An Interview with What's Normal Anyway's Morgan Boecher

This past April, I was meandering through MoCCA Fest in New York City, and couldn't help but notice the booth flying a rainbow flag over its table. Of course, I had to mosey on over and chat with the artists there. I was lucky to discover Morgan Boecher, creator of What's Normal Anyway?, a strip focusing on the trials and tribulations of its transgender protagonist Mel. Excited that someone would use comics as the medium to highlight issues of gender and identity, I couldn't help but want to learn more about Morgan and his work. Below is a quick interview we did, accompanied by some of Morgan's favorite moments from What's Normal Anyway?

Patrick Yacco: What inspired you to start drawing and writing in general?

Morgan Boecher: My parents had a lot to do with encouraging me as an artist. My mom, excellent with pen and ink, inspired me with her elaborate drawings of rickety but cozy conch fritter shacks in Key West. My dad and I would spend page after page challenging each other to draw aliens weirder and sillier than the last. Creativity and humor were encouraged in my household, and it wasn't long before I was combining words and pictures to bring my cartoons to life. 

PY: Why did you start “What’s Normal Anyway?”

I wanted to start What's Normal Anyway? for a few reasons. First, the internet, lush with trans resources and stories, was a tremendous help when I was trying to figure myself out. Frankly, the most helpful was just listening to trans guys on YouTube talk about their lives. Their relatable stories and humanizing problems made me realize all the more quickly that we are all just people, and that gender is nothing to be afraid of. I figured I could add something worthwhile to the online trans community that has already helped me so much.

Secondly, it’s a fun creative outlet for me. Anyone going through a gender and/or sex transition could use a medium through which to express oneself along the way. Making this comic allows me to think about and share issues that trans masculine folk may encounter.

Thirdly, activism! Right now my most pertinent cause is trans visibility. I understand that plenty of trans people may not want to incorporate their trans experience into their everyday lives, which is fine. I’m not saying everyone needs to do so. I do wish that knowledge about trans lives was more commonplace, though. My goal is to expand trans media, thereby increasing visibility, one silly comic at a time. 

PY: Generally speaking, what’s the creative process a strip?

MB: Typically, the creative process involves me forcing myself away from the brink of sleep to get out of bed and write down ideas that decide to flutter into my mind in the middle of the night. Those ideas could be a story arch, a full strip, or just a punch line for which I'll flesh out the rest of the joke later. I collect these ideas (which hardly ever arrive in narrative order) in a sketchbook. 

I hold myself to a strict and consistent weekly deadline, and sometimes my backlog of ideas don't fit with the current story. When this happens, I gently force myself into creative mode (yes, it can be forced) and think intently on where the characters are in the story, what would make sense as a next step, and what would make it funny. If nothing comes, I stop thinking hard and go for a walk. Or sometimes I take a nap because, as I mentioned before, ideas like to happen when I'm trying to sleep. Like any kind of problem-solving activity, working really hard at it then taking breaks helps the creative flow.

When I go to turn an idea into a comic, I sketch out the strip with a mechanical pencil on whatever paper I'm using (I'm still experimenting with tools), and ink it with technical pens. After I erase the pencil marks, I scan the drawing, "threshold" it in Photoshop to make it pure black and white, and put it online. Ta-da!

PY: Could you give us a little bit of background on Mel, like his life before the strip started, what he’s been up to for the past year or so, etc.?

MB: I imagine for Mel a fairly run-of-the-mill history of being raised in the suburbs by two heterosexual, cisgendered parents, and going to high school before college. Mel probably hasn't been out of the country. In high school he was deemed an "alternative" kid because of his gender presentation. When he tried to be feminine to fit in he could never quite pull it off. He felt less pressure to conform in college and found better friends there too. Perhaps you'll get to see some more of Mel's background in comic-form soon! 

PY: Mel’s transition in “What’s Normal” begins the strips and has been going on for nearly two years. How long do you see his transition being, and what is the average length of time for someone transitioning female to male?

MB: I didn't intend for WNA to be in real time, but the story would more or less match a version of an actual transition. I say "version" because there are so many ways a transition can happen. Some people get started with the physical transition early in life and go on hormone blockers during puberty; some people only go with one type of surgery that is possible for a sex transition, while others have surgery from top to bottom; some people never use hormones or surgery to transition; some people "arrive" at their target gender while some consider the process a lifelong journey. I have no idea whether an average length of time for transitioning can even be defined. 

PY: What’s next for Mel?

MB: Oh, Mel. Poor Mel. Let's just say I won't be giving him an easy time. Comedy is things not working out the way you thought they would, so it's reasonable to expect some tragedy to be involved. Don't worry, though. He'll bounce back.

PY: Being that Mel is trans, how is “What’s Normal” similar to and different from comics featuring gay characters and their lives?

MB: Trans stories and gay stories are the same at a basic level; it's about dealing with being different, discussing the things we like and dislike, and talking about things that have happened to us. I guess the difference would be that trans stories tend to talk about gender, and gay stories focus more on sexuality. They're all stories about people, though!

PY: Since there is so little trans representation in comics, do you feel pressure to represent the trans community as a whole? If yes, how do you deal with that? 

MB: Like it or not, people are bound to take what I say and allow it to color their idea of the trans community. Therefore, I feel a degree of responsibility with what I say and how I say it. At the same time, I do not purport that What's Normal Anyway? is representative of the entire trans community.The comic takes stuff I've learned, heard, or been through and runs it through a fictional, comedic sieve - hardly the kind of systematic research that would allow one to speak expertly on the qualities of the trans community. I haven't received any attacks on my portrayal of transsexual Mel that made me feel like I was doing harm to the community. If I do, I will look closely at what I did and try to do better next time. What's Normal Anyway? is my work, but it is also a conversation with readers. 

PY: Care to share some of the comments you’ve gotten on your work so far?

MB: Okay! I'm happy that the vast majority of comments I've received are highly positive. Some of them from the website are: 

  • "I adore this comic. It’s actually really perfect. Being Trans myself, and having a pretty awkward outing to my mom. =v =.. I’ve got my binder top ordered in the mail to. I just think it’s really cool what you’re doing. c: An’ I look forward to reading more."
  • "Though I’m not trans, I *REALLY* appreciate you publishing this. It’s nice to be able to read/see from the perspective of a trans person. It helps me understand concept(s)/thought(s)/feeling(s) that are pretty foreign to me. Keep up the good work, Mister! P.S. Hope NYC is treating you well!" 
  • "I'm writing to tell you how much I love your comic What's Normal Anyway? - I read it in almost one sitting which means I feel full of awesome and have exactly 0 coursework done. THANKS. But seriously, it is so refreshing to read what you have to say, you make me feel so much more normal - wait, not in a creepy "I'm totally less crazy than that guy" way but in a "YES, other transguys find some of this stuff hilarious and ridiculous, too!" 

PY: What other comics are you reading?

MB: I finally got a hold of Kate Beaton's book Hark! A Vagrant, and I'm loving re-laughing at some of my favorite webcomic strips. Of course, I can't wait to get my hands on Alison Bechdel's new Are You My Mother? I also loved everything about Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese. I'm eager to finish reading all the mini-comics I traded for at the MoCCA Festival in April. One that got me excited was Book One of Sasha Steinberg's Stonewall series, following the trans women and drag queens of the Stonewall riots.

PY: What else do you have in the works?

MB: I've just started writing a graphic novel about - guess what? - being trans! This time it's a true autobiography, though, and it will have very little overlap with What's Normal Anyway?. That's right - I have that much more to say on the subject of being transsexual. Also it appears that many of my readers think that Mel and I are the same person, even though I make a point to mention that What's Normal Anyway? is largely fictional. So this time I'll make a real autobio comic and allow folks the pleasure of knowing that it was created from a true story. 

In this large project, I hope to tell a more detailed, emotionally poignant (though still humorous) tale through an interweaving of the events that that helped me build and understand my identity. I want to make it the book I would have loved to find as I was going through my toughest, most confusing moments. There will be a lot about gender in it.

Be sure to check out current strips of What's Normal Anyway!

on May 22, 2012