Wednesday, April 27, 2011

GUEST POST: Transgender Themes in Comics by Justin Hall (Glamazonia)

Welcome to this week's Spring Celebration guest post, courtesy of Justin Hall, a Lambda Award Nominee for his transgender graphic novel Glamazonia: The Uncanny Super-Tranny.


Glamazonia: The Uncanny Super-TrannyHello, readers of the Bibrary Bookslut blog!  My name is Justin Hall, and Sally Sapphire has asked me to do a guest posting detailing independent comic books and graphic novels with transgender creators, themes, and characters. I’m the creator of Glamazonia: The Uncanny Super-Tranny, a collection of comics stories nominated for the 2011 Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Fiction, and published by Northwest Press, a new publishing house dedicated to LGBTQ graphic novels and comics.
The first comic I’d like to point out is T-Gina: The Tale of a Fabulous Transgendered Gal and Her Search For Validation and a Decent Cup of Coffee by the remarkable Gina Kamentsky.  Kamentsky is the first openly trans cartoonist that I ever met, and may in fact be the creator of the first transgender-themed, independent comics. 

T-Gina is indie comics done right: a heady, dense mix of semi-autobiographical and fantastical storytelling with a dash of breaking-the-fourth-wall thrown in.  Indie comics have a tradition of this kind of “anything goes” narrative structure, where the story can take surprising turns between one panel and the next, and Kamentsky is masterful at it.  At one point Gina the author has a conversation with T-Gina the semi-autobiographical character, and Kamentsky is able to draw herself in both realistic and “cartoony” styles, displaying true comics versatility. 

T-Gina is also one of those rare comics that is bitingly funny about serious issues without descending into bitterness; Kamentsky never takes herself seriously, but has no problem slicing through society’s bullshit, whether it’s around gender, sexuality, caffeine, or comics.  Kamentsky is also a filmmaker and a kinetic sculptor, but has recently gotten back into making comics (including a cameo in my Glamazonia book).  Let’s hope for all of us comics readers that there’s more sequential art in her future.

Next up is the work of Dylan (NDR) Edwards.  I had the pleasure of meeting Dylan for the first time this last San Diego Comic Con, but he’s been making comics for at least a decade now.  He’s another contender for the cartoonist making independent, trans-themed comics for the longest, as he started a series of Trannytoons back in 2001, many of which were rolled into his series Politically InQueerect.  Edwards has also done stories featuring various characters and themes over the years, including gay Republicans, queer sports players, goth lipstick lesbians, and bisexual musicians, and is now working on a non-fiction graphic novel about the lives of queer-identified FTMs and genderqueers, to be published by Beacon Press.  This is one work that I’m really looking forward to, and I’m excited to see Edwards’ savvy characterizations, dialogue, and plotting put to use in a long format.

Edwards’ visual style is in sharp contrast to Kamentsky’s; instead of a cluttered, frenetic underground comix style, Edwards favors a clean, accessible look reminiscent of editorial cartoons, the ligne claire of HergĂ©’s Tintin comics, or perhaps the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets.  His work really pops when he uses color or an ink wash.

How Loathsome was a revelation when it came out in 2003.  It was initially a four-issue mini-series, but when it was collected in 2004, it became one of the first truly genderqueer graphic novels, incorporating ideas of fluid gender and sexual identities that were new and challenging in comics.  It was also nominated for a 2004 GLAD Media Award.

Penned by Tristan Crane and illustrated by Ted Naifeh, How Loathsome approaches gender in a new way, fueled by a goth aesthetic and underworld edginess.  Set in San Francisco, the series deals with SM sex, drugs, and other taboo subjects with poetry and unflinching honesty, through the eyes of a slightly jaded but still empathetic, androgynous female protagonist.  How Loathsome also set new standards of professionalism for queer comics; Naifeh was already a highly accomplished illustrator and had developed a beautiful and polished style by the time he worked on the book.

2004 also saw the release of a completely different kind of transgender graphic novel.  Sexile/Sexilo is the creation of Jaime Cortez, based on the remarkable life story of Adela Vazquez, a Cuban immigrant, trans woman artist and activist living in San Francisco.  One side of the book is done in English, and then it flips for a translation in Spanish.

Sexile/Sexilo is memoir at its best.  Brutal, passionate, gripping, and at times ferociously funny, the book weaves together the immigrant experience with the story of transitioning in a poetic and unforgettable way.  Cortez does a superb job of bringing Vazquez’ distinctive voice to the page, and combines it with his own masterful sense of comics poetry to create a piece that resonates long after you put the book down.

Joey Alison Sayers was a well-respected, indie cartoonist before she transitioned; she had been doing a comic strip series called Thingpart, a number of hilarious mini-comics, and comics pieces for the venerable Mad Magazine.  She is, without a doubt, one of the best comics humorists around, with a simple, distinctive visual style that fits her bittersweet comedy perfectly.  After transitioning, however, she turned her talents to a two-comic series called Just So You Know, which was her first foray into autobiographical work and a huge leap of both personal bravery and artistic challenge.

It more than paid off.  Just So You Know is a simply beautiful comic: understated, thoughtful, and still steeped in that Sayers humor that informs the rest of her work.  Sayers brings her abilities as a gag strip artist to bear on her own life, and the result is magical and completely accessible by any reader.

While Just So You Know is wonderfully accessible, however, the true all-ages transgender-themed comic is The Princess by Christine Smith.  This is a wonderful strip about a young, trans girl and her life, dealing with everything from bullying, to tomboy sidekicks, to psycho kitties, to loving pink dresses.  The Princess has been helpful to families dealing with trans children, and to the children themselves; having a positive representation of a trans girl out there that children can enjoy along with their families is the most powerful sort of art and activism.

Smith is also the creator of Eve’s Apple, a more adult-themed strip focusing on a trans woman named Eve and a colorful cast of supporting characters.  This is great soap opera, and Smith shines in her dialogue and smart characterizations.

Smith, unlike the other cartoonists I’ve mentioned, is known primarily as a webcomics creator; while she produces print collections of her strips, her primary output is on the web.  The Princess is updated twice a week, and Eve’s Apple once a week.  The Princess has moved to color, and Smith’s artistry has jumped to a whole new level with the transition; while I loved her cross-hatching that characterized the early series, a strip about an irrepressible trans girl should be in full, vibrant color, with (as Smith puts it) “lots of pink heart explosions!”  Eve’s Apple has stayed in black and white, but the art has matured there as well, with Smith adding layers of texture and shading to the line art.  Both of these comics are clearly the work of a gifted cartoonist at the height of her powers.  I was also fortunate enough to finagle Smith into collaborating with me on a Glamazonia one-pager, and she really turned it out, even adding photo collage techniques to her exquisite color work.

The emergence of such impressive, trans-themed work in the world of indie comics over the last decade is a cause for celebration.  It is a testament to the DIY vitality of the comics medium, to the growing importance of transgender artists, and to the willingness of cisgender cartoonists to create well-conceived, transgender characters.  So get out there, everyone, and read some comics!

Justin Hall 


A huge thank you to Justin Hall for taking the time to share with us his thoughts on a genre that's all too often neglected. In addition to attending the WonderCon comics convention in San Francisco and the Stumptown comics convention in Portland this month, he's also teaching a course in queer comics at the California College of the Arts. Definitely a busy man, and here's hoping he's even busier with victory celebrations for the Lambda Awards! You can check out his work at All Thumbs Press.


With Justin Hall here to help keep our Spring Celebration going strong, it's also time for you - the readers - to do your part by stopping by, saying hello, and hopefully even sharing a few thoughts on his wonderful guest post or on his own artwork.

Don't forget, this is your next opportunity to become eligible for this week's giveaway, so be sure to include your email address in your comment. Of course, you don't have to be a follower to win, but being a follower will earn you a bonus entry for the week (just let me know in your comment if you're a new follower or an old favourite).

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