When creators James Robinson and Greg Hinkle showed me a copy of the first issue of Airboy back at NYCC last year, my jaw dropped. A fourth-wall breaking 8 1/2 storyline about two creators bringing back a Golden Age hero while engaging in all sorts of drug taking, alcohol abusing and balls-out (and shown) sexual experimentation…yep something to cause comment. While the first issue got some buzz going, the second issue, which went on sale this week, has unfortunately ignited a firestorm over a storyline that many have condemned as transphobic.
In the issue, Robinson and Hinkle (who are the stars of the comic) are out on a bender and take Airboy to a bar populated by many trans women. Robinson’s character uses the t-word many times, and then Robinson and Airboy go into bathroom stalls for oral sex with the trans women. Robinson has no regrets for drunken bathroom sex, but the old timey, naive Airboy is angered and confused when he finds out that that lady was no lady.
If this all sounds like typical bro-comedy…it is. And it’s also old and tired. And gross and possibly dangerous. Emma Houxbois was the first to criticize the storyline at the LGBTQ site The Rainbow Hub and was the first of many to call out the disconnect between Image’s rainbow twitter icon and ongoing public call for diversity and this transphobic storyline:
I mean, really. Image Comics has a rainbow background on their Twitter account right now. The day before they’re set to release a comic where one of their writers himself is drawn mercilessly and repeatedly using a transmisogynist slur, degrading trans women by portraying us both as sex objects and a carnival sideshow to be gawked at, and then topping it off by completely ungendering us. To what end? To use us as a symbol of the fall of western civilization to drive Airboy into a furious rage? To give Robinson the world weary asshole street cred he’s so desperate to peddle as an excuse for not having anything interesting to say? There’s no voice, no agency, no humanity to any of the trans women in this comic. Just an open mouth to fuck or a penis to gawk at. Robinson and Hinkle have clearly proven themselves to be worth about as much of my time as a pair of used condoms floating in a toilet. It’s a distraction to target and shame hacks like them who stoop to this level for a cheap thrill
The outrage spread from there. If your’e telling yourself this is just another tempest in a teapot, I think (the much missedfrom these pages) Laura Sneddon has a must read post that addresses many of the defenses of the issue, starting with the one that Robinson and Hinkle are portrayed in anything but a favorable light in the book:
First up, the characters of James and Greg are portrayed as complete assholes. A pair of idiots who stumble from one drug to the next with their dicks hanging out, literally.
In many works of fiction, asshole characters requires asshole behaviour. But in the case of Airboy this is not merely asshole behaviour, instead it is harmful behaviour. Trans folk are one of the most oppressed communities in our society today – and not only do they have to deal with hateful behaviour from cis people, but also from their LGB allies.
Not only do they have to deal with hate but the very real threat of violence and murder. I made the error of thinking that asshole characters excuse asshole behaviour and but that simply does not apply to transmisogynistic slurs/tropes. I apologise for my wilful idiocy, and thank those that called me out. I don’t ever want to recommend something hurtful! Comics that hurt people, that perpetuate damaging tropes, should not be acceptable in this day and age. Thinking that it’s part of the characterisation or context presumes that everyone reading the comic is cis or that folk who are reminded of the fear they feel daily should just get over it. That slur is still all too commonly used (recently by John Barrowman for example) and nobody should have to deal with that in a comic.
If you have any doubts that this story is truly offensive and dangerous, even GLAAD took time to explain why and denounce it:
This trope is particularly dangerous, as trans women are often violently assaulted by men who feel they’ve been “deceived.” In the past six months, nine transgender women have been murdered in the United States.
Robinson’s previous work on Starman and Earth 2 has included multi-dimensional gay male characters. In fact, both received GLAAD Media Award nominations for Outstanding Comic Book. Not to mention that Image Comics is currently publishing at least two books with interesting trans characters: Wicked + Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, and Trees by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard.
It is disappointing that Robinson would create such a transphobic scene when he’s been an ally on gay issues. And even more disappointing that Image Comics would damage its own reputation for publishing strong trans characters by allowing this scene to appear in this issue.
“It’s shocking in 2015 that a publisher would allow this type of transphobic scene to be associated with its brand,” said Nick Adams, GLAAD’s Director of Programs, Transgender Media. “Robinson and Hinkle repeat the outdated, stereotypical attitudes toward transgender women that the rest of America is quickly leaving behind.”
The Mary Sue has TWO articles about Airboy up, including one by trans writer Marcy Cook that explains why this is dangerous:
Defending this comic as cool or a great story is an act of willful blindness, the constant abuse that trans people receive from media and from society is killing us. With a 41% suicide rate this is the literal truth. I’m sick of being a punching bag, of having to explain why things are bad all the time, of trotting out that suicide statistic. And I’m utterly sick of cisgender guys saying ‘Oh this isn’t bad, I don’t see what the fuss is about.’ You can go to Twitter now and see leading comic creators saying exactly that. This lack of empathy and an attitude of ‘I’m alright so you should be’ is wrong. It’s really sad to see it coming from comic professionals.
And Nick Hanover at Loser City decries the tired nature of the tropes:
Removing quality from the equation altogether, is Airboy’s “boys will be boys” story something that is in danger of disappearing from culture? Judd Apatow’s empire of films by and for man children behaving badly doesn’t seem to be hurting for sales, and Two and a Half Men remains one of the most successful television series in history. You don’t have to look very hard to find works like Airboy, but you would have to look much harder to find a comic or, hell, a work in any medium that treats trans culture fairly.
I reached out to Robinson for comment and he has yet to reply, however, he is working on one:
My lack of response to opinions on Airboy #2 is not from indifference. In contact with GLAAD. Will issue statement tomorrow. Night night.
— James Robinson (@JamesDRobinson) July 3, 2015
MEANWHILE, the most radical reaction of all came from another Beat comrade, Brett Schenker, who organized an action at Graphic Policy called for the book to bepulled from the shelves because of the transphobic elements that reinforce prejudice:
This is not a call for censorship. James Robinson and Greg Hinkle have a right to create whatever they’d like, and we have as much of a right to show our disdain for that. Speech doesn’t mean protection from consequences. Image has the right to exercise their speech and pull the comic, and actually show they believe in the words and beliefs they claim they uphold.
The Rainbow Hub also tweeted about the dangers:
Look. If your response to a callout of media that plays into stereotypes that LITERALLY lead to the murder and victimization of people
— The Rainbow Hub (@TheRainbowHub) July 3, 2015
so horrendously depicted is "Don't Censor Art", then we know exactly what kind of human being you are. And there's no point in engaging that
— The Rainbow Hub (@TheRainbowHub) July 3, 2015
So that’s where we’re at right now. Do I believe that Airboy #2 presents a tired, unnecessary storyline? I sure do. The idea of the old out of touch guy who has sex with a trans woman and then freaks out is right out of the aging sitcom playbook. This may have been a storyline that people once thought was edgy, but we’re in the midst of a huge consciousness raising about trans people, gender fluidity, and in general the non binary nature of sexual roles. Greater social acceptance for trans people is definitely a civil rights movement that’s growing quickly.
And it comes in the face of very troubling statistics for both murder and suicide of trans women, especially women of color. I am very sad to say that I am personally acquainted with this terrible toll. So the “recall” of Airboy #2 could be something like a recall for a faulty airbag…ignorance can kill in this case.
All that said, as a baby boomer, my hackles go up at any call for the removal of public art. We don’t know if violent media causes violence, but the media does reinforce dangerous beliefs and prejudice and these ideas need to be identified and called out. I personally don’t think Airboy #2 is hate speech —it’s more planned self loathing than anything—and Robinson’s character is actually fond of the woman he had sex with:
So there is a bit more nuance than the previous stories might indicate and suggest the intent was not as harmful as the execution….but, once again, this does not outweigh the unfortunate transphobic elements of the story and the dangerous nature of these tropes.
And you know what, most importantly of all, as a cis woman, my opinion on this doesn’t really matter. It’s not my call to make. And the people who do matter have spoken.
After the Graphic Policy piece went up, people on twitter were using the words boycott, pull and ban interchangeably. They all mean different things, peeps. I PERSONALLY don’t support censorship of non hate speech, but if people want to boycott this book or Image Comics, they should. And we should all promote more education about trans issues and more talking about the POSITIVE treatment of trans people in comics. And more being kind to each other in general.
I’ll update this post when Robinson’s statement is released.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.