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:
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.
I have no right to criticize someone for being hurt by something or not wanting to read something that contains hurtful words. Whether I am called upon to agree with them is another question. I would never tell someone “stop it, can’t you take a joke,” but if we’re arguing about whether the story is good, or realistic, or whether it condemns or celebrates the attitudes involved, then no one person’s opinion can decide matters.
Sneddon is saying that even though this is what these asshole characters would realistically say, the writer should self-censor because these attitudes are harmful and contribute to violence. There’s a lot of question whether that is true, and comic book writers have plenty of experience with being told, without proof, that their work will cause violence. And it assumes that while the critic is smart enough to understand that the comic doesn’t endorse these attitudes, other readers out there are too dumb or easily influenced to get it.
Again, I’m not saying “don’t be offended.” If a book contains a slur over and over, and someone says “that’s it, I can’t read this” – what right do I have to tell them how to take it? But when the argument shifts into whether it is harmful, or whether it’s artistically valid, then things like “these characters are assholes and we’re not supposed to agree with them” or “that’s how assholes talk in real life” seem to be important.
Otherwise we’re left with a demand that only bad characters say bad things, or at least be punished for saying them.
“This is not a call for censorship.”
That’s exactly what it is.
I now feel like the old man, because the word tranny JUST became a slur, like within less than 5 years. It actually transformed into a slur, at least from my perspective. It’s how people talk about trans people.
OK, let’s all agree that tranny= bad. So I’m reading these panels, and if you replace that word, this sounds just fine. One guy is not as on board as the other guy about this trans woman, and the other guy actually LIKED the encounter he had with her!
Even if this was some horrible stuff, why are we fighting for nothing to ever be harsh or inconsiderate ever again? Characters can always murder, but they can never be mean, or ignorant, or clueless- even if they are not heroes. This is what I feel is what some people want. Never touch a negative button.
Personally, I don’t think it should be pulled from the shelves. I think the discussion and awareness that’s getting raised around it is the better approach. And I’m curious as to what sort of statement Robinson’s going to make. But man, is it a tired old gag, and one that I could do without.
@VichusSmith: I’m not sure I agree if pulling out the T-word from the scene makes everything sound just fine or positive. The bit in the last set of panels Heidi posted is kind of crappy no matter what term is used for us. “Wait, so your girl is a man as well?” “Pre-op, so in her mind and in my mind, no. But… err… yeah. Technically.” That’s not exactly what I’d call positive, someone who supposedly likes people like us saying we’re men until surgery, or that it’s all in our mind. That actually bugs me more than the other stuff.
I have no horse in this race but I think calling for or supporting a boycott of Image is wrong, wrong, wrong.
No matter how offensive Airboy #2 is you’re going to have to do much, much more convincing to make me see why Brian Vaughn, John Layman, Brandon Graham, Ed Brubaker, et al. deserve to suffer for Robinson and Hinkle’s comic/
This is as upsetting as discovering that Amy Schumer hates blacks and Mexicans. Or when Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo brazenly said woman who don’t have kids are monsters. And GLAAD has given Robinson awards before? What does that say about GLAAD if they are so poorly run they give awards to those who promote killing transsexual people? GLAAD is possibly anti-trans. Will GLAAD be taking back the awards for “Starman” or “Earth 2”? The NAACP never have an award top George Wallace. GLAAD is clearly not up to snuff.
GLAAD did issue a statement about this.
And, as far as I know, when they gave Robinson Media Awards for Starman (back in the 90s) and Earth 2 (more recently), he hadn’t published anything like this. So I don’t think it’s fair to say GLAAD is anti-trans as a result of this, or that they’re not doing their work because they gave Robinson awards in the past for good depictions of gay men.
Unless, wait, are you joking?
Maybe, instead of limiting this to just the feelings of the trans community, we should rethink our attitude toward material that is transgressive just for the sake of being transgressive. I mean, is this use of AIRBOY anything except transgressive just for the sake of being transgressive? And wasn’t everyone perfectly fine with it until it touched on the trans community?
Maybe we should all stop being so damn ironic when it comes to bad behavior in general?
Rethink our attitude towards transgressive material? What an idiotic notion.
There would have been no Lenny Bruce, Hunter Thompson, the Sex Pistols, EC Comics, Garth Ennis, etc…
Exerting an influence over content has been the objective behind a lot of these recent stories. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife in the eye. John Lennon beat his wife. On the scale of things, this story is pretty low.
I’m pretty much filthy with privilege so although I do have strong opinions on these issues, it’s not really my place to repeat them here beyond saying I understand why people are angry about this, but also have more complicated feelings about to what extent artists should temper what they make, and how much they should apologise for it.
(Well, and it’d be disingenuous to not mention that I felt very uncomfortable at the beginning of this sequence, echoing as it did the one-page tableau fetishising an obese woman in the previous issue, because the previous incident didn’t have any contextualising dialogue, but by the end thought that my discomfort was the point and as such am broadly on board with the book, at least through the next issue.)
But KF, I am curious about the semantics you draw attention to in that comment. “Robinson’s” part of the exchange you quoted was actually largely what brought me round to the belief that although dabbling in really culturally risky – probably appropriative and self-congratulating – territory, the intentions here were sound. But I also thought the potentially problematic word there was “technically”… I read it as “Robinson” parsing his response out for an anachronistic character, but thought it might seem dismissive.
It really didn’t occur to me for a second that “Pre-op, so in her mind and in my mind, no. But… err… yeah. Technically.” could be intended by the writer to mean “it’s all in her mind”… I thought his intention was that the operation itself was a technicality, because as far as the woman and he are concerned, she’s a woman.
I appreciate that the last thing you might want to do is spend time indulging my curiosity – for someone closer to the issue, discussing semantics with a stranger probably doesn’t fill you with joy. But I was scrutinising this scene so closely – because I WANT books like this that push the medium narratively to be defensible – that I really thought my read of that sentence was sound. It reconciled that whole sequence for me in some ways – largely because what I thought the character was saying is in line with what I believe – so I was caught out by your read.
Does my interpretation of it make any sense at all? There’s still plenty to potentially dislike about the execution of this sequence (and this series) so this piece of phrasing is probably trivial, but for me it was the key to how I feel about the creators’ intentions.
As a queer person, I want to state for the record that the people revving themselves up for a book-burning here … do not speak for me. At all.
Gurkle expresses several of my main thoughts about this matter pretty well, up above. We have people here freaking out because flawed, ugly characters do and say flawed, ugly things in vernacular English? Seriously? Calling for a book to removed from sale because they find it offensive? Because it contains dangerous ideas?
Are these people aware of the irony: how offensive and dangerous those ideas are?
As a vulnerable queer kid, I was harmed more by the lack of the hypothetical comics, the books, the TV shows, etc. that I couldn’t experience because someone thought they would’ve been too “offensive” and “dangerous”, than I was harmed by the hurtful ones that I could experience.
As a queer comics creator, I am harmed more every day by the gatekeepers who make it nearly impossible for me to sell my work, than I am by the other work that I find banal or prudish or mean or ugly or even offensive.
Free speech can be “problematic”. But the solution to every problem it creates is simple: more free speech. If you feel Airboy is offensive and dangerous to trans people, then make comics that counter that message. Or express your opinions about what you don’t like about it. But as soon as you start fanning the Werthamesque fires to suppress “dangerous fiction”, you’re no longer part of the solution. You’re part of the problem.
Bobbie, GLAAD is simply a superficial press-release mill. They give out awards as a way of sucking up to the entertainment media, and they issue statements condemning other things they run across in an effort to get attention as a “watchdog”. Transsexuals are trending this year, so they latched onto this.
The whole “But trans people are being KILLED! This story promotes KILLING trans people!” bit is just moral bullying.
Things have really changed. Eric Clapton’s two biggest hits were about banging his best friend’s wife, and tossing his 6-month-old baby off of an 80-story balcony. Hopefully, we’ve moved forward enough as a society to stop rewarding baby-killers like Eric Clapton!
@Nicolas Papaconstantinou: I think you’re correct in terms of what the intent was (and intent is actually pretty important to me in matters like this). But it’s the coupling of “Pre-op” and “so in her mind” that made me cringe a bit. It implies that her womanhood is somehow less legitimate because she hasn’t had surgery.
It’s kind of an issue, in terms about how we’re talked about or depicted in the media, because there’s a lot of focus on our genitals that other people aren’t usually subjected to. (See John Oliver’s recent piece on trans issues, which offers some examples. Or look up Laverne Cox’s two appearances on Katie Couric’s show last year for a good discussion about it.) And it’s an issue because many of us who do want to have surgery can’t afford it because it’s expensive and not covered under most insurance plans in most states. And the idea that we’re still men until we have surgery is also one of the arguments used against us in some of the current bathroom bill debates. So for me, tying the legitimacy of a trans woman’s womanhood to surgery is kind of a sore point.
It also made me cringe because, from what I’ve seen, it seems the “Robinson” character is depicted as being chill with and moderately enlightened about trans women, within the context of the story. It would have bothered me less if those lines had come from a character who wasn’t (as near as I can tell) intended to be vaguely and relatively positive in his outlook about us.
Anyways, like I said, I’m curious as to how Robinson will respond. I hadn’t heard about this series before, but I’ve been a fan of his since back in the Starman days, and I remember Airboy from way back when Eclipse was publishing him in the 80s. So the premise of the series certainly piques my curiousity. And I saw some panels elsewhere where he was talking about his ambivalence about working for DC, which made for interesting reading. So this sounds like a comic I wouldn’t have minded checking out at some point. But this stuff makes it seem like it’s not for me.
I don’t need to have depictions of trans people be super positive all the time. I’m a big fan of what Gillen and McKelvie have been doing with a trans character in The Wicked and the Divine, for example, and she’s depicted as being a bit of an unsympathetic jerk sometimes. But something like this, ehhh, I’d rather spend my comic dollars elsewhere.
“Rethink our attitude towards transgressive material? What an idiotic notion.”
Either you are not smart enough to understand what the phrase “transgressive for the sake of being transgressive” means or you are pretty much what’s wrong with internet comments, you just want to stroke your ego and don’t care what someone actually writes.
I wont say that words are given too much power, because words have some power; we wouldn’t be commenting if it weren’t so. The problem I have is that words get too much responsibility. If someone says fuck on broadcast TV, the kids will be “poisoned” If someone says the n-word then you give people the go ahead to use it (this is an actual example from not too long ago, on CNN), and if someone is depicting actual ignorance and insensitivity about transsexuals, then they’re somehow promoting it or allowing people to be comfortable with it?
Like a previous comment said, this is an LGBT (let’s pretend I know what the other letters are) year, and I think GLAAD’s taking advantage. You almost never look good standing up against an organization that is helping people, so what can you do?
“transgressive for the sake of being transgressive”
Sorry, Mike, but sometimes with agit-prop style, the transgressive and the jolt is the point in and of itself. Or do you believe that John Lydon once admitted he wanted to see new Belsens built across England?
All you’re doing is enabling the morons who think Christianity and people of Deeply Held Faiths are under persecution in this country, because you’ll start seeing more of them stepping forward to claim that Those of Christian Faith are mocked in comic books. With James Robinson’s history as a writer, there is a lot of willful ignorance being exercised by the outrage. In some ways it reminds me of the Cancel Colbert hashtag activism, because to buy into the outrage you had to believe that Colbert was a bigot. The Cancel Colbert crowd managed to essentially negate the fact Colbert was mocking genuinely racist sports team names like “Redskins” in the bit that caused the hurt feelings.
Regardless, the outraged folks have achieved what they wanted. I’d say it’s doubtful Robinson will include anymore trans characters in his writing. He definitely won’t be conducting anymore meta/Gonzo experiments with superheroes or genre stories. When I first heard about this series, I said that Robinson and Hinkle were making a big mistake by not giving their characters pseudonyms like Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. Because if not, anything those characters said would be considered interview-level statements of record.
Heck, a character on Penny Dreadful recently strangled to death a trans character in a lurid 60 second sustained death sequence. But I guess the fictional Dorian Gray gets more leeway than the fictional Airboy.
I have no problem with the scene as written. I hope it doesn’t get edited. I hope this overreaction doesn’t alter the writing of the book or James Robinson’s point of view in any way. It’s unwarranted outrage.
The appropriate response to what you perceive as a slur (and by “you” I mean anyone who feels slighted) is to look the person in the eye and say “I prefer the term (insert preferred term)” and get on with your life. That person will either accommodate you or they won’t. Either way your job is done. If enough people do this, it creates a natural shift in terminology over time. The alternative of saying “you can’t use that word because it’s offensive” just makes your intended targets defensive and more determined to continue using that word if only to annoy you more for claiming to have absolute rule over the English language.
The term “trope” itself is derisive. And it bears mentioning that just because it’s a common recurring motif in literature doesn’t make it unrealistic. These things happen in real life which is why they find their way into art. Airboy’s reaction is just as genuine as the other character’s reaction. They’re put in the story in juxtaposition to convey a “what’s the big deal” attitude about the trans component of having gotten a blow job from a stranger in a bathroom stall. If you want to pick it over and find the things which irritate you, that’s your prerogative, but I’m not going to get on the torches and pitchfork express for what really amounts to semantics. I guarantee that those of you who do are doing more harm than good.
This is my personal opinion and I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it–a person is always the sex dictated by their chromosomes. When you can gene-splice yourself a second x-chromosome and remove your y-chromosome, then I’ll admit you’re a woman instead of a man and vice versa. What you do to yourself surgically is irrelevant to me on this subject. You may refer to yourself however you wish, but in spite of the internet bullying and hoopla involved to the contrary, NOBODY ELSE is required to do so. Furthermore, those who do not capitulate to your desires in this area are not assholes or “-phobes” or “-ists”. They’re people just like you with their own ideas and feelings, and they may in fact wholly support your right to be whoever and whatever you wish to be, as I do.
This knee-jerk internet pillorying of people over practically nothing is getting old. It’s all white noise. I greet a majority of it with an eye-roll and forget about it a minute later. The sheer disproportionate nature of this particular incident prompted me to construct a reply.
Folks, don’t let 5 people on the internet manipulate the integrity of your stories. Don’t let 5 million people on the internet manipulate your stories. If I’m responding to this situation, I say “I’m sorry that my work offended you. It wasn’t my intent. However, I stand by it as written.” If the outrage is justified, the work with be marginalized. If the outrage isn’t justified, the outrage will dissipate.
I wish James Robinson the best of luck.
Actually, let me revise. This, “a person is always the sex dictated by their chromosomes”, is a fact and not my personal opinion. The entire paragraph represents my point of view in regard to transgenderism.
Anecdotally, a friend of mine had a roommate and when I was first introduced to her she was a she. Years later when I was reintroduced to her she was a he. Made no difference to me either way nor should it. Dealing with the pronouns can be tricky, but she was such a dude on the second introduction it wasn’t difficult to call her he. However, genetically he is still a she. If I say he or she when referring to this individual, I’m not wrong.
What you are isn’t nearly as important as who you are. In times like this, I see a lot of unkind people taking up the cause of the allegedly slighted and just making a mess of things. The work suffers, the creator suffers, and everyone else goes on their merry way. Stop it.
Make Me Wonder: Alastair Reynolds in his new new novel, Posiden’s Wake, has ve and ver that’s refer to individuals who neither male nor female. The two terms are used interchangeably and which one is one largely depends on if the person speaking knew the original gender of that individual. Reynolds admits in interviews that he did it to make the reader wonder what gender would mean in a society were changing that and everything else was commonplace.
@MakesMeWonder: There’s more to sex than just X and Y chromosomes. And being transgender is not a matter of one’s “desires in this area.” If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t be transgender. That’s my desire in this area. It’s a big pain in the butt being transgender. And there are health risks involved. But I am, so I take the appropriate steps to deal with it. It’s a matter of survival, not desire.
Jason A. Quest says: Are these people aware of the irony: how offensive and dangerous those ideas are?
07/03/2015 at 9:04 pm
Yeah. This is the same McCarthyism that conservatives use against media with gays and transgender characters. I’m disgusted such language is being used by liberals to advocate their views.
THAT is dangerous language. THAT is dangerous to the comics industry.
Having a main character that’s a bigot in a layered book that you cannot take on its surface story?
That’s not a danger.
That just requires more intelligent reading and not throwing down a book because it hurt your widdle feelings.
I don’t always want to be offended, but I enjoy things that stir up feelings in me. Just because I’m disgusted or offended by what characters in a book do, that doesn’t make it a bad book.
That doesn’t make it a book that goes against my values. Are we not intelligent people who can carefully evaluate comics on multiple levels? Or are we just a close minded mob that has pitchforks and torches at the ready whenever any little thing goes against our agendas?
This is some One Million Moms level of reactionary bullcrap.
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