One late afternoon at Comic-Con, as fans gathered for glimpses of Teen Wolves and Sailor Moons and began unfurling their sleeping bags in line for Star Wars, seven comics creators gathered in a corner of the San Diego Convention Center to discuss one of the more complex niches growing in geek culture: transgender comics.
“We are magical creatures,” said Calogrenant creator Gillian Cameron, sending a ripple of laughter through the room. “We scare the hell out of people because we play havoc with their sense of reality.”
With shows like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent blowing up the small screen and high-profile trans celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner putting the trans movement front and center on magazine covers and talk shows, the A-list trans figures tend to dominate the mainstream pop culture conversation. But comic book readers have, in a way, been primed for such a discussion for years. And even if Marvel, DC, Image, and the big publishers aren’t yet rolling with the times as much as the small independent comics press, there’s movement to cultivate a community of comic creators who will tell stories for trans persons, by trans persons.
“It was time for a trans-specific panel,” Prism Comics’ Tara Madison Avery told me of the “Writing Transgender Characters” panel she moderated this year, after bringing the first-ever trans panel to Comic-Con in 2014. “There are trans figures in comics history such as [trans DC and Marvel Comics artist] Jeffrey Catherine Jones that have been part of comic book reading habits for decades. We’re finally at the tipping point where we can do this sort of thing and expect a good audience.”
Most of this year’s panelists were trans artists who write stories with trans characters, like Cameron, whose Calogrenant comic puts a gender spin on the medieval Arthurian character who, in French tale Claris et Laris, was magically transformed—temporarily—into a woman. In Cameron’s comic book version, the character’s transformation is permanent, and “Callie” resumes life in King Arthur’s court as a trans female knight.
“Yes, I do have an agenda,” said Cameron. “And I do have a trans agenda. But it’s about four or five levels down. What I want to do first is tell a fun story… I don’t mean this to be as political as much as I mean it to be an evocation of the two things that are very, very important to me. One is, as a trans woman, to write a positive story with a very positive, strong character who is not a victim and who will not allow herself to be a victim.”
The Caitlyn Jenner trickle-down effect from mass pop culture to the small comics press has been a mixed blessing, several panelists said. “A lot of people are happy for Caitlyn Jenner and I am too,” illustrator, animator, and YouTuber Kat Blaque declared to the audience. “But that’s a story that does not reflect my experiences.”
Mainstream trans stories putting trans characters and performers into the public eye “have been helpful, I will never deny that,” Blaque later told me. “But the common thing between [OITNB, Transparent, and Caitlyn Jenner] is that they’re people who for a very long time lived their lives and presented themselves as men, who were passing as male or read that way. And that certainly comes with a degree of privilege.”
“The stories that aren’t being told are stories like mine, where I transitioned very young,” said Blaque. “There are a whole list of hurdles that we had to go through that were really scary because we couldn’t recede back into presenting and being read as a male. So it’s really important to broaden the representation of trans characters. There’s a very specific way that I think people want to see trans persons portrayed, and that way is not really always how things are. People always want to see the trans person cry. They want to see them upset. They want to see them go through the struggle for their identity. Personally, while it was a struggle, it was also very organic. I came to it, like, let me feel this out and figure it out, and that’s the experience a lot of trans people go through. It’s not always a sad story, or one where the character dies.”
How can comic creators and screenwriters at the studio level all the way down to the independent scribes avoid pinning all the trans clichés on token trans characters? Ronnie Ritchie, who writes the autobiographical comic GCutie, had a simple solution: Write more than one trans character.
“What happens when you play into the trope of an isolated trans character is they have the weight of the entire community on their shoulders,” Ritchie said. “And they might not even know in theory what they’re holding inside of them in terms of transphobia or transmisogyny until they meet more of the community and are called out on it, and learn. So a lot of it can be solved just by showing more of the community and showing that trans people aren’t a homogenous group.”
Trying to please everyone along the spectrum of gender and sexual identity isn’t the easy solution, either. “Part of the reason I decided to set my sci-fi story in an a-gender world is I got overwhelmed with the idea of representing one of everybody,” admitted Transposes writer and illustrator Dylan Edwards. “I was like, I’ve got to have a trans man, and a trans woman, and a gender queer person… and pulling the gender out of it simplified a lot of having to deal with characters because it made it less about how is it different from our world, or our culture in the U.S., and how we’re perceived as men, women, people.”
“More than anything else, in any story, we can’t have a perfect character,” quipped Cameron. “They’re disgusting.” What’s important, the panel agreed, was creating positive trans characters who are compellingly human.
“Magic is fun. Nuance is over,” said Transcat creator Knave Murdok. “I want to be the trans Michael Bay. I want F-16s flying over the sky blue, pink, and white flags having trans characters overcoming every obstacle, no matter how ridiculous it might be.”
Even if Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t speak for the trans community at large, “we have certain media figures now that have broken the topic,” said Avery. “Everybody’s mother knows a famous transgender celebrity now. On balance, it’s a good thing. I came out to my parents as trans years ago, but my parents and I never had any sort of conversation about it until Caitlyn Jenner came out on television. Then, all of a sudden, my mother had all sorts of questions.”
“So I guess the upshot is it gets people talking,” Avery continued. “If it brings people together, great. A reality TV star may not be our best trans representative, but not everybody has to be our best trans representative. They just have to be trans and be happy with their lives.”