Being trans can be lonely, it can be scary, it can be sad. It can be so many things at once, especially in these dark times. For so long we’ve wanted to see trans heroes. People who defy their assigned gender and still manage to fight the big fights. Alters, a book published by an exciting, fresh company, Aftershock, at first saw excitement which quickly turn sour as readers noted there was a cisgender writer and line artist on the book. Once again, trans stories were being told by cis people. They did make a wonderful choice bringing in perhaps the most talented colorist in all comics, Tamra Bonvillain. Known for coloring Nighthawk, Rat Queens, Wayward, and other fantastic books, Tamra happens to be trans and her contribution can’t be overlooked. It’s amazing that her voice was added, that her colors can help express the emotions Chalice, the main hero, feels, and that her voice can even be painted on the walls of this story. But even with her contribution this book’s marketing fails the trans community.
To begin anywhere but Chalice’s design would be a mistake. It’s riddled with issues and the problems with her design are core to the marketing of this book. She is the cover hero, she is what everyone talks about in interviews, she is the main character of at least issues one and two (and if we believe solicitations, then future issues as well). While everyone experiences transness differently, with everything that readers know about Chalice’s transition her design is just all wrong. I can ignore how unrealistically amazing she is at using wigs. But I can’t ignore that she is exposing so much of her body while in the closet, hasn’t been on hormones for long, and somehow has a body that most women would need surgery to get. Let’s say someone buys Chalice as passing as male in her everyday life — it say more about the character’s inclusiveness (they see someone and don’t assume gender) than Chalice’s ability to go into “boy mode.” She has no shape shifting power, she simply looks really “hot” to sell comics.
During the Comic Book Hour chat sponsored by Alters, writer Paul Jenkins was questioned on the design of Chalice and replied in a series of tweets: “But I wanted Chalice, of all characters, to be the ‘hot’ one for a reason — was intentional […] I felt that might open a door to easier acceptance of the character.” The idea that a trans body exists for the male gaze is disgusting. To him, this was just how he got the comics into hands of non-trans people. Instead of marketing to people looking for different kinds of stories — hanging the writing on its own merits — Chalice’s body was the key to Alters‘ marketing. The outfit has so many ways to out Chalice — to expose that she is trans — and trigger dysphoria (an awful feeling many trans people experience about their bodies). On November 8th, 2016, the twenty-sixth trans person that we know of was murdered in America. Often attraction to trans people is what causes violence towards us; some laws even protect trans panic, an excuse for murdering a trans person because their genitalia wasn’t what the other person expected. The fetishization of trans people is key to this book’s marketing and a real problematic element here.
Paul Jenkins has said in several interviews that his comic wasn’t “a trans story” but the marketing tells a whole other story — about Aftershock, at least, if not about how Jenkins wants to sell the book. The content of the book is very much a trans narrative, and another example of cis gender people co-opting trans narratives. The big pink trans symbol caressing the silhouette of the hero dominates the cover, pink and nothing else but white. That draws the attention of the reader, boldly saying “this is a trans story,” but the content isn’t here for trans people. Trans people often know how it is to have crappy parents — we know how it is to live in the house of a bigot, being insulted without them even knowing it, we know know how it is to have to deal with them proudly stating offensive things. We know how it is to not expect love or support. This isn’t being written by a trans person, and while trans people do have their hands in the making of this book that’s clearly secondary to whatever vision Jenkins and Ryane have. To do a cover this boldly trans, to take trans people’s symbol…I would want that to be backed up by something that was by a team of trans people, or at least a truly empowering story.
These covers are variant covers, but the first one shown is in the top row of Google Image results. It’s a highly seen cover. And even if wasn’t, it’s something being sold to stores to sell to people. This isn’t the story that will empower trans kids, no. This is a story that is written from a place of privilege. It may be, and likely is, made with all of the best intentions, but to be transported to a world of high drama isn’t the story that should be highlighting “The first trans superhero story in print comics” as the book was promoted by certain outlets (that title belongs to Coagula from Doom Patrol). This land of high drama is just a place where everything is bad, bad things happen, and things are just destined to be bad always it seems. This symbol should be a promise, a promise that any trans person who grabs this at a comic shop is going to be empowered, and that any ally will see their friends within as the heroes they are.
Ugh, this variant cover is somehow even less excusable. A North Carolina comic shop commissioned this cover for the book after the anti-trans “bathroom bill” passed. We see a discarded cthulhu bathroom sign, and an ant head man sign? While the intention here might have been to show Chalice fighting for gender neutral bathrooms, the jokes are at the expense of trans people. Trans people are not elder gods. If we were, we wouldn’t be dealing with the shit going on in the world today. Equating us with being of myth is to further the idea that trans people aren’t people.
While it may not be noticeable to many cis people how bad issue 2’s cover is, it was very noticeable to many trans people. This issue displays a trans woman’s face spray painted on a wall, a cross on her face and labeled “FREAK.” The freak part alone could be triggering for trans people but the issues don’t end there. What does the cross suggest? A tie to religion, something we otherwise don’t see in her character. It’s implied she is in the “standard” white american family so the Christianity is implied but it doesn’t get mentioned in anything I have read of the story. Religion can be powerful for many people but Christianity has not been progressive in most branches towards trans people. The struggle between faith and being trans is one I’ve personally not experienced people coming out devote in but even if this was to be Chalice’s story it doesn’t appear here. The name Chalice is even rooted in these christian concepts that only serve as what I can assume to be a way to make Chalice as acceptable to the assumed standard cis/het white male audience of the book. Chalice is attempting to be sold to us as close to acceptable as possible, she is shown as likely to be straight, white, blonde, american, christian. It’s a shame that this is the root this highly promoted trans hero is going when trans women of color lead the charge at stonewall and are at the biggest risk of violence. Medical ability? Something she doesn’t possess. So then it’s hard to resist the sense that death is what it is signifying. Is Chalice a soon-to-be-dead freak? What does it mean?
The Alters issue 4 solicitation continues deadnaming (this is using the name a trans person no longer wishes to be referred to by) Chalice throughout the solicitation, referring to her by “Charlie” 3 times. Trans people don’t exist in the duality of names and this isn’t in any way an inside-the-narrative thing ether. This is a solicitation, where the writer has the ability to always refer to the character by their chosen name. Pretending that “they” are two different people is perpetuating the myth that trans women are a different person when dressed up. That they are men putting on a character. And that is not the case. Trans women are not drag queens putting on a character, and are always themselves, even when pretending not to be.
We can’t know what the future holds for Alters. Issue 1 was Aftershock’s best selling comic of September but it was also the only issue 1. It also had a lot more press than other Aftershock titles, so now that there isn’t that same hype where it will land isn’t certain. What readers do know is that issue 4 was the only issue from Aftershock for January 2017 that didn’t display a cover — so perhaps they are already trying to correct some issues? To be honest, any repair would be too little, too late. Alters has already sold itself as a trans story without understanding the struggles of trans people. It doesn’t know what we need, what we want, or how to treat us. Let’s just hope that if Alters fails that this isn’t the end of trans super heroes for a while.
More than ever we need publishers publishing trans superheroes, but next time, guys? Maybe put more trans people in charge.