Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a poser of a Senior Arts Editor for the Book Review. I applied to Daily Arts with music and film as my top preferred beats, but I was sorted into books (the reason for which was that I was one of only two people in that fall semester round of applicants who had even a mere mention of books somewhere on their application). I didn’t know any upcoming books to request for review copies, choosing new books to review at Sunday meetings made me anxious and when it came time to submit blurbs for end-of-the-year lists, I had nothing because I had only read two books that were published in 2017, and they weren’t that great.
A year passes, and although my confidence grows slightly, I still have the same anxieties about my ability to be a confident books writer. I found myself recently hired as the top books brass and it’s now my turn to help coordinate end-of-the-year lists. I still had nothing to write about for blurbs because the few books I read over the year still weren’t that great. For the more personal end-of-the-year retrospective we published, I sealed my resolution in ink to attack my books backlog methodically. But, surprise surprise, it’s still as clogged as it was four months ago, except it’s only partly from my laziness. There’s a new obsession stacked ever-high on that Bed Bath & Beyond cart of mine: graphic novels.
Cut back to mid-December darkness — my editor-in-crime, Verity Sturm, wants me to write a blurb for our Top 10 list, despite my having read nothing worth blurbing. We had sent out a Google Form to all our writers earlier polling their best books of the year, and Verity was hard at work collecting all these responses and creating a cohesive and unanimous ranking. One afternoon, as I was piddling my winter break away, she sends me a PowerPoint presentation of the 10 books she wants on the list, unranked. We start assigning blurbs based on who’s read what. We can only assign so much, and three blurbs go unclaimed — Verity, the devilish saint she is, offers to do all of them.
Of course, I won’t let her take this much work on herself, so I offer to take any one of the books off her hands. A lightbulb must’ve turned on in her head, because Verity told me to take “The Pervert,” supplying a glowing recommendation to go with it. I look it up on the ol’ information superhighway and find terse synopses: The back cover reads, “A surprisingly honest and touching account of a trans girl surviving through sex work in Seattle.” Oh. OH. I scurry down to the nearest Barnes & Noble and buy the damn thing.
At this point in my life I’ve only come out to a handful of friends and my mom that I’m transgender. I make steps like buying new clothes or changing my email accounts, but I still get called my deadname by people that don’t know better and even sometimes by people that do. You would have to pay a random stranger a million dollars to refer to me as “she” or “her,” apparently. It is suffocating.
In my Spanish Gender, Sexuality and Culture class the other day we learned of a Peruvian artist and travesti (roughly translated, it means crossdresser, but it conveys so much more) who was once photographed vested in garb reminiscent of Latinx depictions of the Virgin Mary. Their costume bears a jeweled Sacred Heart pierced with seven swords. To co-opt some religious imagery (and I mean, after being shunned by most religious members of my family, I deserve it), that is how I felt every day, except the swords piercing my heart were invisible. Yet they hurt all the same.
While only understanding, acceptance and time can pull those knives from my heart, sitting down to finally read “The Pervert” (after it sat intimidatingly on my desk for a few days) was a well-needed reminder that among trans people, this pain is universal. We may differ in the number of swords impaling nuestrxs corazones, or how deep they are driven, but we are stabbed all the same. We transfix others as we are transfixed ourselves.
My first read through, I tried to accompany “The Pervert” with music. It has a certain grunge vibe to it, being in Seattle and all, so I put on Sonic Youth’s sprawling opus Daydream Nation with hopes it would match the graphic novel beat for beat. (And to those about to complain in the comments, “B-but Sonic Youth isn’t grunge,” don’t, I don’t care.) “The Pervert” oscillates in moods and content as freely as Daydream Nation does, but its stream of consciousness was inexplicably clashing with the music. The only song that fit, funnily enough, was “Providence,” a sparse interlude with no lyrics, only a voicemail from a man named Watt asking frontman Thurston Moore if “(he) found (his) shit.”
Like “Providence,” “The Pervert” is something surprisingly precious, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s ghastly, but also serene and undeniably funny. It’s a raunchy throwaway voicemail achieving a loving melody. It’s the beautiful piano paired with the ugly sound of an amplifier frying out.
I don’t want to go into plot details of the graphic novel because the point of “The Pervert” isn’t the plot. It’s the experience it conveys, and the specificities of that experience sketched to strike a chord with people like me. Even though I am not a sex worker, the reality undercutting trans sex work — that of it being an object filtered through the heterosexual, cisgender male gaze — is intimately familiar to all of us. There are multiple wordless moments where the main character is afraid and ashamed to live in her own skin: It hit me blindsided, like a blurry truck driving down a rainy highway. It’s strangely personal for me, even ending in Michigan of all places.
As I mentioned in my Top 10 blurb, the watercolors are perfect and they are so, so goddamn real. The illustrations of “The Pervert” are not forcefully tailored for any gaze. There’s a wonderfully explicit two-page spread with no words, only twelve squares displaying the varying dimensions of trans sex. I got incredibly defensive when my mom approached me about the copy sitting in my room, as she had flipped through it earlier in the day only to tell me I was practically reading porn. However fuming, I quickly dismissed the argument and gave up because I knew she could never fully get it. I think this anger came from me unfairly and suddenly being forced not only to defend this “porn,” but to defend the reality of trans bodies, MY body, from heteronormative distortion. We exist and that’s not wrong.
All the characters are cartoonish animals, so unfortunately the uncensored sex scenes might remind you of frightening furry Rule 34, but their human qualities remain the most important. In a certain way, that’s the trans experience, appearing as human but other people seeing you as a totally different species.
If you’re not trans, you will probably find “The Pervert” confusing or not easily understandable, but that’s okay, because the graphic novel isn’t exclusionary. It’s not just for trans eyes only. Reading it does not mean immediate allyship, but it illustrates a certain unseen dimension of the trans experience that cisgender people almost never know because they will never feel it. Simply read it, then turn inward instead of demanding elaboration on the more nuanced panels.
For one of my personal essays for an English class this year, I wrote about the formation of my trans experience through a few specific anecdotes, and I feel like a plagiarizing hack that I did this, but I ended my paper with a scene ripped straight from “The Pervert,” because it has happened to me almost word-for-word more than once. I wrote it like this:
“Is that all, sir?” says the cashier behind the counter, the rehearsed response to my order.
Oh God, I hope so.
I felt this a thematic cap to all the anecdotes in my essay (which were connected through the common theme of pain), but I got a comment back from my professor saying this final short vignette was unclear and the reader wouldn’t know what I was referring to. While I don’t want to whine that this was an unjust comment because it makes sense in the context of a workshop-heavy class, I took this one personally, just like my mom’s comment about “The Pervert.” Again I felt this necessity to defend it and defend myself, asserting that I don’t have to make sense for you — fuck making it easy for the reader. But I let the anger blow through me, and I let it go.
Returning to my Top 10 blurb for the nteenth time, after I submitted it to Verity for editing purposes, she was jazzed about it, but also worried that my explosive rhetoric could backfire on myself. I wasn’t ready to come out to the wider world, and publishing this would maybe thrust me into that process unhealthily. I took her concerns to heart and considered taking my tongue down a notch, but after some deliberating I told her to publish it as is. Even if it outed me, like “The Pervert,” I was unapologetic in saying what I wanted to say. Retooling my short blurb would be violence to myself, like Remy Boydell and Michelle Perez trying to remake “The Pervert” for a PG audience.
I think deciding to publish that blurb was one of the first times where I started to prioritize my own comfort rather than stress about whether other people are comfortable with me or not. And fuck you if you aren’t. “The Pervert” left an indelible mark on my true trans soul in the form of a watercolor brushstroke. It opened the gates for me to further dive into the world of graphic novels, especially the challenging, weird and queer ones. After fangirling with Verity about “The Pervert” and my newfound love for visual literature, we decided to capitalize on not only my enthusiasm, but the found enthusiasm of many other Daily Arts writers.
Graphic Content, the series that this piece is launching, is the product of that enthusiasm. (Credits to the ever-lovely Verity for the name.) It’s a celebration of going against the grain and rejecting literary tradition for the purpose of innovation, personal and universal. I hope it to be as irreverent and wonderful as the works we plan to cover. Keep an eye out for more Graphic Content over the rest of this semester. Until then, to thine own self be true. This, above all.