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Publishers once banned LGBTQ comics. A new Baltimore store aims to celebrate those voices and others.

Five years ago, Miranda Nordell was living in San Francisco and working in public health when she first discovered “Jessica Jones,” a Marvel superhero series on Netflix.

Jones had survived trauma, suffered panic attacks and coped with alcohol. Nordell, who also had experienced violence, saw herself reflected in the fictional protagonist’s experiences and unhealthy attempts to deal with them.

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The discovery made her feel supported, she said.

Soon afterward, Nordell found herself at bookstores looking for comic books. Her passion grew, and she began managing Comix Experience bookstores in the Bay Area.

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Now in Baltimore, Nordell is running her own store, Dreamers & Make-Believers, featuring authors and artists who are women, Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) or LGBTQ. Drawing on community support, she started with an e-commerce site, with plans to open a brick-and-mortar store in August in Brewer’s Hill.

Miranda Nordell, pictured with her spouse, Sam Bolenbaugh, is opening a comic bookstore with a diverse collection, including LGBTQ+ and BIPOC titles. Dreamers & Make-Believers is open online with a brick-and-mortar location set to open in Brewer’s Hill in August.
Miranda Nordell, pictured with her spouse, Sam Bolenbaugh, is opening a comic bookstore with a diverse collection, including LGBTQ+ and BIPOC titles. Dreamers & Make-Believers is open online with a brick-and-mortar location set to open in Brewer’s Hill in August. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Nordell, 31, believes in the power of comics and graphic novels to tell stories that represent real-life situations, she said, adding the visuals allow people to see stories unfold in more intimate and vulnerable ways. And she wants more people to see themselves in comics.

“Representation is always important. The folks whose voices have been elevated for a long time were only representative of a certain subset of a population,” said Nordell, a white queer woman. “And a lot of us got to sort of try to read between the lines and find whispers of ourselves in those stories. What we needed was representation of who we are.”

Long a pejorative term, queer recently has been embraced by some in the LGBTQ community who identify as non-heterosexual.

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After comic books were popularized in the United States in the 1930s, women and, especially, characters of color were underrepresented and often written in stereotypical and offensive ways. For decades, starting in the 1950s, major publishers adhered to a Comics Code Authority that forbid “sexual abnormalities” and “sex perversion,” understood as LGBTQ characters and themes. The code was amended in the late 1980s to allow LGBTQ characters and cast off for good in 2011, the same year Archie Comics introduced its first openly gay character.

But now, the most visible platforms for franchises aren’t comic series; they’re film and TV. Each of the 23 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe released to date, for example, grossed an average of just under $1 billion worldwide. No LGBTQ heroes have been featured yet, though trade publications have reported that “Eternals,” to be released Nov. 5, will be the first film in the series to present an LGBTQ relationship prominently.

“Representation is always important, said Nordell, a white queer woman. "The folks whose voices have been elevated for a long time were only representative of a certain subset of a population."
“Representation is always important, said Nordell, a white queer woman. "The folks whose voices have been elevated for a long time were only representative of a certain subset of a population." (Kenneth K. Lam)

Nordell acknowledged that some LGBTQ characters and storylines from comics have been depicted before larger audiences on screen. For instance, among DC Comics characters appearing on the CW Network are Batwoman, a lesbian, in a namesake series, and the trans hero Dreamer on “Supergirl,” played by the trans woman Nicole Maines.

But Nordell said that the sexuality of the DC villain Poison Ivy, who’s bisexual, or Marvel’s Hulkling, who is a married, gay hero, has not been explored in movies or TV.

“We need a rainbow — diverse stories that represent all people,” Nordell said.

Nordell’s spouse, Sam Bolenbaugh, 31, is the owner and founder of Baltimore-based Moxie Event Productions. He said he planned to help in the bookstore as much as he could.

He didn’t fall in love with comic books until 2016, while being a moral support and visiting bookstores with Nordell, his high school and college sweetheart.

Nordell, 31, believes in the power of comics and graphic novels to tell stories that represent real-life situations.
Nordell, 31, believes in the power of comics and graphic novels to tell stories that represent real-life situations. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“I am a comic lover, and I’m a book lover,” Bolenbaugh said. “I am excited that … I get to be a part of [Dreamers].”

Growing up as a bisexual man, he said, he didn’t feel represented in popular culture.

“Bisexual men are still often missing from representation from the media. … That’s gonna be my focus. And that’s making sure that we have that representation within the store,” he said.

Nordell’s store highlights diverse authors and artists, particularly those featuring LGBTQ themes. The Conkling Street shop, a nearly 500-square-foot converted doctor’s office, will include a free collection of queer books for queer people.

Nordell, who’s originally from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, aims to create an accessible space that ignites passion for comics and books, period.

Nordell’s store highlights diverse authors and artists, particularly those featuring LGBTQ themes.
Nordell’s store highlights diverse authors and artists, particularly those featuring LGBTQ themes. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“Success for us is being integrated into the community,” she said. “What we hope we can achieve is to open an inclusive, welcoming space for folks to either discover or expand their love for comic [books] or graphic novels and ultimately reading.”

Some local comic books and graphic novels fans already are supporting the store.

Sean Sutherland’s interest in superheroes was sparked at age 12 when his mother mailed him Marvel’s “Mutant X No. 18,” while he was at summer camp, he said. At 14, while working his first job at a comic bookstore, he learned the impact of graphic novels, noting they can be historically accurate, like “Maus,” which tells the story of the Holocaust.

Now 34, he lives with a collection of nearly 600 comic books and graphic novels in East Baltimore’s Milton-Montford neighborhood. He donated to Dreamers & Make-Believers as soon as he learned about its start-up fundraising campaign. He admired the effort to be inclusive, said Sutherland, a straight, white man who identifies as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

In the past decade, authors have been trying to create books that speak to many audiences, he said, adding that telling inclusive stories is “really important.”

Nordell poses with her spouse, Sam Bolenbaugh. “I am a comic lover, and I’m a book lover,” Bolenbaugh said. “I am excited that … I get to be a part of [Dreamers]."
Nordell poses with her spouse, Sam Bolenbaugh. “I am a comic lover, and I’m a book lover,” Bolenbaugh said. “I am excited that … I get to be a part of [Dreamers]." (Kenneth K. Lam)

Young adult comic books creator and writer Barbara Perez Marquez, of Butchers Hill, is among 11 writers behind “The Cardboard Kingdom” series, illustrated by Chad Sell. The second installment, “Roar of the Beast,” released June 1, is offered on the Dreamers e-commerce site and will be on the shelves. The series tells the story of a racially diverse group of boys and girls engaging in imaginative play with cardboard.

As a queer, Latinx woman, she said that growing up, she didn’t see herself represented in many outlets.

“As I grew older, that intersection of where I live, where I’m also queer and of color, it’s been a bit of a struggle. I think nowadays in publishing, we’re seeing a shift from my teenage years, so I’m excited to see where we’ve been,” she said. “But I think a lot of my work ― especially with my writing as it is for younger audiences — it’s to create that representation that wasn’t there when I was a kid.”

Perez Marquez, 29, said it’s important to give space to representation, she said, adding she’s glad that Nordell is keeping that at the forefront of her bookstore.

“As a creator in Baltimore, it’s always of interest to me to connect [with] the creative community,” she said. “Knowing that a bookstore was in the works, as a writer, and as an avid reader myself, it’s always important to see what kind of books that they’re going to have.”

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