Welcome to Gutter Talk, a biweekly column where I take a deeper look into my lifelong love of comics and all the things I read into the pages that were never stained in ink. My entire adult life I haven’t let myself talk about comics, for various reasons (hi trauma!), but goddamnit, we’re doing it. Welcome to the gutter, baby; some of us are looking at goddamn stars.
To understand my love of comic books, we have to look back to where it first began. The first time I found a comic that felt like the answer to a question I had yet to ask, and a lifelong yearning for more.
I found my first superhero comic book in the bottom of a cardboard box of assorted junk, the kind someone gives away at the end of a garage sale. Amid a broken Garfield brush and other assorted scraps of peak-90s ephemera, there was a loose collection of comic books. A collection with no clear theme; Conan The Barbarian spoof Groo The Wanderer by Sergio Aragonés, the back half of an X-Men comic missing its cover, and my personal favorite: Spider-Woman #11.
Spider-Woman featured a woman named Jessica Drew as the person behind a red and yellow mask covering her whole face except her hair and mouth, like a latex balaclava. She had beautiful, long, dark hair, a mysterious past, and could easily kick a dude right in his goddamn face. Honestly, what more could you possibly ask for?
I read that book cover to cover, over and over again. If it was the last comic book to ever exist, I wouldn’t have cared. It was everything in that moment.
Jessica Drew was a powerhouse. She had something called a venom blast that came right out of her goddamn hand that seemingly evaporated a guy right where he stood like it was nothing. She was swift and strong, confident, and only a little bit stubborn when her annoying boyfriend — some guy named Jerry — was being a little too needy. I didn’t know much about myself, but I wanted to be Jessica Drew, a long-haired dynamo who doesn’t have time for any shit. Least of all, shit from some guy named Jerry.
I needed to read more Spider-Woman. To fully dive into the pit of her world and never leave.
I grew up in the Yukon: north of Vancouver, east of Alaska, and directly in the center of nowhere. We had a mall, albeit not a very good one. Our mall had a little lottery kiosk that served as its “food court” and sold only the essentials: cigarettes, ice cream, and small bags of potato chips.
The kiosk also had a spinning metal rack of comic books.
With all the confidence I could muster, I asked why their rack didn’t have any issues of Spider-Woman in it. The issue I had, #11, was from 1978. Surely they were up to number 1000 by now. The gruff guy selling single cigarettes to kids who just got their driver’s licenses looked at me, laughed and said “Spider-Woman isn’t a thing kid; you’re thinking Spider-Man.”
The first time an adult ever let me know he saw through me was the lottery/bootleg cigarette guy calling me a fag as I slinked away from his counter, embarrassed at my mixup in the spider genders when I was ten years old.
I would have to muster the courage to go to our actual comic book shop, on 2nd Avenue, right down the street from a run-down KFC. A whole store of comics, populated by the people who loved and read them. This was the first and last time I would ever be afraid of what lurked behind the door of a space where people who read Avengers comics thrived.
I locked my ten speed to the parking meter and walked the three steps up to the front door of Wizards comic shop. What I found inside was beyond my wildest imagination.
I was greeted by rows upon rows of comics, carefully bagged in plastic with a hard piece of white cardboard behind them. The building smelled like slightly damp cedar, mixed with the lingering smell of yesterday’s french fries and your grandfather’s shaving cream. I had prepared myself to be confronted with a swarm of aficionados, but I instead found a lone man behind a counter, watching Taxi Driver on a black-and-white TV and eating from an open bag of pepperoni sticks.
“What’s up kid, never seen you before,” he said to me, and I stammered to find the words to say I was new. New to comics — but also to myself, in a lot of ways. I didn’t really know who I was, aside from the lingering desire to always see myself reflected in the women in the media around me. We didn’t have access to the word transgender in the early 90s, at least not the way we do now. I just knew I always felt off.
I showed him my copy of Spider-Woman #11, the one I kept carefully preserved on my headboard every night, and asked if he had #12 or even #13. I hoped this would spurn a long lineage of Spider-Woman comics leading up to the present day. He looked at it for a second before informing me that Spider-Woman was not very popular and they stopped running it shortly after this issue. But also it was girl shit and I should be reading Spider-Man.
This was the first I was hearing that they made Spider-Woman for men.
He showed me the latest issue of Spider-Man, who was just some guy that didn’t even shoot venom blasts from his hands. But I bought an issue all the same.
My headcanon created a world where Spider-Woman had done the thing I was so desperate for: She had transcended her place in this world and was reborn as the person she wanted to be. She didn’t want to be a Spider-Woman; she yearned for a place in the world where she could make her gender her own, have it reflect how she feels inside. So limitless was her power that she was able to make that happen for herself.
So I became a regular reader of Spider-Man, who I told myself was the former Spider-Woman. I became a regular at Wizards, scooping up not just my regular Spider books but X-Men and Fantastic Four and whatever else grabbed me. Kids at school laughed at me for reading comics quietly by myself instead of playing with them at recess. My punk rock friends when I was a teenager would playfully — their word — threaten to beat the shit out of me when they saw me reading comics.
As an adult, Jessica Drew came back to me. By now, I knew she was just a character who didn’t generate enough interest to sustain a solo book. Capitalism, God’s greatest buzzkill, had ruined the mystique. A friend opened my iPad and saw I was reading a digital copy of Spider-Woman and, after a pause, he looked at me and laughed. He asked why I was reading fucking girl comics when there were so many heterosexual options to choose from.
I transitioned six months later. The two events are unrelated, just fortuitous timing in a universe that likes to think it’s funny sometimes.
When I would talk about comics with friends, they spoke about them as if they were sacred texts of the straight world, passed down from father to son in a closed loop of heterosexual representation. As if the world of the X-Men where a bunch of lust-driven bisexuals with superpowers wasn’t horny and gay as hell. Or that Spider-Man, a teen who goes through a second puberty only to arrive at better understanding of himself, wasn’t trans as fuck.
When I opened myself to new possibilities, I began to see things so much more clearly on the page. Stories like the X-Men and what it means to choose to live as you are instead of seeking a cure to fix what isn’t broken hit different when you realize the only way to not die is to live on your feet exactly as you are. I was drawn to Spider-Woman not because she was my first superhero, but because reading her is when I felt at home. In Spider-Man, I was always an outsider, placed there by outside influences misreading who I was. In Spider-Woman, I was seen. Her world made more sense to me as a reflection of who I wanted to be. Every little thing I read into the work became more true, more real. Comics became new to me all over again. Subtext dragged itself from the dirt to reveal itself to me, and it became an artform I could lose myself in. An endless journey of self discovery. My world changed forever because of one book buried at the bottom of someone else’s junk.
Oh my gosh, Niko, I am so excited about this column, you have no idea!!!
I’m so excited for this column!!!
yes yes yes i have been ready for AS to run another comics column since Mey Rude introduced me to the Lumberjanes! Yay Niko!!
agree with darcy i’ve been yearning for an AS comics column since drawn to comics ended!
Since Mey Rude first introduced me to the Lumberjanes, I’ve been ready for AS to publish another comics column
Wow, I am so so excited about this series and this opener to it!
As a genderqueer child of the 90s who grew up on 80s X-books but only started connecting with queer comics culture relatively recently I’m very excited about this series!
I love your head canon that Spider-Woman transitioned to Spider-Man. Jessica Drew deserves all the love.
In Marvel’s Ultimate universe comics, their Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman was a clone of Peter Parker who – at least initially – had his memories. So, in effect, her experience was that she *was* Peter Parker and that one day she woke up to discover she was suddenly female.
Such a beautiful piece, Niko! Thank you for writing about COMICS!!! Your point about trans allegories in comics “meant for boys” resonates with me so hard.
The secret identity trope felt so true to my stealth, trans youth. In the Batman Animated Series, Kevin Conroy played Bruce Wayne as the mask, and Batman as the true identity. (https://screenrant.com/what-sets-kevin-conroys-bruce-wayne-apart-from-other-batman-actors/)
That was me all day.
I created a persona, lied about or hid parts of myself to create safety in my small, Pennsylvania town. This meant hiding my nerdiness along with my gender feels. Nerds and queer kids weren’t cool. 80’s & 90’s media taught me nerds and trans people didn’t get to thrive.
Superhero stories helped me feel like lying for safety was OK. A courageous, if tragic, choice to keep myself safe in a morally dubious world. Just like in Spider-Man 3.
So I made a cool girl persona that was immune to bullying. She was invited to all the parties only to realize they wanted to go home and watch Sailor Moon (and dress up as Tuxedo Mask).
Plus, it felt impossible to be comfortable in the very masculine nerd spaces. I feel you on the loud-mouth gender expectations older male nerds.
Eventually, I found the friends who watched Cowboy Bebop and played D&D together. They considered me “one of the guys.” A complicated compliment in 1999.
I’m infinitely grateful for the amount of queer comics, TTRPGs and other queer, nerdy media available today. And how many of us are creating and reading together.
Thanks for writing for AS, Niko!!! I loved your Diner Week piece. Now, I’m a full on fan.
Great article, Niko. A belated middle finger on your younger self’s behalf to all those dudes who mocked you. What do they know anyway.