31st Century Or Yesterday
Here we are again! If you’re new to trans issues and want to get some basics for this article, or if you just want to read this as a whole article exposing both Marvel and DC’s trans narratives, please read Part 1 for some basic concepts and (cisnormative and transphobic) tropes I’ll be exploring moving forward.
As I established in Part 1, the rise of LGBT+ movements influenced by Stonewall and the first instances of comics trying to break the Comics Code happened around the 90s, when DC started doing more gender-variant storylines, by which I mean, a lot. Before said 90s, we find only a couple of Wonder Woman villains exploring some gender issues although mostly falling on the “women disguised as men” trope, like Hypnota or Blue Snowman, which are among the things that make William Moulton Marston’s supposed progressiveness more than questionable.
The first example of a somewhat trans character is Shvaughn Erin from Legion of Superheroes. The character is from 1973, although her gender storyline was revealed in 1992 on Legion of Superheroes vol 4 #30-31, written by an assembled team of Keith Giffen, Mary Bierbaum and Tom Bierbaum. Shvaughn has a really cisnormative and unclear story in some really weird ways, and it doesn’t help that she gets a very futuristic superfem drug to stay female-presenting, that, when she gets off, makes her instantly detransition in like 3 pages – haven’t they heard of HRT in the 31st Century?!?!?!?! More importantly, hadn’t they heard of HRT in 1992?!?!?!
Probably cause of the unreal uninformed narrative, it’s unclear whether if she’s a trans woman renouncing to her superfem drug or a gay man “posing as a woman” to get involved with a (presumably) straight man, since we’re implied to understand in Shvaughn’s homeworld homosexual relationships are forbidden and Shvaughn is romantically attracted to men. This is not something that happens in real life, and feeds of some negative stereotypes and unjustified anxieties of trans people being fakes to seduce the defenseless cis people, as I already explained in Part 1. The twist of the norm in Shvaughn, which I kind of like a lot, is the fact that their lover doesn’t care at lot about their gender, being very positive (in fact maybe too much) about them not taking the drug, which gives, in the middle of this messy story, a good outcome of someone loving a gender-variant person in despite of their presentation (or a Mulan-ish bisexual storyline, you choose!).
Sandman’s (Pointless) Martyr
One of the most remembered trans representation examples in DC is that of Wanda Mann (whatever, with that surname) in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. She’s the main secondary character of the arc “A Game Of You” (The Sandman #32-27), which deals with Barbie (the main character)’s insecurities and trauma around her sense of self. Wanda is a character made to teach you, the cis reader, a lesson. That lesson is well meant (Wanda is a woman whatever you’re driven to think), but it fails in both that she doesn’t feel like a real character, let alone a complex story about a trans woman, and that the story (and Wanda dialogues) are those who drive you to think she’s not a real woman in the first place. In all her appearances, all she makes is complain or explain why she isn’t close to a cis woman enough, and be repeatedly treated like shit by all characters around her. To complement that, Wanda is (in most artists that drew her) stereotypically drawn and characterized as trans, with exaggerated, cartoonish, surreal features traditionally associated with men (like a too protuberant chin, badly done eyelashes, muscles exaggerated where no one actually has them), that are used not to empower her in her differences but to make those differences noticeable.
Wanda is all the time angry and complaining about not being seen as a woman. In fact that’s practically all we hear from Wanda’s dialogues! To round up the design and the one dimensional character trait, when Wanda dies (of course she had to die, she’s a queer character after all), we’re presented with Wanda’s soul, which is a completely exaggerated cis looking woman, no rest of any of Wanda’s features in the slightest, or any features that are not a too-beautiful-model redhead. Cause that’s exactly how Wanda is in the inside! And that’s what a woman looks like, don’t you see? The panels even tell us explicitly “when I say perfect, I mean perfect. Drop dead gorgeous. There’s nothing camp about her, nothing artificial”. As you see, Wanda before becoming the platonic ideal of what a cis woman is, was kind of artificial and camp. Neil Gaiman’s words, not mine.
Not all is lost for Sandman universe. In 1998, a trans woman writer (Caitlín R. Kiernan) arrived to The Sandman universe in The Dreaming and made an astounding case of complicated gender representation in the character of Echo.
That narrative is not perfect and definitively villainized her at some points (like having her cut the eyes of people for her lover), but, it made for a more complicated and credible case of gender transition. One of a woman in the closet, pretending to be a gay man even to herself, who some people “confuse” with a woman, and who suffers a painful lost and then becomes a Qualorian, one of the most powerful entities of the Sandman universe.
Then again here her appearance changes to be more cisnormative in the magical realm, but she’s not dead and the transformation into Qualorian works better as a metaphor for a transition than the “heaven” “true soul” case of Wanda. It is still a story about pain and trans characters being mistreated, and there’s tons of explicit violence directed towards her and done by her, but it is also a complex tale and places that woman in a decision making, morally complex position.
Put A Transexual Lesbian On The Supreme Court
In 1993, one year after the Wanda fiasco, a trans woman (Rachel Pollack) was actually given the hands of Doom Patrol and decided to include a trans character, Coagula, a.k.a. Kate Godwin. Now let me disclaim that Pollack’s Doom Patrol run was not free of problematic portrayals (no Doom Patrol run had been, at least since hugely inaccurate DID portrayal “Crazy Jane”), including a mistreated disabled black character, some native misplaced imaginary and Dorothy’s uncomfortable redface moment.
With all of this very present, and focusing mostly on the trans aspect, Rachel Pollack portrayed a beautiful defying narrative. Kate’s gender identity is never once called into question by the narrative in the issues she’s in, and when she is missgendered she defends herself to the point that other people end up appearing uninformed and careless (like Cliff in that “you were a man” scene). She defines her own narrative and she ultimately co-leads the story, that touches on a lot of other issues that are not her transness but connect to social issues relevant to her.
I’d like to highlight the Teiresias Wars storyline (Doom Patrol, vol 2 #75-79), where an ancient fight between the Teiresias and the Builders serves as a metaphor and in universe reasoning for gender binary notions, persecution of the outsiders, queer notions of identity and tender imagination of gender variant goddexes through Greek mythology. Gracefully, it’s a run free of the other problematic stuff. And by the way, I hope we get Kate in the Doom Patrol show played by a trans actress soon, which I expect having the show so far commitment to LGBT+ issues in adapting Gerard Way’s 2016 run non binary character Danny The Street.
Lord Fanny: Jesus On The Cross & Here I Am, Fetichising Myself
(Note on 7/11/2020: Since this article published, Grant Morrison has come out as non binary and genderqueer. The criticism of how their cisnormative vision at the moment affected the character still stand, but this must be noted when approaching their creations)
Let’s stay in the 90s, cause we have another story to tell: Grant Morrison’s Lord Fanny. This is a too complicated character; for starters, this character was heavily based on Grant Morrison’s own crossdressing and gender exploration experiences, and I was also pointed out by my colleague Travis it was one of the first native comic characters that wasn’t a feather wearing warrior (yet, the story about her heritage didn’t really match even geographically), and one of the first characters to explore non binary issues and gender variance. But, Lord Fanny has a big problem: she’s intended as trans (specifically a trans woman on the first volume of The Invisibles), and Grant Morrison, as an author, possesses so much their character that her dialogues sometimes come as wacky and, honestly, as a drug-fueled crossdressing religious experience, which, as you guess, doesn’t look like a trans woman storyline.
Yeah, sure, every story is different, and I can count dozens of trans women who reclaim slurs and like to play with how cis people have mistreated gender-non-conformity. But it’s not just that, it’s that Fanny sometimes is too much Morrison and too little Fanny. You can’t pretend to create a compelling trans character and then make her behave as a fetishism of herself to the point she’s unrecognizable from one panel to the other. Fanny suffers from the author overprojection, from their avant-garde style, and from having someone who explores gender but hasn’t really go through the experience of a trans woman projecting their own experience on her.
And let me get personal here, I also suffer from reading her. Too much about what Fanny represents is what cis people have projected onto trans people to represent (a mega drag show), and that personally hurts. It also made it unbearable for me to read a book with so much gendered violence and where I need to see a trans woman get assaulted at the point of a gun by a client – image which I’m not gonna expose you to. And, let me be clear, none of the issues I have is with Fanny being a sex worker (that is one of the things of her that really reflects reality for a lot of trans people).
So, the truth is I did do a lot of research for these articles, but I couldn’t bare to read further than The Invisibles vol 2, and my criticism of her ends there. And, to get personal, in this moment of my writing we arrive to the moment in time we found out the multiple sexual abuse allegations against comic creators that have come forward in the hands of brave survivors, which probably made it even harder for me to read more gendered violence, and is the main reasoning behind saying goodbye to Fanny and taking the step forward to the next popular and famous point of trans representation for DC: the New 52’s Batgirl run.
Batgirl’s Tear Inducing Cis Allyship Turned To Horror
Gail Simone’s Batgirl included a trans character, Alysia, treated generally with respect, as a three-dimensional character and not a big deal was made for her to be trans (I mean except when she was being kidnapped by her boyfriend the obviously evil dude!). But my issues with it are not with the overall story, which is sort of ok, but with the scene in which Alysia revealed her identity to Batgirl. Batgirl reacted well, and Alysia broke into tears. Now, I’m not gonna say that’s something that can’t happen with a trans person, that they cry because you accept them. But it was out of character. According to Simone’s narrative, even a (heavily independent portrayed) character that has been through transition and made a life of her own, and has countless years of experience with both accepting and not accepting cis people, would probably cry just at the simple act of considering us humans. That narrative only signposts our main hero as a really good person, enough to make someone cry with a simple act of kindness. It’s mostly a cisnormative look at Alysia’s story, made to feel cis people great by what they accomplish when they… *looks at notes* don’t react badly to us coming out.
Of course, Simone got fired of Batgirl, and they hired a creative team that decided to show a villain posing as Batgirl who… turned out to be a man under the mask! So, I guess here we had a dull but nice story turn way backwards into an awful transphobic trope. To round it up even more, one of the writers of this awful story that now everyone that read Batgirl’s Simone run is gonna find out is Cameron Stewart, who has been recently exposed for grooming teenager girls.
Overall, I can’t recommend this run, or any other comic of DC in recent years that treats those issues – except maybe that short lived Gerard Way’s Doom Patrol one, but it’s indeed not a very deep-into-gender story. But, before we wrap all this up, I’m gonna take a little turn and go to Legion of Superheroes again, and to both recent comics and shows of our favorite Girl of Steel.
Dreamers or the Future & Last Thoughts
DC’s editorial hasn’t really shined a big light to a trans character recently, let alone as much as in the 90s, but The CW’s Supergirl show has really nailed that. Being Berlanti Productions’ branch of The CW very compromised with LGBT+ characters and actors (with one of the biggest amount of openly LGBT+ actors and writers we’ve ever seen on any television network), they pulled back a character from Legion of Superheroes, Dream Girl (and I’m incredibly glad they didn’t choose Shvaughn), and created her grandmother, Dreamer. Nicole Maines, a trans actress, portrayed Dreamer, and her storyline both as to becoming a superhero and as a trans storyline, especially in the 4th season of Supergirl, was astounding. Her was one in which there’s balance between showcasing part of her life, her tribulations, family, etc. and a brave superhero who’s a badass, outspoken, extremely cool one, and yes, clumsy, shy at times, complicated.
This comes from a show that touches on mental health and things like PTSD often, and usually in characters that are not white and/or not straight, and Nicole’s portrayal also nails some of the complexities of her character’s story and trauma. I have my issues with some episodes (like Reality Bites), but her dialogue and acting are so magnificent and brilliant in others (like American Woman), that I can’t help but elevate this portrayal a lot in the general balance. Of course, let’s also acknowledge that a TV show has a lot of more voices involved (including the actress), more consultants and a bigger budget than a comic.
Supergirl also had a trans comic character that (briefly) shines: Vita Ayala, Steve Orlando and Jamal Campbell created Lee Serrano in Supergirl (2016) #19, a non binary latinx character with a sweet justice & trust but also amazingly short storyline, lasting only one issue. If DC wants to build a more trans positive brand in the future, they better go to representations like Lee Serrano and give authors more time to actually work on them.
As you see, DC and Marvel’s process with including trans narratives have gone very differently, with Marvel editorial pushing more for it on recent years and DC more on the 90s, when LGBT+ movement creators heavily jumped into DC ship, but still neither of them having a really diverse, compelling storylines, trans creator-lead, editorial line or push. Mostly the opposite. Having in mind people could be closeted, this is more of a “let’s get out trans people on teams” than a “only trans people could write trans characters”. As you have seen, this is more about pushing the right narratives than really scrutinizing who writes them, but we definitely are lacking on both.
Just before closing, I want to highlight some comic recommendations out of this. Blood Syndicate’s Masquerade, created by Dwayne McDuffie, Ivan Velez, Jr. and Trevor von Eeden in 1993, as a not-deep-but-great black trans man character created by an all black creative team, and that settled some basis for referents to look out for. I also want to highlight some independent comics for those interested in trans centered comics that feel superhero-ish or at least action-ish, mine to go would be Sex Death Revolution and Kim & Kim by Magdalene Visaggio, The Backstagers by James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh, and The Magicians by Lilah Sturges (& the show!), but you could recommend me yours too. Let’s keep this conversation alive, and let’s (critically) bring trans characters to the light!