Visual Representation: Trans Characters In Webcomics
Webcomics provide a space that can allow writers and artists more creative control over their characters and content and experiment with different themes. Not only do we see trans characters in web-comics, but we also have trans people creating them. For example, Annie Mok (work above) is a brilliant artist who combines art and personal narrative and who recently started writing for Rookie. Her work is so lovely that it deserves its own feature on The Mary Sue!
So how are trans characters portrayed when they are given the space to have a storyline? Can they be written without falling into a troupe? How can writers and artists use the interweb as a way to allow their audience to interact and influence the stories?
Princess Sarah wears what she pleases!
The Princess was a web-comic that followed Princess Sarah, a young trans girl, and her family and friends as they adjust to her gender identity. The series fan from 2009 to 2013 and was created by Christine Smith, an artist-writer who, like Sarah, is trans. The Princess was a spin-off from the Smith’s web-comic, Eve’s Apple, which followed a trans woman character navigating relationships within queer women’s communities.
The story begins with Sarah’s mom telling her to take off the dress that she is wearing. Sarah goes to her closet, pulls down a crown, and declares, “Princess Sarah wears what she pleases!” Since Sarah could talk she has told her parents that she is a girl. Her dad has started to support Sarah by buying her new clothing and encouraging her to wear them when she is staying at his home. Mom confronts Dad over the phone about the dress and Dad questions that Sarah’s gender creativity might not be a phase. Mom expresses concerns on how hard the world is on those who are different. Dad tells her, “But what if the best thing you can do for… her… is to let her be herself?”
Sarah arrives at the playground wearing a dress, her crown, and a sash that reads “PRINCESS,” while other children point and laugh or look shocked. The playground introduces us to Irma, one of Sarah’s friends who shines on the panels as much as Sarah does. When Sarah tells Irma that she wants to do “girl’s stuff,” Irma rejects all of the stereotypical ideas and suggests watching monster movies. Irma loves breaking her toys, quoting Joan Jett lyrics, and has a pet rat. While Sarah is embracing her femininity, Irma rejects hers.
Sarah’s friend Chuck has a different reaction to her new identity. Now only is he upset that his friend is dressing as a girl, but also that she makes a cute girl. Irma decides that the way to deal with Chuck’s bullying is to become superheroes; Irma dresses as The Black Terror, and Sarah dresses as The Red Bee. They track Chuck down at the elementary school. Imra and Chuck start fighting and Sarah breaks up the fight with a glitter bomb.
Sarah goes camping with her dad and her queer aunt and meets a young trans guy named Mars. “There’s lots more like us,” Mars tells her. “I thought you’d want know you’re not alone.” Sarah never knew that other people felt the same way as her. Mars encourages Sarah to talk with her mom about how it feels when she has to dress like a boy. Sarah is worried that her mom will stop loving her. Her aunt tells her that both she and her mom will always love her.
The timing of Sarah’s camping trip coincided with the real-world awareness of queer youth committing suicide in the fall of 2010. As the world mourned for youth like thirteen-year old Seth Walsh and Asher Brown and fifteen-year old Billy Lucas, Smith wrote about Sarah’s mom first learning about these suicides. She panics when Sarah returns home, threatening to shave off Sarah’s hair.
In this moment, Sarah is able to push her mom a step closer to understanding her. She tells her mom that it hurts her when she has to act like a boy, but that she will try harder. Her mom tells her, “No, Honeybear. I will.” Mom agrees to start calling Sarah by her name, and allows her to dress how she likes at home.
Sarah starts dressing up at Irma’s house before school and finds Irma wearing a skirt, a tie, and a mustache. “When you told me you’re really a girl, I wondered if I would change,” Irma explains. “Then I thought, well, why can’t I change, whenever I want to? And why do I have to be girl or boy when I can be both or neither?” It turns out that Irma has two queer moms and two queer dads! Irma quickly became my favourite character in the comic and reminded me of many of my own friends when I was a kid.
The comic continues in a lovely way where Sarah and Irma learn how to be themselves amongst the bully/crush Chuck and his sister Penny, sitter/crush Mars, and former bandmate/crush Jules. The reader is there with Sarah’s parents as they visit the transgender youth expert at Children’s Hospital, when Sarah secretly joins the Girl Cadettes, and through many other experiences of transgender and gender creative children. During an interview with Feministing, Smith said that she drew The Princess out of compassion for the child who she was back then and “to send a little love out to the little transgender Princesses and Princes growing up today.”
I want to see where this takes us
Questionable Content is a webcomic set in Coffee of Doom, an independent coffee house. The comic follows the lives of its owner, employees, and customers. While originally focused on music, hitting it off with an indie-rock audience, more recently QC has begun to explore its characters. Their dreams and goals are often not attained, and they spend much of their time overcoming their anxieties. One of the main characters, Marten, is a library worker at an all-girls university. When he is tasked with training a group of summer interns he quickly begins to bond with one of the interns, Claire.
After a small drinking party, Claire (the redhead!) tells Marten that she is trans, and they talk about it over coffee. Claire shares with him that she began transition during her first year of college, and is now on hormone replacement therapy. Marten asks her how open she wants to be about her identity and Claire shares that she is comfortable with Marten telling people if they ask him
The calm that Marten shows during his conversation with Claire seems the opposite of what writer Jeph Jacques felt when including the story in the comic. “I have to admit, I am nervous about posting this comic, because including a trans person in my cast is something I have wanted to do for years and I really, really want to do a good job of it,” he wrote in the comments below the comic. “One of the major themes of QC, I think, is of inclusion, and this seemed like a pretty important thing to include. I have given it a lot of thought and done a lot of research, so hopefully I won’t screw up. I’ll do my best, anyway.”
Despite his fears, Jacques has done a wonderful job with his depiction of Claire, as well as with the development of her relationship with Marten. When Marten invites Claire as a friend-date to his father’s wedding to another man, the reader has an opportunity to observe their interactions without the distractions of the other main characters. Claire has an amusing moment when picking out a dress for the wedding—a moment where Jacques may have unintentionally mocked the man-in-a-dress trope.
The wedding also provides a venue for Marten and Claire to get to know one another more intimately. When Claire falls asleep on Marten’s chest it plays out as it has for the other characters in the comic. Marten does not panic about Claire’s trans identity. Claire does not panic about what Marten thinks about her. Instead they move through the awkwardness of two friends who could become more.
After another night of drinking, Marten, Claire, and Marten’s roommate Faye end up back at their place in search of more alcohol. And then the comic exploded with cuteness and flirtations. Claire realizes that Marten is drunk and decides to call it a night, and Marten completely respects her decision. When he wakes the next morning and thinks back on the flirtations, Marten decides that he wants pancakes and goes to Claire’s house to find them. He tells her that he wants to talk about what happened and takes her hand in his. He tells her, “I like you, and I think you like me, and I want to see where this takes us.” And then they kiss.
The beauty of the Claire and Marten romance is that Questionable Content is still running, and Jacques has been openly accepting feedback and advice from readers through his website, his Tumblr, and Twitter. Since their first kiss, Claire and Marten have started going on dates and have been negotiating relationship questions, such as how much time is too much time with a date. I encourage you all to check out the comic yourself and to check out our interview with Jeph Jacques by Marcy Cook, where he talks about Claire as well as the comic’s themes of sexuality and mental health!
If you have other recommendations of great trans characters in webcomics, please let us know in the comments!
Tash Wolfe is a femme zinester who writes about grunge kids growing up queer in the 1990s. Her writing on trauma is featured in university courses on sexuality and social justice in literature. She spends her time re-reading Sailor Moon manga and knitting lace scarves for friends. You can find her on Twitter and Ravelry @jewellerytears.