NYCC: Exploring the Secret Identities of Transgender Comics

Saturday afternoon at New York Comic Con saw moderator Charles Battersby welcome Morgan Boescher ("What's Normal Anyway"), Jennie Wood ("Flutter," "A Boy Like Me"), Tara Avery ("Gooch," Prism Comics) and P. Kirsent Enos (Prism Comics, "Web of Lives") to the Secret Identities panel. Each creator's work is focused on different aspects of the transgender experience, and as you might expect, the panel discussed different topics relating to trans characters in comics.

Boescher began by discussing the online game "Dys4ia" by Anna Anthropy, something he saw as indicative of the depth of stories trans characters can tell. "I think in the mainstream, there's this broad understanding of the one narrative of, 'Oh, I've known ever since I was three years old that I was born in the wrong body, and it's always been a struggle...' And that is not at all the only story out there in terms of the trans experience."

Avery suggested fish-out-of-water stories would be a good fit for a trans character. "A trans character might be a really good device at discovering the strangeness of the new, or even the previous gender. Once you make it to the other side, you might discover that all the people, the behaviors of the previous gender seemed normal and now they seem strange."

Battersby called "outsider nerd comedies" a good trans outlet, where the protagonist is perceived negatively, but "deep in your heart, you know you're one thing, even though nobody can see it." Avery said transition stories have been talked about as being too plentiful, but from her point of view, there needs to be more. "I don't think we've saturated. I think we've got a few more of those in us."

Enos said the danger with having a character who's already transitioned is presenting that as their only defining trait. "If you have a character who's already transitioned, find some way to use that person and make it obvious so we can appreciate that person in that story and has a relevancy, rather than just being there because it's trying to do color blind casting."

That brought up the idea of characters retconned to be queer in some way, and how they're usually obscure. "You hear the headline, 'Green Lantern is gay!' But it's the Green Lantern Alan Scott from the '40s that nobody really recognizes if they're not really, really dyed in the wool comic geeks."

Wood then discussed writing trans characters from a cis perspective, explaining her desire to write about something she was passionate about, making sure to do the research to do it justice. "I'm not speaking for the trans community," she stated. "I'm not a trans individual. But I'm also writing a human, not a caricature. A character, a human, a unique person, so even that character isn't trying to speak for any other trans individual." She feels we need trans stories from as many perspectives as possible. While shopping her book "A Boy Like Me," she forwent better money and companies in order to maintain control over the book and its story. "It's very important how we talk and how we write about this subject in a responsible way."

She mentioned the unfavorable term "transgendered," which got Avery talking about language. "Preferred language is important, but you don't want to become the language cop, because you will turn off potential allies."

Some of those allies may be cis writers at Marvel or DC, who have been given a directive to introduce and include trans characters in their books, which may be something they're not fully comfortable with. Enos said they shouldn't be afraid of screwing up, because it at least creates dialogue. "You may have screwed it up in one story," Enos said. "Well, you learn your lessons and try it in story two, three and four." Wood experienced this first hand, not realizing that the lead in "Flutter" was being a jerk about gender. Fans pointed this out, and she addressed it in volume two.

Avery then went on to discuss how trans characters have existed in indie books for decades, and, in fact, thrive there because you don't have to cut away to alien invasions or zombie attacks. "You can explore what it means to be trans in the world in ways that are unexpected. What does it mean to date as a trans person? What does it mean to have a job as a trans person? What does it mean to be involved in politics as a trans person?"

Wood suggested that thriving indie queer stories actually pressure the major publishers to step up their game. "Steve Orlando is writing issues of 'Midnighter' in three or four days, and he's doing an amazing job at it. But that kind of pressure, you don't have that in indie comics. You can take your time."

Enos explained her own story, "Web of Lies," and how it focuses on a diverse cast of junior high students who start a queer group. Battersby pointed out that trans stories tend to be considered more R-rated because of the subject matter and the frequently sexual angels taken by writers, and Avery applauded Enos' efforts to create something for young readers. "Trans people are at their most vulnerable when they're young, so you need to have trans characters in these books that are going through the same things that they're going through." She mentioned the high suicide rates amongst young trans individuals, and the struggles of growing up trans. "It's important to write trans kids for younger audiences, and no, it shouldn't be R-rated... There should be the G-rated trans characters."

On the flip side, Battersby asked what the major publishers can do to push trans characters beyond their typical roles of sidekicks or friends. "If we're specifically talking about superhero books, give them something to do," Avery said. "We've gotta have something better than Batgirl's roommate. Have them be involved in important points of the story. If it's about fighting crime, have them fighting crime. If it's about saving the world, have them out there, staring down Darkseid." Wood said the most important feature of a character shouldn't be that they're trans, though, Boescher added, being trans should affect a character's decisions and though process.

Battersby then asked if having trans villains or anti-heroes was helpful or hurtful. "I would love that if someone executed it well," Enos replied. "It's all about execution."

Avery said that having an excess of trans bad guys is actually a watermark. "When there's a gay villain and there's not gay outrage, you've gotten somewhere. At some point, when there's a transgender villain, and there's not transgender outrage, it usually means that there is enough representation that we don't feel that those characters disproportionately represent us. And that's what we're shooting for."

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