One of the great joys of writing (at least for me) comes from stepping into the mind and shoes of my creations. I’ve done some truly horrific things to characters (both my own and those borrowed in various fanfics); yet I don’t do it out of some sadistic glee. I step behind my character’s eyes and see and feel what they feel, and try to work out how and why they survive. In some ways I become my characters for a little bit.
It’s not easy at times, especially when trying to look through the eyes of a girl. In some ways, women and men are more alien to each other than to say cats or dogs. Animals tend to react in set ways. There are exceptions, but these are exceptions. But women? For all that both genders are human, the differences between men and women can be quite vast, and an intriguing topic for many writers.
Naturally webcomic creators are attracted to this dichotomy between the sexes. One way of exploring what it is to be a woman, or a man, is with what I call “Transformation Comics” in which a character is changed from one gender to the other. (Note the capitalization; if this were Websnark, Eric would be hauling out the Lexicon and adding a new word to his ever-growing list of snarkisms. I think Tangents can do without a lexicon for now (which is part of the reason I eliminated it from the archives). At least until I grow a few more pet-phrases concerning comics.)
I’m unsure if I would include true transgender comics in the Transformation Comic category. If they are, they’re a definite sub-category. But the main thrust of a Transgender Comic is of an individual born the wrong gender, much as transgendered individuals are in real life. In this, they seek to change who and what they are through hormonal therapy and surgery. (An excellent example of a Transgender comic would be Venus Envy, though there are a number of TG comics out there.) Transformation and Transgender comics do share one thing in common, however. Both are about poor souls who are in a body that isn’t the right gender for them. In the case of transgendered comics, they were born that way. Transformation comics are those changed into another gender, predominantly male-to-female.
(This is kind of sad actually. I know that Narbonic briefly explored female-to-male transformation with Helen being changed into a man. However, even that story turned its focus to the traditional male-to-female transformation when Helen turned Dave female. After that it focused on Dave’s experiences as a woman. El Goonish Shive also recently had an extended storyline in which the main cast (with the exception of Ellen) switched genders, giving the girls a glimpse of what it was like to be male, and vise versa. Still, the only real focus of female-to-male transformation was with Susan, and that seemed to be used as an object lesson to show Susan that her dad didn’t cheat on her mom because he was male, but because he was a despicable person. I don’t recall any other female-to-male comics, which suggests to me that a considerable creative outlet is being ignored here.)
Transformation comics seem to have certain things in common. Naturally, the transformation of a character to the opposite gender is one. This is often brought about by magic or arcane technology that cannot be (or is not) explained. One well-known example is Misfile, which had an error in heaven behind Ash’s transformation. The Wotch also has frequent gender-swapping done by magic (and recently magi-tech which resisted efforts at magically reversing it). And EGS has the alien magi-tech “Transformation Gun” which can switch genders, some orientation, and even species. But the mechanism of change plays second fiddle to the actual act of transformation and the consequences of that change.
The next thing Transformation comics have in common are the female sidekick or partner. This (often teenaged) girl becomes confidant, guide, and source of humor. Misfile’s Ash has Emily, who helped teach her how to put on a bra and on some feminine hygiene issues. EGS’s Elliot had his best friend Sarah help her out. Ryan and Brian of Abstract Gender have their friend Katie. And on down the line.
Despite the presence of the female sidekick, the transformed individual often feels isolated. Their transformed status is often kept a secret, either by erasing knowledge of the character’s past as a male or by the character pretending to be someone else (often a cousin). Close friends might know the truth, but in the end they cannot understand the trauma that comes from being changed.
Because it is traumatizing. Biochemically, men and women are very different… with different hormonal mixtures and the like. These hormones affect our behavior. So we have a person who remembers what it’s like to be a man… who remembers how “he” used to react. And all at once she’s finding sappy movies cause her to get teary-eyed, and that her emotional reactions are different than she remembers. She can see these changes in herself. She’s literally losing her mind here, becoming someone.. something different than what she had been.
It can be much worse. A good part of attraction is hormonal. So imagine a character (who is inevitably straight and usually has no interest in homosexuality) suddenly finds “her” heart racing when catching another guy scoping “her” out… finding “she” likes a guy’s scent or to just be with him. Imagine how frightening it would be. It’s a loss of identity. And the female sidekick cannot understand. The friends can’t. They aren’t experiencing this.
Naturally the transformed men didn’t want to be changed. They liked being men (with a few exceptions). And they don’t want to be “stuck” female. Each day is a struggle to retain their identity, and pretending to be something they honestly aren’t doesn’t help with this identity struggle. They see wearing women’s clothes as cross-dressing, despite the fact they are female, because they don’t identify themselves as women. Literally, they’re men trapped in women’s bodies.
Interestingly enough, the majority of Transformation comics don’t delve into the transformed individuals actually dating people of their former gender. While Narbonic’s Helen and Dave periodically switched genders when they were lovers, this was done in the background. We were told what happened instead of shown. Sparkling Generation Valkyrie Yuuki’s Yuuki is one exception in that Yuuki actually dated a male student, and has Loki hitting on her as well, but to date the majority of gender-swapped characters haven’t even hinted at feelings for their former gender.
Inevitably it seems these comics eventually descend into considering lesbian relationships (as all of the long-term Transformation comics I know of are male-to-female). I suppose I can see the point. After all, the transformed individual remembers being attracted by the formerly opposite gender. Mentally, being with someone of their current gender isn’t homosexuality. It’s natural to them. It’s less frightening than to surrender to the situation, to fully embrace their femininity. Still, it seems almost formulaic in some ways. There’s no real interest in exploring this new situation.
The exceptions that I know of being EGS’s Tedd and SGVY’s Yuuki, but even in these cases it’s easily explained away. Tedd dislikes being picked on for his feminine features and sees “becoming a girl” as a vacation from life. Yuuki was into cosplaying and dressed up as a girl even before being transformed. Abstract Gender waffles on this, going both routes (and having two transformed characters). Brian’s friend Katie cajoled him into cross-dressing and taught him how to walk like a girl months before he was transformed… and as Brian can switch between male and female he doesn’t have nearly the issues that other gender-swapped characters suffer through. His friend Ryan, however, is stuck as a girl and wants nothing to do with it. Ryan’s one fear is that others in his school will find out the truth and harass him on it, and Brian’s switching back and forth is a threat to “his” secret.
None of the Transformation Comics I’ve read have actually had their heroine discovered. Outside of the female sidekicks and some family members, no one knows what happened. Of course, this isn’t so hard to believe. I mean, people don’t just spontaneously change gender. The only people who would suspect anything would be crackpots and idiots. (EGS might be considered an exception here, as in the Sister storyline Elliot told his teachers that he’d been turned into a girl even as he played the part of his “cousin” Ellen. But even that is questionable; none of the students outside of Elliot’s immediate friends ever heard a thing about it, so it’s a moot point.)
Naturally, the ending of a Transformation story is the resetting of things. The guy regains his original form (or the girl is once again female), lessons have been learned, and the story can end. In this there is a shift in the comics. Those that utilize a Transformation storyline continue on. Narbonic’s Dave and Helen went on to many other adventures after their voyage in gender-swapping. The EGS gang had a fun party and then changed back to their original forms, a bit wiser for their venture. But what of the Transformation Comics?
To date, none of them has ended. I must admit to being rather curious as to what will happen with Misfile… as the story is set to run for a couple of years. I suspect that in the end, Ash might remain a woman, if she’s able to stay with Emily. We never saw any of her life as a boy, but it seems that her friendship with Emily, her making peace with her mom, and many other incidents have far too great an impact for Ash to just hit the cosmic reset button and remain a guy. Yuuki? Well, once her valkyrie duties are done, no doubt she’ll go back to being a guy, though with the update schedule it will be years and years until we know for sure. As for the rest….
Transformation comics are an exploration of what it is to be a woman, more often than not. So the question is this: what did the protagonist learn? If her life as a woman ends up being richer and more satisfying than what she’d left behind, it doesn’t say that being a woman is better than being a man. Instead, it says that what she did with herself after that point made her a better person, male or female. And if he or she suffers and hates every moment of it… that too is not because of being transformed, but because of the choices and decisions made that resulted in that misery.
We take what the cards deal us. If it hands us the Joker, then we laugh and move on. Ultimately, that is what Transformation comics are about. It’s about living with the unexpected and prevailing no matter what. What does it matter if you’re male or female? What you make of your life is up to you.
Robert A. Howard
(From Abstract Gender. Click on image to see it full-sized.
One of the interesting things about Transformation comics is the exploration of what it is to be male and female from a perspective differing from normal relationship or humor comics. There’s the changed relationship with parents and siblings (for even if the gender-switched character’s status is concealed by altering memories so everyone “knew” the character as a girl (or boy), that doesn’t change the transformed character’s memories and feelings toward their family. There’s the changed relationship with friends (with former best friends having possibly become lovers instead). And of course there’s the issue of romantic relationships.
It seems that male-to-female Transformation comics inevitably skirt into the issue of lesbian relationships. It makes a certain amount of sense; we’ve a former boy here who remembers how she felt toward girls before and usually is freaked out by the thought of being with another boy. Only EGS had a transformed male-to-female gay character, and that was handled rather intelligently: Justin was not interested in being a girl, despite the fact it would allow him to have a boyfriend without worrying about being harassed (or even where to find another boy his age that was also homosexual).
So then I was initially rolling my eyes when I watched “Rachel” being kissed by another girl, one who thought Rachel was a lesbian. The next story update thus surprised me with Rachel’s rejection of Allison’s attentions. And don’t get me wrong. Ryan was interested in girls, and was dating a cheerleader named Nikki before he ended up on the wrong end of some mad scientist experiment. It was this that led me to start writing this tangent (which I ended up revising to the point it split into a comic-related article on Transformation comics and this review).
Clues to Rachel’s initial rejection toward lesbianism can be seen on the first day that “Rachel” went to school after having been transformed. Katie, who was Ryan’s friend beforehand and who’s playing confidant and partner to Rachel and also to Brian who was transformed as well, but who’s proven able to shift back to being a man. Katie was nagging Rachel to be careful around the boys in school. She wasn’t sure how Rachel would react if her body suddenly found itself attracted to a “Mr. Right” among her fellow students.
Rachel’s reaction initially was to state she wasn’t gay, a reaction that got garbled by her current gender confusion. Later she admitted that she’d only felt some feelings toward Nikki, and even that was “kinda” (though considering how Nikki was treating Rachel, it very well might be that she’d had her eyes opened as to what type of person Nikki was). When asked if that made Rachel a lesbian, her response was “can’t I just be nothing?”
The thing is, I don’t think Rachel is nonsexual. Not only is Rachel coming to terms with being a girl (and with no immediate quick fix in sight), but she’s also recovering from a lost relationship with Nikki. We’ve no idea of how serious Ryan and Nikki were. Unfortunately, Rayne didn’t show us any of Ryan and Nikki’s previous relationship. Indeed, Nikki sort of came out of the blue. The first time I remember seeing her was when Rachel was dragged to the mall by Katie and Brian (though Brian was going as a girl as well, calling herself “Brittany”). When you consider that Rachel approached Nikki that first day after becoming a girl… it seems clear this was more than just a passing fancy.
It’s been almost a month since Rachel was transformed, and the breakup with Nikki started in the first couple of days. What’s worse is that there’s been no real ending. “Ryan” has been unable to talk to Nikki, not even on the phone (or at least Rachel hasn’t tried imitating her old voice to try and talk to Nikki with a phone call). Undoubtedly at first Rachel hoped that the detective her mom hired would find something and she’d be able to end this nightmare and become Ryan again. Then things could be fixed with Nikki.
Time has proven the enemy here. No doubt it seems with the passing of time that a cure won’t come about. Ryan was never the most optimistic of people. Now that his past life has been all-but-destroyed, Rachel is showing many signs of depression. Even should a miracle come to pass and she’s able to switch back to a boy again, it’s probable that her relationship with Nikki is a thing of the past. Even if Nikki were willing to forgive and forget, the backbiting and nastiness that Nikki has shown Rachel has done much to poison that relationship.
Or to sum up quickly, Rachel’s still recovering from her dying relationship with Nikki. She’s not in the mood really to jump into a relationship with someone else.
Another aspect to this has to be the slight hope that there’s a cure. Imagine for a moment that Rachel did start seeing Allison… and then is cured. Would Allison be willing to continue seeing Ryan? Would she see it as a betrayal of her trust? I mean, Allison is gay. She doesn’t seem interested in boys (of course, whether Allison is lesbian or bisexual remains to be seen. However, she seemed rather disinterested when her friend Andie suggested going to the mall and scoping out the guys).
It might be one thing if Ryan were able to switch between the two sexes like Brian can. That way she could still see Rachel a little, even if she has to share her time with Ryan. But just Ryan alone? Homosexuality isn’t exactly something you choose to be. She might be able to be friends with Ryan… but a girlfriend? A lover? That seems doubtful to me.
In addition, Rachel’s already made it clear she’s not gay. Of course, that was meant as “I’m not into boys” but she’s not a boy anymore. Thus she might see it as hypocritical to not be homosexual as a boy, but homosexuality as a girl. Morality is a funny thing, especially when you’re younger. It’s easy to state “I will not do this, I do not feel it’s right” when you’re young and even to stick by your guns. But the older you get, the more you realize that morals are a guide, not a law.
Nor does Allison’s lesbian nature come out of the blue. Hints have been laid even as her character was being developed. It seemed like teasing at the time, but when Andie suggested they go malling to go boy-watching, Allison took notice when Rachel said it wasn’t her thing. When Rachel said she used to like a cheerleader it was a significant hint for Allison that Rachel was attracted to women. Thus the kiss.
As predictable as it was for AG to have the suggestion of a possible lesbian romance for Rachel, Rayne’s handling of it was a delightful surprise. It also is an interesting reflection of a similar scene from Misfile, when Ash kissed Emily much to her surprise and disapproval. In that comic it was the transformed person letting her interest be known, and the girl turning her down (though I do have to wonder if Misfile will eventually have Emily change her mind; she was rather intrigued by Ash having an erotic lesbian dream with her…).
In time, we may see Rachel changing her mind. The longer she goes in life as a girl, and the lonelier she gets with her paranoid refusal of Brian’s friendship (and in turn Katie’s as well), the less solid those morals will seem. After all, is it betraying her morals? She was a boy originally… and if she dates a girl, then if and when she changes back she can feel somewhat better about herself because hey, it wasn’t a guy. She didn’t do anything with a boy.
In addition, Allison may become Rachel’s confidant and “sidekick” now that she’s refused Katie’s friendship. Katie can’t be trusted by association with Brian. But Allison? Rachel already was going to trust Allison with one secret. I doubt it was the truth about having been Ryan. In all likelihood it was going to be about Brian. But if she did tell Allison the truth, and if Allison was still interested in her… then that might be enough.
Rachel needs a friend she can trust. A contemporary. She can’t confide in a mother who sees Rachel as the daughter she wanted but never had. Her little brother is a twit (though most brothers are). And while Brett’s friend Evan has guessed and kept it a secret, he’s also Brett’s age. When you’re sixteen, even two years seems an insurmountable gap at times. But Allison is Rachel’s age, and has already told her what Nikki says behind her back. She’s been willing to reach out to “the new girl” and become friends with her. And she’s worked hard to cheer Rachel up.
In a time when Rachel is withdrawing from others and seems ready to descend into the depths of depression, Allison has worked hard to cheer her up and be there for her. In kissing Rachel unexpectedly, she may have reminded Rachel that just because her life has been twisted inside out, it doesn’t mean she is alone.
Robert A. Howard
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