The Search for a Positive Trans Role Model in Comics

Updated April 23, 2016 12:05pm PDT
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Here's the reality of trans people in comics today.

Alysia is introduced in Batgirl as Barbara Gordon's roommate. After about eighteen issues, she stares straight at Gordon (and us). "I'm transgender!" Dead serious. This comes on the heels of Gordon confessing she's secretly Batgirl. A few issues later, a new writer and artist team took over. Gordon moved and Alysia disappeared.

The first arc that the new creators made was mauled by controversy as a supposedly-female villain was actually—dun dun dun—a man in drag.

It was denounced as horribly transphobic. I don't know. I haven't read it. I refuse to read it. I adore one of the creators and refuse to let that color my reading of his work. The creators said they didn't realize it was offensive and offered their—I believe—sincere apologies. They meant well, they're just people who have no experience dealing with trans people, in fiction or real life. That's what happens when comic creators are white cis males making books about white cis males. In what was perhaps an attempt to make it up to their readers—or maybe they were planning it all along—Alysia was reintroduced, announced she was getting married, and Gordon became her maid of honor before a lovely and beautiful wedding.

Or, at least, I suppose it was lovely and beautiful. I don't know. I don't read comics to be triggered.

Before the Crying Game-level reveal, I had been excited about Batgirl. I was going to buy the trades, I recommended it to friends. I have read exactly one issue since then and only for research.

I'm a bisexual trans girl; finding someone like me in comics isn't easy. For a long time, that never really bothered me—up until about two years ago, I didn't know I was trans.

I hadn't even heard the phrase until I was about to graduate high school and when I did, the description given (always by cis people) wasn't accurate. Comics helped me discover what being trans meant, comics helped me become who I am.

I always turned to comics—when I was depressed, when I was disassociating, when I was struggling with what to do with my life. I had been raised Christian, so turning to a series of interconnecting stories featuring larger-than-life figures from whom I could derive my morals was an easy switch.

As an edgy teenager, I tried to eschew mainstream comics and try to read my way through the entire Vertigo line—the DC published series of comics too mature to fit along tales of Superman.

I started with The Invisibles, written by Grant Morrison and a bevy of rotating artists. Whenever I would recommend it to people I'd say, "Okay, but just read until issue thirteen. You'll love issue thirteen."

Invariably they’d go, "This sucks just as much as the rest of the book.”

Looking back on it, the arc that starts in issue thirteen (She-Man, a play on Shaman and also transphobia) isn't really better or bigger than any other arc in the comic.

But it made a huge impression on stupid, mopey me.

As flawed as she is, Lord Fanny was my first trans role model. And she is seriously flawed.

Her background—which is revealed, starting with issue thirteen—is...hard to explain without sounding at least a little transphobic. Because it kinda sorta really is. Lord Fanny is raised by a family of female witches who are counting on having another female because only females can become witches. So they take a boy, raise him female, cut his leg to trick their God into thinking he's on his period and thus, Lord Fanny,a cis straight man’s messed up ideas about trans people, cross dressers, drag queens and BDSM mixed together.

(Which, let’s take a moment to think about the fact that Morrison is considered “alternative” and “counter-culture.” He’s a straight, white, cis male; if he ran for President of the US he might face an easier time than Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton, despite being, you know, Scottish. Yet: he's been long considered a pillar of "diverse" comics by the comics community.)

Lord Fanny was the first person I had met in fiction who was at all trans-identified and wasn't a villain, a victim or a joke. She was one of the most powerful characters—able to manipulate time and stand up against the baddies that made even their bald-headed Morrison-stand-in leader blanche. How could I, a teenage unaware-she-was-a-trans-girl, not adore a trans female who could solve everything with a simple spell.

I tried much the same. Since I was a child I tried to use words to create change. The first thing I wanted to be when I was growing up was a pastor. When I became able to read, I decided writing was more my style. So of course when Morrison talked about how The Invisibles was his attempt to create a grand-magick spell to change the world, I was hooked. And, despite not knowing why at the time, Lord Fanny was the character I identified with the most.

After finishing The Invisibles, I had a bevy of Vertigo titles to choose from. Based on the recommendation of a few friends, I read Neil Gaiman's Sandman series where I found another trans role model, one more positive than the last. Her name—prepare to groan—Wanda Mann.

If Wanda were in a movie, Cillian Murphy would play her. She cries, wears a wig, has short hair, stubble, and is considered a boy by almost everyone in the comic—including the female incarnation of the moon.

At the end she dies; she's trans and this is a comic in the 90s. Her best friend, a white blonde girl named Barbie, comes and visits her and sees a vision of Wanda with Death.

In death, Wanda is gorgeous, stereotypically feminine:beautiful red hair, soft face, and a gorgeous cake-pink gown. She smiles, waves to Barbie, and disappears.

I was in love. I could not have told you what about that small simple scene appealed to me.

Seeing a trans girl who struggled with being seen as a woman having her womanhood validated?

Why’d I like that so much?

I was very, very misinformed.

When I read the comic, I had just started going to local comic conventions. Some of my friends wanted to cosplay; I had never felt comfortable wearing costumes beyond “me, but a corpse."

(Eventually I realized it's because I always felt like I was wearing a costume).

My friend was going as Death and suggested I go as someone from Sandman. I knew who I wanted to be.

My friend said, "Nah, be Dream." I agreed, after a hesitant pause where I worked through all the questions I wanted ask but couldn't: "Is it because you think I would look ugly as Wanda? Because I couldn't pull it off? Is it because she's trans and you think therefore not worth cosplaying?"

Being told I shouldn't be Wanda hurt. Because in my own small way I was attempting to say, "This—this is me."

But I couldn't say that. I didn't have the words, or the courage.

So I went as Dream. It was miserable. I was miserable. I couldn't fucking stand it. I wanted to cry the entire time. I hated it. I still hate thinking about it.

I didn't cosplay again. Still haven't.

I finished most of Sandman (I have yet to read The Wake) and began to read my way through Alan Moore. (I advise absolutely no one to do this).

Through the muck and the mire that is Moore's relationship to women I came upon Promethea.

Like everything Moore’s written, it’s filled with horribly offensive and triggering acts and descriptions, almost all of which are applauded; it loathsomely aggrandizes the worst of behaviors. It's about a girl who wanders into the desert thousands of years ago and becomes a story that can possess people, turning them into a superhero—Promethea. Most of the people Promethea possessed were cis women; at least one of them wasn't. The comic had me. Though I didn’t understand why, the core idea—a woman living her life and, through magick, transforming into a beautiful and powerful Goddess—resonated with me.

I had always believed in magic. Since I was a tiny, itty bitty little kid chasing fake fairies in my backyard. When I read The Invisibles and Morrison talked about magick (with a k!)—real magick—in the back pages, I decided I should do a summoning ritual.

I had recently fallen off the religious bandwagon, had lost faith in my writing, and had given up—even though I hadn't the words to think it—upon being who I knew I was. I didn't think I had anything left. I had always believed in words having the power to create real lasting change.

More than that, I was lost. This is the point in the movie where our protagonist falls on her knees, begging God to show her where to go next. This is where Jean Val Jean sings, "Who am I?" But alas, I can't sing, and had stopped believing in God. Writing didn’t seem to be an option. I felt alone.

So why not try and summon a God?

But I couldn't summon some boring old god. Morrison always talked about summoning Superheroes as representations of older gods: Flash as Hermes, Superman as Zeus, Batman as Hades, etc. etc.

I made a summoning circle, called upon different angels to protect me—including Castiel, because I have been and will always be Destiel trash—and summoned Promethea.

I don't remember exactly what happened. I don't think it's because anything magical (or even magickal) happened. I think it's because it was late and I was depressed, worried that someone would hear me. On the other hand, not remembering the specifics of a visitation is common among practitioners. Six of one.

Soon after, I called my best friend and tried to tell her I wasn't a boy. She didn't quite get it. She thought I was saying I was non-binary.

I said, "No, that’s—" and "Forget it.” We talked a bit more, about other stuff, and when I hung up I decided to put it to bed.

I stopped reading comics for awhile. I moved to New York City and then Austin, Texas and tried to become someone else. I wore a jean jacket all the time and learned to stomach beer and grew a beard. I tried to be someone else.

It worked for a little while. I was able to die to myself. Focus on my performance—focus on the stress and hassle of living in New York, trying to find a job, trying to deal with living on my own for awhile. But eventually things settled down and hey, welcome back crushing depression and ennui.

I turned back to comics. My local comic shop—Dragon's Lair in Austin, Texas—had a rack of comic collections that you could read in the store. I read through all of them. One was Thor: God of Thunder written by Jason Aaron. I liked it enough to remember Aaron's name but not enough to get more issues. 

So when Aaron was announced as the writer of Original Sins, I was in.

Original Sins was a big event comic in which all the big name characters had a secret revealed to them. Spider-Man found out the spider that bit him, giving him his powers, had bit someone else.

Thor and Loki found out he had a sister named Angela.

Since Aaron was Thor's writer, he saved one special secret for him—a secret which, as I'm writing, has still yet to be revealed. And he did something cool. Thor: God of Thunder changed names—to Thor: Goddess of Thunder.

(It's only in writing this that I realize the irony that a comic about secrets being revealed, in part, led to my coming out.)

Thor was a woman. The son of Odin, upon hearing the final secret lost the ability to hold Mjolnir— his magical wooshy hammer—and so lost the title of Thor. A woman picked his hammer up and became Thor.

It's not a perfect analogy. But it worked for me. Thor was rushing around, a mask on her face. It could be anyone underneath that mask—it could be me. I convinced myself the new Thor was trans, and that hammer allowed her to inherit the appearance and respect she wanted.

Eventually it turned out not to be. As soon as her mask came off, I lost my version of Thor.

The end of the Thor mystery coincided with Secret Wars—the Marvel Universe ended and a new world was created —every single comic was cancelled and replaced with a brand new one. About fifty brand-new comics with no pesky boring backstory to worry about. I bought at least half of them.

One was Angela 1602: Witch Hunter (later relaunched as Angela: Queen of Hel). I don't remember exactly why I picked it but I'm pretty sure it's Neil Gaiman's fault.

Neil Gaiman at one point was engaged in a legal battle with Todd McFarlane, one of the founders of Image Comics. Gaiman and McFarlane had co-created a character but now McFarlane was insisting that only he had the rights to her. Gaiman sued and to help fund his trial, he wrote a comic for Marvel called Marvel 1602—a story imaging the Marvel Universe if it had existed alongside America's colonies.

Gaiman won the rights to the character and handed her over to Marvel. That character was Angela.

Angela 1602: Witch Hunter is about the titular character and her companion, Sera, hunting "witchkind" (actually mutants) in Marvel's version of Medieval times.

I don't know what it was about Sera that made me fall in love with her. Maybe it's that I didn't catch she was trans until I read an article about Marvel's "secret trans character." It wasn't much of a secret; her backstory is laid out in the comic. I think what they meant by secret is she wasn't defined by it. She wasn’t treated like trans characters normally are. She was never harassed. No one asks her to define herself. She isn't drawn as a stereotypical male.

The comic treated her like a woman. A woman in love with Angela.

Sera was different from any trans character I had read before. She wasn't treated like a boy in a dress. Her story wasn't about her trials or her tears. It was about her being smart, funny, breaking the fourth wall, and making out with Angela. She fought like a badass. She was inspirational. Sera was everything I wanted to be.

She was also Marvel's first trans character—excusing any bullshit comics that dealt with people changing gender so they could fuck their crush. Or because of a spell. Or any of that. She was also the first PoC trans character I had ever seen in a comic.

Sera was the first true trans rebel in the Marvel universe and she was fearless, smart, and amazing.  

Which is why I was so heart-broken to hear that this month's issue of Angela: Queen of Hel, the sequel series to Angela 1602, is the last. With it goes the only Marvel comic with a trans character in it. Who can save us now?

There are still … some... positive trans role models in comics—Jo (a teenage PoC) in Lumberjanes, and Alysia (another PoC trans girl) in Batgirl. The Wicked + The Divine, Shutter, Trees, and Rat Queens all have trans characters. There are dozens more in webcomics and indies—Questionable Content has Claire and there's TransGirlNextDoor. Bitch Planet is set to include trans folk and Sex Criminals most likely will as well.

But the stories are few and far between. And even the most well-meaning of folks can fuck up colossally.

The stories that matter—the stories about who trans people are, the stories that say you are beautiful as you are, you are good as you are—are almost non-existent. We have to make due with scraps that say you're really a silly man in a dress, you'll be beautiful when you die, you're only like that to trick men into fuck you, you’re not real.

When I was growing up, if I had found Sera—someone so strong and self-possessed—I might have come out sooner. I might have seen myself in her and had the guts to try and be as strong as she is.

At this time, there are seven comics being published by Marvel or DC that feature anyone along the LGBT spectrum as the main character. Since Seigel and Shuster, two Jewish kids living amongst the anti-semitism that would lead to the Holocaust, created Superman, comics have always been about the underdog fighting back.

There need to be more actual underdogs in comics.

Comics aren't for assholes. Comics are inspirational. Comics teach us that we can fly, fight back, be kind, and go through more than we would ever think possible and emerge whole on the other side. That's not a message that is needed most by white, straight, cis males.


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Tara is just a girl in love with Spider-Man.