remus jackson & F. Stewart-Taylor
Graduate students at the University of Florida
Despite raising pressing questions about representation and embodiment, trans autobiographical comics are understudied in both comics and trans studies. As comics theorists Elizabeth El Refaie and Hillary Chute have noted, the formal strategies for rendering the self inform the kind of “self” expressed on the page. Trans artists' presentation of self on the page can both describe the creator's phenomenological experience as subjects of coercive gender systems and the practices of resistance and hope that exceed these systems. Following José Esteban Muñoz, moments in these texts are utopian, proposing a future already germinating in the present where possibilities for gendered subjectivity exceed coercive systems. After a methodological overview, we’ll use a trans phenomenological framework to read two comics by Carta Monir. We gesture to possible uses for other texts, including the network of small press comics around Monir’s publishing company, Diskette Press.
A trans comics creator’s self-depiction allows them to describe how they experience embodiment through the orientation of the body on the page. As in queer and trans phenomenology, the self in trans autobiographical comics is oriented toward and away from others. Theorist Sara Ahmed proposes queer phenomenology as a turn away from traditional objects of desire and towards different ones, aligning with others who do the same (21). Queer phenomenology sees the world “at a slant,” offering a way of describing the world not constrained by straightness (67). Gayle Salamon develops a trans-specific phenomenology of the body, writing that “insistence that the body is crucial for understanding subjectivity” and in turn the body’s “manifestation and apprehension of sexuality” is vital for trans phenomenology (44). Salamon maps how the felt sense of the body is shaped by its orientations to our own perceptions and external objects, institutions, and other bodies. The cis and white gaze can be resisted through means of visualizing the self, informed by the artists’ phenomenological experience of transness.
Carta Monir work is fundamentally about how Monir navigates and strategically depicts her life as a trans woman of color making it ideal to discuss these issues. The two comics we discuss use radically different means to present the self. Laura Croft Was My Family (2017) includes sections stylized to resemble the video game Tomb Raider, while Napkin (2019) is created from Monir’s self-portraiture and notes Monir solicited from her sexual partners. Lara Croft uses video games as a metaphor to explore embodiment and control, and Napkin uses the control Monir has over her own image in photographs and risography to exult in the affordances of gender technologies including hormones to experience gender euphoria--the sensation of affirmation and wellbeing as a woman in the world. Napkin also challenges desire and gender as individual experiences, locating Monir in an embodied community of trans and queer lovers. Ultimately, the risograph printer becomes a gender technology, as Monir uses it to describe as well as create her own subjectivity.
Both the real world and video game sections of Lara Croft feature spot color which resembles the ‘spray can’ feature from Microsoft paint, color which adheres to Lara Croft and to the other women Monir’s father attempts to control. This allows Monir to comment on these experiences by creating a digital ‘trace’ of real world trauma. She reasserts her control over narrativizing these experiences, since it is Monir who adds the color to the page. Like Muñoz’s “disidentification,” or the reclamation and transformation of harmful media through it’s reorientation to queerness, Monir is reclaiming and transforming Lara Croft and her childhood through her comics. Her identification with Croft and with her mother mediates her own experiences of womanhood in this text.
Napkin opens with a direct address to the reader:
when you open this book,
The reader is invited to share Monir’s orientation towards the world, which includes utopian community formation, and is reminded of the ethical obligations of doing so. Napkin alternates between Monir’s written descriptions of sex, self-portraits, and “comment cards” from Monir’s sexual partners, which place their experiences of sex on the same plane as Monir’s, rather than privileging Monir’s own experience. Following Ahmed, this is an orientation towards queerness, shared with others and defined relationally. Monir interweaves her own experience of her body as desired and desirable--to inhabit as well as have sex with--with the experiences of those she trusts as partners in describing and experiencing her body. Monir's strategy of orienting her body and herself underscores Salamon’s phenomenological description of trans desire. These utopian moments, where two or more people are able to describe together the experience of mutual recognition, through sex or comics reading, germinate a future of generous mutual constitution which exceeds current schemas of sex and gender but is possible, through the patchwork phenomenological framework of Napkin, within the present moment.
As Ahmed and Salamon signal, a queer or trans phenomenology is not a private language, but an experience of aligning with others. Diskette's risograph, a gender technology for Monir which she shares with Diskette's other authors, materializes trans solidarity, while the authors in the Diskette roster offer a kaleidoscope of trans worlding, each presenting a trans phenomenology rooted in their approach to visualizing transness. For example, Victor Martin’s You Don’t Have to Be Afraid of Me reorients Martin's experience of men as a threat to the hopeful possibility of identifying with a nonthreatening trans masculinity. By reading further into the network of trans artists printed and distributed by Diskette, the complexity of different intersectional trans experiences, and the essential solidarity work of a trans publisher, comes into focus.
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology. Duke UP, 2006.
Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women. Columbia UP, 2010.
El Refaie, Elisabeth. Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures. UP Mississippi, 2012.
Monir, Carta. Lara Croft Was My Family. 2017. Diskette Press, 2019.
--. Napkin. Diskette Press, 2019.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NYU Press, 2009.
Salamon, Gayle. Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality. Columbia UP, 2010.
remus jackson is a trans comic artist and graduate student at the University of Florida whose work focuses on queer/trans worldmaking and museum studies.
Due to the ongoing pandemic crisis, ICAF was forced to cancel its events at the 2020 Small Press Expo. Over the next 16 weeks (give or take), we will be publishing