Do Stars Have a Gender?
A look at two comic books and how they navigate gender, trauma and embodiment.
The comic book medium has fewer restrictions than most other artistic forms. Even animation and computer games must work within operational and labour limitations to produce the more spectacular effects. To animate something, to render it graphically in a game, requires more than merely the ability to conceive and visualize it on the page. For the comic artists of works such as Danica Uskert’s Unsustainable and Catherine Castro’s Call Me Nathan, Annie Mok and Quentin Zuttion respectively, if writers can conjure it, and they can imagine it, it can be brought to life. And it can be done in great aesthetic specificity.
For that reason, comic books might be uniquely suited to the subject matter of these narratives. Unsustainable is about sex work and relationships, Call Me Nathan is a coming-of-age story about a trans man’s gender dysphoria, but really both are stories of coming to terms with embodiment. Zuttion’s ability to render the impossible is most directly called upon, as he is required to show Nathan’s body undergoing time-compressed alterations or to enter Nathan’s own self-conceptions as someone at odds with their own physicality. He does this through drawings with simple, cartoon pastels. The simplicity of the approach belies its emotional intensity and viscerality.
For Unsustainable, Mok adopts a very different tact. Uskert's autobiography with fictional elements is of a romance between a dissatisfied actor and a cam girl specializing in submission and fetish videos. It juxtaposes notions of the body and the self in the context of different types of performance, including those involved in BDSM relationships. For this, drawings and ink are used to create a lofi, punk aesthetic that is messy, impactful and impressionistic. What stands out is how Mok can make sex appear either violating and traumatic (the narrative includes details of rape and sexual threats) or nurturing and erotic, depending on the appropriate context. This adds to an authorial concern to reveal how BDSM can properly belong to the latter category.
Both graphic novels end on notes of ambiguity. Danica, the narrator-protagonist of Unsustainable, reveals that the title of the comic book was how her lover described her. That is, he felt that she needed to deal with her problems on her own terms. It is a bittersweet revelation that eventually leads her to a more secure life, but not one in which she gets all she desires or deserves. Nathan achieves his transition, but after undergoing so many years of questions about his sexuality and gender identity, is left alone on a beach wondering, ‘do stars have a gender?’ This question is evidently not posed to undermine his journey, but to raise deeper issues about the way in which gender is imposed and its possible limits.
The internet has a prominent place in both of these accounts. Whether Danica is using it to facilitate her sex work (although this is not exclusively online) or Nathan to connect to other trans people. The trans community, as with queer people more generally, is geographically dispersed, and the web has become a vital (if two-sided, sometimes dangerous) lifeline. But it is in Unsustainable that the harms, the commodifications, harassments and abuses, of the online world are properly explored. In one harrowing moment, we as readers are treated to messages she receives as a web cam performer, full of implied violence and misogynistic denigration.
From Danica’s adolescent rape, the instigating moment of her trauma and journey out of the necessities of basic survival, all the way to Nathan’s first exposure to his body as feminine coded during a beach holiday, agency is denied to these characters. A cis woman and a trans man are both denied the right to bodily autonomy. During her outro for Unsustainable, Uskert writes of when ‘a group of trans women were attacked a few blocks outside of my store and I was powerless to stop the hate crime’. What we learn with a shocking insistence is the way in which those on the margins of gender are all dehumanised. Their control over themselves is precarious, and violence (whether the passive violence of systems of domination or the direct violence of the mob) is legitimized.
Castro and Uskert, superbly aided by Zuttion and Mok, have created more than vehicles for a reader’s empathy. They have invited us to participate in the experiences of their characters (in Uskert’s case, herself) through an art that is aptly able to place you into contested bodies. Imaginatively inhabiting the flesh and lives of these two people, we are made to feel not only their pain but the triumphs and—to use a word beloved by the trans community—euphoria of their lives. Both books shout to be read.
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