Rena Bridge has always been a comics fan.
As a kid, Bridge would religiously devour the Sunday funnies and their dream job was to become a newspaper comic strip artist.
“‘Calvin and Hobbes’ is obviously an all-time great and ‘Pearls Before Swine’ had a big influence on my sense of humor. I love ‘90s Nightwing just because he’s one of my favorite characters,” Bridge recalls. “Matt Fraction’s ‘Hawkeye’ was one of the first superhero comics I read and loved. I also have a big soft spot for ‘The Crow’ because of my emo phase.”
From there, it was a quick jump to drawing comic strips about everything from made up characters to random things happening in Bridge’s life to funny scenarios involving characters they liked.
That passion for comics paid off recently when Bridge won VCU’s 2023 Jurgen Banned Art Comics contest grand prize of $1,000 for “A Quick History of Gay Batman,” a humorous look at ongoing discussions about the nature of Batman and Robin’s relationship. Upon learning of the win, Bridge’s first thought was, “Oh my god, this is so cool. But I’m always going to be known as the Gay Batman guy now.”
The Jurgen Banned Art Comics Contest, sponsored by VCU Libraries, is an annual student competition dedicated to telling the story of banned art – books, music, film – and encouraging discussion of the complex relationship between art and society.
This year’s prompt was “Codes, Censorship and Conflict,” which encouraged exploration of the impact of codes and the intersection of art, commerce and freedom. Codes have appeared in the form of industry self-regulation, legal codes that define obscenity and libel, coded language and imagery that seek to evade restrictions, and codes of ethics that guide and support librarians facing censorship challenges, throughout the history of censorship.
As a queer Jewish person, Bridge thinks a lot about codes and censorship. “Censorship will always be a contentious topic, because everyone has their own morals. Code also has a double meaning: a set of rules and standards or a hidden meaning,” they explain. “When censorship doesn’t allow creators to write how they want, those creators code meanings into the work. I’ve always been interested in queer coding especially.”
As a kid, Bridge was a big fan of the 2003 cartoon, “Teen Titans,” to the point of writing fan fiction. Craving nostalgia, they rewatched the TV series last year, setting off binge of watching and reading anything Robin-related that could be found. “My art naturally followed suit,” they say. “My sketchbook from that time is kind of funny. It’s all normal doodles until halfway through it gets completely overtaken by Batman and Robin fan art.”
Because Bridge knew about the Comics Code already, they knew Batman had some connection. “I thought it would be interesting to do a deep dive into Batman and queer coding,” they say. “I also just wanted an excuse to draw Batman and Robin a million times.”
Research came in the form of further investigating the Comics Code which stipulated such things as not presenting criminals as sympathetic characters; no hints of illicit sex; and no seduction, horror or sex perversion. Bridge also researched “Seduction of the Innocent,” a 1954 book written by psychiatrist Fredrick Wertham positing that comics led to juvenile delinquency. The book so rattled parents and educators that they began calls for censorship. “I read a lot of articles and essays that talked about gayness in the Batman franchise,” Bridge says. “I also looked into what Batman comics creators had to say on the topic, so my research notes ended up being like 20 pages long. It was fun!”
With book bans in schools targeting books about racial and LGBTQ+ issues, censorship is a hot topic right now. Bridge draws a direct correlation between how codes have been used in the past to suppress thought and what’s happening today. “I think social media has become a bit of a battleground for censorship. It’s not a great environment for real art and conversation,” they say. “Everything online has to be advertiser-friendly now, so you see people on TikTok trying to talk about serious topics but having to censor every other word, saying things like ‘unalive.’”
Bridge is spreading the gospel that comics are awesome.
“I think they get a bad rap and have been seen as a lowbrow form of art, but there’s a lot of complexity that goes into making something that works on both a visual and literary level,” they point out. “And there’s nothing wrong with wanting some pictures to go along with your story.”
After having graduated in May with a degree in communication arts, Bridge’s plan is to continue making comics for the rest of their life.
“Right now, I’m working on independently publishing some stuff I’ve already got done, and making even more comics in my free time, which I’ll be posting about on my Instagram,” they say. “Oh, and if anyone from DC comics is reading this, hit me up.”
Follow Bridge’s comic art on instagram @rena.ppt