Luckily, here comes BOOM! and Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, and Tamra Bonvillain with Once & Future #1, a rip-roaring old-timey adventure story with fun protagonists I’ve never encountered before (though I could easily see Diana Rigg in one of the roles, and I’m not telling you more than that) and what hints and a very different way of telling a story that we all thought we knew.
You can pre-order the paperback, of course, but it won’t be out until March and I think you could really do with something light-hearted now, don’t you? It’s been a rough week. Get #1 now and have some laughs.
Oh, there’s a trailer, too; but you’d only be spoiling the discovery. However, if you must…
This past week was quite busy. President Trump pushed back against a “so-called” judge, Melissa McCarthy nailed Sean Spicer on SNL, the Patriots pulled off a record-breaking upset that would have never happened if they were playing the Giants, and it was announced that Aspen Comics would be creating new comic with Scott Lobdell writing a black trans woman titled No World. As much as I’d like to hit on all of these topics, I’m going to focus on No World.
So let’s get into it. Aspen’s new comic is a team book. It will have characters from Soulfire, Executive Assistant, Dellec, as well as some new characters. Lobdell described one of the new characters as “Former NFL. 6’5. 250lbs. She’s here. She’s trans. She’s gonna kick evil’s ass!” You can see that Tweet here. We still don’t have a name or much of a background to this character outside of her being a former NFL player, but we have some information we can start examining.
Let’s start with former NFL player bit. When we’re dealing with a trans character and one of the only bits of information we get on them is about something from before they came out, that raises a few red flags. There’s a concern that when cis writers tackle trans characters, that there is an unnecessary focus on transitioning. Take a look at Alters where the character of Chalice is in the process of transitioning and we see her as her Charlie persona about as much as we see her as Chalice. If you look at trans writers like Rachel Pollack and Mags Visaggio, we see kick ass trans women without ever having to see them prior to their transition, hearing them go by their dead name or even knowing about it, and so forth. Unfortunately with her being a former NFL player we are likely here this character’s dead name multiple times. Sometimes cis writers do a good job with this like when Gail Simone had Alysia Yeoh come out as trans, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t approach this with some caution.
Moving on to her being 6’5 and 250 lbs, Scott follows that up using the hashtags #gnc, short for gender nonconforming, and #nonbinary. There is also an image of her that Scott shared with the line “passing is for footballs.” These elements are a bit more interesting. Trans characters in comics are mostly white and mostly attempt to pass. Trans characters of color, particularly black trans women, have been very rarely seen in comics and are also easily of the most victimized members of the queer community. This type of representation is sorely needed.
It’s also important to note that some people who consider themselves gender nonconforming or nonbinary may be okay with she/her/herself as well as they/them/theirself, so that could end up being just fine.
Scott Lobdell is no stranger to creating a trans character. He created Suzie Su for Red Hood and the Outlaws. This particular trans character was a very unflattering portrayal, a villain, and someone who was more than willing to murder children to get what she wants. It’s worth noting this was his only other portrayal of a trans character in comics that has made it into print and should at very least cause many to wait and see how No World plays out before praising or condemning this representation.
Unlike comics like Alters, No World has no trans representation in its creative team, which seems to be mostly straight cis white men. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but when tackling a character like this one it’s not necessarily comforting either.
Scott has at least stated on February 3rd that he’s consulting with some members of the trans community. You can see that Tweet here. He talks of a few trans friends that helped him as well, including Shakina who plays Lola on Difficult People. One thing you may notice following that link, at least at the time I wrote this, is that Scott Lobdell has yet to responded to Mags Visaggio’s questions and offering to consult with Scott on this character.
For the most part, I’m concerned about how this comic will play out. While there is evidence of talking with some trans women, there isn’t any evidence of Scott Lobdell consulting with people who are gender nonconforming or nonbinary. It seems this will also be a story that involves dealing with the characters life pre-transition. It’s also very possible that this character will not even be featured heavily in this series; it’s a team book.
I do hope that Scott will use his position in comics to help trans creators here on out. For example, Neil Gaiman wrote a trans character in The Sandman which helped get Rachel Pollack and Caitlin R. Kiernan noticed by DC Comics, which in turn lead to them working for thay company for years. While the character has been reexamined and there is valid criticism, by helping trans creators get noticed it shows that Neil genuinely cares about the trans community. Paul Jenkins on Alters got Tamra Bonvillain work on that title.
No matter how this particular title develops, I hope Scott Lobdell’s interest in the trans community goes beyond No World and that we’ll see him help lift up this group of comics creators that are too often overlooked.
Before I go into this week’s column, I wanted to acknowledge the passing of Carrie Fisher. Mere hours after my column went up last week it was reported that she had passed. It was truly tragic for her family, friends and legions of fans whom include myself. Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher.
Last week I picked Love Is Love, the joint DC Comics and IDW publication to raise money for Equality Florida benefiting the victims of the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting. I had written about this book’s announcement back in September and how it filled me with pride that this was happening, but that comics still has more to do towards creating stronger queer inclusion. Now that the trade is out and I got the chance to read it, I have more to say.
This charity project organized by Marc Andreyko was originally a joint project with DC Comics and IDW. As of last month, Archie Comics added itself to the mix and included two separate Kevin Keller stories for the anthology, one by Kevin Keller’s creator Dan Parent. We get a short comic featuring Chalice from AfterShock’s Alters. The Will Eisner estate even gave permission to use The Spirit for a comic in the anthology as well. All of that combined with an introduction by director Patty Jenkins and you have an anthology with more star power and support for a cause than I, at least, have ever seen before in comics.
Love Is Love opens with an “In Memoriam” page with the names and ages of all 49 victims from the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting. It’s then clarified that this is an IDW publication with editorial and related services provided by DC Entertainment. Following that is Patty Jenkins introduction then nonstop one or two page comics and illustrations, followed by Marc Andreyko’s afterward and a plug for Equality Florida.
While I was aware of quite a few of the people who were working on the project, there were plenty in the book I had no idea were in it up until I read their contributions. Stories from people like Dan Didio and Brian Michael Bendis. Dan Didio is someone whom members of the queer community were upset with after his mandate that characters including Batwoman could not get married. While I personally wasn’t as upset by this decision as some people were, I did understand it.
Brian Michael Bendis is someone who I’ve met, admire, and is at least somewhat responsible for getting me back into comics with the launch of Ultimate Spider-Man back when I was in high school. One area I’ve been critical with him on is his handling of Iceman being retconned as gay. While this was out of ignorance and not malice, it still made it hard for me and others to get interested in Iceman again. Now with Sina Grace on board, a queer man and another contributor to Love Is Love who contributed a great personal two page comic, I’m more than happy to give Iceman a shot again.
Two other contributors I were aware of who have had mixed responses from the queer community as of late are Paul Jenkins and James Robinson. Paul Jenkins is the creator and writer of the AfterShock comic Alters with Leila Leiz and Tamra Bonvillain. For his contribution to this anthology, Paul did a two-page story about the trans character Chalice with Tamra Bonvillain and Robert Hack illustrating instead of Leila Leiz. It’s a two-pager about how irrelevant those oppressing the queer community are becoming and it’s a positive message. The series at AfterShock has received some criticism from people in the comics community, including myself, concerned with trans representation in comics and how the character could potentially have a negative impact.
While I had qualms with the first issue in particular, Paul Jenkins has since been using the back of each issue to have a conversation with a trans person and to stress how important using proper pronouns are and other topics people in the cis community need to be more educated on.
James Robinson is a writer whose previously been nominated for a GLAAD award for his thoughtful portrayals of queer characters in comics and has been writing queer characters in his comics since the 90s. Back in the summer of 2015, James had gotten backlash over his treatment of trans people in his pseudo-autobiographical comic Airboy with Image comics. After a couple of days of online onslaught, James Robinson released a thoughtful apology. Further reprints of Airboy #2 have been edited to make it less offensive.
What do Dan Didio, Brian Michael Bendis, Paul Jenkins, and James Robinson all have in common? That despite the fact that in their long careers they’ve had at least one instance where readers questioned their portrayals and handling of queer characters, they showed up to volunteer and dedicate their time and talent to help the queer community during what’s easily one of the communities darkest times in modern American history. Allies are important, and actions do speak louder than words. And although they may have had missteps, they showed up when it counted the most and that needs to be recognized and celebrated.
While it is important to highlight allies, I would feel horrible if I discussed this anthology without highlighting more of the queer contributors. Mainstream queer talent like Phil Jimenez, Sina Grace, and James Tynion IV offer us autobiographical looks at their life and how being queer impacts it. Although Howard Cruse isn’t a contributor, he’s the subject of Justin Hall’s comic along with Howard’s beloved husband Eddie Sedarbaum. Steve Orlando gives us a touching one page comic about a queer family. Trans comics creator and journalist Emma Houxbois, an important voice whom I admire, has a touching one page comic about how important places like Pulse are to the queer community.
There are far more queer contributors in this book and I wish I could spend time talking about all of them. Two other allies I’d like to mention, Jeffrey Burandt and Sean Von Gorman, created a one page comic with public domain superhero Rainbow Boy where they save Rockbar from a bunch of Spider-Haters. Rockbar is a bar here in the West Village that I frequent fairly regularly and it’s great to see them being represented.
Love Is Love is not just an important milestone in comics history and a loving tribute to the queer community that will help benefit them, it’s also just good comics and a fun read. It took a great deal of time and a saint’s patience for Marc Andreyko to get this book from a desire to see the comics community come together after the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting and the over six months that followed for it to hit the stands. We should all be grateful for Marc’s kindness and generosity as well as the dozens and dozens of contributors that made this book possible.
At $9.99, there really is no reason not to pick up this full-length trade paperback. If you didn’t pick it up last week, please pick this up when you grab your comics this week.
As much as I would like to spend this column and all of my writings for the foreseeable future on what happened this election and its consequences, I’ll be returning to comics this week as this is what I and everyone at ComicMix signed up for. If I feel it’s applicable down the line, you better believe I’ll be writing about it here.
I’ve dedicated more than a few of my columns to the new Doom Patrol and to DC’s Young Animal imprint. Everything I had written about prior to today has been speculative regarding Young Animal as a whole. Now that at least one issue of all four series under the Young Animal banner have been released, I’d like to discuss my thoughts on the imprint so far.
For those less familiar, DC’s Young Animal imprint is “curated” by musician and Eisner Award winning writer Gerard Way, those titles being Doom Patrol, Shade The Changing Girl, Cave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye, and Mother Panic. Doom Patrol is the flagship title and what Gerard Way had originally pitched. Shade is an update of Peter Milligan’s Shade The Changing Man at Vertigo, which was an update of Steve Ditko’s original concept in the late 1970s. Cave Carson is an obscure DC side character who’s never had his own series before. Mother Panic is a new character created by Gerard Way, Jody Houser, and Tommy Lee Edwards.
After reading three issues of Doom Patrol, two issues of Shade, and one of both Cave Carson and Mother Panic a few things have become very clear. These comics are all character pieces. They’re very much driven by one character in each series, with Doom Patrol’s focus shifting somewhat while keeping Space Case in primary focus.
Some of this works. In a lot of ways this approach is also necessary. These are characters most comic readers aren’t as keenly aware of. Mother Panic is entirely new, though taking place firmly in Gotham.
My problem with the stories so far is they lack strong antagonists. There is no singular villain that shakes me to my core. The stakes in a lot of what I’ve read so far haven’t really been fleshed out. Space Case has some vague danger and weirdness following her, but we don’t really know to what extent and what’s at stake. Shade had aliens that seem to kind of be looking for her, but we aren’t really all that sure yet how that’s going. Cave Carson’s eye is causing him problems, but, again, there is no clear antagonist. The closest we get to a clear antagonist is in Mother Panic, and even then little time is spent on her.
Now to be clear, I do really like strong character pieces where other elements of the story become secondary. This is only a problem for me as this is prevalent in all four titles. If I feel like I’m getting more of the same across four titles, it’s easier for me to be willing to drop one as time goes on.
We are also getting more of the same across all these titles in that they are all about straight cis white women – with the exception of Cave Carson, who is a straight cis white man. This by itself isn’t inherently bad. However, DC Comics has been trying to expand its readership and I’m not entirely sure I’m seeing how this will end up doing so in the long run. They’ve been doing a good job in terms of pumping out plenty of comics with straight cis white women or now some bi cis white women with Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn. I don’t see how creating another white hero in Gotham is a step forward or a tool to garner new readers.
I know it may sound like I can’t be enjoying these books if I’m being critical about them. That’s not the case; I have been enjoying these comics overall. If anything, I wish more of the main DC titles took up some elements of these books. They’re often weird and deal with alienation and other feelings that either aren’t tackled in other DC Comics. The art is expressive at best and different at worst. The characters do all stand out and were fleshed out well from their debut issues. I do plan on continuing to read them for the foreseeable future.
That being said, DC Comics and others need to be more considerate about the future. I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about the election and its aftermath, but this does feel applicable. Now more than ever comics are going to need to step up. We have elected a bigot to the highest office in the land who has already appointed a bigger bigot as his top adviser. We need imprints that aren’t as white. Imprints with more diverse characters and more diverse creators. Outside of Tamra Bonvillain, nearly everyone involved with Young Animal is straight cis and white. And while I do commend them on the amount of women working on the imprint and the amount of women that are leads in the comics they’re putting out, we need more than that. We need not just white women, but people of color, queer people, and non-Christians feeling welcome and accepted. Feeling they can be superheroes too.
There are plenty of places to start. DC Comics controls the characters and universe from Milestone Media and doesn’t seem to be doing anything with that. Now is the time to do something. Marvel Comics seems to be onto something having Ta-Nehisi Coates help to bring people in to expand their Black Panther universe. Joe Illidge has been working hard over at Lion Forge to start Catalyst Prime, a series of superhero titles with both diverse characters and creators set to debut next year. We can only hope other comic publishers will be able to learn a thing or two from what Catalyst Prime will be and I hope for their success.
I’d be more than happy for more pop up imprints like Young Animal. I do think Gerard Way is doing something good. We just need more and different things as well. We need comics important to other audiences.
Here’s an idea: give Grace Jones a pop up imprint. I don’t know what she’d do, but I can tell you right now I’d read it.
I’ve been traveling a lot for my day job. It’s been hectic and crazy but it did give me a chance to catch up on some comics I’ve been trying to read. Not sure if you remember, but about a year ago Dark Horse Comics announced acclaimed writer Margaret Atwood would be coming to comics with her original title Angel Catbird. The moment I heard about it, I was beyond excited. Really, I even wrote about how I was excited. Well, volume 1 was released on September 6th and I’ve finally gotten a chance to read it.
Ok, so before I talk about the comic, I want to talk about how amazing the introduction was. When you are talking about Margaret Atwood, a glimpse into herself is a great thing. She wrote the introduction herself, and you can’t really even call it an introduction. It is more like a journey through her childhood hopes and dreams. Who knew that she wanted to be an artist? Or was a huge comics reader as a kid… and still is as an adult? Atwood, one of the most important and influential authors of the 20th century, and she has the unrealized goals of being an artist. She spends time throughout the introduction also talking about her development process for this comic, as well as her partnership with Nature Canada. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about her, just read this.
Angel Catbird is a pulp-style comic following a young scientist who gets accidentally dosed with a genetic formula he is creating to become Angel Catbird, a half cat/half bird human hybrid. When that happens, he finds out that human-animal hybrids already exist and in the middle of a very big fight with a not so nice half-rat man. In the introduction, she mentions reading comics in the ‘50s and you can definitely see that influence in Angel Catbird. It’s got a fun, simplistic story that is enjoyable for young kids and adults. And if you don’t believe me, think cat band and high-tech rats.
The art of Angel Catbird mimics the older style of comics and reminds me of the Archie comics I read as a kid. It fits the story perfectly. Johnnie Christmas really captures her writing perfectly in the art and he pairs well with the coloring by Tamra Bonvillain. They also outline their character design process at the end of the graphic novel, as well as some guest art pieces.
Well, this comic is really activism wrapped up in pretty pictures. Proceeds are going to Nature Canada, and within the introduction, Atwood mentions a pledge to have cats stay indoors to help save birds. The story also includes facts about cats throughout the story. I can only guess that bird facts will be included within volume 2, but I’ll have to wait for 2017 and volume 2 to find out.
I was looking for a lighthearted, enjoyable read, and that is exactly what I got. Angel Catbird is not an in-depth, dark tale but its purpose is to highlight the real dangers towards cats and birds in the wild and it accomplishes that in a fun way. Also, the introduction, if you didn’t guess, was a big and amazing wonderful addition for me. It was a perfect airplane read and one I would totally recommend.
Last week DC Comics and IDW announced will join together to publish a 144 page graphic novel titled Love Is Love to raise money for Equality Florida to help the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, FL on June 12th. This groundbreaking venture between two comic book publishers and a nonprofit was organized by writer Marc Andreyko and will be retailing for $9.99.
Let’s let that one sink in. This is an important moment in comics history. Of all the causes over the years that comics have tried to benefit, this is the first time that mainstream comics publishers have stepped up to benefit members of the LGBT community in need. This is also the second time an anthology has come out to benefit victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting as Margins Publishing put out two issues of a digital zine titled Our Hearts Still Beat where 100% of the proceeds were donated to The Center in Orlando to directly benefit the queer community.
It fills me with pride that comic publishers are working to benefit the queer community. I’m proud of all the creators that have gotten involved and have given their time and talent to help others and I’m thrilled that mainstream comics is standing by the queer community. Despite all the positives and how proud we should be of DC Comics and IDW for standing with victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, we need to demand more for the queer community and the other less privileged and underrepresented groups.
Though DC Comics is helping with Love Is Love, they haven’t had a trans writer pen a story for them in fifteen years. Of all the work that trans writers have done for DC, only Caitlin R. Kiernan has had any of her work collected, and it was only a fraction of her work on The Dreaming that she shares with other writers in the collection.
While DC Comics is helping support queer people of color who were disproportionately affected by the Pulse Nightclub shooting, DC has very few queer people of color working for them in a creative capacity. Phil Jimenez has done great work at DC and has been given opportunities to work with writers like Grant Morrison and on important titles like Infinite Crisis. Ivan Velez, Jr. penned stories at DC for some time as well, but not in the past decade. Beyond that, few have had similar opportunities.
Women creators are still not being represented in comics at DC as well as they were before the New 52. For the New 52, Gail Simone was one of the only women writing stories at first. Currently, the only all women creative team is for Batgirl and The Birds of Prey. All male creative teams are the overwhelming majority.
DC Comics still has an Eddie Berganza problem. While talk of his repeated sexual harassment of employees and freelancers has died down, he still holds the position of group editor of the Superman family books. They have yet to hire a woman to work on that editorial team since he took that position back after stepping down as executive editor.
They recently announced the people selected for their Writer’s Talent Workshop. For the purposes of full disclosure I did apply and was rejected. I was happy to see that the majority of the people selected were not straight cis white men, and that people of color including a Native American man were selected. That’s really great and that should be applauded. It was discouraging to see that out of the eight selected, only two were women and they were selected as a pair and all the men are solo writers. At a time when women in comics in particular are a focus of discussion to see a selection like this does come off as tone deaf.
Newsarama went on to say “Curiously, DC describes this group as “aspiring” writers in their press release, despite each have significant credentials inside and outside of comic books – including some which have done work for DC previously.” Using the term aspiring is certainly misleading when you have award winning writers and people working in the TV biz being selected. It seems like the high caliber of talent selected could have easily been found by traditional methods of editors scouting out talent. Women and people of color shouldn’t have to be incredibly talented award winners in their field to be extended an opportunity to take a class to one day possibly write for DC Comics (or write for them again). What makes this tone deaf is it comes off like these talents need DC Comics. The exact opposite is true.
That’s not to say DC Comics hasn’t done some great things and taken some risks recently beyond Love Is Love. Openly queer creator Steve Orlando was able to write a solo Midnighter series, the first openly gay mainstream solo superhero comic, for 12 issues. Though it was cancelled due to low sales, DC has taken another risk by bringing the comic back as Midnighter and Apollo which will be the first mainstream comic about a gay superhero couple. James Tynion IV, another openly queer creator, is writing Detective Comics, one of the biggest titles at DC Comics, with the openly gay Batwoman as an important character in the cast. Tamra Bonvillain, an openly trans colorist and rising star in comics, is on the reboot of Doom Patrol with heavy hitters like Gerard Way and Todd Klein. And Harley Quinn, an openly queer anti-hero, was the highest selling comic in the month of August selling upwards of 400,000 copies, written by the team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner with Chad Hardin on art. Dan Didio has even been cited by creators like Gail Simone as caring about LGBT issues, and all of this is powerful evidence that is the case.
Love Is Love is a great project and I’m proud of everyone involved and DC Comics as well as IDW stepping up and taking a stand here when it would have been much easier to not bother. And I really do love DC Comics. I love quite a lot of their properties, they have some great people that have worked for them in the past and currently, and they’ve worked on some great progressive things like Milestone Comics. That doesn’t mean more can’t be done, and it should be done.
There needs to be more intersectionality. We need more queer people of color and women of color. We need DC to use these Milestone characters and to reprint and make available the original runs. We need the works of Rachel Pollack, Maddie Blaustein and Caitlin R. Kiernan reprinted and trans writers new and old to be brought in. And we need less privileged people to rise through the ranks and be decision makers to help secure a future for comics in an ever changing market.
I can support DC Comics and praise the good work they do while also wanting more and wanting better. I love DC Comics, but… it’s complicated.
Last week I interviewed Rachel Pollack in this space. In my introduction I mentioned that only two trans women have written for DC before. That’s somewhat true, and somewhat not true. It would be true to say that only one trans woman had written for DC, and it would also be true to say that number is three. Rachel Pollack is the only one who has written for DC proper. The late Maddie Blaustein wrote for Milestone Comics, for which DC had (and has) the publishing and distribution rights. Rachel had created a trans character for comics. Today, I’d like to talk about Caitlin R. Kiernan.
In 1996, prior to becoming an accomplished and award-winning author, Caitlin R. Kiernan was an award-nominated author of short stories shopping around a novel. She was fronting a band called Death’s Little Sister, in reference to the character Delirium from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. In that year of 1996 she would be approached by the very same Neil Gaiman to write for The Dreaming, a Sandman spinoff, for DC’s Vertigo imprint. Caitlin R. Kiernan would go on to say yes, becoming the second and last trans woman to write for the Vertigo imprint.
For those of you keeping track at home, that means Neil Gaiman has played a crucial role in hiring 100% of the trans writing talent that has freelanced at Vertigo. If we add Maddie Blaustein to the mix, that’s still a sizeable 66.6%. Either way, not too shabby.
I don’t mean any of that to sound like a knock against Neil either. Quite the opposite. It’s great knowing that trans and queer representation was important to Neil at a time where the majority of Americans felt that it wasn’t even okay that we exist at all. It makes me more sympathetic towards his handling of the character of Wanda in Sandman as well considering the time that story had come out. You can see some of what Neil has to say on Wanda towards the end of this fairly recent article here.
Now back to Caitlin R. Kiernan, she would go on to write thirty-five issues, over half of The Dreaming. Working with people at Vertigo including Neil himself, she crafted stories in the dreaming with many characters we already know, like the Corinthian, as well as her own creations like Echo.
On earth Echo had been a male transvestite, but upon entering the dreaming she became a woman. Unlike Rachel Pollack’s Coagula and Maddie Blaustein’s Marisa Rahm, Echo isn’t trans in the same way. It’s through a sort of magic that Echo goes from being a male transvestite to becoming a woman in The Dreaming. That’s not to diminish the importance of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s contributions to comics or to imply that it makes Echo’s stories inherently less important than Coagula’s or Marisa Rahm’s, but Echo’s story and her journey as a character is certainly different, and it’s a story that does fit well into The Dreaming.
After The Dreaming ended with issue #60, Caitlin R. Kiernan would leave comics for the next decade before returning to the medium at Dark Horse, most notably with Alabaster: Wolves. Unlike Kiernan’s peers at DC Comics, she’s had six of her issues of The Dreaming collected in The Dreaming: Through The Gates of Horn & Ivory. This of course is just a fraction of her work on the title, and three of the issues in the collection are written by other writers. Any readers getting a chance to meet Echo in this collection will be disappointed to find that the rest of her journey remains uncollected.
While yes, many other comics at DC have not been collected (I’m still waiting for volume three of John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake’s The Spectre) the fact that the only three trans women that have written at one DC imprint or another have had nearly zero success at getting their comics collected and in print beyond their initial release is troubling.
If DC Comics is going to talk about the importance of diversity, push characters like Supergirl, Cyborg, Wonder Woman, Midnighter, and the new Superman, then I see no reason why they wouldn’t want to celebrate how they were ahead of the curve decades ago. They’ve solely been working up to this by reprinting Tony Isabella’s Black Lightning, but reprinting the works of Rachel Pollack, Maddie Blaustein, and Caitlin R. Kiernan is an important part of that. Reprinting Milestone Comics instead of sitting on them is important.
20That’s not to say this is just a DC Comics problem. Trans representation at other comics publishers is lacking as well. We’ve seen Sophie Campbell and Tamra Bonvillain getting more recognition for their contributions to comics, and that’s a step in the right direction. We’re seeing Mags Visaggio becoming a rising star with her comic Kim and Kim over at Black Mask Studios. However, we are not seeing enough trans and queer representation overall.
Hopefully we’ll see more trans writers telling their stories in comics. Not only people like Caitlin R. Kiernan or Rachel Pollack, but people like Sophie Campbell who have gotten greater name recognition as of late, rising stars like Mags Visaggio, Lawrence Gullo and Fyodor Pavlov, and the countless others out there around the world. Some of whom I’ve heard of and some I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing their work yet.
And maybe Marvel could hire one of them to write a story… as they’ve yet to do.
Last week, DC Comics released a free preview of its new Gerard Way-curated imprint, Young Animal, with the tagline “Comics For Dangerous Humans.” Outside of the credits listed on the inside front cover and a couple appearances of the new DC logo, it’s made to look very different from what DC puts out. This sixteen-page preview is digest sized, in black and white, and has no ads for anything other than Young Animal titles.
The wraparound cover feels is a silver age throwback. Older iterations of the Doom Patrol are prevalent, as are Cave Carson and Shade The Changing Girl. This reminded me how both Doom Patrol and Cave Carson were co-created by Bruno Premiani. Hopefully they’ll showcase this in the credits of the comics. Bruno Premiani is an underrated artist in the grand scheme of things and more people read comics today should know who he is.
DC has been doing a good job as of late crediting creators in their comics so it’s very possible we’ll see that. Shade The Changing Girl is based off of the original male counterpart created by Steve Ditko, adding to the decades long tradition in comics of rebranding Steve Ditko creations for more profit than Steve Ditko made.
Once you open this preview zine, the interior cover has a letter from Gerard Way. In it he discusses not only the contents of the preview zine but how different Young Animal is for him than his previous comics outings. He inspires confidence in the reader, as well as the importance of collaboration and how everyone working on a Young Animal comic believes in the power of these characters and the power of the stories they’re telling with them. For me, this letter did exactly what it was intended to do: inspire confidence in the reader and make me more excited to read these comics than I was beforehand.
After Gerard’s letter we get a character profile of the lead from each of the four Young Animal comics. This includes Shade The Changing Girl, Cave Carson, Space Case from Doom Patrol (presumably the lead), and Mother Panic. Like in the old DC Who’s Who (edited by ComicMix’s own Robert Greenberger), these profiles are full of information that helps flesh out the characters and make us care about them before the first Young Animal comic hits the shelves. Good call on Gerard Way’s part.
The rest of this preview is filled with black and white, unlettered pages from the four different titles. The art for these titles does look top notch.
It all ends with a page showcasing the creative teams on the titles. Sixteen people in total. I had mixed feelings here.
On the one hand we have seven out of sixteen creators being women and that’s great. One of which, Tamra Bonvillain who I previously mentioned is also working on Alters for AfterShock, is trans. I don’t know how much queer representation we have on the creative teams beyond her, but it’s something. It’s especially promising that she is on Doom Patrol, a series that has dealt with queerness to some extent with Grant Morrison and even more so with Rachel Pollack, but not so much since then.
To have just shy of half the creators being women and having three of the of the four titles focus on women is important. We also get to see more of Todd Klein’s lettering and who would ever say no to that?
On the other hand, there was something missing: people of color. Seeing the creative team being all white or at very least all white with a couple or so white-passing (I don’t have DNA samples or their ancestry.com logins) made it stand out even more to me that the characters in all the books are white or white presenting. Yes, Shade The Changing Girl is an alien, but she looks white.
In all my online poking around, the only character of color I could see in preview images was Joshua from Grant Morrison’s time on Doom Patrol. Rebis might count technically, but was either referred to as Larry, the original cis white male host of Negative Man, or Rebis. The character’s blackness was completely erased save for one scene early on.
This is not anything that I feel is malicious or even intentional. Clearly Young Animal is trying to tell interesting stories and attract new readers or bring back old readers who enjoyed the early comics at Vertigo. They want to appeal to women as well. However, not all women are white.
That sounds harsh, but there isn’t really another way I can put it. I think Gerard Way is doing something great with what we know so far of Young Animal. I enjoyed Umbrella Academy. Each one of these titles look interesting to me and I will be giving them all a shot. I even plan on buying extra copies of Doom Patrol #1 to give to people to get them into it too. And every single interview I’ve seen or statement I’ve read from Gerard Way fills me with confidence in this project at a time where I’m not easily made to feel confident about a mainstream comics endeavor.
That being said, I do hope we see more characters of color in the comics than we’ve been seeing in the previews so far, and that as Young Animal hopefully succeeds and grows that we’ll see more creators of color joining the fold adding more comics with characters of colors moving the plots forward.
I’m excited to get in on Young Animal at the ground floor and I hope many others out there are as well.
Of course I always like seeing more queer representation too. Especially for titles like Doom Patrol. I heard a rumor that Rachel Pollack still has more Doom Patrol stories to tell and that this time she’ll get the recognition she deserves.
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!