As we prepare for the “straight march” that is really about ethnic supremacy and a renewed discussion as to whether heterosexual trans people are “straight,” or simply heterosexual, I turn not to the accusation of transphobes as eggs and homophobes as closeted, but to the closets of the comics greats. To Hedy Wolfe’s closet, and Millie’s, and Katy Keene’s (soon to be a televisions series!) closet. To Spider-Man’s, Batgirl’s, Storm’s, Batman’s closet.
Transgender, as understood now, used to be called transsexual. Transgender used to be an umbrella for the categories, intersex, transsexual, and transvestite. Comics, especially superhero comics, but just comics, are, under this purview, trans as anything. Superhero comics are all about sliding in and out of empowering or retraining costumes. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman are not just trading normal clothes for a costume; it is all costume. There is Superman and Clark Kent drag, and whatever Clark Kent’s genital situation is, it is alien genitalia. Wonder Woman, coming from a culture of a thousand years of all-women isolationism, is – when she adopts a Diana Prince look, et cetera – dressing as a woman.
Out of the Closet and Into the Wardrobe
by Travis Hedge Coke
People get weird when you refer to Grant Morrison, bestselling comics author and creator of the tv show, Happy!, as a transvestite magician, but he is. People get weird when you say comics writer, Greg Rucka, has said he identifies as a woman, though he is comfortable with his body, or that genius comics artist and commercial illustrator, Jeffrey Catherine Jones is both acceptably referred to as Jeff Jones and Catherine Jones, having transitioned late in life and expressed desire to be known as both or either/or in her lifetime. Catherine Jones is the former spouse of genius editor and writer, Louise Simonson, with whom she had a child, which makes some fans’ extreme urge to paint Simonson as naive to LGBTQ existence even more awkward than the base sexism that probably generates that. Women in comics are not supposed to know about gay stuff, much less trans stuff, it seems. It is a weird and indefensible position, but plenty of fans/readers will take up quick and unthinkingly. Rachel Pollack, one of the original writers under the Vertigo imprint (writing Doom Patrol), is trans, and so is Milestone writer and original English-language voice of Meowth in Pokemon, Maddie Blaustein; Assigned Male author, Sophia Labelle; Magdalene Visaggio, of Kim & Kim and Eternity Girl fame.
Now, try explaining that body, gender, and clothes are not the same thing, nor rooted too deep in the same psychological, sociological, or physiological soil, and we have lost even more ground than we started out tenuously with our feet on.
Superman’s cape and shield are drag, like a transvestite or a performer might wear, and Wonder Woman’s Diana Prince glasses and skirts do not make her a trans woman, but she is affecting a culturally alien guise of femaleness. However, Wonder Woman’s body is also, traditionally, surgically built. Wonder Woman was not born in a womb, shaped by nature and the occasional haircut and trimming of nails. Wonder Woman’s legs, arms, eyes, and yes, the sexual characteristics and genitalia, are shaped by hand and tool and given life by various magical or magic-scientific means.
Fantastic elements, clothing, or story types cannot tell us, rigidly or definitively, what woman or man are, boy or girl. What is feminine or masculine, what is stylistically, sociologically, or physiologically demonstrative of female or male, must be in flux, consistently and constantly redefined. Gender and sex must be questioned, questionable ground. But, stories can do that. A comic cannot tell you woman, it cannot quantify transgender, draw definitive rings around the societal fairytales “fully trans” and subtler or lesser forms, even if received wisdom transmits such ideas or a specific comic literally or metaphorically illustrates an opinion on that matter. Hanky colors can indicate sexuality, clothes can imply gender, clothes can make the man, but no pink or powder blue nappy can definitively explain, justify, and or concretize for us why Batman has to be straight or Superman and Lana Lang’s imaginary baby is a girl.
Already, we find that both the real life and the in-comics fantastic versions of all that was qualified under the old umbrella term are too individuated to be summed up and too idiosyncratic to be using fantastical elements to directly or 1:1 mirror real life correlations. Cisgender, transgender, transvestite, crossdresser, professional crossdresser, wearing your boyfriends shirts to sleep in, these are mens clothes because I a man bought them, are all catchalls more than rigid categories.
How real are men, after growing up at least twenty years in a traditionally all-women society? How much are men, or maleness, mythic assumptions? And, yet, Wonder Woman’s idea of gender, her trained-reflex concept of gender, gender presentation, and gender affectation are only as academic and presumptive as our own.
When we say gender is performative, it is not that it is being only displayed or played for an exterior audience, but that gender rigidity, or gender truism, is an effort. A both conscious and subconscious effort, and the daily grind of a daily strip or monthly of a monthly serial, means a strong surrealist id-based glottal of information surges more strongly in a lot of comics than in the more refined-by-many-hands movie productions or the novel or painting that is given more individual attention for greater lengths of time. The occasional X-Files episode may have had to be pushed out, despite an undercurrent of victim-questioning and rape apologetics, because of time and budget concerns, but most episodes were written and rewritten, shot and edited, to very precisely weed out specifically sexual or political elements the show’s top brass would not want to be present. The average issue of Action Comics, over the years, has had far less overview, less trim and spritz. Garfield’s daily repetitions are what permit a joke about drinking dog semen or a small arc where the title cat believes he has hallucinated all his friends and lives abandoned and alone with no conclusion.
The Hulk’s dysmorphic body may help someone understand their body dysmorphia, but it is not 1:1 clinical or societal body dysmorphia.
“To insist on an identity-based understanding of representation when analyzing [fiction] is to miss the complex play of identification and desire that brings [fictional characters] to life.” – Making It Real, J Keith Vincent
If you grew up on comics, if you are growing on comics now, you are being subjected to normalizing perspectives and naturalized into states of gender, costume, clothing and cosplay. Skin and tights. The anxiety illustration of X-Men’s Scott Cyclops Summers in various superhero costumes and a pink tutu? Normative and normalizing. Prior to The Dark Knight Returns, Batman dressing as women more or less whenever the chance presented itself, was not at all infrequent, but it was always work related.
Since the 1920s and Nell Brinkley, comics have implied the wardrobe, but it is really with the explosion in the early 1940s of superhero comics and fashion comics that the wardrobe flowers into full bloom. Not a literal wardrobe, the wardrobe is a semi-visualized understanding of the varied and variegated clothing options a character has within reach in a given day. Fan-submitted as many designs on dressing montage or paper doll pages in Patsy Walker or Katy Keene. The distinctive at-home and at-work outfits of every superhero, giving way to pull out closets and glass display cases of armored, striped, glowing variant outfits, and a standard cut superhero suit in every color, perhaps reaching its peak in the late 1950s or the 1960s.
For the late 50s to mid-80s Flash, Barry Allen, an on hand change of clothes was so important he carried his entire superhero kit in a ring on his finger. What aesthete, what dandy kept their clothes so at hand as that? Because for the Flash, comics and superhero fan turned superhero, himself, clothes could be identity. Clothes were comfort, empowerment, and truth.
The Flash costume is personally-reaffirming drag, rather than for-public-performance drag. And, neither is an earmark of a transgender individual, nor a fictional stand-in.
The kissing cousin of transvestism, or personally-reaffirming drag, that Flash-making costume was also, then, thin enough of a material to fit inside a ring. Imagine that wrapped tight around the Flash’s svelte runner’s body, and you understand why his costume is the first major superhero clothing to forego the strongman shorts holding up the tights. “Body condom,” does not begin, only because condoms, at the time, were thicker than the Flash’s super-clothes. Nor, was the Flash’s suit, his work outfit. Flash had a job as a police scientist, and often dressed explicitly for it. The Flash costume is not really a work outfit, but a fan expression. He is dressing as the Flash, as a fan of the earlier Flash he read about in comics.
Nor, are the traditional fantastic man and woman trapped in one body characters, or the ones who alternate existing in an operative space, from Drs Occult and Psychic to Aleta and Stakar in Guardians of the Galaxy, very effective 1:1 proxy for transgender or intersex people or concerns. Cloud, from 1980s The New Defenders, is in this respect more useful. Why Cloud and not Dr Occult? How?
Cloud was created to specifically address, from a fantastic angle, actual trans experiences, by a writer, Peter B Gillis, who had a friend who was at the time transitioning, while also dealing with a then-contemporary cis male relationship to trans people existing and existing closely.
Aleta’s redesign by Jim Valentino, in 1990, deliberately reduced what he referred to as her “[male character] in drag” appearance, giving her a eroticization overhaul for a contemporary straight male audience. “She would be the statuesque female that fanboys seem to require.” Her dominating arched eyebrows and defined cheeks gave way to roundish face and helium-balloon breasts. It is, here, again worth reiterating that intent and effect are both worthy of intention, and neither of these forms is objectively more skewed to this or that gender or gender identity, but Valentino is specifically choosing an audience that motivates his visual changes.
Coagula, from Rachel Pollack’s 1990s Doom Patrol run, is a super-powered, fantastical character, but she is not fantastically trans. Her being transgender does not come from a radioactive accident or following an old wizard into the subway. Her fantastic elements are distinct from her existence as a trans person.
The transgender police officer in Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s Hell and Back? No fantastic element, not in that way. Reacts so badly to our hero saying a woman’s name, he is sure is a comment on him and his identity, that they vigorously beat our boy again. Who is that for? Commentary on some trans men exhibiting misogyny? A suggestion that trans people hate themselves or their assigned at birth gender? Just a random, paranoid misogynist cop?
Do we wonder? Should we wonder? I have to wonder.
And, what is a cop suit but identitarian drag? Police police police. Police kit is an off the rack set of work clothes, costume, cosplay, party and performance clothing, and affectation. Bringing us back to Barry the Flash Allen, comics reader, casual and committed nerd. Us?
We talk of the X-Men as proxies for any underclass, any oppressed peoples, but how often is the drama of mutant/non-mutant conflict used to supplant or erase non-fantastic oppressions? The Thing telling Wolverine, amidst news of a procedure that stops mutants from being mutants, “I thought they had a cure of your kind,” with the bait and switch, “I meant Canadians.” Edgy, charming stuff. When a young, often boyish, exvangelical mutant is murdered by college boys who accuse her of trying to trick normal boys, explicitly referred to by these bigots as, “out here to trap normal guys,” and despite being a superhero, she does not fight back at all and dies, then instead of any of her close friends, particularly close women, two posturing men she does not have much history with get the big hero moments of revenge and lecture and consequence… who is that for?
When we read about straight white mutants standing in for people of color, for homosexuals, for trans people, who is that aimed at, and why, if it is simply to represent, are the mutants in question rarely, if ever, both mutants and the real life demographic being represented?
Rahne, in her murder scene, is very femmed out, from her earliest visualizations, when she used to be occasionally mistaken for a boy, and very free, by then, of much of her religious phobias and anxieties. Regardless of whether you find the death scene and its resultant scenes with other characters good, who is it for? Did it aid Rahne, the character? Does it affect her fans in some useful fashion? As it deliberately invokes “trap” and other markers in ways other, earlier, mutant murders have not, is it for a trans audience? With the suggestion that it represents the murder of black youth by police, with a white woman presenting black people and college boys representing police officers, is it aiming for something helpful or affecting for young black readers or murdery police?
When Wolverine confronts her killers and makes them say her name, then take up arms to “fight” him, there is no way to read the scene as a development or compliment to Rahne or her fans. It is a Wolverine scene. And, that is okeh, but in the scene, then, who is Wolverine? Who, amongst us readers, is the nobody but us chickens embodied by Wolverine and his agenda? For whom is this an emotional conclusion or emotional development?
These identities, these costumes and outfits and fashions are slivers, tangents connecting fiction and real life inasmuch as they can touch, but not further and no less. The only reason you can pretend that fictional characters are unaware of these states and comforts, is that they are fictional and fictions can be irrational, unlikely, even practically impossible. To presume that real people, like artists and writers, do not know what they do, is more than presumptuous. We need to assume they know, and hope they know enough to pull it off. To discourage audiences from perceiving or acknowledging their perceptions is like pretending not only your own wardrobe does not exist, but that no one’s does.
Even, back when you were a child, when someone picked your clothes for you, you could always modify them. You put the heals of your sneakers down under your foot, or you snapped this button but not another, tied the jacket around your waist instead of slipping your arms through the sleeves. But, you knew if a shirt or shoes were bought for you or your sibling or as a present for someone who lived across town. The existence of a shirt does not mean it is intended for you, and it is impossible to design, manufacture, or gift a shirt that is intended for any and all wearers in all seasons.
“I was raised to see myself in any protagonist, not just one with my gender or skin color,” is only said by people who are eager to not have even in existence a piece of entertainment in which the protagonist is not of their gender or ethnicity. Just as less than half a workplace being female, leads many men to believe it is overwhelmingly filled with women, the general audience for comics has been trained by the prevalence of a certain demographic as default protagonist, to seeing a publisher’s line with even two black women as leads in monthly books as, “all Company X publishes now are black women replacing the real heroes!”
If you grew up on comics, if you are growing on comics now, you are being subjected to normalizing perspectives and naturalized into states of gender, costume, clothing and cosplay. But, you were also being given, are given the tools and chance to modify your clothes, your costumes, your cosplay. And, yes, your body, with its modifiable hair, nails, skin, weight, and genitalia, can be cosplay. It can be a good fit. High fashion. Worn and comfortable. A bad fit.
Not to steal a casual tweet from 2019 Eisner nominee, Magdalene Visaggio, out of context, but this is superhero costumes, teenage girls with a closet designed by a thousand fans sending in drawings, us in the real world: “i was less ‘im gonna perform gender SO HARD’ as I didnt have anything resembling taste and it seemed Like Something A Grown Up Would Do. But i mean, I…definitely WAS performing gender really hard so idk.”
We all know the comic that reads like that, and we all know the moments it was us or could have been. It might be better, like Batman trying on an awkward costume for three pages in one issue, to see ourselves in a body, clothes, or makeup that is only something a grown up would do, so we can not ever do that again. They have dressing rooms and return policies and trash bins because sometimes you need to try it on.
Out of the Closet and Into the Wardrobe
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