Dave Buesing: Earlier this year, my podcast co-host Zack Deane requested a Koi Boi reading order on behalf of a Comic Book Herald patron, and if that didn’t make sense, wondered if a guide to trans representation in Marvel could be an alternate. Since a CBH guide to Koi Boi would ultimately just say “read Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” we have instead sought out a complete guide to transgender characters in the Marvel Universe, with detailed conversations about the quality of Marvel’s representation for each.
I want to be eminently clear that this is not a victory lap celebrating Marvel. Finding examples of Trans representation are few and far between in the tens of thousands of comics the publisher’s released. Likewise, there are examples of what could be considered “transgender” representation that are so reprehensible and offensive that I couldn’t bring myself to even mention them in this guide.
As it stands, there are effectively 8 main examples below, for those seeking representation or simply curious what Marvel has done to date and how far the publisher has to go. Likewise, in part two of this conversation, we’ll take a closer look at Marvel’s genderfluid and non-binary representation.
By Chelsea LaLicata
I had not heard of this character before writing this article, and after reading her only two appearances in the entirety of Marvel history, I find myself fairly conflicted. Jessie Drake is credited as Marvel’s first Transgender character and appeared in Marvel Comics Presents #150 to #151 first published in 1994 by Ann Nocenti and Steve Lightle. Jessie is a mutant empath, delivered to a shady doctor who intended to do experiments on her. This causes Professor Xavier to task Wolverine with hunting her down to rescue her. Wolverine enlists the aid of villain Typhoid Mary to assist with retrieving her, as Mary’s multiple personalities somehow allowed her to fool sensors into thinking she had no powers, but things quickly go off the rails when a more violent personality emerges and goes rogue.
This story was somewhat difficult for me to read and had my emotions going back and forth. It is not entirely unsympathetic and ends in a seemingly positive and affirming place for Jessie, but as a product of the 90s, there are a handful of iffy and outright harmful tropes in the mix. See, Mary does successfully rescue Jessie but does not take her back to Wolverine. The alternate personality that emerged was “Bloody Mary,” a personality that utterly loathes men to the point that she dishes out violent retribution on any man who has harmed, wronged, or deceived not just her but any woman. Yes, some of you can probably already see where this is going and are bracing for it. Believe me, I was too and sadly the book did nothing to subvert those expectations. Mary tries to hide out in a womens’ shelter with Jessie only to be told by a social worker that Jessie is actually a “Boy.” This results in the predictable action of Mary beating her before leaving.
Jessie is barely in the story from this point until popping back up at the end, but her one brief moment before then was a single-panel cameo that introduced yet another concern. In this panel she has a thought balloon that says the following: “When Bloody Mary kidnapped me she swore to protect me! Then she dumped me just ‘cause I’m a boy. I didn’t mean to lie, but I’m an empath, y’know. Around you, I really do feel like a girl!” This is an iffy trope I’ve noticed as it pertains to trans characters, especially ones as old as this. Trans characters can’t just BE trans. Their identities aren’t automatically treated as valid without some kind of external “explanation” that can potentially excuse away their transness. This calls into question if this character is even really trans or if they’re simply an empath who can’t control their powers and are mimicking women due to close proximity, or if she’s genuinely a woman. It’s notable that when Jessie explicitly says “I’m a boy” in a thought box, it is also one of the only times we see the character not clearly in the presence of a woman.
The story concludes with Mary, disoriented after a confrontation with Wolverine, found out of nowhere by Jessie, who uses her empath powers to help Mary achieve a more harmonious composite personality named “Walker” after her last name. This is intertwined with Jessie also asserting her own identity as female, which is a nice moment in isolation. Walker and Jessie then proceed to go to the mental hospital Mary was housed at the start of the story to confront and turn in the doctor who abused her before vowing to do the same to abusive men all over. I had a hard time keeping track of Jessie during this as it appears she takes on the mannerisms of a male patient in the background of most of these shots, thus adding more doubt about Jessie’s true gender identity before Walker grabs her and they literally walk off into the sunset together.
I would like to say later writers expanded upon this and we got a full explanation of who Jessie is and how she identifies, but instead that actually concludes her publishing history. To my knowledge, she has never been brought back or even mentioned again if the Marvel Wiki can be believed, meaning we’re left with a bit of a mess of a character. That can be expected to some extent I suppose, given this was written in 1994, but explanation is not the same as absolution. Credit where it’s due however, Jessie isn’t portrayed as malicious or evil and she’s ultimately the one who helps Mary, framed as an unambiguously heroic act. For the time, that is somewhat commendable since it would have been just as easy to make her a villain here or to conclude that no, she absolutely was just a boy or something. I just find myself wishing there was more or something else had been done with her. I mean hey, she is stated to be a Mutant! Maybe she’s on Krakoa! I’d be interested in reading that story.
By Charlotte Fierro
The story of Marvel’s first ever canonically transgender character is quite a short one. Despite Jessie Drake driving the plot, this is very much a Typhoid Mary-centric story in which Jessie is only a secondary character. Even her powers mirror Mary’s character and her dissociative identity disorder: Jessie has one true personality but can shift to imitate the people around her, while Mary is a system of several alters that all inhabit the same unchanging body. Because of this narrative framing with Typhoid Mary as the main character, everything Jessie goes through here is a means to further the Mary-centric plot, rather than to explore her as a character that could stand on her own.
This is made worse by the way in which it is actually revealed that Jessie is trans. In Issue #150, after Mary has broken Jessie out of the Fortress, they go together to a shelter for women. There, a staff member outs Jessie as trans, or more specifically she calls her a boy; and Typhoid’s reaction to this is to violently lash out at the young girl. That reaction is framed as logical for Typhoid, as she hates men and would feel immense betrayal at the idea that a young woman she’s decided to protect would reveal herself to be a man. However, and this shouldn’t have to be said, trans women aren’t men in disguise. While the art conveys a sense of betrayal on Mary’s face that reinforces the idea that this is a lie being revealed, this is actually an all-too-common scene of forced coming-out in which the very real pain of being outed and assaulted for it is shown as completely secondary to the supposed betrayal felt by people who didn’t know about the person being trans. Once again, the trans character and their suffering are secondary to cis people’s story.
Now, it’s not all bad: the language used to describe Jessie’s gender identity isn’t perfect but definitely appreciable for 1994, Jessie is seen as the girl she is by most characters and only misgendered in the one outing scene, and by the end of the story, it appears that Mary accepts Jessie as a woman and takes her under her wing once again. But even then, the scene in which the two women reconcile contains no trace of Typhoid apologizing or realizing she did something wrong whatsoever. If anything, it’s Jessie who has to explain to her that she is indeed a girl, no matter what her body looks like, before helping Mary reconcile with her DID as the story shifts the focus away from what happened to Jessie and back to Mary. In the whole story, the closest we come to explore what Jessie thinks or how she feels is in a series of four thought bubbles at the beginning of Issue #151, in which she says that she didn’t lie and really does feel like a girl when she’s around Mary, and asking why she abandoned her. Hopefully the current Krakoa era of X-Men allows us to see more of Jessie Drake, as the lack of trans representation is a huge misstep in the current X-books.
By Chelsea LaLicata
How many different Super Soldier projects have there been in the long history of Marvel comics? I haven’t counted recently but I’m positive the number is high. Yet another of them was told in the pages of Avengers: Solo, a 5-issue miniseries released in 2011-2012. Avengers: Solo is actually not so much an Avengers story as a Hawkeye one. Hawkeye is contacted by a man trying to get help who quickly gets killed for his trouble. This causes Hawkeye to vow to protect and help the man’s sister and her friends as Hawkeye uncovers the truth about what happened to them. Eventually, it’s discovered that they are a group of people who were experimented on against their will in yet another Super Soldier experiment, leading to Hawkeye helping uncover the mystery and stopping those responsible.
The story is on this list however as one of the folks who were experimented on was actually a trans man! The experiments to create the Super Soldiers were meant to be performed entirely on women as it was done under the pretense of being a female-centric study on calcium. This leads to a surprise reveal that the lone man in the group Hawkeye is working with, Jake Young, happens to have ALSO been involved in the study because he’s a trans man and therefore also has powers. The reveal is brief and simply serves as an explanation why Jake is the one who ultimately goes with Hawkeye to the final confrontation with the villain of the book.
For a story published in 2011-2012, I’m pleased overall with how the book handles the subject. Unlike we saw with Jessie Drake, this book goes out of its way to say explicitly that neither the study itself nor the need to go into hiding after escaping are what caused Jake to transition. He was already transitioning before the study even happened and only signed up for a “women only” study to begin with because they were paying people to be involved and he needed the money. If I’m being critical, Hawkeye does deadname him, which is an issue. Deadnaming, for anyone not in the know, is when someone refers to a trans person who is already out and using a new preferred name by their prior or “dead” name. In the book’s defense, Hawkeye is clearly not speaking in a malicious way and refers to the name in the past tense as him “having been [deadname],” so I don’t believe any offence was intended. It is commonly accepted courtesy to only refer to a trans person by their new preferred name even in instances where you are referring to them pre-transition. I do want to note the only time it’s acceptable to deadname a trans person is in circumstances where that person may still be in the closet and is not ready to come out yet. It’s up to each individual trans person to dictate when and how they come out, so they may ask friends to continue deadnaming them around others for the time being, but that’s both that trans person’s decision to make and also clearly not a factor in this book.
That small criticism behind us however, the rest of the book is handled quite well! It even does one thing that none of the other entries on this list do that made me smile a bit. This book explicitly refers to Jake as being on hormones. In a medium that tends to have magic and sci-fi explanations for transness and also just sometimes no explanation at all, it’s nice to actually see a real-world aspect such as hormones referenced like that. Not all trans people take hormones or get surgeries mind, but many do and it’s nice to see that referenced here for a change. All-in-all, not a bad entry on this list, and part of a good story to boot! It’s available on Marvel Unlimited, I recommend reading it.
By Chelsea LaLicata
Hydra has had many leaders over the years. Red Skull, Baron Zemo, Madame Hydra, Arnim Zola, even an evil version of Steve Rogers. In 2011’s Captain America #2 we were introduced to a new Hydra leader, this one a Queen. She got her start back with the original Hydra during World War II. A failed mission featuring a young boy with super powers named Jimmy Jupiter ended with several Hydra agents trapped in a fantasy world under Jimmy’s control with no way to escape. Jimmy had been assaulted and put into a long-lasting coma and without him to activate the gateway, nobody inside could cross in or out.
Decades passed with the trapped agents never aging, only to escape in the modern day when a much older Jimmy woke from his coma briefly, apparently freeing them. The Hydra Queen, only otherwise known by the name “Grace,” was one of those agents and would not only go on to lead Hydra for a while but as Hydra does so often, terrorize Captain America and his allies.
The Hydra Queen is also trans. This actually came as a surprise to me as I had read this Cap run before and didn’t recall her being referenced as Trans, so I pulled out my omnibus and read it again. The reason I had missed it was because it’s never actually directly mentioned once. It’s all through implication and supposition. It’s never stated but implied that all the Hydra agents who went into the portal were men, and the Queen says she “found [her] true self” while inside and that’s it. One other minor thing but one I find worth noting is that she’s far more sexualized than anyone else on this list. She frequently appears in low cut and clingy dresses, bath robes, and even sometimes just fully in the nude. If this had been an attempt at an empowered sexual trans woman that would be one thing; however the fact that her apparent transness is so thinly referenced leads me to believe they were simply writing her as your standard femme fatale archetype and nothing more. Her apparent transness isn’t really a factor here.
I’m of two minds about this because obviously representation works best when you know the character is unambiguously trans, but on the other hand she’s not only a villain but an actual Nazi. That’s not to say it’s never ok to make a trans character evil, however choosing to make her specifically a Nazi was a very bad look as there is very negative history there. Before WWII, Germany was on the forefront of research into many sex, gender, and sexual orientation studies due to their Institut für Sexualwissenschaft which not only provided pioneering gender affirming care and surgeries, but even employed trans people. When the Nazis took control of the country however, this was one of the first things to go, and in 1933 all of the research was burned, the facility was destroyed and most of the staff that didn’t flee were sent to the horrifying camps. It should go without saying that this was an absolute tragedy but what’s more, the loss of the research and materials set back advancements in trans medical care by decades as they were the clear leaders of the field.
For this reason, a lot of people are very iffy about a Nazi character being trans and I absolutely do not blame them. Personally, this instance of it doesn’t bother me much because of the aforementioned dearth of any solid confirmation in these pages the character is trans. The fact that it requires such heavy reading between the lines means it’s possible for people like myself to completely miss that she’s supposed to be trans and thankfully not ever associate her apparent transness with her evil or Nazism in any way. For that reason, I tend to consider this a complete wash in the representation department.
By Charlotte Fierro
Sera was created by Kieron Gillen, Marguerite Bennett and Phil Jimenez as a supporting character to Angela of Heven, Thor and Loki’s sister. Introduced in the pages of Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, Sera is Angela’s best friend and confident, a sorceress, and like her, an Angel. Her backstory is revealed in Issue #3: she was born amongst the Anchorites, the wingless male cast of Heven, and raised with them as a slave monk. She was able to escape after helping Angela fight a monster that had attacked her Temple, and together they found a way to help her transition, presumably through means of magic.
Although it is disappointing that Sera has never really had a solo showcase (mostly appearing as the deuteragonist in Angela’s solo comics), she does very much stand on her own and influence the story of her books in huge ways. In the first series, she appears to be Angela’s ally and best friend, who died and mysteriously came back to life, before it is revealed that Sera is actually still trapped in the darkest corners of Hel and the Sera we thought we knew was only a disguised Malekith. That revelation gets retconned a bit in the follow-up series Angela: Queen of Hel, as we learn that Sera was actually speaking and acting through Malekith all this time thanks to a magic ring. Not only that, but it becomes clear that more than being just friends, Angela and Sera are very much in love, even temporarily sharing the title of the Hunter Queens of Hel. But even then, Sera is her own character beyond Angela’s wife: she’s funny, sarcastic, but she also gets to lash out at Angela when she comes to free her, and plots in secret with shady figures like Malekith and Leah of Hel.
At the end of Queen of Hel (which ties to the Secret Wars alternate universe tie-in 1602 Witch Hunter Angela in which another Sera and another Angela hunted mutants and demons), Sera and Angela get to live together and have many adventures for 7 years, before that timeline is erased and they’re brought back to the present. Their bond is stronger than ever… until Sera’s most recent appearance in Asgardians of the Galaxy #6-7, in which she appears to have disappeared from their flat in NYC, causing Angela to ally herself with Kid Loki in exchange for his help finding her lover. It is revealed that Sera had joined Yondu and the Ravagers to help refugees on Ego the Living Planet, and even after being reunited with Angela, the couple parts ways as Sera stays with the Ravagers, feeling she’s found her purpose helping people across the galaxy. Hopefully this means we can look forward to more of Sera’s adventures in space in the future, which could be the perfect occasion to explore who she is outside of the world of Angela and Heven.
By Chelsea LaLicata
Sera as well as Angela are both Angels from the previously unseen tenth realm of the Asgardian hierarchy Heven, which is decidedly unlike what you might be thinking. This Heven is a harsh place where Angels value only that which benefits themselves and what they are owed. Unfortunately, it also seems male Angels are rare, wingless, and an oppressed slave class in this society and being assigned so at birth, this includes Sera. As luck would have it however, Angela and she crossed paths while the latter was hunting a monster and Sera ended up instrumental in saving Angela and stopping the beast. As part of Heven’s penchant for honoring debts, Angela repaid the favor by helping Sera escape her slavery by using some unspecified magic to physically change her body to match her gender identity so she could leave with Angela. After this she becomes Angela’s on again, off again love interest and is all around a pretty awesome and capable character.
As representation Sera is mostly fine, but with an issue that does bother me. I really wish they hadn’t included the part about her sex assigned at birth being the cause of her slavery and her transition being the thing that got her out of slavery. It introduces a similar situation to Jessie Drake in that it adds a possible wrinkle to her motivations for wanting to transition. Did she genuinely feel she was a woman and wanted her body to match, or did she simply no longer want to be a slave and that was the cleanest way to accomplish that? She has been out of Heven for a while and has never featured in a comic where she expresses a desire to begin presenting male, so it’s fair to assume that the former is correct and the intent of the creators, however the fact that it’s even a question left hanging in the air is concerning. Otherwise Sera is an excellent character who has her own varied (if infrequent) places in the Marvel universe and I’m quite happy to know she’s there.
By Chelsea LaLicata
Originally introduced in Fantastic Four #22, the Moloids are a species of biologically engineered beings most commonly associated with Fantastic Four villain the Mole Man. They were written to be simple henchmen but interesting things have been done over the years such as the subject of this entry, Tong. Along with her three siblings, Tong makes up a group of Moloids who were hyper evolved by the High Evolutionary to have super intelligence. This caused them to be taken in by the Fantastic Four and to eventually attain a place in their Future Foundation for genius kids.
The vast majority of the time, Moloids appear to be coded male just as the four in the Future Foundation had initially, but then in FF volume 2 #6 Tong made an announcement to the rest of the Moloids that I simply cannot do justice in any way other than to present Tong’s own words.
“I have a girl inside of me. I tried to be a boy like you, but there is no boy here. And I do not wish to be what I am not any longer. This is unexpected? It is unexpected. And scary. And wonderful. It is new. Who I am… is new. My brothers: you have a sister.”
Her brothers proceeded to accept her with a hug and just like that, The Marvel universe had a new trans character!
For the rest of the run, Tong is now almost exclusively seen wearing a pink dress on top of her Future Foundation jumpsuit and comments at times about how much happier she is now. This is in my opinion, a contender for the most wholesome coming out of a trans character in any comic book and Tong never ceases to make me smile whenever she is on the page. It is also interesting in that it is never commented on by the adults beyond an understated “good for her” from replacement FF member Darla Deering. It is simply treated neutrally by everyone from there on out and I think it’s honestly wonderful.
On the other hand, if I were to be critical of this, Tong being a Moloid does present a bit of a problem. Moloids are humanoid but are clearly not depicted as actually human, instead a green-skinned sci-fi species. Representation works best when you can clearly still see the humanity in the character and are able to parallel that to the real people you’re representing. While I personally feel the positive and wholesome character moments given to Tong, I wouldn’t begrudge someone being upset that one of our best cases of Trans representation in Marvel comics is a non-human mole person. Still, what’s good about Tong is exceptionally good and I can’t recommend the stories in which she appears enough. That includes the tragically dead too soon Future Foundation 2019, in which Tong is once again back along with the rest of the FF.
Further Reading: https://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2014/05/is-tong-transgender/
Koi Boi (Ken Shiga)
By Chelsea LaLicata
First introduced in the pages of the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Ken Shiga is a computer science major at Marvel mainstay Empire State University and a superhero in his own right. In his Superhero persona he is “Koi Boi,” an obviously aquatic superhero with lower-key versions of the standard Aquaman power set: Ability to converse with sea life, breath underwater, super speed while in water, etc. Through the series he’s nothing but a great guy and friend to Squirrel Girl, not to mention a fun hero in his own right. Ken is a perfect example of representation done right… or he would be if not for one glaring issue.
The problem stems from the fact that even if you’ve read every issue of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl multiple times, you might be confused as to why he’s present in this article and I honestly don’t blame you. Ken is a Transgender Man, however this fact is never once explicitly mentioned in the entire 59 book run. The only reason we know he is one is that exactly twice, in Issue #9 and the OGN “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up The Marvel Universe”, he is seen changing into his superhero costume. This resulted in some eagle-eyed fans noticing an odd undershirt he was wearing in both scenes. Those fans reached out to his co-creator Erica Henderson on Twitter to confirm that undershirt to be a Trans-masc binder and Ken himself to be trans.
This creates an odd dichotomy where Ken is simultaneously a wonderful example of Trans representation and a horrible one. He’s an excellent character who is a ton of fun with his own personality divorced from his status as a Trans man. At the same time, at no point in the actual book is he presented as trans. No matter how well written or handled a minority character is, if you don’t tell your audience they are one, they are automatically a poor example of representation. It’s truly a shame because I love this character and I do honestly hope if he makes a return in the future, maybe in the pages of a new Squirrel Girl book, that they plant a flag right at the start and confirm him trans in the book somehow.
By Chelsea LaLicata
When Al Ewing brought the deceased Hulk back in the pages of Avengers: No Surrender, none of us could have predicted this would lead to Immortal Hulk. The critically acclaimed series takes Hulk back to his horror monster roots and introduced its fair share of new supporting cast members, including Dr. Charlene McGowan. Introduced early in the run, Dr. McGowan is at first at odds with the Hulk as part of Shadow Base; a clandestine arm of the US Government dedicated to taking down the Hulk. Despite this, she is presented as having more of a conscience than her colleagues, showing sympathy and humanity towards the test subjects. In retrospect this was foreshadowing the fact that she would eventually switch sides and assist the Hulk once her superiors were deposed with Hulk taking over Shadow Base.
Heavy hints that McGowan may be trans are peppered throughout. She uses a Captain America mug in Trans Pride colors in her past. Before Shadow Base she worked for Kingpin making black market hormones. It isn’t left to hints however as during a conversation with Doc Samson it is outright confirmed on the page; Dr. McGowan is a Trans woman and it honestly fills me with such a sense of elation. As you may surmise from the other entries here, ambiguity on this is a particular issue for me, and more often than not that’s what you’re in for. I mean, even Tong whom I am overall very happy with is never actually referred to as “Trans” or “Transgender” explicitly even if it’s still clear she is.
Since becoming a part of team Hulk, McGowan has been entirely loyal, entirely awesome and has been entirely devoid of any of the harmful tropes while she’s at it. It’s surprising given that she started as a “villain” of sorts (though who exactly is the “villain” in this run is up in the air), but they’ve even avoided the “deceptive trans person” trope despite her having switched sides. There hasn’t even been the hint of an implication she’s deceiving them in any way. She might be the gold standard right now in how to do trans representation right. As great as that is, I do find myself wishing it were the rule rather than the exception.
Vita Ayala’s New Mutants
By Chelsea LaLicata
Of all the entries we’ve talked about here, this is clearly the… well the newest. These four characters made their debut in the miniseries Prisoner X by Vita Ayala which was a tie-in to the bigger “Age of X-Man” event that directly preceded Dawn of X. Prisoner X focuses on long-time X-Man Lucas Bishop in a Mutant prison called the “Danger Room” in an alternate universe and his attempts to escape. The characters in question are Non-binary mutants Monica Sellers and Cam, as well as trans man Jacob Williams and trans woman Leonara Eng. To be blunt, they are barely more than background characters. We get little flashes of info about them, such as characters who may be their friends or possibly partners, and a few minor bits of dialog, but their total panel time is extremely scant. They are simply additional prisoners in this Mutant prison and nothing more. It’s entirely thanks to Vita Ayala’s twitter that we know anything about them including their status as trans and non-binary.
Thankfully, these characters have been carried over to the main Marvel universe with all 4 of them resurfacing as Vita Ayala takes over the “Reign of X” era of New Mutants with issue #14. They appear to have been aged down in the transition, visually younger and more vibrant. Two of them, Jacob and Leonara, are introduced to us as bullies that Magik has to reprimand in Krakoa, while Cam appears as another kid in the class. The one with the most plot relevance thus far is easily Monica who seems to have caused the inciting incident of the story arc by getting themselves lost in the Otherworld realm of Avalon. From solicits, it appears the next few issues will be the New Mutants, particularly Dani Moonstar, going in to find and save Monica and that’s where we currently are.
While not much has been done with these four yet, writer Vita Ayala has already dipped toes into trans-adjacent body dysmorphia issues with a cis girl character named Cosmar. Cosmar, like Nightcralwer before her, is a mutant whose body has visibly changed as a result of her mutation which causes her great distress. She asks if she can get her original body back if she goes through the Krakoan death and resurrection process called the “Crucible,” but is heartbroken to be told she can’t as that process is purely for restoring lost powers. Her displeasure with her body and desire to fix it coupled with the social ramifications and questions raised by things like the Crucible are very relevant and poignant. Ayala has confirmed on their twitter that this was intentional and they intend to explore it more as the run continues.
That however illustrates one of the big issues here and that’s the newness of this run. I wish I had more to say about these characters because Vita Ayala is an excellent writer and their inclusion of more trans and non-binary characters in the main Marvel universe is definitely a good thing. However, as of this writing these characters have appeared in one 5 issue miniseries in which they were far from the main characters, and now in a somewhat more substantial role in a run that is barely 3 issues in. Vita Ayala is an excellent writer and is themselves non-binary so I trust them to do something great here with these characters, but we’re going to need to wait and see.