I didn’t grow up having access to underground bookstores or queer-straight alliances in my school or even the idea of representation. We knew what slurs meant because everyone used them with reckless abandon. My 10th grade English teacher called people “queer” like it was a lesson in pointed sentence structure. I didn’t have any places to seek knowledge about myself — I just had a comic book store. Perhaps I am simply very 40-years-old as well and grew up in the 80s and 90s when those things felt very different than they do now.
A few weeks back, I wrote about Saga and Petrichor and how it was a character that let me down. I was not saying “this is bad for everyone” so much as “I happen to think this is bad.” But, you know, I understand how some people thought otherwise. I’m glad she has meant something to the people who needed her. And let it be known, I still read Saga and am also annoyed with how slow it’s moving (seriously, what the fuck, give me something here).
I also once recommended something in the afterthoughts of this very column, and here I am again to talk about it in detail. Maybe because I’m also interviewing the creators behind this series, maybe because I think it’s incredible. Maybe because they are a shining example of how to include trans characters in storytelling in a way that feels impactful, meaningful.
Let’s talk about Blade Maidens.
Blade Maidens is a series about two sellswords — bounty hunters by a different name — Ser and Rowan. Ser is the sword, Rowan wields magic. The artwork, by Valentine M Smith is gorgeous. It is of a classic comic feel; the pages feel so tactile that you can almost feel the sandy texture held between your fingers as you scan the lines on the paper. Bright and colorful where color is needed and reserved in all the right spots. The script, written by Zoe Tunnel, is playful and witty and tender, all rolled together throughout.
It’s fucking great. I don’t know. The part of my brain that feels imposter syndrome about my own skill as a writer is screaming at me a litany of synonyms and prose to use in description of this series — all available for free online — but really I just have to say that it’s fucking great.
Blame my fucking 10th grade English teacher.
I never thought to look in books in my comic book store for representation because I didn’t even think of it as an option. Truth be told, I wasn’t always aware of what I was looking for. And because the big Marvel and DC and Image comics were the only books that regularly found themselves stocked on the well worn shelves of a comic book shop in the Yukon, that’s all I read: mainstream books with mainstream politics that spoke a lot about the fear of the unknown as told by a bunch of cishet white people from major metropolitan cities.
I didn’t know what it was like to grow up in a city, because I grew up in a town that was called a city in name because calling us a Capital Town is perhaps too Canadian. Cities held the politics and differences that small towns avoided. We abided by our own, as long as we were all the same. So looking for something different, something that spoke to me — even in the pages of a comic book — was a war I was destined to lose. I got what I was given.
Blade Maidens does something so perfectly in my mind. In a quiet and tender moment of healing between Rowan and Ser, we are given the subtext that Rowan is trans. Rowan is also runaway nobility and, in a brief expository moment, we are given backstory that includes a supportive family, a new line of matriarchal succession, and a new given name before Rowan stole away and chose her own path and name. And then, that’s it. We don’t need more information than that; we don’t need to explain trans by virtue of trauma or the shock of a naked body. She just is as she is, and we can move forward with that knowledge.
This is what happens when a trans writer is able to tell her own story. Tunnel masterfully tells a tale that never once takes mallet in hand to hit you over the head with a fact that is more beautiful in what is unspoken and hinted at. The subtext is a welcome breath of air in all of our lungs.
Blade Maidens isn’t about Rowan being trans; it is about swords and magic, life on the road, and the lessons learned in its bends. It’s about a werewolf with hand tattoos and a cunning air of mystery. It feels like the fantasy books I would read when they arrived sporadically in the store, Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonya, and Groo the Wanderer; or the novellas set in the Dragonlance universe, but told by those I never knew I needed to find all the years I spent searching for something that didn’t have a name.
So take it from me: Read Blade Maidens because it’s fucking great. It’s queer and beautiful and told from a road that understands the beating heart of the characters that inhabit its world — because the bards telling the tales live in that same space. It is a magic landscape where we can arm our hearts with the knowledge we need to thrive in the beauty we have earned.
Every week, I’m going to end with a little wrap-up of comics and comic-related bric-a-brac that I’ve been digging lately. There’s no homework or anything here, just some stuff I’ve been digging that you might too.
Niko’s Pull List
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much I complain about the lack of trans characters in the comics that I read regularly (Marvel mostly — look, I’m a basic bitch in like a thousand different ways. I like what I like!) so I went back and read some of the Angela miniseries that introduced Sera, girlfriend of the warrior Angela (who used to be in Spawn comics when I was a kid and then…who cares). Sera is charming and funny and strong and beautiful. She was formerly an Anchorite — a special wingless angel that’s also a precious little man — before she escapes and, with Angela’s help, becomes who she was always meant to be and that is that. If that synopsis is confusing, it’s only because you have to read it. Do it, read it now.
Gutter Talk is a biweekly series by Niko Stratis that looks at comic books from a queer and trans perspective.