You’re a Comedian: Trans Characters and Jokes in “Comic” Books

Kylie Wu

You’re a comedian. You’ve been working in the comedy business for a few years, getting a few laughs here and there with your crude style. Things have been good thus far, and you’re feeling more and more confident in your dark humor. In fact, you’re in a whole new city with one of your first scheduled shows. Nervously and excitedly you walk to the center of the stage while practicing the opening lines in your head one more time. A heavy knot sets in your stomach. You realize that this isn’t your regular audience. You’re looking at waves of different shades of skin colors and abnormal hair colors; women are sitting in groups and not just accompanying their boyfriends. In fact, some seem to be accompanying their girlfriends. Without preparation, you’ve walked in on a scene more diverse than you’re altogether comfortable with. Checking through your regular routine, you try to discard the jokes that might not sit well with the current crowd, only to find that your “show” will barely last half a dozen minutes with what you have left. You grab at the mic with a sweaty brow, and suddenly you realize every gag you’ve thought up was at the expense of the people in front of you.

The preceding example is woefully frequent with comedians (as well as regular snarky asshats) who find it really fun to make jokes that punch down at marginalized people while coincidentally having audiences mostly made of white cishet guys. Let me just stop dancing around the topic and be blunt: if you aren’t comfortable repeating a constructed joke about a marginalized person to exactly that type of person, then your joke’s probably not funny. If you can’t look a trans person in the eye while telling us about why we should give “that one Family Guy episode a try,” it should really be a clue as to what’s going on. Transphobia, racism, and a vast plethora of other bigoted views mire every cheap Hollywood comedy pumped out by the dozens every year. Whenever we’re so unlucky as to see one of these in their entirety, we basically keep a tally in our head as we trudge forward. “That one was an insult about her genitalia, but at least they didn’t deadname her.” “Well, that was at least a horribly degrading joke about a trans man. I don’t see that often, so that has to be worth something, right? Right…”

Despite still being a fledging trans woman, I’ve had to listen to my fair share of dehumanizing jokes from popular media, because it was the easiest go-to punchline, and because the guy who wrote the script just really needed that paycheck a few minutes earlier. When we criticize these twiddling shit stacks for maybe making a bit of insensitive content, they scoff and call us special snowflakes who need to learn to take a joke. The funny thing, of course, is that marginalized people can take a joke; you’re just godawful at making them, you tin-hearted, parrot-fucker.

This mentality of writing insensitive content with no room for introspection is of course not just exclusive to TV and movies, but also the wide world of comics. Western comic books have a slightly estranged relationship with comedy, from internet memes and webcomics, to the serialized newspaper strips, to satire works during the ’80s alternative comic scene, and to the more natural energy of the Image-era works. Despite the rather robust nature of this genre, it still fails to consistently produce huge sales numbers. We don’t have much in terms of hilarious yearly blockbuster comics, and even those that do mostly feature humor in passing rather than letting it be the square focus. Because of the limit of titles, and the way our industry hires its staff, we’re often left with a slew of “edgy” books that take pot shots at easy targets.

The Bombshells in Captain America: Sam Wilson #17, Marvel Comics, 2017, Spencer, Renaud, Rauch, Caramanga
The Bombshells in Captain America: Sam Wilson #17, Marvel Comics, 2017, Spencer, Renaud, Rauch, Caramanga

Marvel’s Captain America: Sam Wilson #17 has a segment that casually mocks students who try to fight for equality on their college campus. I remind you that some of the more common issues that college students may face are rape cases, lack of trigger warnings where they’re needed, and having your identity and pronouns rejected, among a myriad of other crap that can fuck up your campus experience. In the middle of a comic that’s so racially problematic that WWAC already has an article worth reading about itt, Sam Wilson takes two pages to introduce us to The Bombshells. These teens are “[t]oo extreme for their own good,” “[t]otal SJWS,” “[h]ave no idea who Simon and Garfunkel even are,” and other such things that middle-aged teachers probably scream at new students. Nick Spencer’s writing is a crude, preachy take on social justice movements, and unfortunately, it utterly lacks any relevance for anyone under the age of 30. Reading it feels like trying to make sense of notes handwritten while I was off my medication: it’s frustrating and you feel like crucial context is either lacking from you or the writer. And what’s up with those fucking F’s that looks like lower case S’s for some unholy reason.

As we sift through examples of this, I must elaborate that as a white European transwoman, I have very little authority and clear insight towards humor that degrades someone who’s a person of color. Because of that, from here on, I’m going to be sticking mostly to transphobic jokes, as I can speak much more in depth about that than anything else, especially because transphobic comics often tend to focus on white trans characters.

Many comics (like Sam Wilson) fail utterly and totally to provide a humorous outtake, but some failures are more subdued than others. Our second offender is Airboy, an Image comic about a golden-age superhero that comes to life and has to come to terms with being just a comic book hero. Being aided by fictionalized versions of Jams Robinson and Greg Hinckle, the creators, he goes to a bar and promptly gets a sex worker to join him in the bathroom. We then get a visual gag of a trans sex worker side by side with a cisgender one, which is supposedly funny to us for some reason. As the matter is discussed further between Airboy and the creative team (appearing within their own comic), it’s clear that the creators are in fact pro-trans rights, but the way the scene is handled, and some of the off-hand jokes and phrases that are used, showcase that the team clearly needed more sensitivity readers. In particular phrases like “trap” and “tranny” used by the fictionalized creative team become very hard to defend, due to the nature of these words.

In modern English, a “trap” is a fetishized term for both trans women and cross-dressers who pass as cis. It is almost exclusively used in a sexual, derogatory manner. The term “tranny” is considered a slur by most of the trans community, and even to those who do occasionally use it, most likely, they don’t want it so casually used to describe who they are by total strangers. Because of that, it’s easy to understand that most, if not all trans people, would never want these words to be used on them in a scenario like this, and it’s incredibly disrespectful that the creators ever thought this was appropriate.

It’s easy to imagine that they were aiming to show a gritty environment where people harass others and make jokes at their expense, but it’s not exactly easy to do this within the confines of their story, because the characters who use these words are caricatures of the creative team. Someone that could be excused as a bigoted character is now a drawn puppet of the unseen creators, and all the things they say have to be given a bit more of a critical eye, because the line between metafiction and honest opinions become blurred. We can’t distinguish where their satirical opinions end and their real opinions start, so to some degree, we have to consider all of their thoughts in the comic a shadowed extension of their real-life counterpart. With that, their thoughts on the trans women in this scene have to come under scrutiny.

What hurts especially is that this is all supposed to be a key point in discussing cultural differences between Airboy’s bygone era of World War II and the modern one, and while James Robinson and Greg Hinkle attempt to make a positive dialogue, it’s mired by their approach to the situation. I could have seen myself not only enjoy, but laugh at the situation. With a rewrite and an added page or two, this could have really worked. But it ends falling flat in a harmful way, leading to the creative team later apologizing and vowing to do better. That’s good, but understanding what exactly went wrong here is also key. It’s not just a matter of saying you’re sorry, because the community you hurt has to have the chance to tell you how exactly you messed up. The obvious one is that we genuinely can’t tell how serious the creators are being about their jokes, but beyond that, it is how they treat the sex workers within this scene that’s the problem.

We’re led on with the setup that Airboy has hired a trans sex worker at the bar bathroom, with the pay-off being them showing that the trans sex worker in question has more masculine features than the cis sex worker that’s in the next stall over. This is the first real punchline to speak of, and it fails horribly because it focuses on aspects that make us different from cis women. Our tendency to have broader shoulders, or more muscular builds, our differences as people, become the focal point of what is supposed to make us laugh, but making fun of us simply for existing is never, ever going to get a laugh out of us. It fails because it reaches for the lowest fruit and turns a complex narrative of trans sex workers that live under harsher conditions in a new world into a cheap punchline that’ll barely get a laugh out of anyone who doesn’t already have a bigoted view of trans people. That’s the long and short of it really: if every joke you make is expanding on bigoted views, the only ones left laughing are bigots.

Our last example of transphobia is another Image comic called Chew, by Rob Guillory and John Layman, which centers around a detective who can see memories from the food he’s eaten. From the first page, the comic has a way of greatly exaggerating various character designs for the sake of humor, much to my personal dismay. Women are often big-titted, men often hulking, and for trans people and drag queens, these design choices mean being hairy and fairly ugly while walking around pretending we’re wearing the skinned corpse of Marilyn Monroe. There are several choice panels I can pull from (many of which have already been featured on WWAC) that show a very negative idea of what exactly being trans or a drag queen are. Heck, if the creative team had shown this to anyone in the queer community, trans or not, they would probably have gotten rounds of uncomfortable silence and hasty backtracking to the nearest exist.

I actually had a short conversation with the writer John Laymen on Twitter about this subject, and he tried to rather calmly explain that there was no transphobic intent with his work and that every character we maintain is trans is actually a drag queen. This may very well be, but having the intent is not the same as doing something, and the ultimate product of Chew is transphobia, because the ideas behind the jokes are rooted in transphobic tropes. We get multiple stories over multiple volumes that joke about drag queens, relying only on showcasing how outrageous it is that someone understood as masculine might try to bring out feminine features. There is, for example, a burlesque show where some drag queens perform and we get a full view of the hairy armpits they still have. This joke pulls from the idea that all women, regardless of who they are or when they exist, should have perfectly shaven armpits. This is, of course, a 20th-century and 21st-century concept mostly made to sell shaving products to women. Despite that, we desperately cling to this standard of beauty, to the point that, for example, the actresses on LOST would have been stuck there for seasons on end, and yet never ever had any hair on their armpits. This is the well of culture that the gender-related humor of Chew draws from, and it’s important to understand this to get why objectively this is a horribly rotten, low-hanging fruit. Every joke about this subject is supposed to be funny, because attempting to be feminine is funny to the creators, and there’s unfortunately very little substance beyond this.

Layman/Guillory Chew transphobiaOn top of that, some characters who appear in the background aren’t recognizable to the audience as just drag queens. In one issue, a person appears in the background of a panel with a horribly tacky shirt on that says “AM I A DUDE?” Again the idea is that the comedy is drawn from the elements of masculine people being unable to conceal their masculinity when trying to pass as women, but this joke twists it even further. See, here the entire comedy of the piece is in terms of ambiguity: clear masculine attributes are displayed on the character, and for us to laugh we have to make the assumption that all the masculine traits are actually masculine. Despite that, the character has no real defined gender; the comedy comes from us using the masculine elements of their physical appearance to mock them. This quite frankly leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth, and I’m a bit distraught at the idea that Mr. Layman has that degrading drag queens somehow doesn’t rely on the same tropes used to degrade trans women. This is all coming from the same source of bigotry, that masculine-appearing people can’t for their life try to look feminine. Reading this hurts me just as much as it would hurt any drag queen, I can assure you.

This is furthered by the fact that the plot also relies on elements based on transphobic tropes, with one character faking being a cis girl until we cleverly reveal that “it’s a man.” What you may not understand is that the plot twist of “woman is actually man in disguise” is inherently rooted in transphobic commentary, and this twist can’t be used without setting off huge alarm bells for trans people. What it’s invoking is the idea that anyone who appears feminine or as a cis girl, but also happens to have penis, is a liar and a harmful person.

This goes hand-in-hand with decades of negative storytelling told by straight people in which lesbians are serial killers that tempt your wives, and all gay men are slutty sailor guys that’ll fuck any man with a pulse. What I’m saying is, just because your character or joke isn’t directly symptomatic of greater personal bigotry does not mean the elements around it can’t resonate with us as bigoted. When we see elements like this, and the negative jabs at either us or people like us, we start to distrust the creator. Any jokes akin to that by said creator are met with defensive hostility. Our need to talk about these jokes and tropes, to dissect their carcass, and promote a discussion about them online is one of the few safe acts of change we have.

That’s what comedy writers don’t often understand; humor isn’t just about dispensing quips and comebacks. For an audience to laugh at you, they have to trust you, because comedy is an exercise of safety. This is why you’ll find groups of marginalized people joking within our own private groups, but give stink-eyes to the creeper on the bus making the exact same jokes. Centuries worth of collective discrimination–that is still going on–unfortunately make us assume by necessity that you’re against us rather than with us.

Validation by Christian Bareneck and Kelci Crawford
Validation by Christian Bareneck and Kelci Crawford

When writers do in fact achieve great trans-related humor, it’s often done by trans writers. Examples include the comic Validation by Christian Bareneck and Kelci Crawford, which is a lovely strip-type work that centers around a trans woman seeking validation for her identity. It doesn’t shy away from negative topics that plague trans women, but it handles them with a good wit and experience. Many of these jokes are obviously somewhat advanced for someone not initiated into trans matters, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s fairly easy to bridge that gap between the subject matter and the audience. In fact, Trans Girl Next Door by Kylie Wu does that with great style. Almost every strip she makes is not only comprehensible and informative, but hilarious and wonderfully self-deprecating. There’s perhaps no greater reference for what trans women actually joke about regarding themselves, because it does not shy away from making light of the less-than-beautiful moments of being transgender.

Kylie Wu
Kylie Wu, Trans Girl Next Door

The thing that helps me laugh here is that I trust the creator; they’ve earned it by how they handled the topics they joked about. There’s been a good sizing of cis creators who have managed to handle trans jokes with some form of grace. Questionable Content by Jeph Jacques did a fairly good job because their trans character Claire was dealing with the inexperience of dating, but doing so as a trans character. It’s a fairly common thing for trans people to not know much about dating, because sometimes their revelation about gender comes packed with sexuality; so suddenly they see themselves as a different kind of person and they also like different kind of people. Questionable Content uses this and focuses on it through the view of character, and not through the view of her transness, and that’s 90% of why this character works. The other 10% is that the creator and the characters are not ashamed that she’s trans. We’re not lead to believe it’s abnormal or gross, and at most, it’s just a bit awkward to talk about. Having this understanding and making this clear will go a long, long way to earn the trans crowd on your side, especially if you know what you’re making fun of and why.

Jeph Jaques Questionable Content
Romance blossoms in Questionable Content

Chic Young's Blondie coverIn the same way, there’s a cover for Chic Young’s Blondie that features drag humor from the ’50s, and it still works. The entire reason is very simple: Blondie’s husband Dagwood is adorable in this picture, and on top of that, despite how he knows this might be demeaning, he’s wearing the dress to help his wife put it together. It’s cute more than anything, and judging by Blondie’s expression, she’s really relieved that he’s willing to help her like this. (The dog might be making fun of him, but you know what? Fuck the dog.)

So really, there’s no excuse if you haven’t taken the time to make sure the jokes you write aren’t hitting a highly sensitive sore spot. To summarize, if you want to laugh at things we do or who we are, then you have to earn our trust while you’re doing it. Otherwise, you force us to assume that you do not, and never will, have our best interests at heart.

Atla Hrafney

Atla Hrafney

Atla is a creator, writer, editor and general comic book lover. Having been a social recluse for several years, she is now attempting to gain a foothold in Iceland's comic market, which is surprisingly harder than it sounds.

One thought on “You’re a Comedian: Trans Characters and Jokes in “Comic” Books

  1. Do you think that the Sam Wilson comic was deliberately making fun of “DC Comics Bombshells” as well?

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