At least once a month, I see a cisgender friend or acquaintance react with genuine surprise at hearing someone utter a transmisogynist slur. “Who says —— in 2015?” they invariably say. Well, James Robinson, for one, but we’ll get to that later. I’m going to have to count myself in for the length of this post too, so there’s no shame if you have to turn back now to avoid slurs and descriptions of transmisogynist behaviour. I would myself if I didn’t have to write it.
It’s incredibly frustrating that anyone is naive enough to think it’s actually passed out of usage. Drag queens fight like they’re going to lose the right to vote in order to keep using it and they pass it around every room they occupy like a joint. I’ve had people drop “tranny” around me way more than I have at me in my life, but that doesn’t lessen the sting one bit. I’ve had to call out someone who refers to me as their oldest friend three times in the last month for saying shit like “don’t be a tranny about it,” because the cis, white, gay men they hang around with normalized it for them. They think it’s a toy and they’ll make any excuse they can to rationalize using a word designed to dehumanize you right in front of your face. Everyone knows “tranny” is a slur used to dehumanize trans women. I’ve seen the look of panic in people’s eyes when they stutter, backpedal, and try to claim they didn’t know. James Robinson, Greg Hinkle, and Joel Enos -the writer, artist, and editor respectively- damn well know.
Over the last couple years, Image Comics has been garnering a lot of acclaim for pushing the boundaries for how much sex you can get away with in the mainstream. They stood firm against the backlash to a Saga cover depicting breastfeeding. They turned Apple’s blacklisting of Sex Criminals into a publicity campaign. It’s unmistakable that many victories have been made for the whole field of comics at Image in a very short span of time. The problem underlying all of this, though, is that virtually all of Image’s latest breakthroughs (outliers like Joe Keatinge and Sophie Campbell’s Glory notwithstanding) have centered and privileged heteronormative male sexuality. Sex Criminals still leans heavily on sophomoric humour like men hitting each other with sex toys. Saga is still awash in self flagellating masculinity. They aren’t gigantic gaping pits in those titles, but they do highlight the need for a broader spectrum of sexuality at Image.
Airboy is meant to be a semi-autobiographical take on James Robinson destroying himself with booze, drugs, and risky sex because he’s unhappy with his career and his reputation as the guy who resurrects golden age properties. The first issue read like Charles Bukowski’s attempt at Flex Mentallo, which isn’t territory I hold a lot of affection for:
Maybe it’s because I’m a trans woman and my experience of gender and sexuality fundamentally alter my relationship with the creative process, but I really just plain do not get the prevalence of stories about rakish yet talented writers who need to punish themselves with excessive amounts of booze and drugs like it’s their equivalent to Popeye’s spinach. It could also just be that they’re all Scorpios. One of life’s mysteries I guess. The mystique around those kinds of shenanigans died for me when I read that Stephen King was so far gone on booze and cocaine at the time that he has absolutely no recollection of writing Cujo. I calmly considered this information and decided that it explained why I thought Cujo was shit, then got on with my life.
Even with that said, the first issue did hold some potential for being part of a further expansion of Image’s sexual revolution but, sexual revolutions do, by and large, prove to be bullshit. If you’ve been watching NBC’s Aquarius, then you’ve had a pretty recent and thorough reminder of just how misogynist, racist, and homophobic the so-called Summer of Love really was. If people want to crowd around the likes of Saga and Sex Criminals as Image’s Woodstock, James Robinson is sidling up to be it’s Altamont.
The truth of the matter is that Image has a culture problem just as severe if not more so than DC or Marvel. It’s one thing for Team Batgirl- Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr- to conceive of and attempt to execute a story that hovered on the razor’s edge of transmisogynist cliches, but it’s their editor’s job to spot that and reign it in. Instead, not only were they hung out to dry by DC, it fell on them to initiate the changes to those pages that appeared in the collected edition and have also now been pushed out to the current digital master at Comixology. This is the same company that literally sent Stewart back to the drawing board half a dozen times as they waffled on whether he ought to draw Stephanie Brown as Batgirl or Spoiler in Batman Inc. It says a lot about a company that they scrutinize arbitrary costume changes to an asinine degree, but they can’t be bothered to have a think about the possible connotations of an imposter in drag, or bother to initiate change when those implications get brought to light.
There’s an ethical responsibility that editors in every field have to be informed enough on the topics in the work being submitted to them to spot when something is insensitive or needlessly offensive. I have that same responsibility in my job here, and if I don’t have the right background on an issue it’s my responsibility to reach out to someone that does. Of course nobody at an institutional level in comics give enough of a flying fuck about trans issues to actually educate themselves enough to be able to spot these things. This is a fact. The people with power in comics who consider themselves to be progressive seem to think that sitting back and saying that they support trans women or sending Sophie Campbell a nice tweet is all the work that’s needed. It’s the exact same attitude I called out at Marvel when one of their editors said that he thinks supporting gender and sexual minorities means leaving his office door open to talk about what characters his employees ship.
I mean, really. Image Comics has a rainbow background on their Twitter account right now. The day before they’re set to release a comic where one of their writers himself is drawn mercilessly and repeatedly using a transmisogynist slur, degrading trans women by portraying us both as sex objects and a carnival sideshow to be gawked at, and then topping it off by completely ungendering us. To what end? To use us as a symbol of the fall of western civilization to drive Airboy into a furious rage? To give Robinson the world weary asshole street cred he’s so desperate to peddle as an excuse for not having anything interesting to say? There’s no voice, no agency, no humanity to any of the trans women in this comic. Just an open mouth to fuck or a penis to gawk at. Robinson and Hinkle have clearly proven themselves to be worth about as much of my time as a pair of used condoms floating in a toilet. It’s a distraction to target and shame hacks like them who stoop to this level for a cheap thrill.
The real quarrel here is with Image Comics swaddling themselves in the flag that trans women like me bled and died for while publishing a complete mess that reads like a laundry list of all the attitudes that expose us to violence and murder. It’s legal in every state, except California, to murder a trans woman for being surprised by her genitals by citing “trans panic” as a defence in court. Yet, somehow, Robinson and Hinkle think that this is something to laugh about and Image Comics thinks it’s worthy of printing. I deserve better. We all deserve better. It’s a shame that Image Comics, with all of their rainbow-colored boasting, fails to agree that we deserve this basic level of decency and dignity.
Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.