Breaking Barriers at SDCC: Transgender Trends in Popular Culture

The first panel at San Diego Comic-Con about transgender creators and characters began with comics historian Michelle Nolan talking about the Superboy story, “Claire Kent, Alias Super Sister.” In this story, Superboy offends “a space girl in a flying saucer” and is turned into a girl. In the course of the story, she has to learn to help other women—and having atoned, becomes a boy again, with the twist that Superboy was only hypnotized into thinking he was a girl. It was, Nolan said, one of the only examples she was able to find of any kind of gender fluidity in classic comics.

She also mentioned the story “Transformation” in the Charlton comic Space Adventures, where a man turning into a woman is presented as the ultimate horror story. Outside of that, one only finds either villains who dress in women’s clothing to commit crimes, or boys in comics like Archie who are humiliated for comic effect by being forced to wear women’s clothing.

Over the next hour, Tara Madison Avery led a fascinating discussion of transgender representation and artists, encompassing a wide range of trans* and genderqueer identities and experience, and which could easily have stretched beyond its allotted time slot.

JD Saxon’s comic Mahou Shounen Fight! is a riff on the Sailor Moon variety of “magical girl” comics, using genderqueer characters who are paired with spirits of the seasons who are themselves not inherently gendered, and who choose how they want to present themselves. Dylan Edwards’s new graphic novel Transposes tells the stories of queer-identified people with a wide range of orientations and identities—gay, bisexual, asexual, genderqueer, transgender. One story narrates the intertwined biographies as a couple whose trans identities were linked: when one transitioned, the other learned about their trans identity. Melanie Gilman’s As the Crow Flies draws on her own experiences as “the queer kid in a Christian youth camp” to tell the story of Charlie, an African-American queer girl at a queer youth camp where she must contend with queer-unfriendly people and white people who don’t necessarily see the racism in what they do.

Ashley Love, who described herself as having been “Storm … trapped in Wolverine’s body” as a child, is a journalist whose series LGB to the T (currently offline, though she plans to bring it back) was conceived as a way of educating people about queer and trans issues in a light way. She is also an activist currently engaged in a number of trans*-related causes, such as the use of “Hollywood Trans Face,” wherein cis male actors are cast as transwomen and praised for it. Lain’s Fuck the Limits! 30 Day Art Challenge began as a personal challenge from a friend, and grew to encompass a wide range of queer and trans artists, many of whom have told Lain that they might have never created art without the Art Project as a safe space.

A discussion of Edwards’s work and his older comic series “Tranny Tunes” led to a discussion about the use of the term “tranny” as a slur, which has all too often been associated with mockery, violence, and othering. Edwards somewhat sheepishly acknowledged that were he to do that comic now, he would never use that word—and noted that trans men don’t face the same degree of misogyny and transphobia that trans women do, in which the taking-on of female characteristics is seen as a “step down the ladder.”

Nolan, who is in her sixties and is primarily a comics historian rather than an activist, offered an interesting perspective on current ideas of trans* and genderqueer identity. She grew up in a world and with a way of thinking that “you’re either a girl or a boy and how you get there is not important.” This pronouncement evoked a certain amount of tension both in the audience and on the panel, as did Nolan’s use of the phrase “real boy” to mean “genetic boy,” but Nolan later added that she thought it was a very positive thing to acknowledge gender fluidity and to publicly be a transgender person—a better thing than not wanting people to know what you’d been through in discerning your own gender identity. In an era where a large number of Tumblr users are extremely conversant in the different shades of gender identity, it was interesting to get the perspective of an older person for whom the binary nature of gender identity had been taken for granted, and for whom any treatment of sexuality in comics came through underground comics like Trina Robbins’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”

Now that “we don’t have to be underground anymore,” as Saxon said, the transgender comics artists on the panel agreed that they are largely driven by the desire to see the positive portrayals of non-conforming gender that they would have wanted when they were younger and hungry for representations of themselves. Saxon said that when questioning, transgender kids say how much their work has helped, it’s all worth it.

As seems to be de rigueur for this kind of panel, an audience member asked what sort of advice they’d offer to a cisgender writer who wanted to include transgender characters in their work. Lain answered that it boils down to making such characters human, and to not make everything about their gender and their transition. “Be open to being wrong…be open to apologizing,” she added, and emphasized the importance of running the work by actual trans readers. Saxon added that there is also no universal answer to the question “is this how a trans person ___,” no more than there is to “is this how all girls think.” As is so often the case with these issues, the concern for the artist is always to resist treating characters different from oneself as “other,” and to never lose sight of the essential humanity that we all share.


Karin Kross is at her sixth San Diego Comic-Con. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter, and she, her husband Bruce, and her friends Shellie and John are posting about SDCC at nerdpromnomnom.

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