“Virtual intimacies were failures before the fact. If you had to get online to get it, it couldn’t be the real thing. But what is the real thing, what is real intimacy?” —Shaka McGlotten
Before it spirals out into freaky chatroom horror, Carta Monir’s Secure Connect takes the familiar and comforting form of a memoir comic. “I can talk at great length about my life and fears,” the narrator tells us by way of introduction, “but it’s almost impossible for me to show emotion. I hear this isn’t uncommon amongst trans women.” The first panel, captioned “me.png,” is an ostensible self-portrait, a serene face with closed eyes, dorky glasses, and mopish hair at that awkward growing-out length.
If it’s a piece of memoir, it’s one that goes off the nonfictional rails pretty quickly. By the fourth panel, Monir’s peppy therapist is trying to sell her on a VHS-shaped box containing “an experimental, virtual support group,” and gets evasive about the concrete details. (Nothing good has ever come of a mysterious VHS, at least not in any story I’ve ever read, so I’m already uneasy when the narrator agrees to try it.)
The support group is an anonymous, secure chatroom whose four members are already waiting for our narrator when she loads the program. Intimate and unsettling, the virtual support group shares voyeuristic nudes, expresses greatest fears, and recites a mantra together: “I will remake myself in my own image.” The narrator is uneasy with all of this, with the creepshots in particular, but also with the general idea of total, honest exposure. By the time their chosen images come extruding out of the screens to be “worn” by each participant, she’s literally crawling out of her (her image’s) skin.
Reading this comic brings out a physical reaction: nausea, shakiness. Maybe it’s the way it uses the setting of the chatroom, that extra-intimate place of nostalgic memory, or the way it slides between mundane repulsion and surreal gore, between horror and memoir. In invoking autobiographical comics, Secure Connect isn’t fooling you, exactly, but it’s not being honest with you either. Its slipperiness is both a bug and a feature, putting the impossibility of being honest in the dressings of confessional autofiction.
“I will remake myself in my own image,” the narrator repeats after shutting down the program, imagining her face (me.png) buried under a flurry of windows.
I feel her on this image of digital overload, even if I can’t feel her on the comic’s transcendent final pages. Like Monir’s avatar, I find it difficult to be emotionally honest without resorting to either anger or the remoteness of text.
If Secure Connect is straightforwardly confessional in any way, it might be the comic’s admission that trans people aren’t magically more in touch with themselves than cis people. Asserting that we know ourselves just has much higher stakes. That’s the paradox of trans identity that often gets thrown in our faces: we want to be remade in an image that doesn’t yet exist, or isn’t our own until we say it is.
Remaking myself in my own image would entail having my “own image” on hand, and not just a pile-up of desires, pains, and reliefs. You can watch yourself organize sensations into narrative and know it’s no less a truth than anyone else’s, but that doesn’t change the feeling that you’re a fabrication, that everything else you’ve ever felt is either ugly or untrue. For trans people—for many kinds of marginalized people—authenticity can be a gauntlet of legitimization as much as it can be a genuine release.
Monir takes on that guilt a year after Secure Connect in her 2017 comic “ripmom,” first published in Critical Chips 2. The comic follows Monir’s avatar in the aftermath of her mother’s death, as she manages the double-bind of being “authentic” and honoring her mother’s wishes. Monir expands on the virtual conceit of her first published comic; now her avatar’s only mode of self-knowledge is the slew of windows crowding her face. The whole thing is a visual landscape of intrusive thoughts: notifications, adjustable settings, and progress bars overlay the picture plane, sometimes occupying three-dimensional space, sometimes taking over the role of panels entirely. Monir’s avatar has a 3D file of her mother’s face—a pixelated rendering copy-pasted into the comic—that distorts further each time it’s loaded. In the background, an “EVIL METER” progress bar slowly inches towards full.
If Secure Connect had a smudgy mark-making aesthetic, like low-resolution charcoal drawings put through a dirty scanner, then “ripmom” has a clean, light look imitative of an actual operating system. Limited value range and a monochrome blue palette work as visual contradictions to the comic’s overload of guilty thoughts and give “ripmom” a distance from physical embodiment that Secure Connect’s grotesque chatroom never allowed you to have. On the penultimate page, as the narrator’s feelings of guilt build and become unbearable, her body fades from the page, buried under pale windows. She’s replaced on “ripmom”’s final page with an assemblage of body parts in separate windows, crowned with her mother’s 3D rendering head.
The really unnerving thing about this is that Monir’s avatar is both the user and the system. She’s the invisible hand behind the cursor, the author of the notifications, and the program itself. And so while you think you’re getting away from the body—especially compared to Secure Connect—“ripmom” actually just draws the virtual system into the body’s realm. The computer ceases to be a separate entity from the body. Instinct, reaction, memory, dysphoria, all become virtual, which is to say simulated, which is not to say fake.
“I will remake myself in my own image.” For Monir’s narrator, the old self is an obsolete self. Its memories, impulses, and images are a program in desperate need of being rebooted and patched. Of course, what Monir’s avatar wants to become is evil, so that she can be free of guilt. Me too, Carta.
The obsolete self isn’t easily discarded. You’re stuck with yourself, with your body and its physical limitations and the virtual systems it’s integrated into, and with everything your body remembers, whether or not anyone else can believe it or see it. You can add and edit a few things, but certainly not everything you wish you could.
The ending of “ripmom” feels to me like a powered-down rewriting of Secure Connect’s “remaking.” Instead of the ecstatic and enigmatic self-actualizing that ends the earlier piece, what you get here is a filled-out feedback form requesting a change (“I want to be evil”) atop that exquisite corpse of body parts. It’s a gesture more than it is an actual remaking. But both options are unbearable: the likelier possibility that an “evil patch” won’t get implemented, and the more remote possibility that it will.
Monir is an amazing talent. As a cartoonist, she’s developed an instantly recognizable conceit that’s way more versatile than it seems on first blush. Her work is always, it seems, about how video games and computers work their way into you. But what each comic is about emotionally feels particular, never rehashed. In her body of published short works, she’s nailed the sweet, the grotesque, the bitter, and the mournful.
Monir recently won an Ignatz Award for her comic in ZEAL, “Lara Croft Was My Family.” That comic, too, is beautiful. And for those of us who are like Monir’s avatars, permeated by our everyday virtual coping tools, her comics are compelling portraits of the different ways that we live with our limitations.