Playwright and actor Charles Battersby, dressed in feminine attire, moderated the final panel at Special Edition: NYC 2015 on June 7, entitled “Secret Identities: Transgender Themes in Comic Books.” Before introducing the all-female line-up, Battersby spoke of his own experience on the topic, specifically his play The Astonishing Adventures of All-American Girl & the Scarlet Skunk, which features a 1940s superhero assisted by a cross-dressing sidekick.
Battersby then kicked it over to the panelists, who introduced themselves and explained how each addresses transgender issues in her work. Rising star Marguerite Bennett spoke of her favorite character to currently write, Sera, companion of Angela in the Asgard’s Assassin series Bennett co-writes with Kieron Gillen. Sara was originally male, but became a woman to be part of Heven’s all-female fighting force. That’s not the characteristic that defines her, though.
“Sera is the person who brings color, richness and joy to her world,” Bennett said. While Angela is serious and dire, “Sera is a bard.”
Writer P. Kristen Enos introduced her self-published comic Web of Lives! which centers on the lesbian character Yoshiko, who is growing up in a remarkably accepting family that just happens to be part of the Yakuza. In the story, a male classmate reveals that he thinks he should be female, causing his parents to disown him. Yoshiko’s parents graciously take him in, and she’s able to help the child cope while learning some things herself.
“She doesn’t have the experience of not being accepted, because that’s just normal for her,” Enos said.
The final guest was novelist Marjorie Liu, known to Marvel fans for her work on Wolverine’s oddly-shaped family tree, including his bisexual son Daken and the canuck’s female clone, X-23. Liu said X-23’s issues are more complicated than that simple description, though, as she’s used by her masters not just as a tool of traditional violence, but also of sexual violence. X-23 also “trespasses on what it means to be masculine,” Liu said, retaining her femininity while being a warrior.
The tough questions from Battersby were not in short supply, as when he asked the panel what they thought about Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Woman, a female-clone of Peter Parker who retained all his memories up until the point she was split off. Liu was stumped as to why she didn’t want to transition back. “That would have been an amazing story,” Liu said. The panel later agreed that the character’s creators probably only saw her filling the original role they desired, and were unable to envision the potential in taking the idea a step further.
Bennett made perhaps the most startling revelation of the afternoon when Battersby mentioned that the creators of SheZow, the male cartoon character that becomes female while wearing a magical power ring, insist there are no transgender themes in the series. Joking not to tell Marvel because she might lose her job, Bennett said that whenever she uses the word “transgender” in relation to the character Sera, “they strike it out.” Bennett admitted befuddlement at this, as her editors seem fine with telling the story, but want nothing to do with the word.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Bennett said.
Battersby asked if any of the writers had ever inadvertently hit on a transgender metaphor, and Bennett spoke about her April 2014 Lois Lane one-shot that featured Lane’s sister, Lucy, who begins to take on animal traits after being given tainted medication. Bennett said that one female fan sympathized with the idea of your body not really representing you, and not being able to control how other people perceive you.
Bennett was first to answer again when Battersby wondered why almost all transgender stories depict changes from male to female. Bennett thinks it’s because transgender issues are often unfairly conflated with women’s issues, despite them being distinctly different things.
“Everyone who’s not a white dude gets lumped into ‘Other Space,’” Bennett said.
“Women are expected to identify with men anyway,” Liu said of why female-male transitions are seen as not being dramatic. Battersby crystallized the idea by saying that men might see becoming a woman as degrading, while they may think a woman becoming a man is instead empowering.
When asked how comics address transgender issues better than other media, Liu said without moving pictures, there’s automatically more exposition in comics, allowing for better insight into a character’s thoughts. Enos had a more specific idea.
“[Comics] don’t have the normal casting issues of live action film,” she said. Enos further explained that actors might find transgender roles intimidating, or may be afraid of future typecasting.
Two audience questions rounded out the session. The first, asking if any representation was good – even if it’s poorly executed – divided the panel.
The anime One Piece does not have the most flattering portrayal of transvestites.
“I’d rather they do it and screw up,” Bennett said, rather than the issues not being addressed at all. At least than creators and critics can have a conversation about how to do things better in the future. Liu disagreed.
“My patience is at an all-time low,” she said, echoing Battersby’s statement that it’s past the point when people need to be told to put more thought into things.
The second questioner asked where all the intersex characters are, to which Bennett flatly stated, “We need more.” Liu seemingly softened her position on creator competency a bit, when she lamented that many may simply be afraid of addressing the topic poorly.