Tales of the Closet Vol. 1

By Ivan Velez Jr.
104 pages, black and white
Published by Planet Bronx Productions

Over a decade ago, the Milestone Media title Blood Syndicate debuted. I was familiar with one of the two writers of that first issue, Dwayne McDuffie, but who was this Ivan Velez Jr. guy? After doing a little research (thanks in no small part to both McDuffie and Velez being on the now-defunct GEnie computer network) I found out that he’d also written and drawn a book called Tales of the Closet. I remember receiving the first four issues in the mail soon afterwards, and as silly as it sounds, if one could read a comic until the ink wore out that’s exactly what would’ve happened. Now Velez is collecting the entire series into three trade paperbacks, and I for one am delighted that a whole new audience will be able to find this series.

It’s 1986 at Decatur High School in Queens, New York, and for one group of students things could certainly be better. They’re all different on the outside, ranging from members of sports teams to bitter loners. The one thing they all have in common, though, is that they’re all gay or lesbian. When they all find each other, it starts a secret friendship—and friends are exactly what they’ll need as the rest of the year continues to unfold for them.

One of the things that had impressed me with Velez’s writing in Blood Syndicate was how he was able to juggle such a large cast of characters with such apparent ease. What I hadn’t realized at first was that it was a skill he’d learned while working on Tales of the Closet; with eight main characters, it would be far too easy to let some of them fall to the sidelines, and that never happens here. Re-reading these stories years later, it surprised me with out distinctly I remembered the characters and the stories of their lives. I think it’s in no small part because they’re all very distinct and different from each other. In many ways it reminds me of those old, classic issues of X-Men from the 1980s, only taking place in the real world with a slight soap opera quality to them. Everyone gets their time in the spotlight, and the stories themselves range from the slightly predictable to the surprising, but the one constant is how heartfelt the book is. Velez’s writing is deeply emotional, showing great sympathy not for the characters being gay, but rather for how trapped and confused they are as a result. At the same time, it’s never condescending or speaking down to either the characters or the readers; it merely presents things as they are, for better or for worse.

Velez’s art reminds me a lot of Colleen Doran’s, with the same sort of rounded faces and flowing hair on both of their characters. He’s got a good eye for people, something that’s critical in a series where there aren’t any brightly colored outfits to set everyone apart. The art’s still finding its way in these early issues, and is often crowded out by the word balloons, but there’s still a lot of talent evident. It’s easy to overlook the lack of backgrounds when you get things like the eight panel sequence with Benny sinking continually lower in his seat even as he continues to work himself up into a state of negativity as he comes up with anything and everything that could go wrong. There’s a strong storytelling style being born here, and it’s fun to see Velez come into his own.

I’m utterly delighted that thanks to the Xeric Foundation this first collection was published, and really want to see future collections down the line. It’s a sharp series that deserves to be put into a permanent edition, and hopefully it’s going to find the large audience that it deserves. Gay, straight, or any point in-between, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book.

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