What Role Should Cisgender Comics Creators Play In Telling Trans Stories?

Art by Ben Oliver (DC Comics)
As comics grow in prominence and visibility, it becomes more vital to recognize their power to shape perceptions.

Comic books are probably my oldest and most abiding passion.

My father introduced me to Batman and the DC Comics universe when I was around kindergarten age, forming a bond between us that lasted until his final days. It’s not that I keep reading weird superhero tales and the like because of dead dad feelings — comics at their best are, for my money, one of humanity’s most versatile and compelling art forms — but those memories are a large part of what drives my love for the comic book industry, warts and all.

Pixabay.com

Sometimes when I look back on those old Batman comics he bequeathed to me, I feel that connection holding firm.

I certainly felt it back in February, when I stood in front of a classroom full of nerds leading a discussion about Bruce Wayne’s new trans friend. About 20 people took an hour and a half out of their day to participate in my workshop at the Queer Gender & Sexuality Conference, held at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where we collectively broke down five different recent comic pages that featured transness in some way. We hoped to come to a conclusion about the state of trans representation in comics and how cisgender creators are currently telling trans stories.

Flickr / Mark Anderson

Although we thoroughly debated that first point — conclusion: representation is improving, but slowly and unevenly — we ran out of time before we could adequately tackle the second. So I’m asking the question now: What role, if any, do cisgender comics writers and artists play in bringing trans stories to the mainstream?

The reason I ask specifically with regards to comics is not merely because I like them. Comics are in many ways a barometer of culture in the United States. With a relatively short time from pitch to print — as compared to prose novels, movies, or television — comics can react to shifts in the zeitgeist far more quickly than other fictions; it may not have been particularly good, but Marvel Comics’ reaction to the 9/11 attacks featuring Spider-Man—written by J. Michael Straczynski the same week and published in December — is absolutely representative of America’s national mourning.

Comics’ sensitivity can even lead them to predict near-future events, as fans saw in the eerie prescience of Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell’s Prez.

This idea isn’t new, but as comics grow in prominence and visibility, it becomes more vital to recognize their power to shape perceptions. In her essay “Seen City,” Dr. Christina Dokou writes:

“Comics discourse has become a major cultural currency in our visually oriented culture, affecting its ways of cognition and production while maintaining a strong conceptual hold on children, teens, and young adults…their huge influence over the minds of America’s youth long preceded their induction into mainstream art/literature.”

As the industry closes in on a $2 billion North American market share, it’s undeniable that comics are bigger than ever — and so is their influence. By extension, it’s vital to understand how the stories of marginalized communities are being packaged for this kind of mass consumption.

When you ask most people in the trans community how they’d like that packaging to happen, the general answer is “tell stories with trans people, but let us tell stories about transness.” The transgender experience is notoriously difficult to capture from an outsider’s perspective, not least because “the transgender experience” doesn’t really exist; there are multitudinous ways in which gender is felt, queered, and performed, and cis creators trying to capture those nuances often end up with something nobody but they are happy with.

Take, for example, Paul Jenkins and Leila Leitz’s Alters, the first issue of which came under fire last year. Writing on The Mary Sue, Jes Grobman criticized the book for pitting trans and disabled people against one another, altering its protagonist’s facial features depending on how she was presenting, and introducing her with “a painful scene of her putting on a wig and literally petting her own face in amazement” — a trans visual cliché that recalls exploitative scenes in stories like Silence of the Lambs.

ALTERS #2 Brian Stelfreeze cover/ Aftershock

In contrast, when trans people tell their own stories, the results manage to capture a lot more nuance. Take, for example, Jem and the Holograms — Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell’s wonderfully queer reboot of the beloved ’80s cartoon. For issue 12, Campbell (a trans woman) co-wrote a scene in which the character Blaze tries to decide whether she should come out to her prospective bandmates.

“I can’t just go into an all-female space without telling them, right?” she frets tearfully. “I mean, I am a woman […] But what if they’re not okay with it?” Campbell’s personal insight and lived experience lends authenticity and emotional weight to a scene that could easily have come across as insincere or ignorant, even in the hands of a thoughtful and talented writer like Thompson.

It’s important to note again that while Campbell’s influence made Jem #12 something honest and special, that scene is in no way representative of all trans experiences — because that’s impossible. Blaze is white, binary, and conventionally attractive; were she a woman of color, fat, nonbinary, or disabled, her story might have gone very differently in many different ways.

Sophie Campbell’s “Dark Jem” / The Mary Sue

The same can be said for Magdalene Visaggio and Eva Cabrera’s Kim and Kim, the first issue of which features one of the Kims musing about having tried to be a “normal” cis gay man. “[I]nstead of trans I could just be gay with Saar,” she reminisces. “I dunno. I was still figuring my shit out.” This is by no means the way all trans people relate to themselves pre-transition, but it’s a widespread thought process, and Visaggio lends her experience to give the scene authenticity.

If cis writers can’t write stories about transness, the conventional wisdom follows, then they should seek to normalize it by including trans characters as a matter of course. There doesn’t need to be a reason why James Tynion IV, Marguerite Bennett, and Ben Oliver’s new Detective Comics character Victoria October is trans; she just is. If anything, it’s a cleverly progressive way to explain a comic-booky name (I know and love many trans women whose chosen names, to put it mildly, are out there).

So that’s the way things are in comics right now — but it doesn’t have to be. Alex de Campi and Carla Speed McNeil’s brutal survival thriller No Mercy features a trans boy named Sebastian in its ensemble cast. While many of his fellow students are understandably stricken by being stranded in a South American desert, Sebastian uses the opportunity to escape from his cruelly prejudiced family. In issue nine, we learn how Sebastian’s parents arranged for his kidnapping and imprisonment at a “residential treatment center” that forced him through conversion therapy. It’s a gut-punch of a book from cover to cover, and not even the mostly-trans attendees at my workshop could tell that both de Campi and McNeil are cis.

graphicpolicy.com

I maintain that cisgender creators are capable of telling transgender stories — ones that feature transness as an integral part of the plot — in a way that’s honest, respectful, and helpful. Further, I believe that broadening who can tell those stories will help trans creators avoid a double-edged sword: Making trans people the only ones who can tell stories about transness has the unintended consequence of boxing us into a corner, where those are the only stories we can (or are perceived to be able to) write.

To borrow an example from Hollywood, Laverne Cox’s recent casting in ABC’s The Trustee marked the first time a trans actor has been hired to play a role that wasn’t written to be trans. The perception that trans people’s lives revolve around their transition is one that’s harmful on so many levels; in this context, it prevents us from pursuing the full range of our art.

But in order for that to happen, other things need to change as well. For one thing, the philosophy that minority inclusion is a zero-sum game — whereby there’s only so much room in a given company or book for characters who aren’t cis, white, etc. — is a toxic one that must shift; as it is, all the “slots” for trans stories at major publishers are being occupied by cis industry mainstays like Scott Lobdell, whose track record is unreliable at best. We also need a shift in the industry’s “direct market” business model, which requires diversity-minded readers to preorder products sight unseen in the hopes that they’re good.

Above all, publishers must learn that it’s badly-told stories which kill series, not minority characters. Last week, Marvel Comics VP of Sales David Gabriel bizarrely asserted that declining numbers meant readers “didn’t want any more diversity.” As Kelly Kanayama notes on The Nerdist, “Marvel fails at actually putting principles of diverse representation into practice.”

For every book like G. Willow Wilson’s acclaimed Ms. Marvel, which combines superhero drama with the real problems faced by Muslim immigrant families in America, there are 10 like Brian Bendis’ cringey forced outing of Iceman or Nick Spencer’s social justice villains. These are the stories that chase readers away, convinced that comic book companies simply aren’t ready or able to tackle diverse characters and stories — especially trans narratives—which are some of the least understood of all.

We need proof that cis creators are willing to put in rigorous research (as de Campi and McNeil did) to ensure that they’re telling trans stories responsibly. The thing is, the best way to make that research easier is by first hiring trans creators to demonstrate how it’s done. Hiring sensitivity readers and consultants should be seen as the bare minimum to create a trans character, not as the only thing needed to perform due diligence.

Publishers must learn that it’s badly-told stories which kill series, not minority characters.

Unlike many, I have faith that this sea change can occur. After all, this fundamental shift has nearly reached its zenith for queer sexualities; in my lifetime, superhero comics have gone from ham-fisting “diversity” — making Green Lantern’s gay bestie the victim of a hate crime — to showcasing nuanced lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters in mainstream titles by queer-identified creators, like Kate Leth’s (regrettably short-lived) Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat. The industry got there by hiring and listening to people with that lived experience.

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There’s still a ways to go, but I believe that with enough pressure and tenacity, trans people will see the same inclusivity happen for us, too. It’ll just have to come a little slower than a speeding bullet.

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