Alters Revisited

In September 2016, AfterShock Comics released the first issue of Alters, a superhero comic created by Paul Jenkins with Leila Leiz illustrating and Tamra Bonvillain coloring. Starting as early as June prior, there were write ups everywhere, including the New York Times, praising Alters mostly for having a young trans superhero who could only be herself when she's not herself. I had concerns about this premise, which I wrote about over at ComicMix. That column got the attention of Paul Jenkins himself, whom I interviewed the following week which you can see here.

September came and went. Alters was met with some positive reviews as well as reviews from some people, including trans women, that were far from glowing. You can read those here and here. Since then, two more issues have come out with issue #4 scheduled for release next week. I feel like three issues is a good amount to gauge if you’ll like a series. I've read all three issues now, as well as the two page short from the Love Is Love benefit anthology. So I think it’s time to give an updated analysis on the series so far.

Warning, spoilers ahead.

I don't want to spend too much time on the first issue as the two reviews linked above are very thorough. What stands out for me is the obscurity of Chalice's ability to hide the fact that she's on hormones from her family, hiding her superhero costume, makeup, and super expensive wig that stays on while she's flying, her misgendering herself in her own internal monologue (referring to herself as the middle brother in the family), the idea that she's not into sports being part of her feminine identity, her feeling guilty about being trans and an Alter because one of her brothers has cerebral palsy, and the villainous Matter Man being seemingly queer coded.

Before I move on to issue two, though, I want to address how the first issue ends with the announcement of issue 2 in October, but issue 2 didn't actually come out until November. I imagine that had something to do with trying to retool some things based on the mixed reactions. Now that that’s out of the way, and starting right where the first issue left off —with Chalice having crashed into Octavian’s Alters HQ to follow up about their initial request that she join them in their efforts to stop Matter Man together. The first page shows Chalice getting grilled about what medications she's on, which leads to her being upset because she doesn't want to out herself as trans. Shortly after that, she reveals she can see Alters and identify them before their powers manifest. She then heads home, leaving Octavian’s group hanging.

At home, Chalice has some more trans angst before going downstairs to argue with her dad about Alters. She storms off to go confront Matter Man after her father makes it clear that he doesn't think Alters deserve the same rights as us. As dramatic as this scene is, we never see any payoff to the setup of Chalice storming off such as her parents wanting to have a talk with her or going to her room and discovering stuff, which makes the scene less impactful.

Once Chalice arrives outside Las Vegas, where Matter Man is waiting for her, they get right to trading quips. Before they can trade blows, however, Octavian and his gang appear to keep Chalice safe. Unfortunately, this leads the Alter Morph getting seriously injured and the Alter Ember blaming Chalice for it as Matter Man escapes. If there were more trans superheroes in existence, I might not have thought too much about this, but when there are so few and so little representation in mainstream comics, why does Chalice need to be a bungling mess that indirectly cripples people two issues in?

Unlike the end of the first issue, Paul Jenkins has added a letter where he discusses trans issues and talks with a trans woman about Alters. While some of it is self-validating, and I understand the reasons for defending one's work, he also takes time to discuss how important it is to use someone's preferred pronouns. While many of you reading this are more than aware of the importance of that, for those of you who are unaware of trans issues, it could be helpful. If it gets a few people thinking about the issues correctly, it's worth it.

Moving on to issue three, we start in the hospital that Morph has been taken to and discover the extent of his injuries. As this happens, Octavian and Ember have a heated discussion where Ember blames Chalice for this and Octavian defends her. It goes on for four pages which feels a little too long.

We then move to Chalice drawing a donkey for some reason, which sets up three pages of Chalice talking with her friend Darren about women and showing us that Chalice is apparently straight. This feels better paced than the first four pages, but the conversation is cringeworthy, which was intentional. Darren mostly talks about how well he knows Chalice, when he doesn't really know her nearly as well as he thinks he does. It's actually a good message to put out there about how we shouldn't assume we know best for other people.

From there we get five pages of Chalice coming out as both trans and an Alter to her disabled brother, who is also an Alter himself. It's a fairly sweet scene, but ends somewhat abruptly as we jump to eight pages of Matter Man's minions trying to take an Alter with them as Octavian’s people try to stop them. Chalice comes in to help and her and Ember make amends in a way that feels a little too quick-paced and a little forced. The third issue ends with another conversation between Paul and a trans woman and his thoughts on the difficulties of coming out as trans and how it’s a vastly different experience for everyone, which is very true.

So do I feel this series is going in a better direction? Kind of. I imagine some retooling went into this, as the second and third issues didn’t rub me the wrong way like issue one did. I think the letters at the end of the issues are showing some level of responsibility on Paul Jenkins's part for taking on this topic. The letters also show that he probably wasn’t entirely aware of just exactly he might be getting into when he decided to tackle this issue.

I don't want anyone to walk away from this feeling that I don't like Paul. This isn't anything personal, and I don'’t think any of his tackling the issue of a trans superhero is malicious. I believe Paul would also agree with me that Chalice was never meant to be a character that encompasses the trans experience for a large section of the trans population.

I think that's where one of the larger problems comes in. I want Chalice to be a less flawed hero because there are so few trans superheroes that any representation gets magnified. It’s okay to have all these very flawed cis het white superheroes because we have plenty of other more exemplary ones. So for me, when she's careless and Morph gets crippled in issue two, it hit me in a way that was probably not intended by the creative team. Many other people reading it who may just be reading it for the superhero story may not have felt any differently, but I imagine I’m not the only one that was sad to see that happen because we have so few trans superheroes. Between that, the queer coded villain, and the focus on trans angst and not exploring anything else with the character of Chalice (her love life, her hobbies, or any of her other interests), I just don’t know if I'll continue reading Alters.

That said, Aftershock is a fine publisher. They put out some other titles like Insexts about lesbian insect women in Victorian times and that’s some great stuff. Paul Jenkins was nice enough to agree to my request for an interview last year, and has written some fantastic comics, one of my favorites of which is his Inhumans run with Jae Lee at Marvel. I highly recommend it. Please look into his other works as well.

Lastly, whatever you think about the trans representation in this comic, Tamra Bonvillain is the colorist on this book and she is trans. If you want to support a trans creator, buying this book is one way to do it. If you do not wish to pick up this title, but would like to support Tamra Bonvillain (which I suggest you do), she works on plenty of other books, including Rat Queens, Moongirl and Devil Dinosaur, and Doom Patrol. Please, if you are not picking up Alters, support Tamra's other work.

But whatever you decide to do, as a queer comics reader, support comics with positive trans representation and support trans creators.