Paul Jenkins (Writer), Leila Leiz (Artist), Tamra Bonvillain (Colors), Ryane Hill (Letters), Brian Stelfreeze (Cover Artist)
September 7, 2016
In recent years, transgender people have become something of a recurring theme across fiction. Whether this is a fad or the beginning of something more substantial, trans people and the issues they face have been depicted with varying degrees of success in sitcoms (Transparent), historical biopics (The Danish Girl) and even the women-in-prison genre (Orange is the New Black).
Superhero comics have not been left out, and this should be no surprise. With its convention of dual identities, the superhero genre has something in common with transgender experience. A trans woman will, at some point or another, have to create her own Clark Kent; a trans man, his Diana Prince.
The likes of Batgirl have already included transgender characters in their supporting casts. Now Alters, a new series from Aftershock Comics written by Paul Jenkins, places a trans superhero front and centre.
As is often the case with superhero stories from outside the Big Two universes, Alters creates its own ready-populated world of super beings. These are portrayed as a recent but already familiar phenomenon, as people from around the world – the “Alters” of the title – inexplicably develop various powers to be used for good or ill. The Alter community has its own ramshackle Justice League, which includes such curious members as a twirly-moustached hipster and a man with a grey cube for a head. The other side is represented by Matter Man, a fabulously-dressed terrorist who executes a prisoner on film like some sort of radicalised David Bowie. So far Alters looks like a by-the-book superhero comic, albeit one with some unusual decisions in regards to fashion
The main character is Chalice, an Alter who found out about her abilities only a day or two before the issue takes place. Our protagonist is introduced in a civilian guise as an ordinary-looking blonde girl at a diner. Next we see her superhero identity, Chalice.
Then Alters delivers its high-concept twist. Once Chalice returns home to family, we see her third identity as she removes her wig, makeup and skirt to pass as male. As far as her parents are concerned, she is simply their son, Charlie.
Chalice’s powers are not the main focus of the issue, although they are established. Aside from possessing the almost standard-issue ability of flight, she can escape tight situations by splitting herself in two. The metaphor is clear. Alters takes the theme of a character being torn in different directions, already a constant motif of the superhero genre, and zooms in on it. On the one hand we have Charlie/Chalice’s life passing as male in a whitebread America. Her family affairs involve cracking jokes about “Hollywood homos” and attending Cleveland Indians games alongside fans with grotesque racial caricatures daubed onto their faces. In the workplace, meanwhile, she is expected to join in with banter about “hot chicks”. But our protagonist has already begun taking hormones, and the physical changes are starting to show. It will not be long before she is forced to come out as trans to those around her.
Her second civilian life, in which she is presenting as female, is something that she appears to share with just one person: her brother Teddy, who has cerebral palsy. The first scene in the comic shows the two visiting a diner together, while Charlie is in her female guise. Later on, when Charlie is passing as male, she asks in a low voice if Teddy wants to hang out at the diner again. It is a sweet touch, solidarity between two people who – for very different reasons – do not fit in. That said, it is somewhat uncomfortable that a character with cerebral palsy is given speech balloons that read “nnngk” and “mmuhh” when he answers questions. I doubt that Jenkins meant any harm, but this comes across as being rather too close to caricature.
The issue hits all of the main beats in a superhero debut, although it leaves some lingering questions that should perhaps have been answered. We never learn for sure what name our character goes by in her female civilian identity; presumably she is still Charlie – a conveniently unisex handle – but it might have been better for this to have been cleared up.
Also raising questions is the usage of religious iconography: Chalice, whose name obviously has ecclesiastical connotations, has a crucifix painted onto her face. Is religion going to play a role in the character? Or is she simply meant to look like a Hot Topic goth, in keeping with a superhero comic where hip fashions replace spandex?
The illustrations by artist Leila Leiz and colourist Tamra Bonvillain are light, cartoonish and likeable. One flaw, however, is that Charlie’s male and female guises do not really convince as being the same person with different cosmetics: her facial structure is noticeably less round when she is passing as male. She also has a remarkably feminine waist, which is prominently portrayed thanks to her midriff-baring outfit; the dialogue contains a reference to her “thinning out” as a result of HRT, but these hormones appear to have redistributed her overall musculature as well as her body fat. Even the most conventionally femme trans women, such as Jenna Talackova, are not quite so wasp-waisted.
In a media landscape currently fascinated by transgender people, it is impossible to discuss Alters without touching upon trans portrayal. But getting too caught up in this topic will obscure what the first issue is at the end of the day: a superhero comic that is largely conventional, but understands its conventions well enough to offer a few twists on them. The comic has some weaknesses, but at this early stage, it still has plenty of time to fix them.