Ace Tropes: The Queer Ensemble

I’m starting a series on tropes in fiction with ace characters. More specifically, I will focus on webcomics. In particular, webcomics with stories and continuity. You can see my current top ace webcomic recommendations here, but of course there are many more.

To link or follow this series, please use the “ace webcomic tropes” tag on this blog.

In the past few years, the representation of ace characters has exploded. As recently as 2013, you could compile an exhaustive list of confirmed asexual characters. Nowadays, if you wanted to do that you’d need a dedicated website with strong community support.

Webcomics have been at the forefront of that explosion since the beginning. Much of this has to do with the low barrier to entry, and the already growing queer webcomics scene. On a tropes level, the biggest contributor is what I call the Queer Ensemble.

The Queer Ensemble is when the main characters span many sexual orientations and gender identities. It’s a way of normalizing diversity and achieving broad appeal. This is a venerable trope among queer webcomics, which often feature at least one character to cover each of L, G, B, and T (e.g. see Khaos Komix). Within this framework, many artists have also added characters that go beyond the acronym, such as nonbinary or asexual characters.

The Queer Ensemble is similar to what TV Tropes calls the Five-Token Band, a set of characters seemingly designed to include all the ethnic minorities, and sometimes other minority groups. I think of Captain Planet being the prototypical example. TV Tropes notes a few pitfalls of the Five-Token Band, such as the characters all being stereotypes, or the one white male character always getting the biggest role.

Similarly, in a queer ensemble, you might also worry about stereotypes. But the kind of artist who creates a Queer Ensemble is fairly aware of stereotypes, and is expressly interested in breaking stereotypes down. A more common problem is that the story sacrifices depth for breadth. When there’s one character of each identity, sometimes there just isn’t much space for deep exploration of any particular identity, particularly not the more obscure ones. (Mind you, sometimes a good writer can manage both depth and breadth.)

Your mileage may vary, depending on what you really want in a story. Personally I like fiction that tries to say something new, something I wouldn’t have thought of as a thoughtful blogger. But perhaps you just want to know that there are some characters like you, and then the rest of the story can focus on superheroes punching dinosaurs or Jedi nuns fighting werewolf witches.

Note also that the Queer Ensemble is where you’re most likely to find demisexual or allo/aro characters, and maybe you’d take that over nothing at all.

Examples:

Otherworldly
Rock and Riot
Sharp Zero

Discussion questions:

1. Do you like Queer Ensembles?
2. Do you worry about aro/ace characters being sidelined?
3. Do you feel that the Queer Ensemble is realistic? In real life, would there really be a superhero team that just happens to showcase the entire queer spectrum?

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
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12 Responses to Ace Tropes: The Queer Ensemble

  1. queenieofaces says:

    (Note that the post you link to as an exhaustive list literally says it’s not an exhaustive list in the post. >.>)

    I like the queer ensemble in theory and have a soft-spot for it in practice (partially because I find it a lot more realistic than the Sole Gay trope). But I’ve found that a lot of the time it just…doesn’t really go into enough depth for me to be satisfied? It tends to have nice moments rather than nice scenes. (Ignition Zero I would think of as a good example of this–I enjoyed it, but a lot of it is not particularly memorable to me, in the same way that, say, 14 Nights was. There are individual panels or pages I can point to to say “oh, yeah, I liked that,” but sequences as a whole tended not to be super impactful.)

    But, on the other hand, there’s stuff like Dragonoak, which is arguably a Queer Ensemble novel, but that DOES go into depth. And partially I think that’s because queerness is normalized in the narrative to such a huge extent that you don’t have to have those vaguely awkward “hi, my name’s Bob and here are my identities and here is what they mean” modeling scenes.

    • Siggy says:

      (Note that the post you link to as an exhaustive list literally says it’s not an exhaustive list in the post. >.>)

      Oh you’re right. Although commenters were certainly giving it their best shot, and it was more complete for the time than a similar list could be now.

  2. Sara K. says:

    Other webcomics which fit the queer ensemble trope: Kimchi Cuddles, Heartless

    1. I tend to feel mildly positive about Queen Ensembles. If the writer/artist is minimally competent, I’ll generally like it, but not love it. Actually, Khaos Komix is my favorite example of the Queer Ensemble trope, even though it doesn’t have any ace characters.

    2. I think, in practice, the ace/aro characters sometimes ARE sidelined. Kimchi Cuddles is Exhibit A. The asexual character (who is called ‘Ace’) is one of the most stereotyped and shallow characters in the webcomic. He seems like just a token to Show That Asexuality Exists without exploring any of the implications of what it is like to be asexual, or to even have a proper character.

    3. I think it’s realistic enough. There are some segments of society where queer people are disproportionately present (performing arts for example), and superheroes aren’t very realistic anyway. Given that I buy into the superhero concept at all, I can also buy that there are a bunch of superheroes who just happen to be queer.

    • I think Alex in Khaos Komix is demi or grey? Or at least i remember someone in the comments mentioning it (Alex’s story, around page 20-something). It just wasn’t explored much, or maybe it was /actually/ discussed in the forums back in the day…

      • Sara K. says:

        IIRC, that’s never stated in the comic itself, though now that I think about it is plausible.

      • Siggy says:

        I’m remember that when I first read Khaos Komix, I zoomed on Alex as a potential demisexual character. Not sure if I ever found any comment from Tab on that, but I do remember seeing other people speculate on the forums. Since then I mostly forgot about it because now we have more explicit examples.

  3. I tend to enjoy the Queer ensemble when its just a feature of a webcomic based around something like, say, superheroes and the diversity is supposed to be largely in the background. But when its more focused directly on issues, then its sort of a YMMV situation where sometimes its great and sometimes the lack of depth is really, really noticeable.

  4. Siggy says:

    So, answering my own questions:

    1. I don’t really like the queer ensemble, but I note that I read lots of comics in that vein anyway. I mean, the mainstream alternative is a straight ensemble, and I often find straight sensibilities to be strange. Those gender roles… so gendered.

    2. Yeah, a lot of queer ensemble comics tend to revolve around the same LG issues, with other ones only getting mentions. But I think it goes both ways, with other comics having queer ensembles but placing focus on the ace characters. So I guess I’m not too bothered.

    3. Queer ensembles seem realistic to me because in my experience, queer people clump socially. However, I usually see clumping occur by identity, so it strikes me as more unusual that a group would have L, G, B, T, and A all together. I don’t mind if it’s unrealistic though.

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  7. ettinacat says:

    It strikes me as fairly realistic because queer people tend to seek each other out. I also disagree with the other commenter who felt that having one of each was less realistic than having several with the same orientation – that may be true in larger centers, but in smaller communities or where fewer people are out, I could see the full LGBTQIA spectrum clustering together because they are at least all queer. The one thing is that often there’s not enough intersectionality. For example, within my community, I’ve met and semi-befriended an autistic straight FtM with ADHD, an autistic pansexual AFAB demiboy, an autistic nonbinary AFAB who seems to be exclusively attracted to males, and then I’m an autistic cisgender female asexual. I have also met a cisgender lesbian and an MtF woman, both neurotypical.

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