Tee Franklin: Our Favorite Black Geek Girl
This disabled artist breaks boundaries with a graphic novel and a lesbian love story for the ages.
Tee Franklin made a name for herself in the comic book world before she ever wrote one of her own. She launched #BlackComicsMonth in February 2015 to draw attention to talented indie black comic creators as well as the diverse comic book characters and superheroes that already exist but are not well known.
Then Franklin raised almost $60,000 from Kickstarter and launched her own publishing company, Inclusive Press, to produce her graphic novel, Bingo Love — which later won Prism Comics’s 2017 Queer Press Grant. The book is a story about two queer women of color who fall in love as teens but are torn apart by their parents only to be reunited decades later. Their relationship must overcome the ensuing years, heterosexual marriages, and children. The story of Hazel and Mari acknowledges the way homophobia can disrupt lives and yet suggests it cannot stop the hands of fate or prevent true love from finding fruition.
What really sets Bingo Love apart is how different the main characters are compared to the usual stars of comic books and graphic novels. It’s not just that much of the story revolves around two black women over 50, but also that the narrative — and art — is remarkably authentic and true to lives of real women. “Nobody is perfect,” Franklin says. “And their slight imperfections give them a bit more character.”
That authenticity comes out in the depictions of black hair (Franklin jokes about how poorly black women’s hair is drawn in comics, with “weird afros and braids that aren’t attached to anything”) and in the women’s visible stretch marks. “Women, especially women who’ve been pregnant, get stretch marks,” Franklin says. “Real women have stretch marks. Why would I create a book with older women as leads and not have stretch marks or saggy boobs on them? It defeats the purpose!”
And then there are the elements that raised a surprising level of criticism. As Franklin told The Washington Post, “Having two older black women, especially one [Hazel] who is darker skinned and plus-sized, I was told that I was ruining comics by having this. Hazel was called very derogatory names.”
Some accused Franklin’s Hazel of embodying derogatory stereotypes. “Hazel was called a ‘mammy,’” Franklin says. The mammy caricature — epitomized by characters in films like Birth of a Nation and advertisements for Aunt Jemima pancake flour — characterized indentured women as, Franklin explains, “proud and ‘happy’ to be slaves. A darker-skinned mammy was usually obese and always had a smile on her face. Her duty was taking care of her ‘white family.’”
Asked why some people would accuse Hazel of being a mammy, Franklin is blunt: “Racism.” She continues, “When it comes to Bingo Love, racists claimed that Mari was the Master and she owned Hazel.”
That even a black female writer can be accused of creating derogatory portrayals of black women simply because she dared to depict a fictional character as a woman of size who has dark skin hints at how powerful these representations can be, and how rarely we see plus-sized women and women with dark complexions in mainstream media.
“Representation matters,” Franklin says. “It’s important to be able to see yourselves reflected” in the media that we consume. Since there’s so few comic books written by black women, Franklin felt compelled to add her own voice to the mix as a disabled queer black female creator. And she infused a lot of herself into Bingo Love. Franklin herself came out later in life and understands how factors like stigma and homophobia, and a desire to make our families happy, make it so there will always be people who can’t come out when they are young.
Although Hazel and Mari are only able to reunite in their autumn years, Franklin depicts the time they have together as adventurous and empowering and sexy. Still, she doesn’t shy away from realities of aging and mortality. But Franklin is adamant that Bingo’s love story has a happy ending. “They end up together,” she points out, adding that she’s “sick of the ‘kill your gays’ trope,” in which someone always ends up dead in gay and lesbian romances portrayed on the small screen. It was important, Franklin says, that Bingo Love presented a different kind of ending. “It is a happy ever after,” she says, because they are still together in the end.
Bingo Love was picked up by Image Comics and released on Valentine’s Day — something Franklin says would never have happened if she hadn’t first self-published through Inclusive Press, and promoted the graphic novel at comic book festivals and with Kickstarter. Now she’s looking forward to helping other marginalized creators find an outlet — and we’re looking forward to her next project. — Jacob Anderson-Minshall