If racism is America’s original sin, it’s not surprising that racial issues hold such a central place in our popular entertainments. It also affects our response to these entertainments.
Especially mine, and especially this weekend.
It started with a semi-binge of the Iron Fist, the new Marvel Television series on Netflix. All sorts of people were angry that the actor cast as the lead, Danny Rand, is white. While this is faithful to the source material, it would not have been blasphemous to cast an Asian-American actor. The character, as written in the television series, is not particularly white.
He is, however, really boring. I don’t know if this is the fault of the actor or the script. There are so many things that are not discussed that might fill in the characters’ inner lives. What does Rand Industries do? Do they make things? Do they just do real estate deals? Why does Danny run around like a crazy person instead of asking questions? How do they get from Gramercy Park to Chinatown so quickly? Did they chase each other through subway tunnels?
Maybe these details are filled out in later episodes. I expect to finish the series, although probably not until after I watch Dave Chappelle.
In other words, while I understand that race might be an issue for some viewers, it was not the most notable part of my experience.
I also finally saw Get Out, an amazingly brilliant movie. Race relations are absolutely the point of this movie. It offers a view of the world as experienced by African-Americans that I don’t get to see very often. It also offers a view of white people that I, a white person, rarely get to see. It’s funny and frightening and very important while never making me think I’m doing something that’s good for you. Broccoli should have such a good script.
Should we only have people of color as leads when the story is about their particular subgroup? I don’t think so. There are all sorts of stories that can be filled with people of any race, gender or ethnicity. For example, I love Jesse Martin on The Flash, and I am sure he was cast because he is Jesse Martin, not because they needed an African-American in the part. That said, the fact that he is black adds a definite je ne sais quoi to the series. So does his height. So does his goatee.
My ComicMix colleague Joe Corallo and I have spent hours arguing over these and related issues, usually consuming a good deal of tequila in the process. We have very different responses to the Aftershock series Alters. I really like it, and Joe likes it less than I do (although I think he’s coming around). I’m interested in the story the creative team is trying to tell, and Joe has less patience with the story than he does with the creative team. This is not an argument either one of us can win, because we like what we like and don’t like what we don’t like. Still, these are interesting reactions to have when a series is launched about a character who isn’t a straight cis white guy.
There are times when a character cannot be a straight cis white guy. There are times when a character must be a straight cis white guy. Most of the time, the only reason it matters to certain audiences are our cultural assumptions about which people are worthy of stories.
This past week has been an interesting one for me as far as comics are considered. I finally finished Tom King’s twelve issue run on The Vision – easily one of my favorite comics that Marvel has put out in a long time, and that’s something I never thought I’d say about a comic starring The Vision. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor. A friend of mine wrote this about it a while back if you’d like to read up on it more first.
I finally started reading Jeff Lemire’s Trillium after putting that off for years. It’s a great read.
I also went through some of my piles of comics here and rediscovered my copy of Vertigo Jams. This comic, which was put out by Vertigo back in 1993, featured original eight page comics from the different creative teams; something I hope DC’s Young Animal line and others will do down the line. It really was a fun read.
Since this came out, Vertigo Jams included an eight pager from Rachel Pollack for Doom Patrol. I had honestly completely forgotten about this story and it was really exciting for me to read it again. It’s a cute little story about Dorothy accidentally releasing ghosts from their HQ and going out on the town with the S.R.S. to find them and bring them back. We get cameos from Niles Caulder, Robotman, and it ends with two queer women going home with each other after a date. What more could anyone ask for?
Speaking of Rachel Pollack, if you have an incredibly keen eye and a good memory, you may have noticed the Rachel Pollack reference in Gerard Way and Nick Derington’s Doom Patrol #2. In that issue, the Niles Caulder one page strip involves Niles in a hot air balloon passing a mountain with his face on it. Those of you familiar with Rachel’s run will notice that imagery of Niles’ face in a mountain running through issues #65 and #66 as part of the Sliding Through the Wreckage arc. If you think that comparison is a bit of a stretch, Gerard Way said it was a reference to Rachel’s run here.
While Gerard Way has been referencing Rachel Pollack’s run in the new Doom Patrol, DC has still not announced any plans to reprint her run. Please, if you are reading this, upset about this fact like I am, and are in comics journalism or know someone who is I’m asking you consider writing about this as well.
Her run on Doom Patrol is important in queer history and it’s important to get the works of incredibly talented people like Linda Medley and Ted McKeever, two artists that inarguably helped shape Rachel’s run, out there to more people as well. If you want to write about this yourself and don’t know where to start, reach out to me via the comments section and I will help you.
My final anecdote from last week for me in comics started Friday night getting drinks with fellow ComicMix columnist Martha Thomases. We discussed the state of the nation, what we have to do going forward under a Trump presidency, and Paul Jenkins. Martha is a staunch supporter of both the liberal wing of the Democratic party and of Paul Jenkins. She recently read Alters #2 and wanted me to read it to get my opinion to discuss it.
Spoilers ahead for Alters #2.
After more drinks than I care to confide to you, we went back to Martha’s so I could read her copy of Alters #2 and talk about it. The beginning for me was a little rocky. The issue opens with Chalice being interrogated by other Alters asking her probing questions including questions about the current medication she’s on and her DNA. It was a scene lacking in subtlety about Chalice’s transness and the sort of medical questions that could out her.
Shortly thereafter we have a sequence where Chalice is out of her superhero costume and at her home dressed as Charlie. She then has a verbal confrontation with her father that’s written in a way where it’s hard to tell if she’s talking about being an Alter, being trans, or both. That was the point of the scene, but it just didn’t feel entirely right to me. The issue wraps up with a physical confrontation that Chalice has with Matter Man in which Matter Man seems to go out of his way to use insults directed at Chalice’s femininity by both calling her a bitch and saying she punches like a girl. Perhaps if Matter Man only said one or the other it wouldn’t have stood out to me, but both was too much.
One thing I really appreciated was at the end of this issue they include a letter from Paul. The letter involved both a discussion with one of the trans people he has consulted with on writing this comic. Additionally, Paul Jenkins goes on to talk about the importance of respecting people’s gender identity and how dangerous, even lethal, it is to misgender someone. While I do have issues with the story in Alters so far, the second installment is showing more effort being put into raising awareness of issues affecting the trans community by having this letter at the end.
This led to a discussion with Martha on what it means to be an ally and a broader discussion on survival during the Trump years. Martha makes a point by saying that people like Paul Jenkins, someone who is sincerely trying to do a positive representation, is not the enemy and, of course, I agree wholeheartedly.
While I do understand the argument that some people might make about people how people need to avoid attacking those who are ignorant for using the wrong terminology, the flip side to that is that by framing the issue in that way we are continuing to look at everything through a privileged lens. Instead of catering to those more privileged in these situations we need to teach those more privileged that sometimes you have to sit down and listen instead of getting defensive or worse.
What Paul Jenkins has done, from what I can see based on Alters #2, is sit down and listen to some extent. He’s heard the criticism out there and is trying to take positive steps in the right direction. And while I still have my reservations, it’s still a great thing to see in a comic creator and I hope that Paul will be able to continue moving Alters down a positive path, including making a change in issue one for the trade to remove Chalice’s self misgendering referring to herself as the middle brother. Middle sibling or child works just as well.
Perhaps speaking to someone like Rachel Pollack, who has created a trans superhero for a team book before, could also be beneficial for someone like Paul. She certainly understands the topic on a level not many other people do and has written some profoundly moving moments with Coagula.
I started writing a weekly column here at ComicMix a year ago today. The past year I’ve given my thoughts on a number of issues focusing in particular on diversity in comics. Those issues have often involved LGBTQ representation. I’m going use this column to highlight some of the topics I’ve covered, see if anything has changed or if any predictions I had made turned out to be true and maybe add in an anecdote or two.
The second column I wrote for ComicMix was about Coagula, DC Comics first and only trans superhero. A lot has happened this past year as far as Coagula is concerned. She went from being an obscure character created by Rachel Pollack from a still uncollected run of Doom Patrol, a long cancelled series with seemingly little hope of being brought back as a monthly comic to being the flagship title for Gerard Way’s Young Animal imprint. Additionally, Gerard Way has stated he wants to bring Coagula back in his run. I can’t stress to all of you enough how great it’s been see this series of events unfold.
Another early column was regarding Alysia Yeoh, Barbara Gordon’s trans friend, getting married. Though there was a lot of press around that and Alysia Yeoh seemed to be gaining some interest from fans the character, one of the incredibly few trans characters that DC Comics has, faded into obscurity.
I spent no less than twocolumns discussing my displeasure with Iceman being outed. It’s been a long time since I discussed it so I thought I’d follow up on that. It took until All-New X-Men #13 for Iceman to pursue men and not just talk about coming out to someone. He embarrasses himself in a gay bar, runs out and runs into a guy named Romeo (I’m not kidding) who happens to be an Inhuman. I guess they wanted to make sure that character was named Romeo to make sure you’d get that Marvel is borrowing from Shakespeare here. The poor handling of Iceman being gay would almost be funny if it wasn’t so sad. It’s somehow managed to be worse than I even thought it was going to be, and I came in with low expectations.
Bi-erasure came up a few times discussing characters like Constantine who was being portrayed as straight in the now-cancelled NBC series and Marvel’s Hercules being portrayed as straight despite the character’s history of bisexuality. Bi-erasure came up again as Harley Quinn was portrayed as straight in the Suicide Squad movie and most recently with Gal Gadot confirming that Wonder Woman would be portrayed as straight for the 2017 film. If you want a bisexual Wonder Woman, stick with Greg Rucka for now.
I still don’t think Poe and Finn from Star Wars: The Force Awakens are in love with each other.
When David Bowie passed away early in the morning of January 11th, I had tossed out my previously planned column (with editor Mike Gold’s permission) and wrote about how much David Bowie had meant to me over the years. One story I had forgotten to include was the one and only time I was in the same room as David Bowie. I was seeing a Nine Inch Nails at Hammerstein Ballroom here in New York with my friend Jake back in 2005 with the Dresden Dolls opening. After they opened up in VIP balcony seating above us came out Chris Rock, Marilyn Manson, and David Bowie. The standing room crowd started chanting just being in Bowie’s presence. It got so loud and disruptive that he opted to get up and leave until the house lights went off so as not to draw attention away from Nine Inch Nails. Real classy guy. If you’re unfamiliar, give his album Station to Station a try.
Back in June, AfterShock Comics announced a new series, Alters, written by Paul Jenkins with art by Leila Leiz. The principle character, Chalice, is a trans woman and the hook for the series is “She can only be herself when she’s not herself.” I wrote about my reservations and the red flags I saw from reading the write ups. Paul Jenkins reached out to me and we conducted an interview for the following week. I want to stress that Paul was very polite and agreed to all the questions asked without any hesitation. Now that issue #1 is out we’ve seen the comic be met with mixed reviews, many of which unfortunately reaffirm my reservations based on the initial announcements. Paul Jenkins has done some incredible work including his Marvel Knights run on Inhumans which I can’t recommend highly enough, but the missteps in Alters would be hard to make a course correction on at this point, at least as far as I can tell.
Oh, and I took issue with Simon Pegg making Sulu gay in Star Trek Beyond against George Takei’s wishes even after asking George Takei first. It sounded like a cheap publicity stunt for some free marketing that backfired. Now that the movie is out, it happens that Sulu didn’t even get to kiss his husband in this movie who’s already barely in the film so it turns out I was right to be cynical about it. That column led to the liveliest discussion I’ve had on Facebook about anything I’ve written for ComicMix. Even more than that time I said we don’t need Iron Fist.
That about sums up my summing up of my first year as a columnist here at ComicMix. I’d like to thank Martha Thomases for suggesting me as columnist in the first place, Mike Gold for going with that suggestion, having faith in me to deliver on a weekly basis and for acting as a sounding board and mentor over the past year, and everyone else at ComicMix for being welcoming and supportive over the past year. Most of all, I’d like to thank everyone who’s been reading this column over the past year for your time and support.
I hope you’re as excited for what the next year will bring as I am.
I realize this is a form of slacking. As a weekly contributor to ComicMix, I’m supposed to have the authority and gravitas that justifies the esteem in which I’m held by my colleagues, as well as the salary I’m paid. No answers, no paycheck.
Last week, my pal, Joe Corallo, wrote an impassioned column about Alters, a new series from AfterShock Comics about a group of superheroes that includes a transgender character. Joe was interested in the title but he confessed to a degree of fatigue caused by stories written by cis people about transitioning.
We met for tequila last week and talked about his column. While I hear his point, I think storytellers should tell the stories they want to tell. At the same time, audiences, of course, can ask for the kind of stories they want.
Apparently, Paul Jenkins, the writer and creator of the series, had somewhat similar thoughts. He reached out to Joe, and they did this interview. It touches on a lot of my obsessions. Who decides what stories get told? Who gets to tell them?
I don’t mean storytellers who are also fan, as my colleague Vinnie Bartilucci described. Fandom is its own thing, wild and free, which is as it should be. I mean people who are professional, who either work on creator-owned projects or get hired by the people who own the intellectual properties in question.
These people are, overwhelmingly, straight cis white men. They look like and talk like the people who hire them. Many of them create stories that move me and make me laugh or cry or hide under the covers with my cat because I thought I heard a noise. I’m very happy to live in a world where creators I like get to tell me the stories they want to tell.
At the same time, there are lots and lots of people who are not straight cis white men, who also tell stories that I enjoy. I like what I like. I hope you, too, enjoy getting to like what you like.
There are probably thousands (if not millions) of people of all colors and categories who also could tell me stories I would like, but I’ll never get to see them because they don’t have the same access to media as those mentioned above. I mean, I started to get work at Marvel Comics because I found out Denny O’Neil lived down the street from me, and I volunteered to water his plants when he went out of town. This is not an opportunity that anybody could have, even in the 1980s. It’s just about impossible now, not least because Denny is married and has a better support system for his botanical dependents.
Paul Jenkins wanted to tell a superhero story that includes a transwoman going through her transition. That’s the story that interests him. Joe has read a lot of stories like that (although probably without the super-powers parts) and he would like to read something different.
Who is right?
That’s the part I can’t answer. i’ve liked so much of what Paul has written over the years, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do with Alters, especially since it seems like a terrific premise. I’m also with Joe, wanting to see more different kinds of stories.
However, I will note that the most recent issues of both Bitch Planet and The Beauty are telling non-transition stories about transwomen.
The Internet was supposed to change a lot of this. It was going to be easy and inexpensive to publish, and everyone would have equal access to the means of distribution. That didn’t happen in quite the way I wanted (perhaps I’m too old, but finding new comics and reading them online is frustrating for me). The big names tend to be the people who look like the editors, and the editors keep looking like the money people, and the corporations are overwhelmingly run by straight, white men – who also are in charge of distribution, retail, and media.
We need more people telling more kinds of stories that more kinds of people will like. We need to acknowledge, with respect, that some people want to create and/or read stories that we, personally, might not want to read. Having highfaluting discussions about the socio-political implications of our choices is a wonderful thing, and my life would be diminished if I couldn’t do it.
Those opinions are not the same thing as criticism.
Are there stories you want to read about parts of life you think shouldn’t be ignored? By all means, speak up. Tell publishers what you want. Maybe try to create that story with your friends, and self-publish. That would be great.
Do you want to see more diversity in the professional comics community? So do I. Make a lot of noise. Write letters. Post columns. Ask questions at comic book conventions, especially at panels. Our industry is way behind the curve in this matter, and we all suffer as a result.
Paul Jenkins should tell the stories he wants to tell at AfterShock. And AfterShock should have more than one woman on staff and more than three women creators on their roster.
JC: Alters is a passion project of yours that you’ve wanted to pursue for over a decade. Could you talk about the genesis of the project and how it’s changed since its original conception?
PJ: Alters was conceived as a way to tell stories about “superheroes with disadvantages” when I was writing more often for DC and Marvel. I thought that would be a tremendous concept because we’d have people dealing with certain problems – at the time I was slightly more focused on things like physical disabilities – and they’d also have a sort of “super-advantage.” I thought that would be very fertile ground for interesting stories that were in my personal wheelhouse as a writer – very much about characterization and less about powers. Both DC and Marvel always expressed an interest but it’s tough to get new characters off the ground so it never got picked up.
Over time I realized just how many stories there were to be told if I expanded a little more and dealt with different kinds of disadvantage. For example, I fractured my neck playing soccer years ago and have written many times about how hard that period of time was for me. I was indestructible right up until I got hurt, and then I dealt with post-concussion syndrome and very debilitating vertigo. So I am going to do a story about one of our Alters who will be stricken with vertigo every time their power manifests because that is interesting to me. I have stories about a homeless character, a person dealing with PTSD, a person who is bipolar, a person who is dealing with a form of superhero Alzheimer’s. The list goes on.
Despite the opening arc revolving around Chalice, our book is not intended to be the LGBT comic. It’s a comic that has a prominent trans character who will always be a focal point. Why? Because she kicks ass, and her story is interesting. I happen to think she’s going to be a very popular character because she seemed to have a good voice from the first time I wrote her into a script. We shall see how people react to her.
JC: You’ve stated before how diversity is important to you in terms of comic creators as well as their creations. As far as the creative team behind Alters goes, how involved were you in putting the team together or having input on how the team would be shaped?
PJ: I had a lot of input. This decision was guided in part by the initial loading screen in the video game Assassin’s Creed. They state that the game is developed by a team of many differing faiths and beliefs, and I loved that sentiment. I wanted our book to be created by a group of differing ages, genders and gender identities, ethnic backgrounds, you-name-it. With AfterShock, it was not something I had to fight for – they believed in that vision for the project immediately. But remember: this is a book that deals with many types of people so the diversity in our creative team is never going to cover the diversity of the characters.
JC: Though Chalice is a central character, we do know of at least a couple of other Atlers in the series have been mentioned. Could you describe to us the format of these stories? Will this be more of a team book or a shifting narrative?
PJ: I suppose “team book” is a good enough description. I’d probably compare it to the style of the Inhumans, which I wrote for Marvel in the late 90’s. Inhumans was a 12-issue maxi-series in which I’d highlight each character as the story unfolded. In Alters, we will sometimes tell single issue stories about one character or another. We may focus for another character for five issues or so. I happen to think Chalice will always be prominent but then again, so will a few other early characters. One is called Octavian – he’s able to access every portion of his brain, so he’s super-hyper-intelligent. He’ll be around for the duration, too.
We’ll meet new characters as new Alters come into being. There’s a lot of ground to cover, not to mention a number of villains.
JC: Was the idea always to have Chalice as the first character to be highlighted in the series once it got picked up by Aftershock? What ultimately guided that decision?
PJ: Well, I think so, yes. I think Chalice is very intriguing as a character because she has a compelling back story. We have a specific situation in mind for her that creates a sort of “ticking clock” tension from the first moment – she is transitioning but dealing with a tough family situation and is really struggling with how to tell her family. The family are beginning to see changes in her but as they see it, she is the middle brother of three. It’s going to be difficult. And just as she struggles with that transition, she discovers she is a powerful Alter and that changes everything.
JC: Alters, and specifically Chalice, have gotten attention in media outlets including The New York Times and CBS News. What has the reception been towards Alters so far? How does this kind of media attention around a character like Chalice make you feel about the future of comics and expanding diversity in the medium?
PJ: The reaction has, for the most part, been very positive. I think the media are going to probably concentrate on the trans character because transgender has become a popular topic of late. But at the risk of repeating myself, Alters is a comic about many different people who are dealing with disadvantage, whether it be disability or marginalization. I’ve stated this clearly in every interview I have conducted. Chalice happens to be a central character and is featured in the first arc. She’s not the only character in the book. Now with that being said, I’m hopeful that the recent highlighting of transgender in the media will prove to be a positive thing, even if some aspects of the portrayals are negative. Every time we have a dialogue in our society, it helps to effect change. So if Alters simply adds to the dialogue, then that is a small positive.
JC: When creating and ultimately writing Chalice, how did you go about preparing for that? What kind of research did you do?
PJ: I make sure each script is read by at least three trans people who are helping me as consultants. I’m learning that there’s such complexity here that it’s going to take me a long time to really cover things in depth. And of course, people have very different experiences. There is no one way to write a character like Chalice – I can only try to be diligent in my research, and try not to write the obvious. I try not to take too much creative license, and to pay attention when people tell me that my character is doing something unrealistic. Remember, too, that our colorist Tamra Bonvillain is trans. She’s been really helpful, and I’m grateful that she understands I may or may not want the character to do certain things that drive the story. For example, it seems less likely in the scheme of things that a trans person might begin hormone therapy without first alerting their family. But I felt this conceit would help propel the story forward, and while it is unlikely it is at least conceivable (more on this below). I think it is really important that I concentrate on “story first.”
That is the common denominator of every single successful project I’ve ever been involved in. Someone recently told me that I must be a crusader in this endeavor, that by choosing to write about a trans character I have no choice. Well, I happen to disagree. My job is to tell a compelling story and by doing so, the crusade happens organically. If our book becomes preachy or out of touch, we’ll have failed. In order for our characters to feel rounded, they must not know everything, and they must sometimes make mistakes.
JC: In a book like Alters that will have characters of different backgrounds throughout, is a character like Chalice meant more to introduce the idea of a trans character to a cis comic audience that isn’t familiar with someone who is trans or to serve as a character that a queer and specifically trans audience can relate to?
The annoying answer here is “neither, and a bit of both.” As I stated above, my job is to try and write interesting stories about interesting characters. There is no perfect approach. If I write a treatise on my research about trans people then I might as well create a documentary. If Chalice is a kick ass character – and believe me, she is quite strong and powerful in our series so far – then we have a good book on our hands. Having written her, I like her. She’s trying to manage three lives. She has challenges. She’s not perfect but she’s pretty damned cool, and she has a strong will to succeed. She has compassion, especially for her less-than-perfect family. And she sees herself as a defender of persecuted Alters. So she’s more like Spider-Man or Wolverine, and less about some statement I have to make on transgender.
JC: The hook of “a young woman who can only really be herself…whenever she is not herself,” can lend itself to the tragic queer trope, where a character’s tragedy is directly caused by or linked to their queerness, and specifically their transness in this case. Do you feel that is part of Chalice’s story? As her creator, what does define her as a character?
PJ: Okay, so… here I feel I have to take issue with your previous article a little bit. Your description of me as a “well-meaning cis ally” is intended to demonstrate that I don’t understand what I’m writing about, or that we are clearly going to bumble our way through this series with little to no idea of what we are doing. I did not write this book in an ill-considered way. I felt in your article you made this assumption, and glossed over the details because they did not fit your premise. I’m a writer trying to write good stories – that is the be all and end all of it.
Here are a few things that we are not: we are not trying to be crusaders for the trans community. We are, however, featuring a trans character as the focus of our series. We are not inattentive to the difficulties faced by the trans community. But neither are we going to create a tool to educate people about transgender. Instead, by creating a cool, interesting premise (people dealing with disadvantage and hyper-advantage), we create a product that anyone can gravitate to. And if someone learns about or finds a new perspective on the subject of transgender, then that will be awesome. Some trans people have written to me to express their excitement about Chalice. Some have written to me to express their concerns, and I have tried my best to address those concerns and allay their fears. No story in history has ever been perfect, and we don’t expect to be. I readily acknowledge that Alters will never be able to mirror any individual’s personal experience. I hope the readers acknowledge that also.
So to answer your question directly: that particular hook occurs because of a story point, not some ill-advised tagline. Her “transness” does not make her tragic. Her family situation creates an issue which drives the story. Charlie, Chalice’s alter ego, is struggling with self-imposed pressure to keep her family unit intact. Her older brother, Teddy, is stricken with cerebral palsy and she worries that her transition will create added pressure on her parents. But she also knows that this is her time – that she must become outwardly who she really is. So she has begun her hormone therapy in secret, all the while knowing that puts her on the clock, so to speak. This may not be the perfect decision. It’s the one she has made, and she’s going to deal with the ramifications. And right in the middle of this, she suddenly becomes an Alter and must deal with a second type of transition. One may argue that this is outlandish, or unrealistic, or whatever. Newsflash: every superhero ever created is outlandish and unrealistic. So we’re in good company there. :)
JC: Chalice’s story appears to be linked to her transitioning and while this is happening, coincidence or not, she is gaining great power. Other stories in different media as well as in the news have used transitioning as shock value and to exploit the trans community for the purpose of entertainment and to feed an inappropriate curiosity. What makes Chalice’s story different?
PJ: I think part of the answer to this is covered above. I certainly understand your point, and have found some of the coverage appalling. Of course, the coverage of the U.S. election/Brexit/terrorism and just about everything else these days is equally appalling. I’m not going to agree that we are somehow taking advantage of trans people simply by writing a character who is trans, especially because we have other characters dealing with different issues and I haven’t heard you complain about us addressing bipolar disorder or the issues facing someone who is quadriplegic. Every single character in our book is presented for the purpose of entertainment, Chalice included. I am in the business of entertainment. But I happen to be a research fiend, and I’m always going to be worried that a trans reader will find my character unrealistic. I feel the same way when I am writing detective fiction – I hope that actual detectives would find my stories plausible, and I try to research them that way. I will take the same approach with our bipolar character, our homeless character, our PTSD characters and so on…
I hope what makes us different from those who would try to exploit the trans community is that we’re focused on story first, and have only a minor secondary agenda in terms of shining a light on various people who are dealing with disadvantage in our society. I think the diversity of our creative team helps. And I’d like to make it quite clear before anyone tries to find fault here that we are absolutely not equating transgender with, say, disability. Our series addresses people who are dealing with disadvantage. Being marginalized by society, misunderstood, bullied, harassed and exploited by the media certainly qualifies for being at a disadvantage. Other characters will have obvious physical disadvantages. Others may have less obvious disadvantages (such as the character with vertigo).
And this leads me to the other issue I had with your previous article – the complaint that this is yet another view of transgender through a cis lens, as if I am disqualified from writing a trans character. You casually mentioned that we do have a core team member who is trans but “that’s not a position with creative control in a narrative sense.” That is an assumption on your part. You don’t know Tamra’s input, so you can’t make that assumption. Now, we each have our jobs on the creative team and it’s not as though I have Leila or Tamra’s artistic expertise. And while you happen to be partly correct – as the writer I am the initial creator of the story – I happen to be a very collaborative writer, and always have been. It has stood me in good stead over the years I have been working in this industry. I invite input, and truly believe that comics are a collaborative medium.
To address the point: where would we be if we were forced to write only what we are? We’d be without Othello, for one thing because Shakespeare was hardly a black, Muslim dude from Venice. I would be forbidden to write people from different ethnic backgrounds than my own, and I would never be able to write a female character. The argument that this series must have a requisite trans writer is specious and absurd: I hope that trans writers create tons of material that will hit the mainstream. I hope a trans creator makes the next popular superhero character, and that no one gives a royal shit that they are trans or otherwise, as it should be. My audience is anyone who wants to read the book. If they happen to be trans I hope they like Alters, and feel we have done a halfway decent job with the trans character, especially.
I’m not one to pay lip service to things – I do understand your concerns and any concerns of the LGBT community who are worried that Chalice is being created in part by some middle-aged straight white guy. I hope (and believe) that we are doing our best to address those concerns. The work should be judged for what it is, not pre-judged for who is creating it.
JC: I want to thank you again for talking with me about your new comic, Alters, being published by Aftershock Comics starting September 7th. What’s the best way for people to follow the release of Alters, spread the word, and discuss the comic?
PJ: My pleasure, Joe. Thanks for giving me a chance to respond. Support your local comic store, and follow AfterShock and our creative team on Twitter and Facebook. Wish our book luck, and please buy lots of copies!
Last week it was announced that Aftershock Comics will be launching a new superhero series in September named Alters. The series will be seasoned comic writer Paul Jenkins’ second title with Aftershock, and it’s drawn by Leila Leiz. Though it will feature a few different kinds super powered humans, referred to as Alters in this world, the central character currently getting all the buzz is Chalice.
The gravity manipulating Chalice will be joining the ranks of characters like Coagula on the incredibly and embarrassingly short list of trans superheroes in comics. The hook for Chalice is that while Chalice presents as female, her civilian alter ego presents as male under the name Charlie Young. At the start of the story, Charlie is a college student who is currently transitioning in secret to Charlie’s family, though some friends may be aware. We just don’t have all the details on that yet.
Paul Jenkins himself is a straight cis white man, which he will readily admit. His mother who raised him is an out lesbian and he’s stated before that diversity is important to him, though in this case we should be careful not to conflate sexual orientation and gender identity. Mr. Jenkins in particular had in mind to put a trans character in this series from its onset. According to his own account, Chalice didn’t fully come into being until he met Liz Luu at a convention panel who suggested the idea of a trans superhero who had not yet transitioned and who could only present as the gender they identify as when in superhero attire.
With that in mind, I can’t help but be cautious about the idea. Before even delving into the concept behind Chalice, the initial reason I have for being cautious is that this is a character, though created by well-meaning allies, that did not have a trans creator involved. That is not to say that people can’t create characters outside of who they are and what experiences they have personally had over the years. However, we have seen time and again characters that have been created (or retconned in many cases) to represent the LGBTQ community that haven’t had LGBTQ input over the years with mixed results. Examples include most queer characters in 90s TV and movies, as well as Iceman’s coming out last year at Marvel, despite Brian Michael Bendis’ best intentions, which I wrote about here and here.
Now let’s go into the character of Chalice herself. As I started to explain earlier, Chalice is a super human trans woman that can only be herself when she’s Chalice. Otherwise, she’s Charlie Young and presumably goes by male pronouns. The hook they proudly stress is that she can only be herself when she’s not herself. I have a problem with that.
Look, I understand issue #1 hasn’t even hit the shelves yet. However, Aftershock Comics and Paul Jenkins are certainly making it a point to do the rounds and build buzz for the book, and they’re working to get reactions from people. Positive reactions ideally, but still. The idea of a trans character that can only be herself when she’s in her superhero costume lends itself heavily to the tragic queer trope. It’s been done. It’s been done a lot. It was also done in comics like with Batwoman in 2013.
Being queer is not tragic. Being trans is not tragic. Having a character whose tragedy in life is rooted in their queerness is lazy writing and shouldn’t be acceptable to audiences in 2016. Yes, plenty of characters have tragedy that lead them to being superheroes. Spider-Man losing his Uncle Ben, Batman losing his parents, Superman losing his home planet, and so forth. None of them had something tragic about them based on them being cisgender or heterosexual. And to be clear, I don’t mean to be conflating gender identity with sexual orientation with that previous statement. My intention was to address queerness broadly and to stress how those characters mentioned are cis het.
Even characters in teams like the X-Men or Doom Patrol that don’t like the side effects of their powers aren’t burdened by their sexual orientation or gender identities. Hell, Coagula is an out and proud trans woman in her first pages of Doom Patrol twenty years ago. That’s not to say that Aftershock Comics or Paul Jenkins are consciously supporting the tragic queer trope, but that doesn’t change the fact that when you make the central internal conflict of a character their queerness and promote the comic with that as the hook, that you are feeding into that trope.
Beyond the queer is tragic trope, it’s also made clear that this story will involve the character of Charlie Young transitioning in secret from her family. Popular media is obsessed with transitioning. Whether it be Caitlyn Jenner, TV shows like Transparent, or movies like The Danish Girl, the media can’t seem to get enough of it. That’s not to say that Charlie Young’s transitioning will not be relatable to someone out there in the trans community just coming out or planning on doing so. However, people like Caitlyn Jenner are interviewed and analyzed by cis reporters, and shows like Transparent and movies like The Danish Girl star cis actors in the lead roles, and characters like Chalice are being written and illustrated by a cis creative team (the colorist is trans, but that’s not a position with creative control in a narrative sense) which means we see these more popular glimpses into the trans community and physical transitioning safely through a cis lense.
Trans people and the trans community do not exist to transition for our entertainment. Not to mention that not everyone in the trans community transitions, has the same goals in their transitioning or transitions in the same way. Not everyone is concerned about “passing” as one gender. Some people in the trans community are non-binary as well.
They are more than their transitioning, and we need to stop acting like that’s the only story worth telling with trans characters, or even the most important story to tell. Characters who are often played by or written by cis people in the first place, only adding to how cis people use trans people for entertainment, oscars, and pats on the back for being oh so progressive.
Aftershock Comics, Paul Jenkins, Leila Leiz, Liz Luu, and other people who are working on Alters in some capacity all seem to be creating characters like Chalice with the best of intentions. They all appear to have a vested interest in increasing diversity in comics, and it’s certainly nice to see how many women are working on a book like this when the mainstream comics industry still sorely lacks hired female talent, which is something important to Paul Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins also have a history of writing quality comics.
That being said, if you want to tell more diverse stories with rich characters of different backgrounds, then you need to hire people with those backgrounds. We need more diversity behind the pages just as badly as we need them on the pages.
I’m hoping that Alters will be a deeper, richer story for Chalice than the press hits lead on. I’m hoping a character like Chalice may be around long enough to develop and grow into something more than a tragic queer trope and a way to continue feeding these obsessions with physical transitions and people “passing.” Mostly, I’m looking forward to the potential that a character like Chalice could bring to getting more comics publishers to green light more projects with trans characters.
And hey, maybe they’ll even get a trans writer or illustrator on it too.