Transmyscira: Finding My Voice in TRANS GIRLS HIT THE TOWN

I want to say that Trans Girls Hit The Town profoundly altered the course of my life, but that’s a phrase that might not carry a lot of weight with me these days.

I’ve related, in various ways over the years, how integral The Invisibles and Promethea were to the gender epiphany that lead me to assert myself as a trans woman. I recently wrote about how a character from Euthanauts was critical in asserting myself as bisexual, then immediately drew a comic strip about it.

You might start to think that I’m exaggerating or that I’m just too suggestible to be left alone with a comic book, because imagine what could happen if I ever found out about The Punisher, or God forbid, Transmetropolitan. Not every comic has the capacity to make us re-evaluate how we see ourselves and the world around us in a way that pushes us to manifest the results in our everyday lives, but the comics that do are the ones exercising the full potential and purpose of the medium.

What binds The Invisibles, Promethea, and Euthanauts together as transformative forces in my life is that they showed me new ways of being. The former two granted me access to femininity in a way that I had never conceived of before and the latter exposed me to desires I didn’t know I had. In all three cases, they exemplified how comics as a renegade medium has more breathing room in representing a broader range of identities than most mass media, but more critically, the minds behind them had the level of fluency and empathy in those possibilities necessary to inspire me to make them manifest in my life.

Trans Girls Hit The Town didn’t show me anything new about myself, though. What it did was remind me that I have a voice, and a specific voice that could articulate itself in an urgently needed way. Instead of the rush of a new self or the heady buzz of a new desire, I felt the kind of familiarity that comics has never offered me in such a literal, quotidian way. I saw myself and my relationship with the trans women around me mapped out directly on the page.

It wasn’t the primal rush of J.H. Williams III’s Kate Kane giving me the perfect fantasy of myself. It was me as I am feeling the things I feel and saying the things I say.

Trans Girls Hit The Town is very limited in scope and scale; it’s a pair of trans women, Winnie and Cleo, having a night out at Dave & Busters and dealing with all the hurdles that go along with being trans in public. It’s the kind of comic that elevates the intimate in the everyday that raises serious questions about what comics as a medium is doing with the legacies of trailblazing work in the same vein like Love and Rockets or Dykes to Watch Out For. In a sense, Archie Bongiovanni has offered up a seminal response to the latter in Grease Bats, but the medium has so far come up with precious little that lives up to the particulars of the legacies of comics that are ubiquitously cited as indispensable.

Love and Rockets is part of the firmament now, as unshakable in the canon as Watchmen or Maus. But when encountering a comic like Trans Girls Hit The Town, it’s critical to remember the level of audacity and confidence that propelled Los Bros Hernandez (Mario, Gilbert, and Jaime) into the prominence that their work enjoys today. The specificity of the Latinx experience and punk scene central to the seminal Locas stories could be easily framed as “stumbling blocks” by audiences unwilling to step outside their own frame of reference, but the series’ enduring success puts the lie to the “conventional wisdom” that continues to stymie urgently needed voices to this day.

Love and Rockets deserves to be seen as a monument to the fact that the specificity of our experiences are our greatest assets as cartoonists, and for queer cartoonists like Emma Jayne, the specificity of our queerness is our greatest asset. Which is a difficult belief to hold onto in an industry that, when it comes to trans women, prides itself on talking about us to itself while rarely including us in the conversation outside of opaque and poorly compensated consultant roles.

I first understood that Trans Girls Hit The Town was going to be something truly special when Winne asserts that muffing should be taught in sex ed. It was a supremely jarring moment that put into perspective just how disconnected I was from so much of trans life.

I hadn’t heard or thought of muffing since I’d first encountered it in the Fucking Trans Women zine a decade ago on Tumblr, and have only seen one trans porn performer do since. These specificities, these conversations aren’t in service to a narcissistic secret language  They serve as a pointed recognition that trans, as with queer more generally, is a deeply fragmented diaspora that rarely has the opportunity to speak to itself in its own language, if it even has that language.

Working out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Emma Jayne leverages her experiences in a uniquely dense trans community in a way that recalls one of the primary functions of strips like Archie Bongiovanni’s Grease Bats, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For or Paige Braddock’s Jane’s World: to broadcast what queer life can look like to people without access to in-person community and to affirm the lives and perspectives of those who do against the crushing outside pressures of heteronormativity.

By bringing Cleo’s anxieties about presenting as female in public and the cross directional envy that the pair have about each other to the surface as the night progresses, Emma Jayne creates an incredibly rare and desperately needed opportunity to affirm, validate, and deconstruct insecurities ubiquitous to trans women.

I’ve been Cleo, or at least close enough: out in public pre-HRT and not explicitly feminine presenting with a close friend who was both on hormones and genetically gifted with flowing locks and full lips. The most charitable external view of us wasn’t the reality, a pair of gal pals catching up over coffee. It was the stereotypical straight couple with the dude punching far above his weight. It’s a hard space to inhabit.

As I’m entering my fifth month of HRT, I still feel impossibly far from where I want to be yet have trans women on the cusp of starting treatment looking to me the same way that Cleo looks to Winnie. It’s a dynamic that guarantees Trans Girls Hit The Town’s place as a perennial hit that trans women can come back to again and again in their lives to appreciate from a different angle as the context of their own transitions allows them to see Cleo and Winnie in fresh ways every time.

More immediately, my first reading of Trans Girls Hit the Town forced a complete re-evaluation of the way I see the direct market and its place in trans representation. Being immersed in that space and engaging it on its own terms for five years has been a punishing experience that has largely been punctuated by moments of careless disrespect for trans lives or flagrantly transphobic provocations. It’s a situation that left me little to no time to contemplate whether or not the direct market is even structurally capable of supporting work that does full justice to the beauty and complexity of trans lives.

Encountering Trans Girls Hit The Town in the midst of an industry shut down and a distribution crisis that resulted in DC Comics breaking the Diamond monopoly gave me all the time and space I needed to answer that question with an emphatic “no.” The direct market, monthly comics specifically, are culturally and structurally organized around the conventions of superhero comics with no serious breaches in evidence. It’s proven capable of the kind of stories where acknowledging the existence of trans people is seen as a victory but little else.

Saga can only speak to a cisgender father’s anxieties about his daughter discovering trans bodies in his abscence. Bombshells can only convey a second hand, cis oriented description of the darkest elements of trans embodiment. Bitch Planet can offer solidarity and empathy, but it can’t deliver interiority. These are the bounds of current representation in the direct market -leaving aside the extreme and sublime outlier of SFSX depicting a trans woman getting fisted by her girlfriend — and it isn’t entirely down to willpower.

Even a cursory examination of Judd Winick’s surreal career offers a great deal of insight into the limits of LBGTQIA representation in the direct market. Both Green Lantern: Brother’s Keeper and Pedro and Me are ostensibly informed by Winick’s time on The Real World: San Francisco that kindled his transformative friendship with Pedro Zamora. The latter, a graphic novel, allows the time and space necessary for Winick to articulate his experience of the friendship and how it changed his outlook on HIV/AIDS and the LBGTQIA community.

The former is an almost unrecognizable reduction of the same principles into a story about Kyle’s rage and violent retaliation for his gay assistant Terry being beaten outside a gay club in his absence. The issue that portrays the beating itself, Green Lantern (Volume 3) #154, comes with a gruesome Jim Lee cover depicting a closeup of Terry’s face beaten and swollen held up by his attackers. The story itself doesn’t do much better, charting out a rampage that begins with Kyle breaking into prison to torture one of the suspects into giving up the others and culminates in Kyle storming off into space, unwilling to protect Earth anymore.

Despite the massive praise the two part story received, it ultimately took the attack completely away from Terry and his gay identity, turning it into an emotional crucible for Kyle that conferred the typical role of the maimed or murdered girlfriend onto Terry. The only meaningful difference between Terry and Alex DeWitt, the namesake of “fridging,” is that he lived.

Instead of creating a framework for empathy between gay and straight men the way that Pedro and Me did, the language of superhero comics delivered a paternalistic, feminized conception of gay men whose safety is underwritten by the violence of straight men.

Instead of problematizing the bizarre gap between Winick’s groundbreaking contributions in two deeply dissimilar aspects of comics, superhero comics (and the direct market at large) took on Brother’s Keeper as the template for inclusion, a status quo that has barely shifted in the 20 years since its publication. Trans people in particular have not moved far beyond Terry’s role, serving the narrow dual purpose of acknowledging the existence of a trans readership with a cypher-like supporting character while giving the cisgender protagonist the opportunity to model ally behavior typified by Alysia Yeoh’s Batgirl appearances.

The industry continues to congratulate itself on anemic, cis centric portrayals like this because it insists on holding up Brother’s Keeper as the exemplar instead of looking for a higher bar. So the clearly visible gaps in representation and depiction in the work of any creators who have done LBGTQIA focused comics in and out of the superhero sphere remain just as evident now as in Winick’s work then.

That gap could be emblematic of a lot of different things, depending on the creator under consideration, and in some cases it’s probably attributable to their own expectations about what’s achievable within that space. But in other instances, something much more sinister is at work. A related footnote in the wider story of Eddie Berganza’s misconduct during his time at DC that continues to burn white hot in the back of my mind is the ways in which he acted as an actively homophobic gatekeeper when evaluating new talent and how his reputation alone prompted Sophie Campbell to decline work on Supergirl. 

There’s a further sinister aspect to the gap in the richness and texture of LBGTQIA cartoonists’ work when they take on projects at the Big Two that emerges in the case of Sina Grace. The exceptional difference in his more autobiographically focused work for Image and Iceman was always plainly visible, but it took personal disclosures on his part about the opposition and ill treatment that he received from editorial staff who clearly had no interest in working on an LBGTQIA focused title to make plain why Iceman came across as so diminished relative to his wider body of work. Grace’s experiences and the professional risks he took to disclose them illustrate the point that it takes a lot more than just recruiting LBGTQIA talent to improve representation on the page: it takes a broader infrastructure willing and capable allowing those creators to thrive and bring their full selves to their work.

In that sense, Trans Girls Hit The Town is probably more emblematic of what we can’t have than what we could have and a strong indication that the struggles and compromises necessary to get trans representation through the superhero machine, and maybe even the direct market as a whole, are not worth the brief glimmers of visibility that they offer.

What good is the visual of Alysia Yeoh explicating misgendering in an obscure web first series if we never see her meaningfully interact with another trans person? If we never see depictions of gender euphoria or trans joy articulated by trans creators unencumbered by oppositional editorial staff? The rhetoric of visibility has gotten us nowhere in the mainstream, while the indie and DIY scene is producing truly transformative work like Trans Girls Hit The Town. I think that should prompt a very serious re-evaluation of what constitutes “visibility,” “representation,” and “progress” in every corner of the industry.

Of course I’m not holding my breath on that happening any time soon, which enters into the other reason why the timing of getting my paws on Trans Girls Hit The Town feels supernaturally serendipitous. When I was sent Trans Girls Hit the Town, the comic book industry was in a seemingly apocalyptic shutdown but my life was anything but: I was two months into HRT, finally having taken the leap I’d been struggling to make for the last ten years.

At that point, I’d started undergoing a massive internal shift in my emotions, a facet of HRT that I’d never seen in any media depictions or heard about aside from the oblique assurances that I would “cry at nothing” sometimes. The anger issues that have haunted me my entire life dissipated as the cyproterone, my “blockers,” drained my body of testosterone. Rage, one of the most abiding emotions of my time covering trans representation in comics since 2015, disappeared from my body and my vocabulary. Had I known just how far HRT alone could go in liberating me from that rage, I would have pushed for it so much harder so much sooner.

I didn’t spend long wondering about why I’d never seen depictions of that change, because the conversations in Trans Girls Hit The Town clarified for me that I could just do it myself. I could have the conversation that I wasn’t seeing anywhere else, and for the first time in my life, I felt an attraction to the vulnerability and openness that I was going to need to convey that transformation.

As of writing this, I’m in my fifth month of HRT and I’m closing in on #70 daily comic strips that started out as a compulsion to share my emotional journey and has since exploded into a surreal journey into my rapidly evolving sexual imagination. That’s maybe a strange place to end up with an initial inspiration like Trans Girls Hit The Town, but it was the conversation about muffing that raised my eyebrows first, so maybe that’s exactly where this journey always had to go.

The fundamental irony of Trans Girls Hit The Town having to come out of a more obscure space in comics than the hidebound direct market for it to exist as beautifully unfettered as it does is the urgency with which it needs to be seen at scale. Despite the fact that comics is very good at making us think we have to see each other as competition and there’s a proliferation of bad actors happy to spark and exploit lateral violence between trans women, we need to see each other thrive. We need to see each others’ successes to turn our gaze away from the dire prospects offered by the corporations that will likely never value us. To remind us what we’re capable of without them.

Comics needs Emma Jayne. Comics needs me. If you’re a trans cartoonist reading this, then comics needs you too, no matter what part of the vast continuum of the medium you want to participate in. Please know that the specificity of your transness is the greatest asset you have as a cartoonist and never let anyone tell you different.