ended right there. The stereotypes of the exploited LGBTQ+ person, “gay bashing” and could have easily been broken with the violence that Bash Back‘s creators have promised: with one long slit across the throat and a torrent of someone else’s blood staining the LGBTQ+ ghetto of the restroom’s floors for a change.
Instead Gullo, Pavlov, and Hercs do something else.
It begins with the epigraph that the creative team chose for Bash Back. The epigraph accompanies the comic’s title well: a slightly modified quote taken from the first line of Michael Swift’s satirical polemic editorial “Gay Revolutionary:” something very much in the spirit of the Bash Back! Projects and the Queer Nation Manifesto. Swift’s editorial states: “This (comic) is an outré, madness, a tragic, cruel fantasy, an eruption of inner rage, on how the oppressed desperately dream of being the oppressor.”
It’s also interesting to note that while the team’s Bash Back webcomic utilizes this part of Swift’s text as an epigraph at the beginning of their story, Lawrence Gullo in his “Bash Back” Geeks OUT anthology comic uses another part when, at the end of the story, the protagonist aims their gun with the words “Tremble hetero swine, our day will come:” a direct echo of Swift’s “Tremble, hetero swine, when we appear before you without our masks.” You can argue that “Bash Back’s” last words along with Swift’s function as something of an epitaph: a much sought for end to homophobes, homophobia, hate, and the illusion of such being “normal” over human society.
The webcomic’s epigraph, however, serves as a more defiant “If these shadows have offended” disclaimer, it is an appropriate quote when you consider that Michael Swift’s text, a piece meant to both satirize traditional society’s prejudices and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, and vent out anger against those actions, is often quoted – without that first line – by the religious or political right as “proof” that there is something of a “gay agenda” or perhaps “a gay mafia” at work “subverting” their values.
Indeed, Fray Baroque’s “Toward a Criminal Queer Culture” in Queer Ultraviolence: Bash Back! Anthology states that “Crime has been the core of queer since queer came into existence. The Church and State criminalize our bodies and sex. We, in turn, embrace this criminalization as a means of survival in the capitalist economy.” Essentially, in a society where alternate sexualities and identities are considered invalid, or even illegal they are all criminal and, as such, even being in one of these groups is already defiance against that society. Lawrence Gullo and the rest of Bash Back‘s creative team simply embrace this concept to the nth degree.
Gullo mentions that he got the idea for Bash Back after reacting to the mainstream popularity of Will and Grace: of yet more gay character representation being regulated to non-threatening straight character accessories. In Bash Back at least, Gullo envisions a more violent and justice-oriented perspective for “queer representation” – The Godfather trope made from a queer perspective. Even Fyodor Pavlov himself states that while the idea started off as a joke but that it also stems from a dissatisfaction with “respectability politics,” of attempting to fit into the dominant cultural paradigm instead of challenging it, and the idea of “turning the other cheek” against discrimination and bigotry.
The term “revenge fantasy” is used by Bash Back‘s creative team to describe their story. Fyodor Pavlov calls Bash Back “A cathartically violent queer mafia revenge story. A story about a crime family not of blood, but of united disenfranchisement and social purpose. A family that bashes back” on his Blog, while Gullo defines it as “a revenge fantasy for any LGBT person who just needs some escapism, some assurance that there is a dangerous and powerful family fighting for them.”
However, the vengeance here is not against an individual, another gang, or family per see. It is neither indiscriminate nor general. Rather, it is what the artist Joe Corallo calls in his ComicsMix article “Fyodor Pavlov, Artist Extraordinary” a sub-genre of “queer power fantasy,” the metaphorical knife that cuts through the tropes and the narrative of victimhood. You can already see some of these tropes and stereotypes subverted and taken apart through the examples of Bastian, John Doran, Djuna, Stephen, and others but it ultimately comes back to The Family itself: to the Bash Back team’s idea of the Queer Mafia and the specific actions it takes to protect its people.
There are two concepts to consider with regards to The Family: that it is an organization that protects Bash Back‘s LGBTQ+ community and The Family, in itself, is a symbol for that sense of community. According to the comic’s Kickstarter Campaign page “Bash Back is a weekly online comic centered on the machinations of the New York City branch of The Family – a secret organization with the sole purpose of keeping all queers in the world safe and protected – by any means necessary.” This statement seems to hint on the fact that The Family itself is larger, perhaps even global in scope.
The description on the Kickstarter goes further. It states “We were also interested in telling a story that provided the revelatory joy of seeing our fellow queer people in positions of power, displaying hyper-competence and a united front in overcoming any obstacle - many of which are adapted from obstacles we face in real life.” You can see what some of these issues are: the homophobic Pastor Hyde of Clear Skies Church in an otherwise liberal New York City attempting to vilify other sexualities and orientations as diseases while advocating for “re-education” or “a cure for such,” drug pushers trying to infiltrate and poison LGBTQ+ spaces such as clubs and even the premeditated spread of deadly misinformation and libel about LGBTQ+ figures and places. All of these actions threaten lives, and The Family’s members respond to these threats accordingly.
Tegan Eanelli in “Bash Back! is Dead; Bash Back Forever! Concluding Notes” of the Queer Ultraviolence: Bash Back! Anthology states that “Queers are marked as victims while violence is understood to be only the tool of the masters. The queer anarchist project embodied by Bash Back! is first and foremost a refusal of victimhood and a reclamation of the violence taken from us by progressive ideology and used against us by queerbashers and the State.” This sentiment mirrors what Gullo says in an interview with Towleroad when he states that Bash Back is essentially a fictional “revenge fantasy” setting that allows for the roles of victim and victimizer to be reversed in order to express frustration and aggression. He explains that “we’re just picking up the tools that are already on the table, we’re taking all of this really strong violence that’s usually portrayed against us and turning it around.” It’s not unlike how a colonized culture will use the weapons and tools of their colonizers against them.
Take, for instance, the night club scene with John Doran and another character named Genevieve. John Doran’s dealing with queer bashing is pretty straightforward. After a dealer of deadly substances is revealed to him by Genevieve, he confronts the man outside. John actually gets beaten himself during their fight until his partner Daniel turns up and stops the dealer from pulling a gun on him. John himself proceeds to beat the dealer to death. While unfortunately this robs them of any attempt to gain more information on the dealer’s operations, John subverts the”gay-bashing” trope by killing an attacking homophobe with his fists.
Of course, there is also how Angelo handles the homophobe and potential basher after Bastian to consider. He uses the threat of imminent violence and harm to protect Bastian: using controlling violence to take resources away from his attacker to help give him some agency back and support a show of solidarity with the person that could have become his assault victim.
These are much more direct examples of what both Lawrence Gullo and Kelsey Hercs tell Towleroad when they call Bash Back “a queer spin-off of The Godfather,” that is informed by Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic violence. In fact, in the Kickstarter Campaign it’s also stated that Bash Back “makes use of pulpy sex and violence as a form of catharsis (because sometimes you want to see punches and assassinations to feel a little less helpless in this world of structural inequality and hate crimes).” Certainly you can see this statement echoed in Queer Ultraviolence when it states “This communication itself is a radical act, one that seeks to draw lines to connect individual struggles into a constellation of ultra-violence in the service of queer life. Teen suicide, queerbashing, AIDS genocide, exclusion at borders, enslavement in prisons: the violence experienced by queers is multiform and evolving. As such, resistance to that violence must also be fluid and diffuse.”
Indeed The Family’s use of these tools of violence and exploitation do go further than actual physical assault. Look at the example of the club that the dealer was attempting to exploit. Before John Doran even arrived at the club, Genevieve dealt with him first. While she is also a chemist and physician who treats patients with drug addictions, she actually utilizes her “high femme” aesthetics and mannerisms first in order to make the prognosis of “cis white male” on the dealer based on his stereotypical sense of self-entitlement, his perception of her sexuality existing only to please him, against itself while cementing her own sense of autonomy in order to gain access to some of his product in order to analyze.
In other words, Genevieve is a chemist in more ways than one: observant of her environment and the subjects within it – specifically the other dealers in the club – and capable of using her knowledge to interact with such as a weapon if need be.
Daniel, perhaps still known from his earlier conception as Daniel Gotarde, is the resident information technology expert of The Family, also deals with attacks against his people in his own way. When Clark attempts to publish an article defaming Stephen and the New Oxford Youth Shelter, Daniel not only hacks into the site and deletes its electronic version, but also threatens to reveal – or plant information – about his father’s “criminal dealings” if he doesn’t help them undo his treachery. Essentially Daniel seems to be quite capable of, and has very few compunctions against, using misinformation to combat lies used against his own community. Furthermore, Daniel reveals that The Family has access to some considerable legal clout to make the charges against Clark’s father actually happen.
At the same time, The Family has access to more than just threats and violence. As of Issue #0, these are just a means to an end and only to be used when necessary. Certainly, there is the existence of Stephen’s New Oxford Youth Shelter to consider. Stephen himself actually wants to keep the violent part of The Family out of the Shelter and the youths within it. This is how Stephen helps the community that The Family wants to protect. In their interview with Graphic Policy, the same in which they stated X-Men as part of the influence behind Bash Back, the creative team identifies itself as “Team Magneto all the way.” However, if the creators of Bash Back and the rest of their characters are the Brotherhood of Mutants, in the sense that they support discriminated minority groups defending themselves by almost any means necessary in a broken system, then Stephen – Tolkenisque professor Stephen – is a lot like Professor Xavier with his Shelter is his School for Gifted Youngsters.
However, even that is a false equivalence. For all Stephen has his own ethics, perhaps even pacifist ones, he doesn’t support the over all system of discrimination around them. And while he may influence his charges to find a place in society at large – such as aiding Djuna enrolling into a college – he also provides money and information to the leaders of The Family. In this way, Bash Back‘s Professor Xavier works with, and finds a role in Magneto’s Brotherhood: attempting to keep his space peaceful but also accepting the defensive violence that The Family gives him. As Kelsey Hercs put it to Graphic Policy after stating that The Family represents a “Community affinity that you don’t necessarily get from your family,” — it being a family that one chooses – she follows that up with saying “I want a family, but I also want monsters to be on my side:” something that operates when the law doesn’t protect or fails to protect a community from violence and hate speech.
But perhaps it is less accurate to equate The Family to the X-Men or the Brotherhood of Mutants, and more fitting to compare to them to the Avengers: as people who use their abilities and resources to defend their charges and are willing to operate with, or out of the scope of the law to protect their world. At worst, The Family and Bash Back is reminiscent of an Inglourious Basterds with LGBTQ+ characters fighting against the Nazi Pink Triangle set in the twenty-first century.
We have seen how characters utilize the tools of violence but as we come to the fourth and final segment of this article, we will see how Bash Back uses violence to bring its characters towards a positive sense of agency: on behalf of others and themselves.