Superhero_ines: Rebooted Comics and Trans* Identity

Manteau: Seriously? Bust? – What kind of things’ve you dialed so far? You been a giant metal spring, yet? A super-disco dancer? A boomerang? Now it’s bust because you’ve got ovaries? Every few dials, this happens, Baroness.
(Miéville & Santolouco, Dial H #3, 2012)

In this academic article, Christina Scholz explores trans* identity within comic books. Christina Scholz teaches at Graz University, and has research interests which include Weird fiction, M. John Harrison and China Miéville. You can visit Christina’s blog for links to more academic writing, fiction, and reviews (and other things!)

Abstract: Gender is a discursive and performative construct, and mass media such as comic books play a role in how it is constructed. Problems arise from discrepancies between prescriptive models of gender and individuals’ actual lived experience. Now, in the era of the reboot, comic book writers have the opportunity to change the identity politics inherent within well-known series, reaching a wide audience through iconic figures, and contributing to changing cisnormative perceptions of gender. Comic books are particularly crucially placed in this regard, since superheroes, as established metaphors of otherness, may in some sense already be ‘queer’ figures. However, although important and exciting steps have been taken toward better representation of trans* identities within superhero comics, we still have a long way to go. Drawing in particular on the theory of Judith Butler and Antke Engel, as well as lived experience, this article explores the past and present representation of trans* identities in comic books, and looks with hope toward the future.

‘Superhero_ines: Rebooted Comics and Trans* Identity’

Christina Scholz

Centre for Intermediality Studies, University of Graz, Austria

Diversity is a major issue for superhero comics. Batgirl writer Gail Simone says about comic book writing that “almost all the tentpoles we build our industry upon were created over a half century ago … at a time where the characters were almost without exception white, cis-gendered, straight, on and on” (Hudson 2013).

Diversity is a major issue for superhero comics – and also a complex one, not least because superpowers, aliens, mutants and magic have a long history of functioning as metaphors for otherness. In fact, as this article will explore, even the term diversity itself may sometimes prove inadequate. We appear to be at a significant moment, perhaps a cusp, in the representation of trans* and other queer identities. Now, in the era of the reboot, comic book writers have the opportunity to change the identity politics inherent in a series, reflecting on pre-existing storylines, but without being dictated to by decisions made long ago.

For Simone, a key issue is to avoid sermonizing, while bringing to the readers’ attention the fact that identity is a complex, heterogeneous, dynamic construct, and that “being trans is just part of [a character’s] story” (ibid).

Until now, comic book characters that can be considered overtly queer or trans* have been few and far between. In some cases that initially look promising, a trans* character is introduced and even sympathetically portrayed … but then killed off instead of becoming a recurring character[1]. One exception is Lord Fanny in Grant Morrison’s 1990s superhero series The Invisibles. Lord Fanny self-identifies as a gay man but was raised as a girl, and his transvestite persona prefers to be addressed as ‘she’ (cf. Morrison 2014).

More recently, DC’s rebooted Batgirl has included a trans* character. In Marvel’s rebooted Thor, since ‘Thor’ is treated as a title rather than an individual’s name, and anyone honourable enough to pick up the hammer Mjolnir can become Thor, the new Thor happens to be female (cf. White 2014). Massive changes in the rebooted DC and Marvel series raise questions about whether superheroes, as established metaphors of otherness, may in some sense already be ‘queer’ figures, and about the roles they might play in changing perceptions of gender, and influencing the enactment of gendered practices.

Shape-shifting and gender-switching are nothing new in comics. In Dial H, China Miéville’s reboot of the DC series Dial H for Hero, offers a sardonic commentary on these two entwined traditions. The protagonist, after using a magic Dial that grants an ordinary person superpowers, is shocked to find himself changed into a superheroine. Miéville’s treatment of the topic suggests that even though gender-bending may be nothing new in comics, prevailing misogynist perspectives still need to be actively challenged and changed:

Nelson: Oh my God!! I’m Baroness Resin! Manteau: So? Nelson: So it didn’t work!! I have to change back! [The Dial is] still bust! … Manteau: Seriously? Bust? – What kind of things’ve you dialed so far? You been a giant metal spring, yet? A super-disco dancer? A boomerang? Now it’s bust because you’ve got ovaries? Every few dials, this happens, Baroness. – Deal. You think these things were designed to turn us into crazy stuff like this? Like a damned twig woman? Newsflash – the Dials are always broken. Yours is extra messed up right now, true, so I don’t know how long She-Nelson’s going to last. But we have someone to rescue. So woman up.
(Miéville & Santolouco, Dial H #3, 2012)
 There is a maxim, associated with Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson, that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (Jameson 2003). Miéville is making a similar point about the rigid structures of the cisgender social imaginary. Nelson finds it easier to imagine becoming a boomerang than a Baroness. Despite the pep talk from Roxy (aka Manteau), Nelson panics. Nelson’s extreme reaction to having been gender-switched may be seen as a kind of transphobia. Nelson is suddenly confronted with the experience of being inside a body that he doesn’t identify with, and his first reaction is panic and a wish to be transformed (back). What he may also be trying to express is, “I don’t know how to react to this!” It’s the reaction of somebody who hasn’t learned that there are more than two genders, or that gender may sometimes be fluid. It’s the reaction of somebody who certainly hasn’t considered that this might apply to them, might touch their own lived experience in any way.

Another related social construct based on the gender binary (and the concept of cis-male supremacy) is the notion of men not being allowed to show intense emotions, since those would be considered ‘girly’ (or ‘unmanly’ at the very least). In extreme situations this can result in a kind of cis-male gender paranoia that seeks expression in substitutive acts to compensate the instinct for what has been prohibited. Since these substitutive acts only point to the taboo, they tend to appear bizarre and arbitrary and can only be understood when the context is made transparent. When I saw an early screening of Monster (Jenkins 2003), I was shocked that a lot of men in the audience were actually laughing at the portrayal of an ‘unwomanly’ (gender non-conforming, queer) woman who becomes violent as a reaction to being victimized. It took me a while to realize that these men’s laughter didn’t exactly sound as if they were having fun – and that it was the only emotional outlet they thought they had. A misplaced emotional response to an experience they weren’t conditioned for, a confrontation with a character and situation that resists easy (mainstream) decoding.

This example from another mass medium illustrates how the gender binary, dominated by a cisgender and heteronormative (and often cis-male-centric) view, pervades popular culture. If the processes that generate the cultural hegemony of gender positions are rendered transparent, it is possible for those being othered to use the same process (i.e. signification), and the same sort of interactive interface (e.g. mass media / social media) in order to influence it, to change it, to revolutionise it. We see stirrings of this kind in Dial H, when Roxy reacts to Nelson’s gender panic by telling him to “woman up” and to “deal with it” (Miéville & Santolouco 2012). After all, it is not our genes that make us who we are, but our actions.

But what exactly are we dealing with here? What is “it”? How do we “deal with it”? Gender is a fluid concept, a dynamic construction that is separate from both biological sex and desire. Gender is intimately bound up with linguistic representation. Together with language, gender establishes grounds for what it is possible to know, to feel, to do, to want, and to be. In its dynamism and its fluidity, ‘gender’ becomes the barely adequate name for infinite possibilities of knowledge, of liberation, and of self-expression. It is certainly possible to acquire gender. But through that same dynamism and fluidity, gender can also be the occasion for infinite forms of oppression. And in a certain sense, gender is always being acquired, again and again. Gender, like language, could not exist without repetition.

Before we go any further in attempting a nuanced account of what gender is, we need to take a slight detour. We need to make sure we have a nuanced account of what language is. According to empiricist theories, everything existing outside ourselves can be represented in language. Language, considered as a tool of communication, simply conveys meaning about this outside world. But this empiricist approach assumes the precondition of language-world correspondence.

The presupposed mimetic function of language, i.e. language functioning as reality’s mirror, is not as unproblematic as it may seem. Really, language is heterogenous, and it entangles the world in many different ways. Wittgenstein, for instance, dismantles the notion that language and world exist as separate, corresponding entities, and that language is merely some sophisticated form of pointing at things. In diverse ways, critical theorists and poststructuralists show how linguistic signification can never fully convey that which it signifies (cf. e.g. Adorno’s Nichtidentisches, Derrida’s différance). In the same way, it is categorically impossible for gender to merely be some kind of ‘language’ through which some supposed biological ‘essence’ gets expressed. Even if such a state of affairs were morally or politically desirable, which it is not, that’s simply not how language works.

When we acknowledge that gender is a discursive construct, does that mean that matter doesn’t matter? Does it mean that we can forget about bodies? Of course not. In fact, it is only by exploring the discursive construction of gender that we can begin to do justice to the actual materiality of gender. It is really the empiricist approach that neglects to take the body seriously. From the empiricist point of view, language is the basic level beyond which we cannot think. Nothing could possibly exist outside or before language, since it would have to be referred to by language in order to exist for the human mind. Language is never confronted by anything that it has not already anticipated in its existing structures. So paradoxically, although the empiricist may accuse Gender Theory of over-privileging discourse, it is actually within empiricism that the body takes on the status of an ineffectual and weightless wraith. As Judith Butler writes:

If gender is the social construction of sex, and if there is no access to this ‘sex’ except by means of its construction, then it appears not only that sex is absorbed by gender, but that ‘sex’ becomes something like a fiction, perhaps a fantasy, retroactively installed at a prelinguistic site to which there is no direct access.

(Butler 1993, 5)

The empiricist position is inconsistent. Language itself must be produced by speaking human bodies which are, inside this system of reference, represented as pre‑existing any form of language, any form of reference. If something signified as prior to signification – as matter is, in Butler’s case referring especially to the matter of the human body – turns out to be an effect of signification, the mimetic status of language is disproved (Butler 1993, 30). Nevertheless, for Butler, the resulting loss of certainty need not be a negative consequence:

[A] loss of certainty is not the same as political nihilism. On the contrary, such a loss may well indicate a significant and promising shift in political thinking.

(ibid.)

According to John Searle, so-called ‘societal truths’ gain power through repetition and complexity (Searle 2001, 154ff). Every citation of a concept reinforces it and gives it stability. Moreover, repetition can render a simple construct more complex: the complexity we observe in a culture is made up of many simple constructs stacked upon each other. These complex structures can again be reinforced by repetition. The gender binary and (cisgender) heteronormativity count among these societal truths, which can obviously be replaced by other models using the same techniques. All that is required for this to happen is a medium which generates a sufficient number of repetitions. Even though the concepts that we grow up with establish norms and constitute ‘normalcy’ for us, they are not fixed. They can be replaced by alternative concepts – especially if they don’t correspond with reality as we experience it.

"Reality can suck my dick, darling."
(Morrison 1998, 2)
The words that you heard when you were young will always stay
The ones that always stay make the world go away

(Levellers: “The Road”)

Within Gender Theory, especially within the works of Judith Butler, (gender) identity is dealt with as a discursive, cultural construct. Although gender roles are historically shifting constructs, there are always certain normative rules at work in (re‑)creating them. Convention plays a major part in the creation of these norms and role models (cf. societal truths): all so-called facts, all human ‘knowledge’ is based on a common consensus. In this way, communication is supposed to function without much misunderstanding. However, these conventions can create major problems if individual experience and cultural representation do not correspond.

In the context of gender identity, performativity recurs in the act of taking up or rejecting culturally determined role models of femininity and masculinity (cf. Butler 1990). Identity is nothing rigid, nothing that can be determined once and for all by the existing norms.

Because I always have the same name and the same nose and eyes, it doesn’t follow that I’m always the same woman.

(Huxley 1962, 105)

In the mid-Nineties, changes in perception were a major topic addressed in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Re-reading the series focussing on gender politics reveals how this may have paved the way for the current reboots.

“Ah, I feel a sadness on me, Dane. That’s how the Irish people say it. It’s their language, you can’t say, ‘I AM sad,’ or ‘I AM happy’. They understood what we English have long forgot. We’re NOT our sadness. We’re NOT our happiness or our pain but our language hypnotizes us and traps us in little labelled boxes.”

(Mad Tom in Morrison 2014a, 102)

The construction of an identity is never finished. Identity is a dynamic, performative, complex system that can and will contain seeming contradictions while still being authentic. It cannot be contained by “little labelled boxes”: “Man. Woman. So what?” (Mad Tom in Morrison 2014a, 61). In a way, it consists of all our potential identity factors, desires and affiliations in quantum superposition. Every time we act, we open this Schrödinger’s box and create one stable state pertaining to this specific place and time. The next time can and will already be different. In cultural representation however, every experience, every concept that is not represented within the language system, everything culturally unintelligible, everything outside the norms that make up our perception of reality, does not ‘exist’ in the sense mentioned above.

Problems occur wherever cultural norms and personal experience clash instead of sustaining each other. A reason for this is misrepresentation. Important normative concepts in modern Western societies are traditionally based on binary oppositions (e.g. mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, sane/insane, innocent/criminal) as well as normative heterosexuality (cf. Butler 1993), which itself results from binary oppositions treated as normative and stable categories of experience. If a person brought up within a society incorporating these values and beliefs turns out to be physically and/or psychologically different from both existing categories (e.g. ‘boys’/‘girls’) and is not represented in discourse, this results in psychological pressure and alienation. In order for this to change, something has to yield, either ‘reality’ (as in operations forced on intersexual infants so they comply with the communicated dichotomy of the sexes/gender positions) or linguistic representation (e.g. the introduction of terms like ‘intersexual’ and ‘transgender’, which imply the notion of freedom from imposed gender identity as well as the concept of a wide range of possibilities between the two poles of ‘male’ and ‘female’).

In the real world, we have many genders, we have many identities, and none of our bodies really match the norm.

(Susan Stryker in Gendernauts)

Moreover, from this point of view it is clear that a person’s gender is no more determined by that person’s desire than by genetics.

My desires change as I change.

(Jordi Jones in Gendernauts)

These clashes of norms and experience show that the gender binary is not only politically and morally problematic, but that it cannot even sustain itself. The standards we grow up with will inevitably be established (by our minds) as the norm, as our concept of ‘normality’, and what is not represented in language ‘doesn’t exist’.

But here’s the sociolinguistic conundrum: if we experience something that we don’t have any words for, it is no less real to us. We face difficulty in conceptualizing or communicating it, and may undergo extreme psychological pressure because of this. But, as illustrated by countless SFF narratives such as Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 or China Miéville’s Embassytown, new concepts can be learned to express new experiences. Our minds can be changed to accommodate them. This applies to a wider, fluid spectrum of gender identities as well as the arbitrary connection between gender and sexuality/desire.

My own experience helps me understand this. I grew up the only girl in the family, with a younger brother and three younger male cousins. In a misplaced act of protection, presupposing that knowledge about one’s body and about sexuality would lead to (hetero)sexual acts and thus to pregnancy, my mother shielded me from practically any reference to the body, to sex and desire. Close physical contact was as much of a taboo as kissing scenes on the television. In our family nobody ever dressed or undressed in front of each other. Moreover, my mother didn’t teach me any words to refer to my own body, i.e. the parts of it that she associated with sexuality. As a result (and it took me many years to realize this, since I unthinkingly adopted the normative concepts I was taught), boys were represented as having bodies and thus having power over their bodies, having desires and being able to express them and to act upon them – while girls were represented as having nothing. And at that point this included me. At the age of twenty I still found myself physically unable to speak about my body, my sexuality or my desires, since I had never acquired the language to do so. If I couldn’t speak about my body, my (dynamic, changeable, playful concept of) femininity, and everything that went with it, I didn’t have power over any of these things. Only acknowledging the situation and the mechanisms at work enabled me to realize that I had to acquire gender, to find the tools that would liberate me, give me an identity. Years later, after much hard work, I was able to speak about myself and my body, but I still had problems identifying with any of the words I had learned (in my first language). And since identity is dynamic, and my body and my desires are constantly changing, I was convinced that this learning process would never be finished. Still, I didn’t fit ‘nicely’ into any model of femininity. Puzzled, I read up more and more about gender studies, to the point where I started questioning the existence of the ‘cis’-labelled poles. Baffled by people who nevertheless clearly identified as cisgender, I finally took the step I’d always shied away from – maybe because I felt that taking the self into account was unscientific, maybe because I was afraid of ‘appropriating’ politics that weren’t mine – and applied what I’d so far learned to myself, and reconsidered my life from this perspective. Everything fell into place. From one of my first memories of myself as a three-year-old, proclaiming, “When I grow up, I want to be Boy George” (the version with long braids and makeup), via people referring to me as ‘complicated’ and ‘androgynous’, to my experiences with friends who are trans*, and who I have always felt understand me best. This was when I realised that even if I didn’t want to change my body, I wasn’t automatically cis. I didn’t have to fit into any model of femininity. I am non-binary. I am the dynamic underscore. And now that I have a word that describes everything I am without restricting me in a prescriptive model, I feel liberated.

That’s just one part of my own story, a story which is continuing. The much larger story it is part of is the growing awareness that there is nothing fundamentally normal about gender norms. Gender is an artificial construct, and gender in the sense of a deep, universal binary opposition does not exist. The misconception that it does exist is created by certain (modern Western) cultures, and the language used within these cultures. Misrepresentations like these lead to conflicts, since there are always individuals who are not represented, and therefore ‘do not exist’, within the prevailing model (cf. Foucault). Taboos and euphemisms exacerbate non-representation, misrepresentation and the resulting impossibility of identification.

Part of the solution must be to change gender perception in order to “become aware of our own roles and of the similarities between people” (Susan Stryker in Gendernauts), rather than constantly reinforcing supposed difference between the sexes or genders. But discovering our similarities does not mean indulging in ‘gender blindness’, which may be well-intentioned, but communicates disrespect for an essential part of a person’s identity. Moreover, sex, gender and desire are separate concepts, and conflating them (e.g. by doubting that a trans woman can be a lesbian), can be every bit as dangerous as essentializing stereotypical gender binaries, or erasing gender diversity and gendered lived experience.

So the shifts in perception which we need are complex. Changing perceptions also means more than just spreading intellectual epiphanies about gender. It means changing public language and public performativity, since all perception is regulated by language and performativity. Reasoned arguments and private reflection are part of that change, but only a small part of it. Perhaps showing respect for and genuine interest in a person (and their actions) is a starting point to open up rigid exclusive perspectives on gender:

It’s about who you are, not what you are or who you would be with. Both should be respected, but one should not be confused with the other, especially by scholars who ought to know better.

(Kaldera 2001, 9f)

Shifts in perception must be founded in respect, interest, and care. Respectful encounters are not about pigeonholing, or establishing norms that are valid for all time. Shifts in perception must reflect that there are many genders, and the constituents of any gender, as well as its relations to any one particular person’s life, are in flux over time.

Girl or boy? Boy or girl? Must we all choose? What about those of us who can’t?

(Kaldera 2001, 9)

Where do the superheroes fit in? How can we accommodate the intuition metioned in the introduction, that superheroes, as established metaphors of otherness, may in some sense already be ‘queer’ figures? The highly intersectional approach of Antke Engel, and especially her concept of ‘queerversity’, may be helpful here. Engel, who works in the field of gender studies and queer theory, points out that gender difference and heteronormativity are organised by two mechanisms of power, normalisation and hierarchisation. Binary constructs have a crucial function in these processes. They influence concepts of identity and self-identification. But the stability of these binaries is undermined by a concept of difference that Engel, following Derrida, describes as différance (Engel 2013).

Engel’s basic aim is to provide a definition of ‘queer’ that is not just a collective term for all possible modes of living connected to gender and sexuality, and that is more exact than a general differentiation from concepts of normalcy. Heteronormativity and hierarchisation are pointed out as the complex, historically based and dynamic basis of all social constructs of difference. In this context queer theory is taken further than simply providing and maintaining a critique. Engel explicitly stresses the potential of queer politics to further social change. Based on her observations, she suggests strategies based around ‘queerversity’ (Engel 2013),  rather than strategies based around diversity, in order to change hegemonic models of gender and sexuality and aim at an even distribution of power.

In a social context, gender and sexuality play different but related parts in the creation of normative identity processes, the establishment of boundaries, exclusions and hierarchies. Sexuality is not an isolated concept. Engel states that biological sex, gender, cultural background, education, class, physical and mental ability, religion (and spirituality) and other factors contribute to the development of various sexualities. Politics of sexual diversity should not take the form of list-making but take all of these factors into consideration. Hegemonic power uses symbolic and normative violence to regulate sexuality. Achieving change calls for the integration of subcultures and for dealing with difference and otherness in a respectful way. Engel emphasises that otherness is always based in socio-political hierarchies and power structures as well as personal experience. Treating concepts of difference and self-identification along the lines of Derrida’s différance, she argues that otherness represents a deferred opaque paradoxical space that remains ultimately unsolvable.

‘Diversity’ in Engel’s definition is explicitly about perceiving a conflict-laden and power-saturated heterogeneousness. Thus, the term ‘queerversity’ was coined by Engel and some of her colleagues to criticise concepts of diversity that ignore power relationships and the inherent potential of conflict. Queerversity’s explicit aim is to render power conflicts transparent, so hierarchies can be levelled, while at the same time acknowledging that difference is always more than and different from defined, classifiable, regulatable positions of identity and difference.

Following Foucault, Engel notes that it is essential to view power not only as repressive but also as productive in its influence on existing hierarchies, and moreover as dynamic and changeable. We are never talking about rigid systems, but about dynamics of power. Problems arise whenever power is consolidated as authority – with structural or institutionally legitimated hierarchies directing or blocking existing power dynamics – and whenever power relations are dominated by violence. Engel’s proposed aims are to further power dynamic and to find forms of communication that are not based on structural authority, privilege and violence.

Symbolic violence often takes the form of classification, and normative violence then assigns these classifications values such as ‘normal’/’abnormal’ and establishes boundaries of inclusion and exclusion and thus legitimises social practises of regulation, discipline, criminalisation or pathologisation. According to Engel, social practices – and by extension literary representation – should aim at finding possibilities to express and perceive difference without categorisation. Moreover, difference and paradox are part of a person’s identity. They should not be respected in spite of but because of who they are.

In superhero comics, a start has been made. After Greg Rucka co-created (and rebooted) Batwoman as a lesbian character, the rebooted DC series Batgirl introduced the first trans* character in a comic book series who has not “achieved gender-fluidity through fantastical means like magic, shape-shifting, brain-swapping, and cloning” (Hudson 2013). In Batgirl #19, the character Alysia Yeoh comes out as a trans woman in a conversation with her roommate, Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl).

Caption: But the girl knows how to stick. Alysia: Okay. I get that you were trying to protect me. There's something I've been trying to tell YOU for a while. I'm transgender, Barbara.
(Simone, Sampere, Glapion & Deering, Batgirl #19, 2013)

Batgirl writer Gail Simone notes that the character is also bisexual (ibid). Batgirl’s reaction to Alysia’s coming out foregrounds the human factor while not making the mistake of ‘gender blindness’, thus taking an active step towards an inclusive representation of gender in superhero comics.

Alysia: I’m transgender, Barbara. Barbara: … - Babs. Alysia: Pardon? Barbara (hugging her): The people I love call me Babs.
(ibid.)

The encounter is open and respectful, and it is interesting that Batgirl offers her own tiny, symbolic reciprocation of identity fluidity, by renaming herself and subtly redefining the intimacy of their relationship.

But as Autostraddle’s trans editor Mey Rude correctly observes in her article “Drawn to Comics: Sera From Marvel’s Angela: Asgard’s Assassin is the Closest to a Trans Superhero We’ve Got So Far”, in the years since both Alysia and Tong (in Marvel’s FF) came out as trans, neither DC nor Marvel really did much to introduce more trans* characters or elaborate on their plotlines to make them more mainstream. “While these were huge steps forward, and very welcome and appreciated steps, many fans […] were still holding out hope for a trans superhero” (Rude 2015). Sera, the protagonist’s sidekick in Marvel’s Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, comes very close to being one. “She has superpowers (she’s a pretty good warrior and a great magician and has enhanced endurance and strength and all of that), she wears a weird outfit and she fights bad guys” (ibid).

Angela, a character created by Neil Gaiman and Todd MacFarlane, who first appeared in MacFarlane’s Image Comics series Spawn and was then acquired by Marvel as the main heroine of Marvel’s new series Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, “is the daughter of Odin and Freyja, but was kidnapped and raised as an Angel from Heven (which is a realm like Asgard or Midgard) to be a super powerful warrior with a strict code of balancing debts and a harsh hatred for all things Asgardian” (ibid).

While this promises some interesting developments concerning identity, loyalty, and revenge, our attention is also drawn to Angela’s partner-in-arms, “best friend and perhaps something more” (ibid.), Sera, a transwoman of colour. In issue #3 we get a first glimpse of her backstory when Sera is trying to convince Star Lord of the Guardians of the Galaxy to help her and Angela, and she does so by telling the story of how the two of them met and became friends. A part of this story is that Sera grew up as an Anchorite, which is the group of male Angels. She says that she was “never their kind” and when she saw Angela fighting, she helped her, joined her on her adventures, eventually “found a way to make [her] [her]self” and the two became inseparable. The book also makes it pretty clear that Sera is queer, especially for Angela, and that perhaps Angela returns those feelings.

Sera: I am Sera. I have always been Sera. I don’t belong here [with the Anchorites]. Please… get me out. Caption: And as payment for my aid… she did. (Gillen et al. 2015a)
(Gillen et al. 2015a)
As Rude remarks, the writers and artists handle this storyline well, making Sera into a “really cool and interesting and likable character who is a trans woman of color, but is also a ton of other things. They also found a […] way to tell Sera’s story without sensationalizing it or misgendering her or disrespecting her at all” (Rude 2015). And with her being the titular heroine’s best friend and loyal companion (and possibly lover), we can hope to see her plotline developed for some time to come. Even when, at the end of issue #6 (and their first story arc together), Malekith the Accursed, ruler of the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim and enemy of Asgard, reveals that during the previous adventure Sera has been an illusion, a mask worn by him in order to deceive Angela while getting what he wants, this still foregrounds the bond between Angela and Sera. All this time, Malekith says, Sera has been imprisoned in Hel, enduring the worst torture. While this (temporarily) turns her character into a ‘damsel in distress’, whom Angela swears to rescue, it doesn’t subtract from Sera’s heroic qualities. What we have been told since the beginning of the series was her real prehistory, and even when Malekith was playing Angela with an illusion of her friend, all the while he had been presenting an authentic copy of Sera (cf. Gillen et al. 2015b).

Since the comic book industry still only seems to be discovering and cautiously exploring transgender issues, this takes us back to one of the beginnings. Should characters like Lord Fanny from The Invisibles be included in categories and ‘boxes’ of trans* characters in comics? Are ‘boxes’ helpful at all, seeing how complex and diverse and dynamic identities are? My stance on this is based on my quantum theory of identity as well as Antke Engel’s concept of ‘queerversity’, and implies that superhero_ines with their history of being Other can be read as inherently queer, always standing outside the established norms and always implicitly questioning (and hopefully undermining) them. Thus characters like Lord Fanny shouldn’t be excluded from this article (and technically can’t be, according to the all-inclusive nature of queerversity), since Morrison is making some valuable points about identity and reality in The Invisibles, and gender identities are varied, diverse, heterogeneous, and dynamic. “When have I ever been myself, darling?” Lord Fanny asks Gideon (Morrison 2014b, 8), and later, in a stream-of-consciousness inner monologue while applying makeup, emphasising that she sees herself as wearing masks:

“Makeup God I love Makeup – painting on my spirit mask my ghost face […] I can deal with anything – it’s my armor – beautiful armor – she-male chainmail – like the crusaders darling – crossdressed – like Jesus – dressed for the cross – Jesus in drag – hah – God, I feel like Jesus in drag – crossdressed dragged-up drugged-up witch bitch”

(Lord Fanny in Morrison 2014b, 10f)

“Look, baby. Look, what gran’ma has done for you” (Morrison 2014b, 19). When the baby that is to become Lord Fanny is presented with a dress, as Lord Fanny remembers in a flashback sequence, “I looked. I looked and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen” (Morrison 2014b, 19). Morrison implies that cross-dressing was not forced upon Lord Fanny, that it was something inherent even then, a desire given form and pandered to, and thus nothing negative, enforced, or ‘wrong’, but something natural and normal. But Lord Fanny is a multidimensional character, including weaknesses and vulnerability. In a moment of crisis, caught somewhere between identities, they exclaim, “I can’t. I can’t stand this life. Mother, what have you done to me?” (Morrison 2014b, 66) – only to immediately be reminded of and consoled by the magical meaning of their heterogeneous mixed-up queer identity: “And in that moment of death I hear the sound of a butterfly’s wings at the window” (ibid.), the avatar of her goddess Tlazolteotl. By presenting the gods with a girl instead of a boy, Lord Fanny’s aunt made sure the child would survive and inherit the matrilineal powers. “And Tlazoltetol says, ‘I have made you strong. And wise. And incorruptible. I have shown you the worst there is [implying being disrespected, used and abused], and made you free.” (Morrison 2014b, 67) And Lord Fanny resolves, “I will crawl through shit. I will take all the filth of the world and turn it into the purest gold. I will rise from darkness, shining like the morning star” (ibid.). The next thing that happens is that she becomes a member of the Invisibles, who acknowledge that Lord Fanny’s appearance does not have to conform to anyone’s expectations or prescriptive world-view, nor her desires and actions to any heteronormative model of sexuality. They like and respect her for her strengths and her character. Embraced by this community of superhero_ines, Lord Fanny encounters possibilities to express and perceive difference without categorisation. Now, finally, comics have begun to take some further, if tentative, steps in this direction.

Gideon: You’ll never be plain, Fanny. The world’s getting more like us every day. It’s everything I ever hoped for. Everything is real.

Lord Fanny: Except my tits, baby. […]

(Morrison 2015, 15)

If The Invisibles teach us one thing, in the end it is this: there is only one side. We are all on the same side. All of us. It is not (just) a matter of reflecting contemporary diverse demographics. It is not (just) a matter of taking comics into the 21st Century – above all, it is about matching up realities. Just as Mystique answers Nightcrawler’s question in Bryan Singer’s X2, which features many scenes that can be read from a queer and/or transgender perspective: why not stay in disguise all the time? You know, look like everyone else. [Pass; become invisible].

“Because we shouldn’t have to.”

(X2, Bryan Singer, USA 2003).

[1] In Warren Ellis’ Trees, the protagonist of a short episode in issue #1 meets a trans woman and realises that gender is a fluid continuum. But before he can act on newly discovered sympathies and desires, most of his new (potential) community is killed in a disaster (cf. Ellis 2015). This treatment of queer and trans* characters has been going on in various media (especially film and TV) for decades and mostly serves to belittle and marginalise queerness and otherness.

References:

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. London and New York: Routledge.

Delany, S.R. (1967; 2010) Babel-17. SF Masterworks Edition. London: Gollancz.

Ellis et al. (2015) Trees, Volume One: In Shadow. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics.

Engel, A. (2013) „Queerversity und die Strategie der VerUneindeutigung: Sexuelle Vielfalt als Prinzip für die Arbeit in Institutionen”, pro familia conference, URL (04 May 2013): http://www.profamilia.de/fileadmin/dateien/fachpersonal/Engel_profa-Text_2013.pdf

Foucault, M. (2003) Das wahre Geschlecht. In Schriften zur Literatur: 340-349. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Gendernauts. Monika Treut, USA 1999. Film.

Gillen et al. (2015a) Angela: Asgard’s Assassin #3. New York: Marvel Comics, February 2015.

Gillen et al. (2015b) Angela: Asgard’s Assassin #6. New York: Marvel Comics, May 2015.

Hudson, L. (2013) “DC Introduces First Transgender Character in Mainstream Comics”, Wired, URL (10 April 2013): http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/04/transgender-dc-comics-batgirl/?pid=9877

Huxley, A. (1962) Island. London: Chatto & Windus.

Jameson, Fredric. (2003) ‘Future City.’ New Left Review 21. May-June 2003.

Kaldera, R. (2001) Hermaphrodeities: The Transgender Spirituality Workbook. Xlibris.com (self-published).

Levellers, “The Road”. (from the album headlights, white lines, black tar rivers) Lyriki, URL (15 Feb 2016): http://lyriki.com/The_Levellers:The_Road

Maalouf, A. (2000) Mörderische Identitäten. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Miéville, C. (2011) Embassytown. London: Pan Macmillan.

Miéville, C. & M. (2012) Santolouco. Dial H #3: “Disconnected!” New York: DC Comics, Sept 2012.

Monster. Patty Jenkins. 2003. Film.

Morrison, G. (1998). The Invisibles, Vol. 2. Issue #18. New York: DC Comics (Vertigo).

Morrison, G. (2014a) The Invisibles. The Deluxe Edition, Book One. New York: DC Comics (Vertigo).

Morrison, G. (2014b) The Invisibles. The Deluxe Edition, Book Two. New York: DC Comics (Vertigo).

Morrison, G. (2015) The Invisibles. The Deluxe Edition, Book Three. New York: DC Comics (Vertigo).

Nagaike, K. and K. Yoshida (2011) “Becoming and Performing the Self and the Other: Fetishism, Fantasy, and Sexuality of Cosplay in Japanese Girls’/Women’s Manga.” Asia Pacific World, Volume 2, Number 2, pp. 22-43.

Narcisse, E. (2012) “Fantasy Author China Miéville Discusses Random Superpowers, DC Comics’ Dial H for Hero and Video-Game God Mode.” Kotaku, URL (17 April 2012): http://kotaku.com/5902776/fantasy-author-china-mieville-discusses-random-superpowers-dc-comics-dial-h-for-hero-andvideo+game-god-mode

Rude, M. (2015) “Drawn to Comics: Sera From Marvel’s ‘Angela: Asgard’s Assassin’ is the Closest to a Trans Superhero We’ve Got So Far”, Autostraddle (17 Feb 2015): http://www.autostraddle.com/drawn-to-comics-sera-from-marvels-angela-asgards-assassin-is-the-closest-to-a-trans-superhero-weve-got-so-far-277223/

Searle, J. (2001) Geist, Sprache und Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Simone et al. (2013) Batgirl #19. New York: DC Comics, April 2013.

X2, Bryan Singer, USA 2003. Film.

Citation

  • MLA: Scholz, Christina. “Superhero_ines: Rebooted Comics and Trans* Identity.” Vector, Torque Control September 2017.  vectoreditors.wordpress.com/2017/09/12/superhero_ines-rebooted-comics-and-trans-identity/.
  • APA: Scholz, Christina. (2017). Superhero_ines: Rebooted Comics and Trans* Identity. Vector, Torque Control September 2017. Retrieved from vectoreditors.wordpress.com/2017/09/12/superhero_ines-rebooted-comics-and-trans-identity/.
  • CHICAGO: Scholz, Christina. “Superhero_ines: Rebooted Comics and Trans* Identity.” Vector, Torque Control September 2017. vectoreditors.wordpress.com/2017/09/12/superhero_ines-rebooted-comics-and-trans-identity/.
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