Reading comics while being transgender is, as you might imagine, a discordant experience. For a medium that purportedly celebrates stories outside of the norm, featuring weird and wonderful casts of mutants and superheroes and the like, you’re more than likely to find a cast of white, able bodied, cisgender and, usually, male characters staring back at you. More often than not, beyond those four colour pages, you’re going to find predominantly those same cis, straight male faces telling the stories of these characters.
I’ve been reading comics for as long as I can remember. From my battered and well read copies of “Ultimate Spider-Man” #1 and a reprint of “Detective Comics” #700 (which taught me the importance of Batman as a shirtless swashbuckler and a caring parental figure), comics have been an essential part of my life. The moment I knew I wanted to write for a living came shortly after closing the final book of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman.” Comics are an ingrained part of my life now, they are my livelihood. I have tattooed my skin with characters from comics that have affected my life and have spent the last five years writing about comics on a near daily basis.
Joining Multiversity in 2012 (five years flies past faster than you think), I’ve been privy to a side of comics I could never have imagined when I was pouring over the same four issues I clung to when I was younger. Despite the relationships built with creators I admire, the incredible access to upcoming projects and just the wealth of comics being released these days, that childlike enthusiasm I once clutched to when reading comics has waned of late. The childlike spark of wonder inherent in opening the first page of a new issue on a Wednesday has all but been snuffed out.
As a critic, I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to effect change through my writing. Reviewing comics week after week for years, I’ve found myself juggling who my audience really is. Is it myself, trying to work through my thoughts on a comic through my writing about it? Is it other readers, giving them advice on what to spend their money on? Or is it the creators and publishers, to give them feedback on the product they’re expecting people to buy? On my best days, I like to think I could speak to all three, but it’s recently became apparent that I wasn’t reading comics because I wanted to. I was reading comics because I had to write about them.
It’s become cliche to evoke Jack Kirby’s now iconic, or even infamous, parable “Comics will break your heart,” but I can’t help but finding those words ringing true. What once was an essential part of my life has almost become a chore to read or write about. I’m burned out. They got to me. My stalwart desire to remain positive in the face of what I can only class as adversity and to showcase the comics worth reading amid a sea of exploitative and harmful wastes of paper has crumbled over the past year.
It’s not just comics, mind you, it’s life. Watching the rise of a new wave of fascists in the Western world while America elected a colluding, narcissistic charlatan as President and Britain ushered in Diet Thatcher and Brexit has made 2017 a pretty tough year for us all. It would be hard enough to get excited for comics as it were against all that, but comics seem intent on making it near impossible.
In just the last month alone we’ve seen Image Comics produce a series with an exploitative trans panic scene in the first issue and a horrific cover showcasing a lynching in the middle of “celebrating” Pride month. Draping a rainbow flag over an issue that exploits the real pain felt by minorities just to make those unaffected by that pain think about the horrors of the world we live in. Marvel comics, meanwhile, can’t take a W to save themselves as they mire their superheroes in a poorly thought out event that’s ultimately toothless in its attempt to evoke a “What if your heroes were really evil?” reaction in the middle of a presidential term created by internet neo-nazis and Russian hackers.Continued below
If you clicked this piece expecting, from the title, some kind of manual on how to celebrate the good in comics despite all this, then I’m sorry. I don’t know how to answer that. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. The nihilistic gallows humour that has fueled my comics writing and, indeed, my life for the past year and a half has boiled over and, if I’m being honest, I don’t know where I go from here. For a long time, I considered a clean break. A sabbatical, at least, or a complete break up with comics. What more could I glean from an industry that neither wants me as a reader or as a critic?
I still love comics, I’m pretty sure I always will. As a medium, they are unparalleled in their potential for storytelling. As an industry? It’s the definition of toxic. Full of unconvicted abusers, unrepentant bigots that cry abuse at any attempt at progress and it’s choking the life out of me. I find myself adrift, wondering where to point myself towards land. And I know I can’t be the only one feeling this. Despite the cries of a few to downplay “negativity” (read: any attempt at honest criticism), the comics community online seems just as withdrawn and burnt out as controversy after controversy, scandal after scandal with no real sense of progression. It feels like every week, we’re starting fresh at square one.
Where do we go from here? When the idea that comics should be for everyone is twisted and horrifically exploited in comics that are meant to be “shocking” and provocative? Shocking to who? To the comic fans that refuse to accept anything from creators who don’t look like them? Or to the comic fans who have suffered this pain in their own lives and are looking to comics for an escape?
I love comics. I want to celebrate comics. But I don’t know how to love or celebrate or even protect a world that hates and fears me.