Monday, March 21, 2016

Super Trans: Transgender in Comic Books with M.W. Bychowski

"You can't prove who you are...
and if we ask other people to tell us we're real, 
we've lost everything"

Kate "Coagula" Godwin
The Doom Patrol


It was Saturday, March 5th in Exeter, New Hampshire when I walked down a narrowly flight that likely inspired (along with the famous song) the naming of the Stairway to Heaven Comic Book Store (SWtH). I had a good relationship with the shops owner, a retired English teacher. At our first meeting, when he found out about my research on trans literature, he had insisted that I share some of my work with him. Upon getting to know each other more, the topic of my Transform Talks and workshops came up. He invited me to speak some evening in one of his shops. We planned the event to happen before my family and I moved to Connecticut. If the event went well, such Transform Talks would be a good excuse to get me to travel back to Maine/New Hampshire for visits. In any case, it was a parting gift to one another, an event that could share the conversations we have had in the store with a wider audience as well as a way to say bon voyage to that community. A poster was drawn up to advertise the event, along with a few “variants” to be available to subscribers of our different social media. This mimicked the practice in comics where variant and exclusive covers are released along with special issues in order to drum up the interest of collectors. Word got around the store as well as among local activists and a comic book reading group. For a while, both of our expectations were fairly conservative. The owner promised that if nothing else he would be there and we could have a nice informal discussion on the topic. Yet as I arrived at the store to find the room set up for the Transform Talk, the room was already filling with some twenty or so attendants. This would be a good discussion.

The subject of the talk, “Super Trans: Transgender in Comic Books,” had struck a cord with many so that attendants roped in family and friends to come. We began by going around the room and introducing ourselves, named our preferred pronouns, and explaining what had brought us here today. Most but not all present claimed that they had only encountered transgender rarely in comics and others admitted that the only instances they could remember are from video games. Nonetheless, by the end of the circuit, I had added several titles to my list that I would explore later. The crowd began to flip through books when I passed around a stack of comics that would be featured in today’s talk. I also affirmed that a special attendant would win a free comic at the close of the evening, as promised on the poster. (The winner of the comic ended up choosing "Angela: Queen of Hel #1" on my recommendation). Beginning to write on the board, I explained that the focus of today’s talk was to explore how transgender functions narratively in comic books. For the time being, this would push beyond or aside the work of merely listing transgender characters in comics, debating who could or could not be considered trans, or answering the very interesting question of the presence of transgender readers and writers in the industry. The key topics of the talk would be how comic books use: (1) transgender as metaphor, (2) transgender as narrative, and (3) transgender as perspective.

Before I began, I gave a preliminary history and set of definitions. Surprising some not familiar with my typical area of study, I drew the history of transgender in comic books back to the medieval period. The erotic narratives, battle scenes, and many iterations of characters familiar to comics are present in chivalric romance. Yet furthermore, so is the practice of sequential art. Many who approach medieval manuscript images for the first time may be confused when they see the same character appearing many times in a single page, assuming that the duplication is the mistake of the artist or the viewer. To understand how the illustrations work, one must think like a comic book reader. Multiple scenes often appear played out on a single page but without the bars to separate them. Gawain can be scene conversing in one corner, fighting in another, and fleeing in a third. Beyond the form and narratives, trans characters such as Sir Silence from Roman de Silence serve as forerunners to later trans warriors in comics as would be evident when we got to the next section. Jumping ahead to modern comics, we see trans figures presented as farcical and usually evil or amoral characters such as the duplicitous He-She whose left side and right side were split male and female. Then we reached an era in the late 1980s and 1990s were transgender characters were being presented among other queer persons. Then comes (as in other genres) about 20 years where transgender characters nearly vanished from comics in order to allow more normative and integrated versions of gay and lesbians to take the focus. Recently, in the past few years comics have begun using the word transgender and even offering a few characters. Yet even when transgender discourses weren't being mentioned by name or dignified, the power of trans lives were still being utilized as metaphors, narratives, and perspectives.



Transgender as Metaphor

The order of the topics was explained as I began discussing “transgender as metaphor,” noting that this form of integration is in many respects the least reflective of trans experiences or political concerns. In fact, at this level, transgender does not need to be embodied or identified by any specific character. Rather, the name or cultural meanings of transgender hover at the level of association in order to do what metaphors do best: explain one thing by means of another. Something or someone is meant to be understood as “transgender like.” Even when a trans person is present, they are not presented for their own sake but in order to help aid in understanding another character or organization. A relatively benign example of this exists in the current Batgirl Comic where her former roommate, Alysia Yeoh, revealed herself as transgender on the same night that Batgirl reveals that she was formerly a woman with disabilities, living for many years in a wheelchair. The mirroring, coming out trans as Batgirl came out crip, demonstrates just one way that transgender is used to help shed light on the telling of super hero secret identities and origin stories. The movement from a place of secure secrecy to revelation is one super heroes have played out to exhaustion but by introducing a transgender counter-point the tired old trope takes on new life. Suddenly in the light of transgender, the super revelation is revived with signals of long feared social prejudice and internal struggles. Importantly, the long held yet often denied association between transgender and disability is affirmed. The act of passing as a cisgender woman mirrors the experience of passing as able-bodied; even super-abled; positioning the pre-transition past as a source of shame and secrecy. Yeoh’s story is not greatly elaborated, as in the case of black side-kicks or gay best friends, her story is not there primarily for her own sake but to further the story of the cisgender hero.

Transgender as Narrative

Beyond merely existing as a metaphorical way of understanding conventional cisgender issues, comics at times positions characters (especially non-trans characters) in recognizably transgender narratives. The effect of adapting stories in such ways is to position "transgender as narrative." The classic example of transgender being mimicked in narrative is the gender-swap story where a normatively cisgender character finds themselves temporarily transposed into another gender. Typically the goal of such narratives is the overcoming of the gender-swap. Such conclusions are framed as a cure and a return to normalcy. I call this structure the "Super Trans" narrative because it positions certain people as heroic because they were able to overcome the transgender situation. By structuring narratives in such a way, transgender is itself treated as the problem to be fixed, resolved, or overcome in a Super Trans narrative. The goal should be an experience as close to cisgender norms as possible. Even when the story uses a trans identified character, the person can still be caught in a Super-Trans narrative. Transition towards the identified gender coincides with the plot moving forward. The unreal gender is replaced by the real gender. Gender dysphoria is muted. Surgery, hormones, or some other scientific or magical apparatus corrects the body. A problem with the Super Trans narrative is that it can be easily inverted by a turn of rhetoric. The claimed identity can be treated as the unreal identity and the character is to be corrected or converted to submit to their assigned identity. An example of this occurs both in the Ultimate Spider-Man with Jessica Drew and in Camelot 3000 with Sir Tristan. In both cases, a male identified character is cloned or reincarnated as a gender they don't claim, as women. The character's trans identification is treated as a problem and their stories cannot move forward until they accept the gender they were given. Drew and Tristan are left to live begrudgingly as women - as if in Marvel's super-hero universe and in the year 3000 there are no technologies or magics, social acceptance or liberty to transition as they will - so the trans identity is surrendered.

Transgender as Perspective

The key problems with using transgender as a metaphor or narrative is that the trans person is treated as a mechanism or an object, inciting the need for writers to embrace the subjectivity of trans experiences by presenting "transgender as perspective." In such a scenario, trans persons are not treated as an experience external to the narrator or reader. Either through active dialog with trans characters who express a full range of their experiences or else to position the trans character as narrator or protagonist the readers are called on the identify with trans subjectivities. Trans people must do this metaphoric work all the time when they translate the experiences of cisgender people into their own understanding of the world. Literature has the power to allow us to see through the minds and senses of others, so why do we limit our perspectives to those who closely match the majority? This isn't simply oppressive in a justice sense but oppressive in the sense that it is boring. By shifting from the view of transgender as an object to perceiving through trans subjectivities the objects of concern shift to other matters. The physical environment, the social pressures, the metaphors and narratives that aren't noticeable to those on the outside arise. What if we offer trans and cis readers alike narrations they don't often get to read: looking through the eyes of dysphoria, feeling the touch of sexual play through genitals that have undergone surgery, smelling the scent of perfume perhaps transgressive purchased or chaffing in clothes dictated by parents or school. These experiences are widespread but different among trans populations. Yet they don't often appear in print. As a result, many don't have words, metaphors, narratives, to describe their lives. By throwing down the innovative gift to write and read as a trans person, the possibilities grow into uncharted areas. Such opportunities arise in comics such as Angela Asgard's Assassin, Witch Hunter, and Queen of Hel where the title character's beloved Sera (an angelic trans woman) functions often as the viewpoint into the story by acting as narrator, primary speaker (Angela fights more than speaks), or musical bard. Angela is the main object but she is perceived for the reader by Sera. In this way, writers and readers come to need Sera as much as Angela does.


Variant Covers Advertising "Super-Trans"


After my prepared thoughts were presented, the conversation opened up to the wider group. It was a diverse group with many perspectives to share. Those collected ranged across the colorful landscape of gender, including numerous trans and other gender non-binary people.  The owner of Stairway to Heaven has proudly spoken publicly about the many many genders of people who frequent his store. I had first encountered the store when I was browsing Exeter one day, better getting to know my neighboring town. Yet what kept me coming back was the extraordinarily friendly owner and staff. I felt welcome in this place. I could come without having to put myself on display or explain myself. This feeling of exhibition accompanied by alienation  and a degree of public shaming comes in the vast majority of places I go in the form of stares, voyeuristic photographs, as well as degrading or invasive gestures and comments. I resist or ignore the misbehavior of the public on a regular basis but I crave safe places where I can step out of the sea of glares. Most days when I am too tired or hurt to deal with this slow casual violence I usually just stay home. A place like Stairway To Heaven Comics gave me somewhere I could go outside of the house and family to live out my time without having to wear my armor. Not all comic book stores are like this but most have more than usual reason to be. Comic books as well as associated recreations like Magic the Gathering Card Games, Pokemon tournaments, or Dungeons and Dragons sessions have long marked populations that are frequently marginalized, at least until very recently. People who have been historically alienated should learn as many ways as possible to recognize and ally with other alienated groups. The crowd collected for this Transform Talk at SWtH Comics were evidence that this store lived towards that potential of coalition building.

"What If?" is a traditional question in comic books. This question has sparked many characters, places, and plot lines. The question has been featured in the title of many stories that are intended to describe alternative universes or timelines where life is different than we know it. Big events such as Crisis on Infinite Earths, Spider-Verse, and Secret Wars are just a few of the cross-over events that have taken advantage of the infinite possibilities for difference to cross-pollinate, intersect, implode, and resurrect. Without the question "What If" Ultimate Drew and Sir Tristan would not exist in Marvel and DC. Many transgender, queer, feminist, crip people or people of color would not get stories without the ability to ask the question and pose alternative realities. In a way, this night came out of a "What If?" Whatever we discussed, perhaps our greatest statement was in being together, reading, and discussing comics. Why make comics by, for, and about transgender people? Because we are the inspiration, makers, and consumers of comics. Because we come to these stores with our fiances, partners, friends, coworkers, allies, and children. Because of all the people who weren't there. Because of anyone who weren't given comics to read or had their comics taken. Because of those who are told in explicit and implicit ways that comics are not for them. Because the world is changing and different. Because the world can change and be different. Trans-formation is propelled by talks such as this. This is how Super Trans turns from a form of metaphor or narrative into a political act begun when we come together to ask the question in many voices: what if?

"Super heroes are a boy thing," our youngest daughter once said shortly after starting kindergarten. She did not get this sentiment from home. For a long time before, she would brag about how much she looked up to Iron Man. She asked us to buy her clothes and candy themed on the Avengers. But once she started in kindergarten, she started bringing home a lot of sexist, homophobic, and transphobic sentiments being parroted around by the other kids at school. Having already gone through similar moments with her sister, we were sad but ready to work with her on points where her family's and her community's politics clashed. It is for this reason that it was so important that the smallest and most active of those twenty-some people at the comic talk was my daughters. The owner of the store later complimented how well they sat and listened, then when they got a bit distracted, picked comics of their own and read in the corner. This comic store was a place where I felt welcome and invited, it was important to me that so did my daughters. They got to read and shop on their own but also to look around at the diverse people who came together to discuss comic literature: men and women, non-binary, trans, cis, and queer people of color. Indeed, the straight cisgender men for whom presumably "super heroes were a thing," were in the minority. This was a women's space and a trans queer space. This was a space that welcomed me and welcome my daughters. And in the past several weeks, my youngest has reclaimed Iron Man and intends on being him for Halloween. And that is the greatest gift that comics has given me: they help me affirm for my daughters that they are the super heroes of my life in language they understand and enjoy. They are Super Trans-formative.




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