Just behind the Philadelphia Art Museum, along a terrace that stretches northwest toward the Azalea Garden, stand six bronze statues of Revolutionary War heroes. At one corner, a figure extends his right arm, as if straightening up the formations: Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben.
You can just call him Baron von Steuben. A more prominent monument to the Prussian general lives at Valley Forge, where the military man made his name getting American troops into line — literally. The Baron is credited with bringing discipline and order to a bedraggled Continental Army.
But while von Steuben’s contributions to American military are well studied, his reasons for leaving Europe are often glossed over: “He was open in his enjoyment of the male form and he had male lovers,” said Josh Trujillo, 33, a Bay Area-based writer and comic book creator.
Together with illustrator Levi Hastings, Trujillo recently wrote a short comic — published in The Nib, a daily comics site — celebrating the queer identity of this acclaimed strategist. Although that piece was widely shared in the run-up to Pride Week, it wasn’t the pair’s first foray into illustrating furtive love in this era.
They are also the creators and publishers of a comic series titled Declaration, a fictional romance set against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War.
“There’s so little historical record of queer lives and queer love stories,” said Hastings, 37, of Seattle. “For all of these different reasons, particularly cultural pressure and historical straight washing, those stories get left out of the historical record.”
Hastings and Trujillo met in 2015, at Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con. They bonded, in part, over a shared love of history and a desire for it to better reflect the lives and impact of queer people.
“It’s frustrating, being a gay person, you want to look to the past and see elements of yourself or feel like you belong in the fabric of American history, but we come to a dead end any time before Stonewall,” said Trujillo.
So Hastings and Trujillo created their own story about two men — in this case, an aristocrat and a working-class farmer — in love on the eve of the Revolutionary War. Hastings said the story plays with the class tensions between the two men, complicating the notion that every person who took up arms in 1776 was fighting for high-minded ideals.
“The original patriots, they didn’t all go to war over taxes,” Trujillo added. “They had a hundred thousand reasons why they wanted to create a new nation. Some were more self-serving than others, but they still reached a consensus to do this incredible thing.”
A twelve-page preview issue of the Declaration series came out in November, 2016. The duo self-published the initial run, and is now crowdfunding in support of follow-up issues. It’s tricky to balance this side project against their full-time work, said Hastings.
But the duo senses a hunger among comics fans for this style of historical nonfiction — one that reminds readers of the subtle contributions of unsung, ordinary people. A life omitted from the historical record, Trujillo said, is still a life that mattered.
“We’ve always had a place at the table,” he said. “It’s only other people slighting us or demeaning us that those facts recede.”