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Let’s Play Bingo, Love: A Look at Tee Franklin’s Queer Romance Graphic Novella

Bingo Love Tee Franklin comic cover

If you don’t know, now you know: Tee Franklin is a queer, Black, disabled woman who works in the comics industry as an advocate for both the LGBTQIA and disabled communities. In 2015, she started the hashtag #BlackComicsMonth in an effort to make readers more aware of Black creators, and in early 2017 announced her own comic, Bingo Love. Launched with a Kickstarter campaign, this graphic novella was funded in only five days and closed at almost three times its original goal. While the campaign was still underway, Franklin became the recipient of the 2017 Prism Comics Queer Press Grant. Five months later at NYCC, Image Comics announced that it had acquired Bingo Love and was going to publish it on Valentine’s Day, which seemed only appropriate for this disarmingly beautiful love story. And a same-sex romance published on the most heteronormative day of the year might be a comics industry first.

Franklin has described her story as the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” meets Moonlight, and those references are apt not only for its subject matter, but for her approach to visual storytelling, which is effortlessly cinematic and full of flourishes.

The first page-turn leads us 75 years into narrator Hazel Johnson’s past: When 13-year-old Hazel meets Mari McCray at church bingo, she falls instantaneously in love. She describes Mari as a tall and beautiful “honey glazed goddess.” After school the next day, Mari treats Hazel to hot chocolate, and their friendship is born. When Mari kisses her goodbye for the first time, Hazel realizes that she wants to someday marry Mari. But after four years of inseparable friendship, they’re forced apart by their families and encouraged by societal conventions to marry men. And years pass. And the women become mothers. And then grandmothers. And their hair grays, and their bodies change with age.

One Mother’s Day decades later, Hazel and Mari are unexpectedly reunited in a church bingo hall. Now in their sixties, they realize without hesitation that their love for each other is still alive and vibrant, and they finally decide to do something about it.

Franklin wanted to tell the story “of women who are gay, Black, and in love—and who learn to live without apology,” and also “show that love and passion are present at every age—and just as intense for women in their sixties as for teenagers.” That love and passion is unmistakable in these 88 pages.

Bingo Love reads like the work of someone who has been making comics longer than Franklin actually has. A lot of writers might be able to cite the first story they read that made them want to write their own, but when asked, she answers: “None. Writing wasn’t something that I ever wanted to do. Yeah, I read comics, but writing comics was a different story (no pun intended).”

Historically, the comic industry has been dominated by cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied white men, and once those of us who do persist get past the gatekeepers, women and people of color are held to different standards than the dominant creators. When asked how important is it for her to assert—and celebrate—her Blackness in her work, Franklin acknowledges that “being Black is extremely important, just as important as me being queer and disabled. It’s who I am, and if I have a chance to tell a story, you had better believe I’m going to book tons of marginalized people in the forefront,” but further illuminates: “the fact that this question is even being asked shows that there’s a problem. No one would dare ask a white man how important it is to assert and celebrate their Whiteness into their writing.”

Two of the people Franklin put at the forefront of her project are Jenn St-Onge (Jem and the Holograms: The Misfits) and Joy San (Toronto Comics Anthology). St-Onge’s Disney-inspired line art is perfectly complemented by San’s saturated, opaque colors. The overall structure of the story is both straightforward and dreamy: Franklin’s narrative is linear, beginning in 1963 and ending in 2038, while St-Onge makes ingenious use of borderless panels that show a lyrical passage of time across two-page spreads, and Joy San coveys age with the palette of characters’ wardrobes.

One of many things that make Bingo Love unique is its character design, which incorporates a broad spectrum of skin tones and a wide range of body types. Details like stretch marks and less pigmented palms on certain characters’ hands enrich Franklin’s characterizations in a way that’s unexpected yet unobtrusive. Everything feels comfortable here. In fact, the only possible criticism might be the dialogue in a coming out scene in which the word “gender” is used when the word “sex” would have been more accurate (a distinction that might be more important to transgender and nonbinary readers).

Although undeniably a romance, this story not only celebrates same-sex love and queer companionship, but explores the complications of coming out at an older age, and how that decision affects the couple themselves as well as their existent families. There are elements of Bingo Love that feel so intimate that the whole vibe of this story space feels almost autobiographical.

“As a woman who was married once upon a time, I understand how it is to come out as a queer woman to my family,” she has said. “Bingo Love was important for me to create for the youth. The LGBTQ youth needs to understand that happily-ever-afters aren’t only for straight people. If Disney’s Carl and Ellie can grow old together, so can Mari and Hazel.” How much of her own lived experience does she weave into her scripts? “Depends on the story. Nothing from my life was in the horror short The Outfit that I wrote in 2016. In Bingo Love, there were details of my life that can be found in both Hazel and Mari. It honestly all depends on what I’m writing and what’s been outlined for the character.”

Like many of our romantic and sexual relationships, a writer’s relationship with readers can blossom into something more than anyone could have anticipated, and with visibility and renown comes some amount of pushback and haters. Franklin has faced a lot of that already, and while some people’s rigid notions of Twitter etiquette might inhibit other people from speaking their truth, she responds: “I think it doesn’t matter, people are going to talk and spew some version of their truth.”

And the truth is that for all its fairytale lightheartedness, Bingo Love is thoughtful and poignant, and establishes Tee Franklin as a creator to cherish. So it’s only natural for us to want more. “I would love to tell as many stories as possible in the Bingo Love universe,” Franklin says, “and that depends on Image Comics, and whether or not there’s a big enough audience for a volume 2. In regards to will another Bingo Love story be next or will it be something different, I suggest you tune into Image Expo on February 21.”

(image: Image Comics)

Aria Baci is a pop culture journalist and comic book writer with a multifaceted passion for literature, comics, and make-up whose work can be found on sites as diverse as Geeks OUT and Design*Sponge. Her comic Dismantlers will be published with Black Mask Studios in 2018.

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