From Plot Devices to Normal People: Transgender Themes in Comics at NYCC

At New York Comic-Con’s panel Secret Identities: Transgender Themes in Comic Books, Batgirl writer Gail Simone related a conversation with another comics creator who said that (paraphrased) “you’ll know we’re ‘there’ [regarding diversity] when we have a transgender character on the cover of a comic book.” While the industry hasn’t quite hit that level of visibility, it’s well on its way with panels like this one at NYCC (and a similar one at SDCC, also featuring Simone, which filled the convention’s largest room).

Moderating NYCC’s panel was Charles Battersby, a playwright and journalist who also runs Press XY, a website examining trans issues in gaming. Other panelists included Morgan Boecher, author and artist of the semi-autobiographical webcomic What’s Normal Anyway?, about his FTM (female-to-male) transition; and P. Kristen Enos, a cisgender lesbian LGBTQ activist and author.

The panel discussed the history of transgender characters in comics, from offensive plot devices to someone as normal as your roommate. They also discussed how to avoid tokenizing such characters, and offered recommendations for characters so that trans readers can see themselves reflected in comic books.

Citing the prevalence of transition and other non-binary gender stories shared on YouTube, Boecher said, “The [trans] culture has really exploded, and it’s really interesting to see that shift come to the mainstream culture.” He added that the usual narrative of “I’ve known since I was three years old that was born in the wrong body” doesn’t universally apply anymore, that “it’s really different for every single person; [there are] so many different ways to be trans”—it boils down to identifying differently from the gender one is assigned at birth, and then expressing that identity.

This was the kind of panel that called for a history component—and the examples that the panel presented were fascinating, though problematic. For the first half-century of comics, characters who resembled anything close to transgender were plot devices, usually shuttled into one of two categories:

  • the “cunning transformation”: Captain America dresses up as an old lady for the guffaws, and because no one would mess with a woman because they’re weak; or, alternately, a woman can only be intimidating if she goes undercover as a man
  • the curse: Loki (or Shocking Suzi from the series Dial H for Hero) is transformed into the opposite gender as a punishment and/or to teach a lesson

“I think forcing someone into a different gender is a really good punishment,” Boecher said, suggesting that it would force cisgender people to experience the same feelings as trans people. Enos pointed out that in these stories, the transformed character often continues to be attracted to the same love interest, who is now (in most cases) the same sex—another way of undergoing the trans experience.

But when you look at comics of the last 25 years, readers are encouraged by the increasing visibility of transgender characters who are more than just plot devices or token stereotypes. Often these fall into two categories:

  • characters who are normal people who just happen to be trans
  • superheroes whose transgender status is tied up in their powers

“I like approaching transgender characters from this standpoint a lot better,” Boecher said of the non-magical category, “because it seems to humanize them a bit more. It doesn’t go far enough to fully address them as characters,” however, because we haven’t yet seen the trans superhero on the cover of a comic. There’s also the issue of many of these stories still ending tragically in suicide or homicide.

Simone was quick to point out that Barbara Gordon’s (now former) roommate Alysia is very much alive in Batgirl, and even (spoiler!) gets married. Simone alo related a tearjerking anecdote in which a father approached her at a signing to thank her for writing Alysia: Reading Batgirl with his daughter forced him to explain what “transgender” meant. Simone emphasized the importance of a character like Alysia being “we learn and meet everyday… especially when it’s someone’s first experience with that, and it’s positive.”

Then there are characters whose gender fluidity is tied to their powers, like Sandman’s Desire—who can be whatever anyone would like him or her to be—and The Runaways’ shapeshifting Skrull Xavin, who starts out male but transforms into a female so regularly that she starts shifting genders without even thinking.

The latter especially is a short list, though the panelists hope to change that and to provide more nuance to such characters in time. “I think we’re still in the phase,” Enos said, “where, when I’m introducing [a trans character], I feel the need to say, ‘They’re a good guy,’ not evil [the default].”

Of course, there’s the other fear of tokenizing trans characters. “I worry about it with female characters,” Simone said, “with any character I create.”

Citing the fact that he has more freedom as an indie creator, Boecher said, “I try to be as honest as I can, and not worry too much about how people are going to receive it.”

Battersby joked about wanting to see a Marvel comic where the Venom symbiote latches on to someone “who just happens to be a crossdresser.”

Some of the trans characters mentioned in the panel included:

  • Alysia (Batgirl)
  • Desire (Sandman)
  • Xavin (The Runaways)
  • Sir Ystin/Shining Knight (Demon Knights)
  • Coagula (Doom Patrol)
  • Lord Fanny (The Invisibles)

One attendee, sporting a great Wonder Woman cosplay, tremulously asked if the panelists thought there could ever be a character in the future “who is cisgender and states that their sexuality is private and they don’t identify just as male, but they’re a person?”

“Well, damn right,” Simone said. “We’ll see stuff like that coming up.”

If you weren’t able to make the panel, feel free to continue the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #secretidentitiescomiccon!


Natalie Zutter writes plays about superheroes and sex robots, articles about celebrity conspiracy theories, and Tumblr rants about fandom. You can find her commenting on pop culture and giggling over Internet memes on Twitter.

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