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Airboy: Comics, Transphobia, and Deafening Silence

Of late, I've kept my comics coverage pretty positive. Because comics are pretty darn awesome. But sometimes comics do in fact break your heart. And sometimes you have to take a stand and say, "this is not okay".

The second issue of Airboy by James Robinson and Greg Hinkle hit the shelves yesterday. I really enjoyed the first issue - I have a weakness for stories about writers struggling to write, and the author-insert technique was interesting - so naturally I read the second issue. Here's where I messed up: I didn't see anything wrong with this very transmisogynistic comic, despite it using slurs that I abhor.

Thankfully, I was pointed in the right direction. Hopefully I can help point others towards that direction as well.

[Warning: contains quotes and images of transphobic slurs]


Airboy began with an account of fictionalised versions of the two creators struggling to write a comic and turning to drink, sex and drugs instead. They're on a hell of a bender and at the end of the first issue, what they believe to be a hallucination of the Golden Age comic character Airboy appears in front of them. There was some witty commentary on the mainstream comics industry along the way, and all in all the issue pulled in rave reviews.

The second issue opens with the two creators believing that this is a shared hallucination and that in order to protect their brains from breaking they should go along with it, and try not to upset the old fashioned hero. They and Airboy proceed to get high as kites and visit a bar. When Airboy comments on how pretty the girls are, Greg interrupts with "'cept they're not girls, they're-" before being interrupted by James who once Airboy is out of earshot chastises him for almost telling the hero that the "place is filled with trannies and drag queens".

James then goes to the men's room for a "bump o'coke" where we proceed to see him getting a blowjob and realising that Airboy is getting the same in the neighbouring stall. Back at the bar, James tells Greg of his "wild" experience, to which Greg replies "you got blown by a tranny".

Airboy returns, furious at the two for not telling him "that lady had a penis" and on James' lack of surprise adds, "wait, so your girl was a man as well?". He finishes by calling the creator a "degenerate piece of shit" and declaring "I'm done with this place- this sick, ugly world" before bending reality to pull the two men into his fictional world.

So. The t-word is used three times, we get "lady" in inverted commas, the trans women are used as mere props rather than actual people, and we get the old trope of deceptive trans women out to play cis men for fools. There are a few reasons folks will defend this, and some of them ran through my mind when I initially thought there were no problems, so lets dig through them.


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.


Secondly, Airboy is portrayed as an out of touch fictional character from another, Golden Age-esque, reality. Just like Captain America doesn't know what an iPod is, so Airboy is bamboozled by the existence of trans folks.

That one falls apart almost immediately - Cap struggling to shuffle is a joke, Airboy being "tricked" by a trans woman is not.

"Trans panic" is a real thing in our society. Women are murdered for their "deception". That is not hyperbole or exaggeration, our society actually considers finding out someone's trans status as potential grounds for murdering them.

Supporting those tropes supports real world harm, especially within a medium that has so few non-negative portrayals of trans folk. Regardless of context cis men cannot punch down on trans women without malice. That malice may not be intended, but even the absence of deliberate bigotry is still a sign of the transphobia that runs rampant within our society.

When a group of people fear violence and death in their day to day lives, regurgitaing harmful tropes - EVEN IN SATIRE - causes harm. When we only see trans women in comics as a punchline, as "deceivers", there is no context that can fix that.

The casual use of a transphobic slur plus the use of the deception/trickery trope which spells so much death and danger in reality is awful.


And thirdly, "people take comics too seriously!" or "fiction and reality are two different things!"

Here's the thing. When you talk about folk taking comics "too seriously" or failing to separate "fiction from reality" what you're saying is that comics should be fun. Which means they should be fun for everyone, not just the people who are exactly like you. A lot of comics manage that kind of harmless escapism. But if a "fun" comic isn't fun for some then it's pretty much failed. Fun is subjective but hurting people? That ain't fun.

We're in the run up to San Diego Comic Con when the world spotlight is on comics, and had this been DC or Marvel the outrage would be palpable. As it is, the silence (from cis folk) is deafening.

Nothing I've said here is new. All has been covered by Emma Houxbois far more eloquently. But more people have to speak out.


[ETA: James Robinson's apology can be found here - it has gone a long way to make folk feel safe within comics again. It also really shows up the other male creators who defended the transmisogyny within the comic.]

Comments (3) Trackbacks (1)
  1. The other major flaw with that first argument re: “asshole characters” is that the problem with the scene isn’t JUST the characters using slurs, it’s the entire setup. A bigot using an offensive word is bad enough, but it’s a far cry from creating a narrative context wherein a subset of people is used in an insulting and offensive way. You can try (although you’ll fail) to pin slurs on the characters, but you DEFINITELY can’t pin transgendered women giving blowjobs in bathroom stalls to “trick” men on them–that’s a narrative construct of the author himself, and in no way does it get a pass.

  2. Not sure if you saw Robinson’s apology. Seems to be sincere.

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