Westender feature by Michael White July 2006

Abby Denson is 31 years old, but the Brooklyn-based illustrator and writer speaks about her work and life with the anxious, friendly enthusiasm of an exceptionally culture-savvy teenage girl. Even if you were to never have the opportunity to meet or speak with her, though, that undimmed empathy for the wide-eyed experience of youth is laid bare in the pages of Tough Love: High School Confidential, her newly published graphic novel.
Inspired by shounen-ai manga — loosely defined as female-made Japanese comics about romantic (but rarely physical) love between young gay males — and groundbreaking 1980s American underground comic Love & Rockets, Tough Love is about the budding relationship between high-school students Brian and Chris, and the attendant issues of Brian’s coming out, homophobia, and the suicidal thoughts and parental disapproval of Chris’s ex-boyfriend, Li. The comic, originally serialized in the San Francisco gay youth magazine XY, has drawn widespread acclaim for its cultural and sociological honesty, and its potential as a tool to help ease the coming-out process for both gay teenagers and their parents.
It’s an admirable accomplishment — and a somewhat unlikely one, given that for years Denson resisted the idea of involving herself with comics in any way other than reading them.
“As a kid I read super-hero comics,” she says, on the phone from her hometown. “My mom is super-cool, and she took my brother and I to get comics when we were little — some girls, from what I’ve heard, have been discouraged from reading comics, but my mom didn’t feel that way. I really liked comics and I liked to draw, but I didn’t think that I would want to be a cartoonist because I thought it would be boring to draw the same people over and over.”
While working toward her BFA in Illustration at Manhattan’s Parsons School of Design, the punk-rock-loving Denson was drawn to the unconventional realism of the punk-rock-loving Love & Rockets, and other under-the-radar comics — including shounen-ai manga — that depicted people and situations she hadn’t previously seen represented in the art form.
“I was really looking to get into a more broad subject matter than what was happening in the American comics — which is still the case today, even though we have a much larger manga influence now,” she says. “A romance comic seemed like a good idea, and I’d gone to a comic convention and saw a panel that was about shounen-ai manga, and I thought that was really interesting because there was nothing like that here.
“Another part of my background is that I didn’t have a homophobic upbringing; my dad is gay and one of my uncles is gay. I just was not raised to feel that it was wrong or bad. So I thought it would be a good idea to do a story about that — and also I thought, why aren’t there stories like this?”
XY’s acquisition of Tough Love, in 1996, was essentially a fluke: Denson sent her self-published, Xeroxed debut edition of the comic to the magazine’s editor, suggesting that someone there might like to review it. He responded that he might like to publish it. It was immediately embraced by readers and far exceeded the creator’s expectations.
“Because I had a suicide-attempt scene in it, I received letters from kids who were suicidal and related to it,” says Denson.
“Then I realized that this was a big deal it had a chance to maybe help people as opposed to just being a fun romance comic.”
Tough Love ran in XY for two years, after which time Denson searched for a publisher to release it in the form of a graphic novel. That it wasn’t published until June of this year (by San Francisco’s Manic D Press) is indicative of the still evolving acceptance of gay and gay-themed art — a condition that Denson believes mirrors the evolutionary acceptance of gay culture as a whole.
“Luckily things are getting better in that way, and Tough Love is trying to push toward that,” she says.
“Some of the reviews I’ve been getting say [Brian] seems pretty well-adjusted, considering, and has a good support system. I wanted the book to be an inspiration to kids who are afraid to communicate with their family when they come out. It’s about a kid who comes out pretty early, despite the pressure around him. I think more and more kids are doing that; they’re coming out earlier, and, of course, I think that’s a good thing.
“On the other hand, there’s still a lot of problems, still so many people who are suicidal, and the conservative politics going on in America right now. I mean, imagine knowing that your own President pretty much hates you.”
Of course, the success of the Tough Love serial — in addition to her work as a script writer for mainstream comics including The Powerpuff Girls, The Simpsons, and Josie & the Pussycats — means that Denson is now subject to professional scrutiny on a level that she might never have anticipated. A particularly surreal moment found her sitting on a panel at a comic convention beside Love & Rockets co-creator Jaime Hernandez, both of them being asked how they’re able to write for gay characters.
“It dawned on me: ‘Wow, this is one of my big inspirations and I’m in the exact same boat,’” Denson says, marvelling at the memory.“But I think it’s a compliment — people ask that because they think your stories ring true. But, hey, no one asks J.K. Rowling how she can write her books without being a boy wizard.”