It’s Simply Comic…

Welcome back! I hope that if you were celebrating yesterday you had a wonderful time, and if not that you were able to feel loved and rested wherever you were.

Today as a holiday treat for myself I want to look at one of the best mediums for transgender representation, which are webcomics and comic books. This may also involve outing myself as a giant nerd. Oops!

I’ve been reading webcomics every day since I was about 14. At one point I was keeping on top of more than 30, although I’ve whittled that down to about five plus occasional re-reads. I love webcomics for many reasons: unlike a book, they don’t run out, and with many of my favourites you can see the author evolving over time as the society around them changes its knowledge and values.

Attitudes to transgender people have shifted hugely since I started reading webcomics, and that’s reflected in how transgender characters show up. For a long time transgender characters were mostly being written either as the protagonists in comics about being transgender, or as alien/transforming/sexualised fantasies. Now I see a trend of transgender characters showing up in comics simply because transgender people are a normal part of the world, and once a cast is a dozen or so characters broad, it makes sense that at least one of those characters would not be cis. The webcomics I’m reading are on the more permissive/positive end of the sex and gender spectrum, and the inclusion of trans characters as normative presences sens a powerful message about how we should treat transgender people in our own lives.

I also think that graphic formats are a particularly positive space for transgender representation because the author is in so much control of how their characters appear and are framed. The ability of a character to pass or not pass, to be read as attractive, what we get to see and what we don’t etc. is dictated by how the character is drawn, more than by what our own eyes see (as in a film) or by what our heads imagine (as in a book).

I’d like to discus some examples below, but bear in mind that not all of these are safe for work, and that the authors’ attitudes are an evolving process. That means that if you go back and read the archives you may find some pretty offensive material in some of these comics. I’m delighted that in trying to find examples from my own reading history I came across a post about the 10 best trans women in comics, and only knew one of the examples! So much more for me to read!

Transgender protagonists.
It’s strange, but I seem to find much more stuff about trans women than about trans men and non-binary protagonists. Two of my favourites in the first category are Assigned Male and Venus Envy. Both of these comics are told from the perspective of young women going through transition. Assigned Male is a more day-today comic, while Venus Envy wraps the transition story up in a bunch of other more dramatic teenage narratives. One of the main cast of Venus Envy is young trans man going through a similar place in transition, and a range of other humans on the queer spectrum.

Trans-formation
Oh my goodness let me talk to you about El Goonish Shive. This is one of my daily reads, and I really love it. The gender bending in the comic begins with alien transformation rays (along with fairies, shape shifting, and magic of many kinds), but over the years has started to deal with the complexities of what gender identity is, and what it means to be able to change gender when you are cis, trans, or non-binary, or when you are straight and not straight. Some of the plot lines get a little convoluted, but it’s lighthearted, friendship-focused, and imaginative… it also includes a plot arc entirely devoted to visualising a Magic-the-Gathering tournament.

Author Evolution
READ THE ARCHIVES WITH CAUTION. Least I Could Do is a comic about a philanderer. Quite simply. The first years of the archive are incredibly sexist – quite unabashedly so – and tackles issues of social and political inequality with extreme flippancy. But then a little while ago I went back to it and found that everything had changed. Same irreverent tone, but with a decidedly leftist and much more nuanced spin than I’d seen before. Female characters are treated with much more respect, politics and social issues affect the plot, and while it’s still flippant I look forward to checking in from time to time to see what’s been done on a particular subject. I was very surprised when one of the major sexual interests from the early years as the comic returned as trans man, and even more surprised when he was presented in such a respectful manner. Woo for personal growth and change!

Day-To-Day Life
Questionable Content is a long-running comic about a bunch of friends and their lives with each other, mostly realistic but with a decidedly sci-fi slant that’s increasing more and more as time goes on. The long arc of the show is about people trying to be better people. The main character’s most recent girlfriend is a transwoman he met through their work at the local library, and the way they’ve talked about and conducted that relationship is touching and sensitive. For example, the first time the couple are sexually intimate, Claire stands with her back to the reader and announces “Well… this is me…” to which Martin responds “You’re beautiful.” We, the readers, don’t get to see what Claire’s body looks like, or intrude on the privacy of their sex life, but we do get to see tenderness and intimacy being modeled as standard expectations between trans and cis partners.

Child Friendly
I cannot possibly say enough good things about Lumberjanes. It’s a print book series, but buy them or borrow them or order them from your local library… just read them. Lumberjanes is set a girl scout-like summer camp, with a heavy helping of magical and fantastic shenanigans. It’s funny and feminist and empowering – the rallying cry of the main group of character is “FRIENDSHIP TO THE MAX!!” It’s a long way into the series before we learn that one of the main characters is trans (I won’t spoil things by telling you who), and more recently a non-binary character has been added to the main cast. If you want something that children and adults can read together, that includes diverse representation and that will make you feel great about life, this is what you should read.

 

That’s a short list of some of my favourite transgender comic nerdery. I’m really enjoying catching up on comics over Christmas break, and I hope you’ll think about trying something new if you’re not into comics already. There are many fantastic comics that didn’t make the list (I haven’t touched Marvel because I’m just not qualified). If you’ve got others to share please comment and let me know!

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