Trans women like me are rare in comics, at least the mainstream ones you buy from a store or the spinning metal rack in a lottery kiosk. We had Wanda in The Sandman in 1991-1992 and we had…Wanda in The Sandman in 1991-1992.
Trans people don’t tend to appear in comics — especially superhero books under major publishing banners — because despite so many of these worlds being built upon foundations of pure fantasy, someone deciding to swap their gender is a bridge too far. There’s a guy named the Silver Surfer whose boss literally eats planets but heaven forbid you have spider-powers and also still have to get two notes from qualified physicians and make sure to dress like Spider-WOMAN for your doctor’s visit in order to access gender-affirming care.
This is not to say trans people have been entirely absent. Rachel Pollack, a Jewish trans woman, created Coagula — civilian name Kate Godwin — as the first trans superhero for DC Comics in the pages of Doom Patrol. She’s explicitly trans, to the point of wearing a button that reads “put a transsexual lesbian on the supreme court.” I never read Doom Patrol when I was younger, partially due to my allegiance to Marvel and partially because the guy behind the counter at the comic shop told me it was gay in a tone of voice that let you know he had mispronounced bad.
But we need to talk about Petrichor.
Petrichor is a character from Saga, the critically-acclaimed book by writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples. It’s an intergalactic civil war soap opera drama where at one point a guy fucks a lady who is also a spider. I know, it’s a bit trite. It’s a fun book. Staples’s art is fantastic, and Vaughn’s world building and writing here is some of his best work. We come to learn immediately upon entering this world that there are various races of alien beings engaged in an endless blood-drenched war. Those born on Wreath have horns, the aliens from Landfall have wings. And then there are a bunch of robots with televisions for heads that are some kind of nobility.
It’s science-fiction in its most basic permutation, a world that speaks no words of explanation when you first enter it, letting context and dialogue and the world spill its secrets and stories. We learn more about the conflict between those from Wreath and those from Landfall. We can read the slurs they use for each other with the full understanding of what they are and why they are wielded like blades against one another in this world, because it’s a reflection of our own world. Our leads are a couple named Alana and Marko, star-crossed lovers (quite literally) that have fucked, fallen in love, and had a child together which the book trusts us to understand is a bad thing.
The world is fantastical: spider ladies with flip phones, a giant cat that only speaks when you’re lying, magic, and a spaceship made from a goddamn tree. Nothing requires explanation, it just is in the confines of the world. It’s a book that trusts us to get it, or to figure it out on our own dime and come back filled with knowledge and newfound context.
Petrichor is a character introduced in issue #31, when Alana and Marko’s young daughter Hazel is interned on an alien planet separated from her parents. Hazel comes across Petrichor in a prison shower — naked and alone in the middle of a space shower suspiciously like one in a high-end hotel I stayed in once in Vancouver — and notices that while Petrichor has breasts and a woman’s body, she also has a dick.
Petrichor is trans.
Here is where things screech to a sudden and needless halt. Hazel asks about Petrichor’s “outie”, the cute kid way of asking about a strange woman’s dick, to which Petrichor points to her head and says “in here I be girl”, which is reductive, too, but whatever. In the next panel, Hazel refers to her again as having a “dad piece,” which, sure, is funnier than outie but equally annoying and transphobic. There’s a bit of back and forth about Petrichor being seen as a freak but being placed with the women in the prison they’re interned in regardless before Hazel’s grandmother drags her away from said freak.
Pause for air.
It’s honestly exhausting writing about that page. And in this world of winged and horned people locked in galactic civil war and robot guys with TV heads, why is the one thing that requires us to stop what we’re doing and hold hands while we explain the what and why of it all a trans woman just trying to take a goddamn shower?
And I wanted to love Petrichor so. Fucking. Badly. She’s kind of cool as hell in the rest of the book! She fights and uses magic and has a bit of a vampy androgynous goth thing going on. She tops a robot prince, making his TV head see stars unimaginable. She was introduced to the book not long before I came out as trans myself, and for a while I allowed myself to think “just like Petrichor.” Because when you have no beacons to guide you, you will hold fast to any light that will have you.
Petrichor is the creation of a cis guy who wants to do right by trans people, giving us space to belong in his fantastical and bright-coloured world. In space, no one can hear you scream, but if they could it would apparently just be some tired bullshit about there only being two genders. Petrichor could have been introduced as trans in a way that doesn’t prey on her instead of showing her naked body first and explaining why it’s so shocking. Explaining why she’s a freak.
Petrichor is introduced as something other than what all the other “normal” people around her are. Nevermind that some of those normal people, it bears repeating, have TVs for heads. TVs! No explanation why, who cares, it’s a TV we all know what a TV is and now it’s some rich guy’s head.
Seeing Petrichor introduced like this taught me that when I came out I would be the same, a freak that required more context than my surroundings everywhere my feet might find me. It showed me that’s how cis guy writers see people like me, weird little freaks that work in an alien world but only if we let everyone know why some trans women have dicks and breasts. I felt seen, but the visibility was skewed, a funhouse mirror of representation.
Things are improving in mainstream comics. DC has trans heroes (Dreamer) and Marvel has one or two in the background somewhere, but they still mainly feel like part of the set more than an actor who will take a bow when the curtain falls. Petrichor is proof there is room for trans people in stories that can be integral to the world. We just need to understand trans humanity before the freak of it all.
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
Knights Of X
I’ve had little time for reading lately, but I did read all of Tini Howard and Robert Quinn’s fantasy X-Men series Knights Of X, partially because love an X-Men love a fantasy and love when the two meet but also because it has Rachel Summers and Betsy Braddock who — spoiler alert — finally kiss. Floating in the air with hair on fire and butterflies swirling they finally turn yearning into action. So, you know, if lesbian X-Men books are your thing, look no further. It’s a short mini-series, all 5 issues are available now. Read it, it’s fun gay little romp.
She-Hulk on Disney+
I have been watching She-Hulk with Tatiana Maslany on Disney+, which I was a little unsure about at first but am coming to love just how little it cares about being serious in favour of just being…fun. Like, I legit forgot that these shows are supposed to be fun. Also, love Nikki, She-Hulk’s assistant and her “hetero life is grim” line, which should be on a t-shirt.
Also, Autostraddle EIC Carmen Phillips tipped me off to this great YouTube channel New Rockstars that has incredible breakdowns of each She-Hulk episode, hosted by the stellar Jessica Clemons. You can watch a breakdown of the latest episode HERE.
Gutter Talk is a biweekly series by Niko Stratis that looks at comic books from a queer and trans perspective.
I had read Petrichor as intersex when she was introduced, but yeah same feeling of the full frontal being reductive and exploitative. I really wanted to cheer her inclusion and her comfort with her body, but it was clearly written and drawn for shock value.
Sera from Angela: Asgard’s Assassin is awesome and also… the only trans character I’m familiar with in superhero comics
I have such a different reaction to Petrichor. For me, that panel was liberatory and empowering. She was one of several sources of inspiration as I started transitioning at the age of 53, and the first picture I hung in my new condo was a wonderful illustration of Petrichor given to me as a gift by a friend.
I understand and respect your critique but your reading does not align with my personal interpretation in the slightest. To me, she is an inspiring and important character.
I almost forgot to mention the Bifrost Database entry on transgender comic characters!