Normally, this isn’t the sort of news that would hit the Times. The hook here is that one of the main characters is transgender. She’s college student Charlie Young, who is just beginning her transition; everyone in her noncostumed identity knows her as male. She only presents as female when she suits up to be the super-heroine, Chalice, who is able to fly by “manipulating gravity.”
Characters who change gender or sex are not new to comics. Most comic books, after all, are science fiction or fantasy by genre, and transformations, either into a differently aged person, an animal or animals, a mythical creature, an extraterrestrial, or from a man into a woman or vice versa, are quite common in science fiction and fantasy, and they can be found all the way back to the earliest days of the medium.
The earliest sex-changing comics character I know of is a Superman villain, a mad scientist who called himself the “Ultra-Humanite.” In an Action Comics storyline beginning in the December 1939 issue, Ultra-Humanite has his brain transplanted from his old, crippled male body into that of a beautiful, fit young actress.
I don’t know if it was ever explained why he chose a female body over a male one, but obviously Ultra-Humanite wasn’t transgender as we understand the term today, i.e. a person with gender dysphoria. His stated objective was to trade up from his aged and frail original body, regardless of gender. The veracity of this interpretation is strengthened by the character’s brain’s later transplantation into the body of a giant, presumably male, albino gorilla. The gender change was simply part and parcel of the escapist strangeness that defines super-hero storytelling, and this was the motivation behind all sex-changing comics characters for the next several decades.
The earliest character I’m aware of in mainstream (Marvel and DC) comics that could truly be described as gender dysphoric is Wanda Mann, a transwoman in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series for Vertigo. Vertigo is a mature-readers imprint of DC Comics. Wanda’s storyline was published in 1993. For the most part, Wanda was an informed and respectful portrayal of a transwoman, although in some ways she did embody the sad, “pathetic transsexual” stereotype described by transgender author Julia Serano in her book, Whipping Girl. Due credit to Gaiman, but we still had a ways to go.
Most of the comics by the “big two” publishers I read nowadays are by DC Comics (including Vertigo); I only follow a handful of Marvel books, so I’m not familiar with any trans characters who may be appearing there.
DC Comics has Alysia Yeoh. She’s a supporting character in Batgirl; she was for a time the roommate of Batgirl’s alter-ego, Barbara Gordon, and is still in the book as the CEO of Barbara’s tech startup. I’m glad that DC has added an openly transgender character to the lineup, but I have to say, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein regarding her hometown of Oakland, that there’s very little “there” there.
Alysia came out to Barbara in a way many of us will recognize: hesitantly, timidly revealing, “I’m transgender, Barbara.” Barbara immediately smiles and hugs her, as any true super-heroine and friend would. And that was the end of it. Her gender identity is never mentioned again.
Alysia’s face and body look completely cisnormative, which is true for many transwomen, but not most. Storylines involving Alysia have never shown her dealing with transphobia, family or friend nonacceptance, identity document hassles, gender-affirming health care, finding clothes that fit, or any of the myriad other issues that are part of the daily lives of transgender people. It’s like DC wanted credit for filling in the “transgender” box on a diversity checklist, but wasn’t interested in actually telling stories about transgender people.
You could push back on this criticism with, “Alysia is a supporting character. Going into such details would take storytelling time away from Batgirl herself.”
Sure, that’s true—up to a point. I’d respond that it doesn’t take much to establish such details, even for a minor character: stray bits of dialogue here or there; a telling object or item of clothing in the background of a panel. I mean, heck, it has been established that Alysia is a lesbian (and she recently married her fiancée in the book), is originally from Singapore, and has impressive technological and business skills. Narrative real estate could easily have been borrowed from those attributes to tell readers something interesting that arises from Alysia’s transgender status. Especially since the creative team did find room to bring in a villain that was an embarrassing, transphobic stereotype (who never interacted with Alysia).
And yes, Batgirl isn’t about Alysia; it’s about Barbara/Batgirl herself, of course. We wouldn’t want it to be about another character, and Batgirl isn’t transgender.
There is another version of Alysia who appears in DC’s digital-only comic, Bombshells, written by Marguerite Bennett. This Alysia is a teenager during World War 2, and although she’s only one of a much larger cast than Batgirl‘s, Bennett has managed to elaborate on her transness in some of the ways lacking in Batgirl. But digital-only comics are still a novelty, accounting for a tiny fraction of annual comic book sales, and they’re not heavily promoted.
That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about Alters. The writer, Paul Jenkins, is a cisgender straight man, but from interviews I’ve read, he seems dedicated to telling Chalice’s story with knowledge and maturity. He shows each of his scripts to a panel of transgender people for feedback, and a transwoman is part of the Alters creative team (the colorist).
Another important thing to consider with transgender characters is how they’re drawn. I wrote above that Alysia Yeoh’s appearance is cisnormative, while that’s not always true for transgender women in real life. This is a big part of why we complain when cisgender men or women are cast as transgender women in movie and TV roles. The portrayal usually either hews close to the “man in a dress” stereotype, for male actors, or puts silly prosthetic makeup on female actors, as with Felicity Huffman in Transamerica.
Neither course hits the mark; trans people tend to look androgynous in a unique way that’s hard for any cisgender person to mimic. But it should be doable in comics, as long as the artist uses appropriate reference models. Based on the promotional art that’s been released so far, Chalice is drawn to look like the standard conventionally-attractive cisgender woman typified by all super-heroines. Maybe there will be an explanation for that within the story itself; I’ll wait and see.
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