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A View From The Cheap Seats:
Gina Kamentsky: Gender Immigrant By Rich Watson
Transgenderism - the act of blending male and female characteristics into a single gender identity - is only beginning to become understood in recent years as more such individuals are able to be open about their unique lifestyle. Cartoonist Gina Kamentsky [t-gina.com] uses her semi-autobiographical strip T-Gina to not only convey her life in a fun and playful manner, but to depict the situations and experiences that transgendered individuals often go through, and in the process, debunk many of the myths surrounding this practice.
"Humor can be tough," she says in describing her approach to her strip. "The trick in telling a story is to be a bit subtle - not hit the audience over the head with an idea, let them contribute, do some of the thinking. I'm constantly refining my stories to arrive at that point. As far as choosing humor, that's just how I exist. Everything I do has a fun side to it."
For the uninitiated, a few distinctions need to be made. Transgenderism is different from cross-dressing, or transvestitism, where people wear clothing of the opposite sex, but do not necessarily wish to be the opposite sex. Transsexuals, like Kamentsky, have a gender identity that matches or nearly matches the opposite physical sex, usually as the result of surgery.
In her strips, Kamentsky approaches aspects of transsexual life such as electrolysis, estrogen production, and real-life testing (where transgendered people desiring sexual reassignment surgery must live as the opposite physical sex for a year). This is in addition to stories about road trips, trannie superheroes, and fantasies about Matt Damon. "I was inspired by some of the queer/women's comics out there - Alison Bechdel's Dykes To Watch Out For, Roberta Gregory's Bitchy Bitch [in Naughty Bits], Julie Doucet's Dirty Plotte and anything by Aline Kominsky-Crumb come to mind. There's also a Spanish artist, Nazario, who wrote a comic about a she-male detective, Anarcoma, that I admired. Beyond that I'm into classic stuff: Windsor McCay, George Herriman, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century by Dick Calkins. Currently I'm a big fan of Go Girl by Trina Robbins and Anne Timmons."
T-Gina often deals specifically with matters of personal identity and what defines gender, and at times Kamentsky questions her ability to be a woman as society defines one. "I guess what it comes down to can be a bit of a paradox. T-Gina is my outlet for dealing with Transgender issues. Everything about being trans is in the comic. In my personal life, I'm known as an artist and a woman. The issues about transitioning and family are far behind me and I'd rather not go back there. The analogy is similar to the typical immigrant story; one wants to take on a new identity in a new country, but fears losing [their] identity. We transsexuals become gender immigrants, moving socially from the land of 'male' to the land of 'female' or visa versa. It's a bit of a dilemma - because of T-Gina, a few people have accused me of being centered on being a Transsexual as opposed to just getting on with life as a woman. If you met me in person, you'd perceive me as a fairly normal woman. Eventually the comic will address this issue - identity vs. assimilation."
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Kamentsky draws herself in T-Gina as recognizably female, although the depictions have fluctuated over time. "At first I struggled with making Gina appear more Transgendered - wide shoulders, Adam's apple… She's bald due to hair loss from testosterone, so in certain scenes we see her without her wig. [I've] received lots of letters from other Trans gals who relate to this aspect. Over the years we have grown apart in certain ways. Cartoon Gina has straight hair, I have curly. [I'm] thinking about writing a comic where we decide if she should get hair like mine. I like to pop into the comic now and then and examine the relationship 'tween myself as creator and cartoon Gina… It's tricky trying to depict trans folks without resorting to cliches. Sometimes I have fun with this. Awhile back I did a piece on how to draw Transgendered characters. The problem is some of us try to blend in flawlessly and some of us look and flaunt our queerness."
Indeed, Kamentsky is aware of how T-Gina stands in marked contrast to the more common depictions of her lifestyle. "Well, like lots of outsider/minority groups, there exist all these stereotypes: we're all silicone enhanced sex workers as portrayed on daytime talk shows, we're confused psychos a la Silence of the Lambs, the 'operation' turns us into a mutilated freak [as in] Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There's not much positive stuff out there. One site I often refer folks to is Lynn Conway's site TS Successes, which portrays real Transsexual women who have vibrant, exciting lives."
In the end, Kamentsky admits that she's just interested in telling her own story her own way. "Being a Transsexual woman gives me a somewhat unique perspective on life, [and I] enjoy relating this with a minimum of angst and dogma."
OFF THE RACK:
And now, a quick look at some of the comics I picked up from last month's MOCCA Art Festival:
Outfitters by Dick Troutman. Outfitters appears to be an anthology that shows off Troutman's artistic versatility. The two issues I sampled had an Archie-meets-Peanuts teen romance and a silent horror story about hunting Bigfoot in the woods. In the latter, the inking gets sloppy in places. I initially thought this was a stylistic choice to indicate mood, but it comes too early in the story for that. Maybe this was a 24-hour comic? I can't tell. Still, it was told very well. As for the former, the lead character seemed to have some serious issues (suicidal tendencies, therapy) that I wish were played up more. Instead, we see him argue with his girlfriend and abuse the Charlie Brown-like loser character as if this were a John Hughes knock-off. The art is good - I must admit to a perverse pleasure in seeing these Archie look-alikes having sex and cursing - and the books are very professionally put together. But the stories need a little more oomph to them. B-
Krunk by George Tautkus. The issue I sampled has a thick cardboard cover, if you can believe that. The artist actually made a bunch of copies like this, whch he proudly showed me. It doesn't appear to have anything to do with the story - meditations on architecture and panhandlers during a trip to the laundromat - but it makes for a cool gimmick. I think there's supposed to be a religious subtext here, but it isn't clear if it involves architecture or panhandlers, and it ends too quickly and abruptly. The art has a lot of nice textures and is easy on the eyes. Still, I'm at a loss as to what the point of this story is. B-
Fresh Hot Pizza! by Ben T. Steckler. One of the artist's funnier strips in a body of work full of funny strips, this one is about Jesus' pizza delivery boy. (Bet you didn't know Jesus ate pizza, did you?) The only complaint is that the shading looks rushed and unfinished in places. More care needs to be taken with the hatch lines. B
Take Out by Raina Telgemeier. A cartoon diary about life in the big city for a modern twentysomething girl. This was an absolute delight to read. The whimsical humor and outstanding cartooning skill are reminiscent of brand-new mom Rachel Hartman (Byron Alexander, born June 19th at 10:55 PM - congratulations!). The stories are simple, straightforward vignettes from the artist's life, minimal but comfortable and probably not too far removed from most people's experience. I hope this is the beginning of many, many more such stories to come. A
Late Night Block by Neil Kleid and Jamesmith. A pair of Twilight Zone-type stories, one about a guy who's literally the butt of every joke imaginable, the other about an airline stewardess who encounters a unique passenger. Both stories have a grim sense of humor with an underlying sense of terror, which Kleid absolutely nails, especially in the second story. The art is very good, with just the right amount of detail to make these stories convincing. Top it off with a cover by Finder's Carla Speed McNeil and you've got a winner. A
Apollo Astro by Jack Turnbull. Geek robot inventor looks for love in all the wrong places. Doesn't really offer any new insight on the whole geek stereotype and I thought the girl he pines for here was pretty shallow and superficial. The hatching and cross-hatching looks rushed in spots and it looks like there are words or fragments of words dropped out of the dialogue for some reason. There's some potential here, but I think it needs to be rechanneled in a different direction. This mixture of sci-fi with romance doesn't really work for me. C+
Blood & the Art of Baking by Gillian Eng and Eve Grandt. First day on the job for a novice chef at an Addams Family-style restaurant. There are two blank pages prior to the story's beginning for no apparent reason; not a good way to start. The placement of word balloons is sometimes out of sequence and there are typos. Lots of cross-hatching, but too much of it is done the same way, and as a result some of the images are flat, with no dimension to them. On the plus side, I like the fact that the Little Shop of Horrors-type elements are subtle and only hinted at, at least in this issue. The characters are very distinctive. And the back-up feature was pretty funny. I think there may be something to this, but it's not there yet. B-
Mortal Coils by A. David Lewis and various. Like Late Night Block, an anthology in the Twilight Zone/Outer Limits tradition. The first story is about a body switch between victim and victimizer, and the second is about a roboticist determined to make the perfect robot - even if it kills him. Lewis gets into the inner workings of the characters' psyches very well, and knows how to pace the stories so that the stakes and the tension increase at every level. The first story, though, gets a little bogged down in minutiae and literary self-indulgence ("It was so dark, a limbo, I couldn't think. Black and lost, like a void") that impede the progress. Evan Quiring's figures in the first story are a bit stiff, and Jason Copland's layouts in the second story lack depth of field in places, but otherwise they're both good. Very professionally done overall. B+
I've had an eye on this Tony Isabella/Judd Winick brouhaha regarding the character Black Lightning and his newly discovered daughter in the pages of The Outsiders. One thing occurs to me that I'm not sure has been addressed yet: why doesn't Isabella simply create a new character? From the statements I've been reading that are attributed to him, he acts like he's the only creator whose work has been subject to retconning. I understand that he has a specific vision about Black Lightning that he feels Winick has corrupted, but it seems to me that all the energy he's spent being angry about the changes made to "his" character could be better channeled towards creating something new, something that's legally and indisputably his, and make as many good stories as he can with it.
Understand, I have nothing but respect for Isabella. Though I've never met him, through his column, I've come to view him as a creator with integrity, with decency, who knows how to tell a story. And it would be a great tragedy if future generations remember him only as a cautionary tale against the dangers of the work-for-hire system, and we already have far too many of those. He has said that he thinks Black Lightning - who, let's be honest, was never anything more than a second-tier character for DC, known only to us fanboys - is the greatest thing he's ever created or ever will. Now, imagine Alan Moore, after finishing Watchmen, saying, "Gee, that was the best thing I've ever done. I'll never be able to top that." We would never have gotten From Hell. Or if Frank Miller decided The Dark Knight Returns was the pinnacle of his career. We would never have gotten Sin City or 300. Now I'm not saying for certain that Isabella has a From Hell in him, but I'm willing to bet he has plenty of original stories of his own left to tell, that he would own. Eddy Newell could draw them. Image or Slave Labor or whoever could publish them. And he would reap the benefits.
Isabella needs to decide how he wants to finish his career: bitter and angry over the retconning of a B-level superhero that was never all that popular, or as the creator of a bunch of exciting, memorable and original stories that he owns and that he makes money off of. He's a smart man. I like to think the answer should be obvious to him.
ON THE JOB:
I've just joined the staff of the relatively new website OnTheShelves.com as a comics reviewer. The site is devoted mostly to toys and games, so if you wanna learn and talk about the latest news in action figures and Playstation games and all that cool stuff, then give us a look. My reviews will focus mostly on indies, natch, but I'll review some of the corporate stuff too. I've begun with a review of Craig Thompson's phenomenal graphic novel Blankets, his long-awaited follow-up to Good-Bye, Chunky Rice. In addition: Astro City, Uncle Scrooge, Last of the Independents by Matt Fraction and Kieron Dwyer, and Mark of Charon. So stop on by and take a look.
In the meantime, I'll still review some stuff here from time to time. For example: this month's Previews has a listing for James Patrick and DJ Coffman's Crackurz Super Special [crackurz.com] (Candida). It's a combination of old and new material, some of which I had seen before in their one-shot flipbook with the equally funny Yirmumah! This is basically about two caged birds, with lots of "guy" humor - for example, one story involves a comic book about a superhero bird called "The Magnificent Cock". It's definitely funny - the aforementioned story reads very differently in the wake of Mark Waid's ouster from Fantastic Four. And the stories don't always end conclusively - or even happily, in that sitcom kind of way, which is unexpected. Still, I think the kind of humor here - basically talking heads in short scenes - might be better suited as a short strip instead of a full-length comic. Worth a look.