Graphic Content: Investigating Ann Arbor’s independent comics scene through a trans lens

Wednesday, June 19, 2019 - 9:14pm

The third installment of Graphic Content

The third installment of Graphic Content Buy this photo
Courtesy of Cassandra Mansuetti

Social media is pretty dumb. That’s not exactly a revolutionary statement nowadays, as the consequences of entirely changing how humans interact with each other are sure to be felt by any user (at least a little bit). I hate to sound like a preachy boomer, but this new culture of one-uppance and streamlined validation exacts a strong toll on one’s mental health, so much so that I’ve recently dropped apps like Instagram and Snapchat altogether. Social media wields a particular power as well, which everyone except its creators seems to understand.

This power manifests in certain platforms having become almost a necessity in the modern person’s life — a strong LinkedIn profile is basically a qualification for certain jobs now, and without Facebook’s prevalence as a way to organize and share social events I would always feel out of the loop. But then you have Twitter, innocent in its concept but just as dumb as Instagram and dubious as Facebook. I can’t get enough of it.

On the surface, Twitter is a pretty boring site, with the average user tweeting out how excited they are for the latest Marvel movie or how blasphemous a certain call was in the NBA Finals, but it also hosts quite a weird underbelly that moves at a million miles a minute. Extremely queer and online, I call this outskirt of Twitter home. You may have people masquerading as an official account for Bionicle tweeting out “It’s midnight and I just slapped my ass so fucking loud,” but you also have people of underrepresented identities trying to inform others about various injustices and inspire action, while also staying lighthearted and strong in the face of the poor hand life dealt them.

One of the biggest problems with social media is its dependence on chance: How much engagement your post gets is entirely dependent on when you posted it, which of your followers were using the app at the right time to see it, if your post was overshadowed by a flood of other concurrent posts and so on. But as chance would have it, a chain of events led me to a sort of digital place I’ll term “trans twitter,” populated by transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming folx creating cool, hilarious and wonderful content, and I don’t just mean tweets.

When the first piece for this series was published, I was taking a break from Twitter for a while, and what an unfortunate coincidence that was. Not only was I woefully uninformed about the explosive popularity of Lil Nas X’s crossover hit “Old Town Road,” I also missed out on Michelle Perez, author of “The Pervert,” tweeting about me and my piece. It may not seem like a big deal — Perez is far from a household name and the tweet hardly got more than 20 likes — but the fact that the author of a book so integral to my recent experience is aware of me and mentioned my name on the Internet was a big deal to me. I got back on Twitter shortly after and soon tweeted out a thread about Graphic Content after the second piece made it to print.

Somehow I was lucky enough to get the attention of Perez again with that thread; she followed me, I followed her back. Life continues in its own merry little way for a month or so. My Twitter timeline is crowded with retweets, but one from Michelle Perez catches my eye. It’s an artist plugging their comic, but this comic is a little bit different. “Trans Girls Hit the Town.” The title tells all.

The comic is pay what you want, but all proceeds go to Trans Lifeline, so I can’t not donate. I drop whatever I was doing and devote my full attention to it. It’s a heartwarming little romp, smartly illustrated and clearly evident the author put a lot of love into each panel. I was so engrossed with the comic I lost track of how long it took me to finish it. And then, as chance again smiles my way, the author bio on the penultimate page starts off with “Emma Jayne is a cartoonist from Michigan.”

I drop Jayne a frenetic DM on Twitter telling her how I found her comic and asking her if she would be down to do an interview. My luck hasn’t yet run dry, because she lives in Ann Arbor and is totally down. I started Graphic Content with the goal of covering visual literature that would never be brought up in mainstream publications, especially the queer side of things, so a profile of a transfemme cartoonist who lives in the same city I write in is too good to be true.

True it was though, and we were now scheduled to soon meet each other. Unsurprisingly I was a ball of nerves in the class preceding it like I am before every interview, but as I walk towards the Student Publications building, I catch sight of Jayne leaning against the wall wearing a T-shirt of the pokémon Sylveon. I am immediately at peace. We talk of our favorite ghost-type pokémon as we head upstairs into the sweltering second floor. I start recording with the Voice Memos app and we begin our conversation, with the newsroom and its summer emptiness leaving us undisturbed, a rare experience for two trans women.

Emma Jayne sits across the table from me, long brown hair flowing and dark lipstick on-point, regaling stories of how she got into comics and ended up in Ann Arbor. “I started to draw comics in middle school, and I’m pretty sure I only started doing it because of ‘Captain Underpants,’ and the things I did at first were all ‘Pac-Man’ fan comics,” Jayne explained. I laugh as I recalled my time in fifth grade scribbling ripoff Kirby OCs in my notebook with my friends during lunch. There’s a strange universality to the trans experience sometimes. Jayne continued: “I got to college and I was very lonely until I found this comics publication where I just started hanging out with them and started to draw comics again. Being a part of a little community with those friends is kind of the reason I’m still doing it today.”

She talks of how she moved to Ann Arbor to be with all those same friends, but not without an important detail. “We basically all transitioned, even though none of us knew we were trans at the time,” Jayne said with a smile. “ ... I wanted to be with all my trans comics friends again. As it turns out, it was the best decision I made in my entire life. I can’t think of a better environment to have transitioned in.” I feel the same.

Other than “Trans Girls Hit the Town,” there are a few other comics on Emma Jayne’s website, the longest one being “Dreameater,” about a trio of friends in a band who need to hunt down a demon they accidentally summoned. The main character goes by the name Cassi; the coincidences keep flying. One of the side characters in this graphic novel, Charlotte, is transgender, so I ask Jayne about how her identity affects her work. “It used to stress me out a lot. I didn’t really start writing explicity about trans stuff until a little more recently,” Jayne said. She must’ve got over that stress and then some, because when I asked her just to briefly tell me for the record what she does, she emphatically stated she “really want(s) to make comics about trans people.”

When I asked Jayne about her influences, she talked of Jaime Hernandez, co-creator of “Love and Rockets,” and “the efficiency of his cartooning … just the removal of all this extraneous stuff, without making it seem too minimal.” It’s hardly a surprise that she mentions “The Pervert” as well. What stuck out to her the most? “I just loved one scene where it was just two trans women talking to each other.” It’s a really simple thing that I haven’t even stopped to consider, but then I tried to think of any other piece of mainstream media that features two trans women just talking to each other. Like, forget the Bechdel Test, they can be talking about a man. But two trans women, simply living life, enjoying each other’s company, talking about whatever they please. I came up short.

“The fact that there are so few voices in trans comics kind of made me feel a lot of pressure when I was starting out, because I felt like I had to make a perfect trans comic. I couldn’t decide whether or not like I show all these horrible things that happen to this trans woman … or do I just want to show trans women having a completely normal life, with very little friction because of her transness,” Jayne said later, when I asked her about what she would like to see improve for trans people in her line of work. “What I settled on was you kind of should have both things? Neither of them is dishonest and both of them have value. So once I let that go it kind of became easier, and I kind of did both instead.”

Even though my writing doesn’t reach a whole lot of people, anytime I write about trans voices and issues in the arts I always feel like I have to be extra careful in my words as to not denigrate anyone’s experience. It’s kind of paradoxical, because being of a certain identity does not make you the ideal spokesperson for everyone of that identity, but at the same time being the only trans person (that I know of) on this newspaper I feel a certain duty to make sure trans people are being talked about correctly. It’s the pitfall of representation — but I would much rather have the navigation of it be left to people like Emma and myself rather than some cis author profiting off trauma porn.

Jayne informed me of some local trans resources and groups as our interview came to a close, and then she was off. I aimed to have the piece done for the next week, but as I sat down to write it on the weekend, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. Yes, my goal was to interview a local trans artist and I did just that, but during our chat she talked about a sort of burgeoning queer comics scene in Ann Arbor constituted by her and her friends. Listening to part of the transcript, Emma Jayne mentioned, “Ann Arbor is a very good place to be if you’re making comics and are trans,” primarily due to the fact there’s a supportive micropress owned by a person whose name I couldn’t quite make out (due to my iPhone’s poor recording quality).

I once again inquire via DM to Emma, and this name turns out to be Carta Monir, an award-winning cartoonist, owner of Diskette Press and fellow Ann Arbor resident. With one last DM to Monir (I promise I won’t mention my Twitter escapades anymore), another interview is set up, with the chance to come by and see her studio.

Monir lives in a cozy part of town, a bit hilly but soaked in shade from the summer’s green leaves. The normal pre-interview dread was made even worse by an aggressive man on a bike accosting me as I tried to ignore him and walk away, but like with Emma, being invited into Carta’s house and meeting her and her trans partner quelled any unease. I feel safe.

The main office of Diskette Press, if you will, is a room in their apartment oozing with charm that feels sufficiently lived in — the polar opposite of some stark white Virgil Abloh-headed atelier. There’s various books, movies and video games on the shelves, and a fat Pikachu plush sitting on a desk on top of a collection of pre-surrealist plays. But the main star of the show is what appears to be an industrial printer in the back corner, surrounded by a wall of grey case-looking objects, each with a differently colored strip marked on it.

Carta Monir tells me it’s a Risograph machine: “Riso is a Japanese brand, and the Risograph is like one of their flagship products … You have a big cylindrical drum, full of liquid ink, and then it burns a one-time use print screen, and then rolls it over the drum. It pulls paper in and the drum and the screen rotate over the paper and push it through, so each rotation of the drum creates one impression on a sheet of paper. It can print as quickly as the drum is able to rotate. In this case, the print speed is like 120 pages per minute.”

I’m astounded as Carta tells me her machine is about “twenty years old,” but it’s still “done over four and a half million copies.” Monir basically started Diskette Press after she bought her machine from a local company called Chelsea Print & Graphics — “The machine itself was an investment, and obviously it’s a space investment, but then a normal print run for me was like $200 to $300, so printing two runs of zines paid for this machine. It makes printing so easy and efficient,” she said. After she tells me a little bit about where she’s from and how she got to Ann Arbor, I can piece together that she is one of Emma’s friends from college, y’know, the ones that all transitioned. They all seem to be in Ann Arbor together now, but Carta was among the first to migrate here.

“Carolyn Novak (a University of Michigan alum and author of ‘Girl Town’) already lived in this area and was largely still kind of starting out, so when I moved here I sent them an email that was like ‘Hey, I just moved to town and I would love to meet someone who does comics and hang out.’ We hit it off immediately and became fast friends,” Monir explained. “So with me, Carolyn, Emma and then, sort of a couple other friends who peripherally work in comics, we sort of built up a little scene here.”

Diskette Press has evolved into having quite a large presence in Ann Arbor and beyond, with Carta, Emma and others travelling to independent comics trade shows, most recently in Chicago and Toronto. “I really like those shows because they are ‘comic cons’ in the traditional sense, meaning there’s no other media represented,” she told me. “Marvel and DC don’t have booths, there is nobody promoting movies — it’s just small creators who either self-publish or work with like a small press.” Carta rounded up a bunch of recent releases from Diskette for me to peruse, and their line work and coloring is gorgeous. Each zine or comic is mostly all in one color but they still manage a surprising amount of depth. The ink does not completely fill in illustrations and leave hard lines, making them inviting, comfortable to read. Carta even gives me one of hers, no bigger than one square inch, consisting of captioned images taken by a Game Boy Camera.

I asked Carta and Emma a few of the same questions: One of them is about the role social media now plays in comics distribution. Their theses seem to be similar to mine, in that it’s helpful for them, but can be stupid sometimes, and an easy platform for angry cis males to take offense with what they say. A double-edged sword, if you will. The more interesting common question I asked them was if they had any advice for aspiring trans artists.

“When I think back about when I first started to make comics about … trans stuff, I thought this is kind of stupid. I’m making this thing, and I want to put it out there and it’s going to be describing my experience, but this is obviously something either people have already experienced so they won’t find it interesting, or they will never experience it, so they won’t care. That is completely false,” answered Emma. “Especially with trans people, because we don’t have much representation in various mediums, seeing yourself in someone else’s work is really powerful in a way that I underestimate sometimes.”

“I want to say just do it but it’s been tainted by Nike,” Emma laughed. “I don’t know, does that count as advice? Yeah! Just do it. That’s advice.”

Carta had a similar outlook to Emma: “This is like the most cliched comics advice, or any sort of art advice, but just make work!” And as she was telling me how friendly everyone in the community is and how cool shows can be, she said it all in the second person, and I couldn’t help but think about my times in middle and high school, either goofing around and making simple comics with friends or seriously devoting myself to various drawings and paintings in my art classes. I was thinking how I’ve just been letting whatever talent I had go to waste. “I would just say if you want to be a part of this community, there is definitely a space for you,” ended Carta. I couldn’t help but feel like she was talking directly to me.