Ragged Robin and Women Built By Men
by Travis Hedge Coke
Note (7/11/2020): Following the release of this article, Grant Morrison came out publicly as nonbinary and genderqueer. The article was, I hope, written as fairly as possible to Morrison, sticking to public knowledge and understanding, and Robin is still clearly designed both by King Mob and by Grant Morrison influenced by male gaze parameters. The character and work must now be understood and appreciated as coming from someone who is both male and female, and the pronouns on the article have been corrected to match Morrison’s pronouns and that reality.
Ragged Robin, visually based on writer and artist Jill Thompson, fictional character in The Invisibles, fictional author of The Invisibles, is a witch, time traveler, nerdy kid, militant, sex object, cosmic mother, and sometimes a forgetful friend.
Created by Grant Morrison, pitch and development documents make it clear did Robin was always intended as something of a paper girlfriend for the reader.
“Raggedy Ann is, I must admit, early undeveloped at this stage but basically she’s going to be kinda neurotic, witchy and… um… ‘ alternative’, with hennaed hair and raggedy skirts and Doc Marten boots etc. She’s the Death/Crazy Jane type of female figure beloved of boys who read Vertigo comics.”
In And We’re All Policemen, the short chapter in which we see what a self-rewarding heaven is for Robin’s lover, King Mob, he builds an explicitly trans Robin from magic mirror/pornoplasm. “I want the nerdiest guy in school transformed by a gifted surgeon’s knife,” he says, “into a beautiful sexy girl and exhibited as a living erotic sculpture at Dionysian ceremonies of heathen bondage.” This is both KM’s directions for the shaping of this woman and back cover promo copy of his latest novel, a novel about marine biology, disguised with sexual buzzwords to titillate distracted audiences.
Programming her facial features, hair color, body type and style, KM authors Ragged Robin. Programming her facial features, hair color, body type and style, KM authors Ragged Robin out of a sex toy.
Is Robin trans?
Robin is definitively not autonomous. Grant Morrison writes her. Several artists visualized and narrativized her. Grant Morrison’s most obvious Invisibles stand in, KM, makes/remakes her here.
We see various Robin at various ages, her as a preteen, her as a teenager, early twenties, late twenties. However, these are visualized in what is objectively a fictional scenario. And within that fictional scenario, as she watches her child self on a family vacation in New Mexico, the visual reference itself is inconsistent as she attempts to match up a cloud cloud and prove a holographic theory of the universe.
Robin is believed, in the modern day of The Invisibles, to come from the future, however more honestly, she comes from outside the story. Robin read The Invisibles and is engaged in a living roleplay and fan fiction exploration of The Invisibles, which is set in her past.
Any Robin in The Invisibles is a fictionalized version (of a fiction), subject to rewrites, discontinuities, revamps, and artistic flubs. The Robin in The Invisibles is always fictional, fictive, and non-autonomous.
When, with the launch of Volume Two, Robin’s visual and sartorial aesthetic is revised to “sex her up,” Robin has little narrative reason to do so until very late in the volume, but she also has no choice.
Accepting that fictional characters have no autonomy, no actual autonomy, can be frightening and confusing in ways that as functional adults we don’t like to acknowledge.
We want to pretend very hard that fictional characters have some autonomy, have some existence separate from their authors, makers, from actors or artists.
Grant Morrison’s original character sketches Lord Fanny resemble them more than their designs for King Mob. A transvestite and self-described dandy, Morrison understands the power and the entertainment in dressing up. Once a King Mob was designed, Morrison shaved their head, put on the clothes, and made themself to approximate KM.
As audience, even if we are not writing fanfiction, making fanart, we are re-authoring and co-authoring characters we care about (no, “care about” is not “like”). Our audience understanding of a character, the value we derive from them, is not dependent on agreement from any author or creator.
King Mob, a fictional character, creates or recreates Robin as a trans woman out of magick molding clay in a non-causal hallucinatory fantasy heaven, and I do not cling to the Pygmalion aspect, the pornographic aspect, or even the fatherly or incestuous element. I want Robin to be trans.
Grant Morrison creates Robin, a fictional character, to be sexually or romantically appealing to their audience, doubling down partway through the series, investing her with layers of sexual objectivity and eroticization. Morrison even jokes, outside of the comic, that the new levels of sexualization must have been confusing or disconcerting for the person who the character was initially visually based upon, and her then-husband, as Morrison writes this is now excessively eroticized Robin into a sexual relationship with their visual avatar, the aforementioned King Mob.
I want to believe in the primacy of the Robin outside the comic, the Robin who wrote herself into the comic. A Robin we have not and will never see. A Robin who can exist.
“I want the nerdiest guy in school transformed by A Gifted surgeons knife into a beautiful sexy girl and exhibited as a living erotic sculpture at Dionysus and ceremonies of heathen bondage… That kind of look.” These words are KM’s command the shape Robin the homunculus in And We’re All Policemen, only moments before his sister, in this self-stylized heaven, says, tears running down her cheek, “At last! I’m truly a woman! Everybody! I’m having a lovely little baby,” showing her brother and us the egg containing her dinosaur-fathered egg, veins bulging from her neck to indicate her use of a recreational drug that is, “like shapechanging.”
Many of the most criticized elements of The Invisibles, those that people find incongruous with a particular character, their persona, their background. It is freely acknowledged that many of these seemingly incongruous elements are perhaps intimate the Morrison. The writer has called The Invisibles a diary, a travelogue, as well as kitchen sink sci-fi and a porno.
King Mob is shallow. He is, sometimes, cartoonishly shallow simultaneous with reminders that he is a fictional stand in for the author, and the fairy godmother of the central protagonist.
Many scenes, lines, and scenarios in The Invisibles are derived from real life field recordings of gatherings, of diary writing, culled from letters to the author during serialization. Many interests or connections that appear incongruous with characters’ backgrounds or personalities are often tethered to interests of Grant Morrison’s, transposed over, leading to some characterization being questioned in its likelihood, but also enlivening characters with unpredictable facets.
Lord Fanny, from Brazil, and from a Mexican heritage line, names herself after a queer British lord’s cheeky nom de guerre. Boy, a cishet Black woman from America, traditionally feminine, inexplicably ends up making out with a white teenager from Liverpool. Ragged Robin dumps big hats and flowing skirts for leather bustiers and submissive roleplay.
Where does the shaping end and who is responsible? What is the difference, in a straight story, between straight aspects and the satiric?
Morrison credits Jill Thompson, not only for her physical and fashion resemblance to Ragged Robin, but for helping to characterize and direct early use of Robin within The Invisibles. When she drew the comic, she had some say over the visuals past Morrison, however they would dialogue over that, re-controlling, and beyond them both a sequence of editors and external controls.
Long-term Invisibles‘ penciler, Phil Jimenez, argued with Grant Morrison over the relationship between Boy and the white teenager, Dane, and helped reaffirm the glam in Lord Fanny and re-emphasized her ethnic features, while simultaneously designing the consciously sexed up Volume Two Robin and admitting that he was often at the mercy of colorist Danny Vozzo.
All it took in The Invisibles, for Vozzo (a talented colorist in other respects) to render Lord Fanny with very light skin, was for Jimenez to dress her in daisy dukes and a pigtail wig.
Fanny, most often seen by people with little experience with the comic, itself, as a trans woman, within The Invisibles is both male and female. Fanny participates in the male-centered climax of Volume One and the women-centered climax of Volume Two, wears both male and female drag, and throughout their life has concerns about gender validity. Fanny hugs Robin and King Mob just before the “end of the world”/enlightening experience in 2012, while just after that experience, KM and Robin embrace.
It might be a traditionalist read to place Fanny as betwixt Mob and Robin as a trans transitional, but the comic makes no play for this or for prizing cisgender identity over any other. Robin, too, has her drag, as much as Fanny and Mob in their wigs and boots. Ragged Robin spends nearly the entire comic wearing complete face paint and wearing what was frequently reiterated to be not comfort-clothing but performative costumes.
If Ragged Robin is between Lord Fanny and King Mob in many respects, it is worth noting that all these characters are stereotyped and their gender identity different externally and internally, their gender presentation critiqued and their ethnic identity critiqued, but only KM is not so easily displaced by a coloring mistake or commonly-criticized narrative swerve.
There is a bizarre note in Anarchy for the Masses, one of the earliest critical books on The Invisibles, praising KM’s “human butt,” in contrast to Robin’s. Even Robin’s bottom is more open to criticism, and is to at least the audience who wrote that book, less human than King Mob’s.
“Nerdiest ___ in school transformed… into a beautiful sexy ___,” is not an uncommon fantasy, or even an uncommon experience, from the objective and subjective perspectives.
Is there a quality difference, between fantasy and professional fiction? What qualifiers separate fantasy from fetish?
Is an erotic objectification worse or different from an academic? From a sociological or genre-imitative objectification?
Does it involve how human someone’s buttocks are?
The conceit of a comic that is occupied largely by male perspectives, male initiatives, but about women, and arguing that women have the real control and objectives, has appeared in multiple Grant Morrison comics, most blatantly, Nameless, with Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn. Morrison spoke of their difficulty finding appropriate women to place in their Justice League team. Final Crisis, in which male monitors are named homophones for classic gods, and female monitors, after the sound pattern of a 1960s comic book character’s dead love interest.
Within the comic, Robin is ostensibly the author everything, but a secondary or later author. Her work is fanfiction, not biography or original fiction. Ragged Robin is as much the paint on her face as she is the face under the paint, and maybe more. Like the rest of us audience, she has a great role implicitly, but it is difficult to find it in any pages.
Ragged Robin and Women Built By Men
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