As anyone who follows my twitter feed is already painfully aware, I’ve lately been going through a ridiculously, passionately, pathetically, obsessively renewed interest in comic books. Specifically, “mainstream” monthly titles, something I haven’t really followed since I was a teenager. I’ve had a real, genuine love for the medium my whole life, and went through lots of times throughout my twenties where I was enjoying reading “indie” stuff like Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, James Kochalka and pretty much anything Drawn & Quarterly or Fantagraphics did, but for some reason I just didn’t let myself fully geek out on superheroes, despite how much I love them and love the broad stories -the myths, as cheasy as it is to say so- that define them. I kept it as a relatively minor little part of my pop-culture-addled brain, and used them as touchstones, metaphors, cultural reference points, conversation fuel and so on without diving back into the pleasures of actually reading them.
But that changed about six weeks ago. In a really really big way. I’ve been especially immersed in DC’s “New 52”, a decision they made ten months ago to reboot their entire continuity (while maintaining in broad strokes a lot of the more well-loved stories as back-history), and relaunch their line as 52 new titles, all starting at #1, with new readers not requiring any previous knowledge to start following a title. In other words, the absolute perfect set-up for a fan of comics who’d been longing to return to the medium but felt intimidated by the gargantuan continuity scaring away potential new generations of readers (and creators) like some Eldritch abomination from the darkness beyond the stars, the gravity of its immensity distorting narrative itself into labyrinthine, non-euclidean timelines.
For me, it was an in. And frankly, I think both of the “big two” comics publishers should do this kind of thing once a decade or so. Because one of the coolest, strongest, best things about superheroes is that there’s no one “correct” interpretation of any of them. They don’t belong to any individual artist or reader. We share them. And there’s nothing but positives to be had from periodically providing a little breathing room for new generations.
And so I’ve been obsessively catching up on the back issues of the titles I like, and sifting through the whole current comics industry to figure out what characters, writers and artists and stuff I do and don’t like, and have been having a whole hell of a lot of fun doing so. My twitter feed has been choked with my ramblings on it… complaining about the creepy implications of the “majour hero” DC had come out as gay turning out to just be an alternate universe Green Lantern on “the Earth where it all went wrong”, feeling embarrassed for recommending Resurrection Man before realizing that from issue two and onwards it’s totally choked with sexism (totally not kidding: it features a pair of sociopathic “slutty” porn-star assassins in mini-skirts who speak in valley girl slang), wondering about the racial implications of Static Shock’s cancellation and what it represents in relation to the legacy of Milestone comics and minority-oriented comics in general, gradually coming around to regarding the sweetness of the love story and beauty of the art in Batwoman as being enough to really like the title and forgive the issues I had with the characterization, being indifferent to Northstar’s wedding, which came about five years too late to feel like anything other than a sales gimmick (when Archie beats X-Men to the punch on one of the defining civil rights issues of our time, I’m not going to be impressed when the latter finally gets around to it), wondering if Starling from Birds of Prey was deliberately modeled after Skepchick’s Surly Amy, getting a bit sad when Blackhawks got cancelled before I could find out if their Lady Blackhawk was Natalie Reed, feeling excited but not getting my hopes up for Archie’s upcoming gender-swap issue, feeling totally heartbroken over how Harley Quinn’s new origin irreversibly ruins absolutely everything I most loved about someone who’d been one of my all-time favourite DC characters, deciding I like Scott Synder’s take on Batman the best, as his most closely matches the Paul Dini interpretation I grew up with, etc. etc. etc.
And in case anyone’s wondering, my current pull consists of Batman, Batgirl, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Animal Man, Dial H, Saga, Rachel Rising, Alabaster: Wolves, Doctor Who, Fables and Fairest. I love all those titles, and totally recommend them. Except for Doctor Who, which I only recommend to people as stupidly head-over-heels for The Doctor as I am. I’ve also been enjoying The Flash, Action Comics, Justice League Dark, Swamp Thing, Frankenstein: Agent Of S.H.A.D.E., The Defenders and iZombie, but haven’t been following them quite as closely.
But there’s one title that above all the others I really, really, truly love. One that isn’t just fun (although it certainly is fun), but resonates on a very personal level too. Where I get that rare, intensely beautiful feeling I always chase after in literature; that feeling like somehow, someone, somewhere, genuinely understands some part of you. That feeling of something reaching out from the oceans of time and culture and hitting home. Those little moments of sharing some deeply personal feeling or idea or something, some intensely particular way of being human amongst the nearly infinite such possibilities we stumble through as we work our way through our funny little lives. That someone gets you, and you get them. And in those moments, you feel just a little less alone. While I love all the titles I’ve got in my pull, and always look forward to them on Wednesday mornings, there’s the one that feels really special for me.
And I’m not by any means the only geeky trans girl I know who feels exactly the same way.
This rediscovered love of monthly comics started back in April when I decided to track down a few things for the sake of some blog-related research on trans characterizations in pop culture. I managed to find, at a local comic shop in their $1 back-issue bins, the near entirety of Rachel Pollack’s run on Doom Patrol, which I’d been looking for a long while. Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol holds a very esteemed position in the annals of comics history, and the trade paperbacks are readily available, but Rachel Pollack, the trans woman who took over for him when he left the title (and it fell under the newly formed Vertigo imprint), and who introduced the world’s first trans woman superhero (Kate “Coagula” Godwin), receives nowhere near comparable recognition. Her run on the comic remains obscure, neglected and long, long out of print, having never been collected into TPB at all.
I maintain that the reason for that is not as simple as her being “not as talented as Morrison”. Her talent was a different kind, but she was a damn good writer, and more than up to the task. The issue was that her Doom Patrol was not written for a straight, cisgender audience. It’s completely loaded with queer themes, and little messages to the reader that are there just for those of us who know what she meant. Know, for example, that when she talks about not giving in to the temptation to try to “prove you’re real” to others it’s NOT about literally proving you’re real, but proving that the identity you’ve defined for yourself is just as real and legitimate as any of the assigned ones others carry around. Or the one you were assigned. She wrote for people like herself. But that’s not a big market. The title was cancelled two years after she claimed it.
I also tracked down Deathwish, by Maddie Blaustein, another trans woman. This was a typical 90s “gritty” vigilante story, but the protagonist was a badass, chain-smoking, hard-boiled detective who also happened to be a non-op, transsexual lesbian. Before there was even the term “non-op”. And “A Game Of You”, the Sandman story arc that featured a very positive trans woman character (although a final scene I won’t spoil does buy into a very problematic “cis bodies are real / transsexual bodies are artificial” dichotomy).
All of these comics I initially started reading under the vague concept of “research” and “work” and “writing material”, but I found I really well and truly loved sprawling out on the couch, putting up my footsies, and cracking open a comic book. It was relaxing. It was me-time. And it felt like one of the only times in the past several months where I’d ever been able to actually turn off the constant, stressing, worrying, writing, questioning, composing, arguing, non-stop train of thought in my head. When you’re a writer, or in any way involved in “brain work” or creative work, the division between “work hours” and “non-work hours” becomes completely blurred. And reading comics felt, finally, like I was totally, completely off the clock. “Research” or not.
Hence my immediate, happy plunge back into the medium. I had found a new kind of escape. And one considerably less self-destructive than heroin.
But poking around all the new titles, after having re-immersed myself into comics through stories featuring characters like myself, it was impossible not to notice the total absence of any trans characters whatsoever. In fact, I knew that basically all the trans-centered or trans-themed “overground” comics ever were the ones I had just read. Kate Godwin, Lt. Marisa Rahms, Wanda and Masquerade (from Blood Syndicate) were more or less the only real trans characters to ever have been featured in such comics, and all of them appeared in the period of 1993-1996. For over 15 years the comics industry had effectively failed to acknowledge our existence. For one magical little moment in the mid-90s, there was such a thing as trans people. But since, nothing.
When it comes to minority representation, it’s a really fucking stubborn industry. See my above point about Archie beating X-Men to a gay marriage. And when it comes to minority rights, trans people have been pretty consistently a good fifteen years behind the LGBs. It was only last year that we suddenly began to have teeth as a movement.
An absence of characters like oneself doesn’t always lead to the absence of finding yourself somewhere anyway, though. One of the ongoing themes of this blog has been how trans people cope with our marginalization, erasure and ridicule in a culture that barely even acknowledges we’re here, and usually only as a punchline, object of ridicule or disgust or fetishization, or “fascinating” specimen to be studied or pathologized or slotted into theories, on the occasions that they do ever bother to get around to us. How we manage to find what we need from what’s available. Like taking hateful representations and turning them into sources of pride, or at least touchstones for understanding ourselves. Or taking things that were never really meant to be about us at all and seeing ourselves there anyway.
Everyone needs to feel themselves present and reflected in their culture. And we’ll find ways to have those needs met. Queers have always been good at that kind of thing. It’s probably one of the things that gave birth to the existence of “camp” in the first place. And for trans people, that kind of creative re-imagining is still one of the only means of cultural identity we have… and furthermore a powerful (and deeply radical) means of resistance against a ubiquitous barrage of messages telling us to be ashamed of who we are.
Walking into a comics industry where there may as well not even be such a thing as gender variance (except for shapeshifters and magical “gender-bender” episodes… and have you noticed how even the shapeshifting alien species seem to have binary models of gender identity?), I was still able to find characters and situations I could relate my own experiences to. I’m used to it.
Where I, and a lot of other trans women I know, found a character and story we could relate to, that resonated with our experiences and felt like understanding, was in Gail Simone’s Batgirl.
This version of Batgirl is once again Barbara Gordon, Gotham City’s police commissioner Jim Gordon’s daughter. In the previous DC Universe continuity, Barbara Gordon had been shot (and presumably raped) by The Joker, leaving her paralyzed below the waist. Afterwards, she could no longer be Batgirl, and instead assumed a role as Oracle, a sort of hacker, help-line, information desk and organizational badass for the superhero community. Oracle was a fantastic character, demonstrating that it was possible to not only be capable despite having a disability, but to be a hero. That there were lots of different kinds of ability, not all of them physical. I know a lot of people for whom she was one of their all-time favourite comics characters. I loved Oracle too.
In the New 52 continuity, and the new Batgirl title, the attack from The Joker still occurred, and Barbara was still paralyzed. But in this continuity, after three years or so, she regained the use of her legs. At the beginning of the series, she has just recently resumed operating as Batgirl, having just now recovered the physical ability to do so.
This change was met with a lot of initial criticism. It was regarded as heavily ableist that they would retcon perhaps the most positive representation of a person with a disability in the entirety of comic book history into being able-bodied. I would totally, vocally agree with that criticism if it were the case that how this was handled was simply “Oh, she can walk again! She’s all better now! Everything’s fine! Now let’s go fight some baddies.”
But that’s not how it was handled.
It’s not my place as an able-bodied person to say “this is totally not in any way ableist!”, but what it does do, and what plays a large role in the degree to which I identity with the character, is not erase the damage of that event in Barbara’s life. The entire story of Batgirl, at least so far, is defined by her efforts to cope with the deep psychological scars left by the attack. Although the character no longer represents how one can cope with a physical disability, it now represents the struggle to cope with trauma. With survivor’s guilt. With having been through a lot of horrible things. With self-doubt. With resenting people constantly telling you how “brave” you are just for existing. With resenting the way people pity you. With feeling anger towards everyone’s unsolicited efforts to help. With doing your best to move forward with your life even as you know you’ll never be able to wholly put those painful aspects of your past behind you. With sometimes feeling like you don’t quite deserve to move forward with your life. With feeling like you don’t deserve any of the good things that have happened to you, when so many other people like you are still suffering so much. Blaming yourself for the bad things that happen to other people, no matter to what degree it isn’t your fault or your responsibility. Thinking others deserve better than the bad things that happen to them, but everything shitty that ever happened in your own life is all your own fault. The struggle to reconcile the feelings of powerlessness that can come with having been hurt, how that plays into how we blame ourselves, and how they get exasperated by any status that is victimized in our society: being a woman, having a disability, having PTSD, being trans…
Basically, a whole mess of things that trans women are going to relate to. Hard things. Painful things. But things that feel true. That are true to our experiences, and the experiences of many people who’ve had to cope with these kinds of things.
There’s a really obvious connection here. The really fucked-up truth of it is that trans women, with really fucked-up frequency, have often been the victims of violence. Sometimes that violence is self-inflicted, through cutting, suicide attempts, or self-destructive behaviours like addiction. Sometimes that violence is sexual, such as rape. Sometimes that violence is medical, such as being denied treatment or subjected to non-consensual treatment… even psychosurgery. Sometimes the violence is structural, like being denied housing. But often it’s just plain violence. The kind Barbara Gordon experienced.
I have friends who’ve survived exactly the kind of violence Barbara Gordon experienced. Friends who’ve survived being attacked with a weapon, sexually assaulted, and left to die. Friends who, incidentally, read Batgirl.
But I think the connections go beyond just that. I think on some level, we all have some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. A pretty apparent truth that we nonetheless don’t tend to acknowledge in our community is that being raised in a coercive, unwanted gender assignment is itself deeply traumatic, even despite all the attendant traumas, such as the violence with which that gender assignment is typically enforced amongst those assigned-male-at-birth. If you took a cis person who’d been forcibly raised as the “opposite” sex throughout their childhood, and consistently subjected to abuse every time they attempted to express their own gender, and took them in their adulthood to a psychiatrist, PTSD is one of the very first things that psychiatrist would look for. And they wouldn’t be even remotely surprised if that person ended up traumatized by the experience.
Survivor’s guilt is also something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Two weeks ago was the anniversary of the death of my friend Welby, from a heroin overdose. The fact that I was the one who got clean and he was the one who died still feels like the outcome of a coin toss, and still feels fundamentally unfair. Probably because it IS fundamentally unfair. That gets in your head and messes around with things.
But I think it’s more than that, too. That it’s also something we experience near-universally (there are no wholly universal trans experiences), beyond simply the frequency with which our histories are marked by survivals and strewn with the ghosts of friends. To transition, and to live, is itself an act of survival. Of living through something that not everyone does. That 41% suicide rate (minimum 41%, failing as it does to account for those who never made it to coming out, their graves marked with names that were never their own) hangs over all of us.
So many of our stories about how we arrived at the decision to transition, our “origin stories”, are marked by things like failing to take our own lives, or near-miss drug overdoses. Even amongst those of us who never came that close, we’re still all aware of the possibility that we may not have made it. Consequently, we’re haunted by the gnawing awareness of how many must not have made it. How many of the suicide attempts didn’t fail, or how many of the drug overdoses occurred alone, with no one around to help. How many of us made the other decision, or never got the chance to decide.
It’s not even a question of simply having survived where others didn’t. It’s a question of having survived where others didn’t even get the chance to exist.
These kinds of themes and feelings permeate Batgirl. They’re exaggerated into the kinds of conflicts that can be drawn as two costumed characters punching each other, but still read as metaphors for the kinds of internal battles we go through. The first villain she faces is Mirror, who (spoiler alert), survived a car crash in which his family burned to death. He feels his survival was a cruel joke played by fate or God, that we don’t deserve to live when those close to us don’t, and he sets out to kill a number of Gotham citizens who “miraculously” survived occurrences where they “should” have died. Survivor’s Guilt as a supervillain. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have to fight Mirror myself, in the wake of Welby’s death. Or Natalie’s. Or every time I hear about yet another murdered trans woman (of colour… always of colour). Or every time I remember the statistics.
Batgirl has a strong and passionate trans fanbase not because it in any way has directly addressed trans themes (not yet, anyway), but because we find ourselves and see our stories where we can. In Batgirl we see our own conflicts, guilt and self-doubt, our efforts to let ourselves feel okay and live our lives. And we can feel, reading it, that those conflicts are understood. That we aren’t alone in fighting them. That they aren’t, in fact, even exclusive to trans experiences. That it’s just one of the fights human beings sometimes have to go through.
Feeling like someone else has fought these battles too, and someone else understands, can mean a great deal in terms of finding the strength to make it.
But also, when we cheer for Barbara Gordon, we find ourselves accidentally cheering for ourselves.
And that’s something we don’t let ourselves do nearly often enough.
Oh, and one last thing… Gail Simone has recently been hinting on her tumblr about maybe soon trying to directly address some trans-positive themes in her work, she’s certainly aware of her trans women fans, and there’s the ghost of a whisper of a sliver of a chance that maybe, just maybe, we might find ourselves with a trans character in Gotham City. Maybe 16 years has finally been long enough? Fingers crossed.
Will Natalie finally begin posting her essays at 9am Eastern again?
Tune in tomorrow to find out! Same Nat-Blog. Same Nat-Network.