Comic book writer James Robinson has come under fire this week after the second issue of his Image published book Airboy was released. A semi-autobiographical story that follows a fictionalised James Robinson and the books artist Greg Hinkle as they do drugs and drink alcohol to the point where reality begins to fall apart and the two of them share a collective hallucination of 1950’s comicbook character Airboy coming to life in their world.
The second issue of the book sees Robinson and Hinkle take Airboy to a bar, where the character quickly gets enthralled by the beautiful women around him. Hinkle and Robinson are fully aware that the bar is full of transgender women and Hikle begins to try and explain this, however, Robinson cuts him off and allows Airboy to go off and party.
Robinson then turns to Hinkle and says to him ‘What are you thinking? Don’t tell him this place is filled with tranny’s and drag queens. He’ll flip the fuck out.’
Later in the issue we see both Robinson and Airboy in bathroom stalls receiving oral sex from transgender women, who are drawn with their skirts hitched up and their genitals hanging out, I would imagine for either ‘comedic effect’ of to ‘disturb’ the reader. Afterwards Hinkle says to Robinson ‘you got blown by a tranny’.
Finally Airboy comes storming back in a rage after discovering the woman giving him oral sex was a ‘woman with a penis’ after asking him to return the favour. He even asks Robinson, ‘so your girl was a man as well?’ before storming off complaining about the ‘sick’, ‘ugly’ and ‘degenerate’ world.
Now, the problems with this should be fairly obvious to most people, but in case you can’t see it let me outline the issues. First of all, as I have stated in previous articles, tranny is a transphobic hate word and a slur used to dehumanise transgender people. Some of you may have come across that word in use in some trans communities, but whenever it is it’s being done as a way of reclaiming a word that is used in the porn industry or by abusers. It is not a good word, and it should never, ever, be used by anyone who themselves is not trans. The frequent and casual use of the word in this comic by cisgender men reinforces the notion that this is the only way to refer to trans women and perfectly acceptable.
Not only is tranny used in this book to dehumanise trans women, their complete lack of a face or a voice means that the only opinion on the matter we have in the book is by three men, all of whom seem happy to refer to trans women as actually being ‘men’ instead of women. The trans women in this book are being used as a target, as a thing to attack without any humanisation. Not once are any of the trans women called by a name, or speak a single word. We’re set dressing and punchline material only.
The way the trans women are drawn in this issue adds to this. In the scene where the two characters are receiving oral sex the trans women are drawn as over-the-top caricatures of what someone who has done Little to no research on the subject would think we look like. The faces aren’t shown, as they’re busy with a mouthful of cock, but the woman pleasuring Airboy is portrayed with overly large hands that look immediately outofplace on the character, that’s if you’ve even noticed it over the cock and balls hanging out of their skirts.
Not only does this scene try to show trans women as being a collection of male parts in a skirt, but reinforces the massively damaging trope that we are simply sex workers or sex hungry nymphos who will take the first man we come across into the bathroom and perform sexual acts on them. I’ve lost count of the number of random men who when realising I’m trans go straight to the subject of sex, or send me unwanted pictures of their genitals, all the while stating, ‘well you’re a tranny, you’re always up for some cock’.
Airboys reaction to the realisation that the woman he’s with is trans, after being happy to receive oral sex from her, is one of anger and disgust. This scene is a particularly damaging one, as its showing people that reacting this way to trans women is the norm, that it’s okay to get angry or even violent. This is a very real danger to trans women, who are so often facing acts of physical and sexual abuse by men. Nine transgender people have been murdered in the US alone this year, and in all states except California the defence of ‘trans panic’ can still be used.
The whole portrayal of trans women in this one issue of Airboy, they way they aren’t given a voice, the way they’re played as sex workers, the way they’re being used as ‘traps’ to seduce unaware straight men, the way the ‘heroes’ of the book talk about them is all horrific. It’s even worse when you consider just how progressive Image Comic has been trying to be this last year.
At the Image Comics Expo last year company CEO Eric Stephenson highlighted the need for diversity in the medium, even choosing to chastise the industry for treating ‘gender equality and cultural issues as if they’re little more than gimmicks to increase sales’. I for one am very interested to see how Image is planning to react to the controversy regarding the book and if they choose to issue an apology, fire James Robinson or recall the book.
Robinson, himelf an advocate for LGBT issues and a winner of the GLAAD Media Awards nomination for Outstanding Comic Book, has gone on to release an apology online;
‘I thought long and hard before writing this response, with the time it’s taken me to do so I fear having been misinterpreted as indifference on my part to the ire this sequence has caused for some. Often public figures just issue a quick apology, a snippet of contrition, in the hope that the light of scorn will then shine away from them. But those apologies often feel inauthentic or meaningless, and I didn’t want to do that.
‘It was with much regret that I learned how I had angered and offended members of the transgender community with a sequence I wrote in the second issue of the Airboy mini-series I am currently doing. As anyone who has read the first issue will know, this series is a semi-autobiographical piece of meta-fiction that shows me at a self-destructive and unhappy time in my life before I sobered up and entered a better place in both my work and the world as a whole. To illustrate this, I portray myself and my artist Greg Hinkle as two blithe idiots pin-balling through a succession of stupid and self-destructive actions, doing and saying stupid and thoughtless things. I intentionally portray myself in the worst light possible and as the worst kind of person.
‘Stepping outside of myself and the work, I can see how, while my intention when writing the scene was never to defame or harm the trans community, I did indeed fuck up and for that I sincerely apologize.
‘In my intention to create an ugly version of me and my world, I have inadvertently hurt and demeaned a community that the real non-fictionalized version of myself truly respects and admires.
‘It’s a sad and terrible fact that the transgender community is one that is often misunderstood and mocked. And that honestly, truly, breaks my heart. It is a beautiful community full of shining souls, which in a different work on a different day I would proudly show in all its variety and wonder. Honestly, that is the truth. Anyone who actually knows me, knows my feelings on such matters, and anyone who doesn’t will just have to take my word for it.
‘And yet here I am, in my eagerness to create a scenario that mocks my own moral worthlessness, I do no better than the worst kind of person, blindly marking the transgender community with the same sullying brush I chose to paint myself — instead of giving it the dignity and respect it deserves and is so very often denied.
‘This is a work of deliberately ugly satirical fiction. One part of me believes a creator has the right to tell the story he feels the need to tell. There’s a part of me that feels that it’s acceptable for a work of fiction to hurt or offend. That at the very least the work elicits feelings.
‘Then there’s the other part of me — the major part, I might add — that is truly saddened that the transgender community, comprising men and women who carry the burden of an ever-hostile society, should have me adding to their load.
‘There is minor solace — very minor — in the fact that I note the discourse I’m seeing on-line about this, is at least allowing an exchange of views that I think is open, healthy and ultimately a good thing. I hope comic book fans and creators will think more critically about the way trans characters are portrayed.
‘I consider myself an ally to the LGBT community and I promise to work harder in the future to ensure that any trans stories or characters in my work are portrayed in a thoughtful and accepting way.
‘I know this response won’t satisfy everyone, but it comes from the heart. I love all people. I wanted this statement to convey my complete feelings on the matter.’
Despite his apology many members of the community are still angry that the book was allowed to be published, and rightfully so, by a company that is advocating equality and positive representation of minority groups. There has as of yet been no statement as to what action Image will take over the controversy.