In the end, those of us who read our comics closely might have read between the lines. Noreen Stevens, writer and illustrator of The Chosen Family, has decided to lay down her pen.
If the advance of lesbian culture can be spoken of in terms of eras, The Chosen Family may be said to chronicle the entire third wave of our queer (r)evolution. As all eras must pass into history, so does the cast of The Chosen Family. Stevens has turned in her ink pen.
Kenneth-Marie, earnest and political, the original voice of a comic strip about being lesbian in the 1990s; Weed, mordant, sophisticated arbiter of postfeminist queer politics; Puddin’ Head, light-loafered ambassador of gay male goodwill; and the incomparable Straight Chick, apocryphal icon to lesbians of a certain generation, bringing a frisson of sexual titillation to the lives of Kenneth-Marie and Weed. Last but not least, young Rosebud and her little unnamed brother have allowed Kenneth-Marie and Weed to experience the epiphany of parenthood.
Androgyny, monogamy, bisexuality, dental dams, celebrity lesbians and dildos – The Chosen Family crew (a few sporting pre-ironic mullets) have covered it all over the years. And their creator Noreen Stevens has experienced most of it.
Stevens was born in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario in 1962, to her chagrined 48-year-old mother. She grew up viewing the world through the unusual combined prism of her depression era parents and her much older hippie siblings. This is the crucible from which her sense of comic timing emerged.
The seeds of The Chosen Family took root in Winnipeg, Manitoba where she has lived since matriculating at the University Of Manitoba. She graduated in 1985 with a degree in Interior Design which she claims trained her to print neatly – an asset to a cartoonist.
Stevens started writing a strip around that time called Local Access Only as an outlet, she says, to express the exasperation she felt as a recently uncloseted bull dyke trying to get a straight job. As her life unfolded so did her strip, which morphed into The Chosen Family.
After spending a feckless youth experimenting with serial monogamy (with this writer, among others) Stevens finally met partner Jill Town.
Some of their journey has been documented in Xtra before. For the last decade, Stevens and Town have travelled a road to parenthood – artificial insemination, then fostering, then adoption. They now have two children: Savannah, four, and Dillon, three.
The Chosen Family has seen and commented upon the fall and fade of 16 years of legal and cultural boundaries and now the writing is on the wall.
Lesbian comic strips never die, they just lose their borders.
Xtra asked Chosen Family stripper Noreen Stevens about her decision to end the strip.
XTRA: Why stop now? Did Kenneth-Marie ask to renegotiate her contract?
STEVENS: No, it was all me. The idea to stop came during a bicycle ride. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that ride, but once the idea entered my head there was no going back. I’ve considered stopping in the past but this was an epiphany. It was just time.
XTRA: Is The Chosen Family an autobiography?
STEVENS: It’s less directly auto-biographical than when I first started the strip but it certainly draws on my own experiences.
XTRA: You’ve satirized several mainstream cartoons over the years – Calvin And Hobbes, Peanuts, Bloom County – placing your characters within those strips or reimagining mainstream characters as gay or lesbian. [My favourite: Weed as Lucy Van Pelt, charging $40 for massage therapy.] Why is that a recurrent theme for you?
STEVENS: Comics are a big part of pop culture. They’re consumed ritually by every generation and I was no different. These were my influences growing up. It’s no accident that Weed is a round-headed character. Not to mention, the homoerotic subtext of most mainstream characters is hard to resist.
XTRA: Tell me about Weed and Kenneth-Marie’s relationship.
STEVENS: That’s a tough question because it implies there were some deep thoughts around character development when there really weren’t. Weed really came along later in the strip to be Kenneth-Marie’s counterpoint although I think what happened is Kenneth-Marie became Weed’s counterpoint. Weed comes from a long line of antagonists who steal the show.
XTRA: The Chosen Family is, without doubt, a lesbian strip, but men have also always populated your comic. Gay men, straight men. What do men represent in The Chosen Family?
STEVENS: In the same way I’ve been fascinated at the places where LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans] culture meets straight culture, I’ve been interested in where lesbian culture meets gay culture. And there’s a lot of comedy in comparing and contrasting.
XTRA: In this day and age is Straight Chick moot? Are straight women passé?
STEVENS: Straight women are never passé. Straight women are the great untapped potential.
XTRA: You’ve often used your comic as a platform to address historical and contemporary issues, particularly the legislative battles lesbians and gay men have waged over the last 10 years. In 2004, Weed declared, “The revolution is over!” Do you agree?
STEVENS: No. I certainly have my cynical moments but I just think the battle lines have shifted. I still have a stake in those battles, as does everybody, but I think most of the issues I faced as I was coming out I have already reflected on in The Chosen Family.
XTRA: You’ve said that the decision to stop stripping came as an epiphany. You’ve managed to hold down a day job in addition to writing the strip since the beginning. Is it possible that Kenneth-Marie and Weed, now that they are raising Rosebud and her little brother, are just too tired to show up?
STEVENS: I proposed to them that we might be able to get more done if we joined a baby-sitting co-op but they weren’t into it. They said it was too suburban.
XTRA: It’s hard to stay on the cutting edge when you’re chasing toddlers.
STEVENS: I must say, my priorities have shifted. I feel as though my identity as a parent has supplanted my identity as a lesbian. My life is very kid-focussed right now. I feel less connected to the gay community because most of my social connections are being made through my children’s activities. I feel like I’ve tried to integrate the two into the strip over the last few years with the introduction of Rosebud, but it’s never been entirely successful. There have been periods in the strip where Rosebud doesn’t show up for weeks and I kept thinking what neglectful parents Kenneth-Marie and Weed must seem like. On the other hand, I was afraid The Chosen Family was going to morph into The Family Circus.
XTRA: Still, you’ve left a question unresolved. What does Weed really wish for, if not Barbies?
STEVENS: Certainly not working at “Mick Donalds.” I don’t think I understand Weed enough to know what the answer is. I feel more like a medium for these characters than a writer so I don’t know what they want to do next. I’ve never really conceptualized their world. It’s been this amorphous thing that has grown as I grow and it’s stopping because that’s the consensus.
XTRA: That may not be the consensus among your devoted readers but we thank you for 16 years of fun and learning.