Crown on the Ground
Twitter / Comicosity
Almost a year ago, I walked out of a train station in a unique state of agitation and messaged “If we don’t win this, I think I have to resign,” to my boss at the time. I was returning home from a consultation for a non compliant tattoo and was referring to our campaign to force some combination of Image and James Robinson to own up to the vile transmisogyny in Airboy. In a sense, we did eventually prevail. Robinson issued an apology to GLAAD and Image took down the rainbows on their social media pages marking pride month. It was a pyrrhic victory, though, as it came with a very harsh lesson about just how little anyone in comics cares about trans women’s dignity or lives.
Every major site received the same copy of the issue we did the week of its publication, yet in most cases it took well over a day following my original editorial attacking it for any of them to pick up the story, and nearly all of them did so by re-iterating what I’d said. Out of all the sites who received the issue, it fell to us at The Rainbow Hub and friends at Graphic Policy to recognize that there was something amiss about a comic with free flowing transmisogynist slurs, trans panic as a key plot point, and demeaning cartooning of trans women to top it off.
In the hours and days that followed, editors at several sites explained away how long it took them to pick up the issue by saying they needed time to find a writer and get it approved. The prevailing assumption was that the clock started when I put forward my challenge, when really it had begun ticking as soon as the comic reached their hands. It wasn’t as if I was the only person reviewing the comic at the time. It was a deeply scarring experience to realize that if I hadn’t been there, it would have gone almost entirely unchallenged by a large swath of people who claim to be allies. A deeply insincere apology issued in a space where it would have the smallest amount of impact within the industry was cold comfort, especially when contrasted against the deeply suspicious conduct of many major sites, including one that initially stuffed the story deep into an ICYMI post while they both had staff present at Image Expo and were in direct contact with me.
So when the opportunity to consult with Kelly Sue DeConnick on what is now the current arc of Bitch Planet came around, I took it as a chance to claw something back. The idea of bringing in consultants to vet a story for its portrayal of transgender or adjacent issues was relatively unheard of at the time, and it’s since become more or less normalized, a fact I’ve become deeply ambivalent about despite my pride in the Bitch Planet team and my small contribution to it. Going in I had a pretty good idea of what I’d be called on to evaluate, as I’d been in the process of writing about Bitch Planet and the particular challenges of portraying trans women in a dystopian setting at the time. In a scenario like Bitch Planet or A Handmaid’s Tale, trans women would naturally be some of the first victims targeted and so trans representation was never something I expected to see. As we’ve seen in Bitch Planet #8 though, DeConnick found a way to honor that reality by placing them in Auxiliary Compliance Outpost Facility One, making them the regime’s first detainees.
Solidarity, in my estimation, is what drives the inclusion of trans women in the narrative and why it matters to me independent of my consultation. Roland Emmerich is still out there proclaiming that Stonewall was a white male thing in flagrant contradiction of the facts and the Compton’s Cafeteria riot that preceded it even though no one went to see his awful movie, so there’s a lot of value to be had in placing a black trans woman at the center of the early resistance in Bitch Planet. The other important aspect to it, for me, is that there was never any discussion of trying to capture or portray the transgender experience itself, which is an issue that rears its head constantly across nearly all media. Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, is probably the most notorious for thinking she both has the ability and mandate to write from the perspective of a trans woman using a cisgender male actor to do it, but it’s by no means rare for cisgender writers to think they can speak both for and about us as well as we can ourselves, which would be laughable if it hadn’t been used so consistently to silence us.
There are comics with transgender characters in them that I enjoy, but no one should be fooling themselves into thinking that any of them are comics for a transgender audience or can speak to one directly. Titles like Bitch Planet, Batgirl, Angela: Queen of Hel, and The Wicked + The Divine offer a sense of participation and inclusion that tell us we can share in these worlds, feel present and accounted for, and that’s worth something. But it is in no way equal to transgender writers speaking in our own voices about our own experiences, however we choose to portray it. Even the most widely acclaimed portrayals of trans characters in recent comics have all been, at their heart, little more than educating a cisgender audience about the transgender condition.
Take for example one of the latest issues of Bombshells in which that version of Alysia Yeoh offers a counter narrative to the old “man in a woman’s body” narrative. Sure, it’s a succinct way of explaining dysphoria and misgendering, but I’d like to think that there’s more to transgender representation than us explaining ourselves to cisgender people, and that can only happen in the voices of transgender writers. Which is where my ambivalence about the use of consultants like myself comes in.
A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a cisgender writer who was interested in having me review their forthcoming comic that featured a transgender character in a lead role. It’s not something I’ve traditionally had a problem with doing, especially since I’ve done reviews of work by creators who came out as transgender after the fact, but what gave me pause in this situation was that the writer gave me the name of the person who consulted on the book as well. Their intentions may have well been pure, but it came off to me as presenting their consultant as a bonafide and coming to me as seeking an endorsement, which is something I flat out refuse to do. Especially when there is such a dearth of transgender writers in the industry with Black Mask, Rosy Press, Iron Circus Comics, and Oni Press being the only publishers taking publicly visible action to improve the situation.
Consultants are not a substitute for hiring actual transgender creators nor are we a substitute for doing the work, and those are distinctions that people don’t necessarily appreciate when they perpetuate them. I see cisgender writers on a regular basis express anxiety or fear at writing transgender characters or bemoan the mistrust they’re met with, and I can’t say that I have any sympathy for them. In the backmatter of Bitch Planet #8, DeConnick wrote about the choice to use consultants for the trans characters when she hadn’t done so on matters of race, rightly recognizing that we’ve been disproportionately erased or distorted by the collective cultural mirror, which has had far more dire consequences than making it difficult for a cisgender writer to navigate how to portray trans women with dignity and fidelity.
The particular kind of erasure and distortion that trans women face has resulted in us not being able to recognize or understand ourselves. It took me until my late twenties to truly understand who I am, and that epiphany came only at the end of relentless self interrogation and mountains of reading. Junot Diaz has a popular quote about the phenomenon in general that starts with “You guys know vampires, right?” and the invisibility of not being able to see yourself in that mirror can be a lot more insidiously damaging when it comes to identity markers like sexual orientation or gender identity. If the reflection is sufficiently distorted or just plain not there, someone might never understand or be able to assert that part of themselves. Which is of particular concern when it comes to trans representation since the range of what out of the spectrum of the transgender experience makes it into the public discourse is so narrow. Batgirl’s Alysia Yeoh, Angela: Queen of Hel’s Sera, or Sense8’s Nomi being portrayed in relationships with other women would have been unthinkable five years ago as just one example.
So clearly, we need to broaden the bandwidth of that spectrum of representation, but there’s a fine line to be walked when it comes to soliciting or engaging in consultancy between smoothing the gaps in a worthy project and contributing towards the colonizing our identities and experiences. The fact of the matter is that new opportunities are not being made in any serious or sustained way for trans writers in any entertainment industry, and that’s unlikely to change if the prevailing attitude of being able to fall back on consultancy and other peripheral roles isn’t challenged.
In a feature for The Guardian that incorrectly identified Aftershock’s upcoming Alters as having the first transgender superhero, writer Paul Jenkins explained why he thought it was important to have a transgender colorist on the title, but never offered nor was asked why his presence was important or, if this really was the first transgender superhero, why it was being written by a cisgender man in this day and age. It’s the kind of absurd compromises that we’re conditioned to accept, and there’s a very real risk that normalizing the use of consultants on trans lead titles with cisgender writers will only undercut the prospects of transgender writers. The reality is that the vast majority of publishers and editors in the industry will not lift a finger to find trans writers, and in most cases, place the entire burden of getting it right from concept to execution on the creative team.
The most obvious example of the kind of breakdown that exposes just how little the publishers want to invest in ensuring execution matches intent was the deeply flawed coming out narrative for Blaze in Jem and the Holograms. Given that it’s a property licensed to IDW by Hasbro, there were representatives from the toy company whose approval was necessary to portray Kimber and Stormer in a same gender relationship, as well as create Blaze. There’s a committee out there somewhere that decides what you can and cannot do with Hasbro’s toys, and it’s one that IDW has to abide by under pain of losing the license to publish the comic.
What neither Hasbro nor IDW had was anyone to support the creative team in navigating the issues that go along with those portrayals. There was no one in place to warn them that the dialogue in Blaze’s coming out was left wide open to be interpreted that trans women should feel compelled to disclose their trans status in women’s spaces and/or the workplace, feeding into longstanding bigoted rhetoric.
The sole priority was protecting Hasbro’s intellectual property, with the outward appearance of little to no thought about the fact that the comic would be reaching an audience of young readers, many of whom with no prior exposure to trans issues. It’s absurd and irresponsible to foist the entire burden of representation of very complex issues onto the creative team in any work for hire situation, and yet that’s exactly what happened on both Jem and Batgirl #37, which drew ire for its portrayal of a crossdressing villain. I was one of three consultants recruited to work on Bitch Planet and we all signed non disclosure agreements with Milkfed Criminal Masterminds before starting. The mechanisms exist to prevent these gaffes while protecting privileged information, there just has to be the actual willpower to utilize them, and that absolutely does not exist.
The harsh reality that we need to acclimatize ourselves to if we want to achieve any actual lating progress is that the comic book industry does not care about trans issues. If they can get praise and free publicity without doing the work, they’ll chase it to the ends of the earth, but that’s the extent of it. The few editors and publishers who do actively seek to empower transgender creators and invest in ensuring that execution matches intent are non representational. The vast majority of the cisgender creators and editors I’ve observed doing the work and holding themselves accountable for it are mostly outsiders who sit at the fringes of the industry.
It’s easy enough to say, for example, that DC outstrips every major publisher for LBGTQIA representation as a whole, but there’s also no internal culture in evidence to sustain or nurture it. Even as Midnighter surged back into a solo title, John Constantine, Catman, Catwoman, and Harley Quinn all declared themselves for bisexuality, and Alysia Yeoh emerged as Batgirl’s backbone, trans representation floundered and failed mercilessly elsewhere. Ranging from buffoonish incompetence to outright cruelty, Prez, Justice League 3000, and Wacky Races all went out of their way to demean trans women.
In the span of nearly a year since I left that train station in an especially despondent mood, the only thing I can count as measurable progress for the industry is Magdalene Visaggio getting Kim and Kim into print at Black Mask. I was an early champion of that book, I’m glad to see it get out into the world and further glad that Black Mask continues to put their money where their mouth is, but this isn’t progress or evidence of anything changing for the industry as a whole. Especially not when major media outlets like The Guardian are stepping in to apocryphally crown an utterly banal off brand superhero book like Alters as being somehow groundbreaking months before it arrives in stores. Jenkins isn’t promising much either, between his reassurances that it “isn’t just an LBGTQIA book” and fixation on coming out as the key driver for the drama. The world doesn’t need yet another story about a trans woman where disclosure is the point around which the entire narrative pivots. It’s perverse.
A major part of why the spectrum of representation is so narrow and trans narratives by cisgender writers focus so consistently and blandly on matters of disclosure is that they have little to no honest engagement with transgender issues or art. Trans aesthetics, the network of experiences and motifs that many of us have drawn on to express ourselves in art don’t surface because they’re unheard of and unexamined in the mainstream. The result, more often than not is a narrative decoupled and denatured from the trans experience, but thanks to the aforementioned distorted cultural mirror, many (potentially) trans audience members aren’t going to realize that there’s anything missing or that our diaspora has a fairly autonomous culture and history of its own. In film, the reappraisal of the Wachowski sisters’ oeuvre through a transgender lens has only just begun in earnest and is already shot through with plagiarism of trans women by cisgender critics and cultural observers.
In comics, the critical reappraisal of Sophie Campbell’s work has yet to begin (although it may soon emerge with Oni and Iron Circus’ reissues of Wet Moon and Shadoweyes), Rachel Pollack remains obscure, and if Sarah Horrocks wants to get an interview, she’s got to deface a CBR interview with Kurt Weibe on her Tumblr account. There’s little to no context or framework within comics criticism to examine transgender representation or aesthetics beyond the superficial. As I’m fond of repeating, Ta-Nehisi Coates observed that when he stepped up to write Black Panther, the feminist critique of comics, in the form of Gail Simone’s Women in the Refrigerator was already in the air and he had to hold himself responsible to it. When people apocryphally claim that women are new to comics, Kate Leth can acidly tweet a suggestion to read Trina Robbins.
When I undertake to write about trans issues and aesthetics in specific, it’s not long before I find myself in the middle of the woods at night without a flashlight. I’ve developed excellent night vision by necessity, but when you’re presenting what’s more or less original research or positions not currently within the dialogue, it’s going to be an uphill battle if not outright Sisyphean. When I wrote about the film adaptation of Blue is the Warmest Color, I titled my essay Pleading for the Female Gaze in its Absence, outlining how director Abdellatif Kechiche constructed a kind of semiotic dystopia in which women had been barred from the pleasure of looking in art. That’s essentially what it’s like to exist as a trans woman in comics and be constantly bombarded with utterly alien depictions of trans women that are ostensibly meant to reflect me and my concerns.
The transgender critique of comics is not in the air, as it’s still largely taking shape out of necessity and under duress. I’ve rarely been paid for my critical work on the topic of gender and trans issues in comics and film, and more often than not, as is the case with this piece, I don’t enjoy it. This is an exercise in survival, one of many statements in a series made in the vain hope of making comics a tolerable space for me. It’s not something I can afford to be careless about or just walk away from whenever I want. It’s my personhood on the line, so I write on. The solution to all the issues I’ve recently examined in this column, whether it’s the virulent strain of islamophobia in our culture, the trying political times in which we live, or the blundering paternalism towards trans women is agonizingly simple. Just get out of the way and let people tell their own stories in their own voices.
[…] Graphic Novel Network – Crown on the Ground / the View from Facility One – Emma Houxbois offers her take on why trans representation is broken in […]
[…] Bitch Planet, the Image Comics series by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro, offers us one opportunity to do more of that work. This text merits our scholarly attention, in part, because it sits at the intersection of independent and mainstream comics. The trans characters who are visible in comics today still appear primarily in independent and self-published titles, making the publication of Bitch Planet with Image significant. This series also provides us with a number of paratexts that might help us to analyze examples of trans representation that primarily have been made visible by non-trans creators. Comics scholars would be remiss to ignore the back matter included with individual issues, the dialogue between DeConnick and De Landro in the trade paperback (Book Two), or the writings of trans consultants like Emma Houxbois. […]