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Reading Transcription during the pandemic has felt like a lifeline for me. While being physically isolated from my queer and trans friends and family has been challenging, it's also been a time for me and many other transgender people I know to explore what our genders feel like, what they look like, how we move in them — when we're not performing for a predominantly cisgender audience at work and in life, a gift rarely afforded most trans folks. And as I've been exploring my gender and transness, Veronique Emma Houxbois's diary comic about her transition and her sexuality has made me feel less alone.
As both the creator and the protagonist of Transcription, Houxbois invites readers to explore ourselves through her self-exploration, to see how what we've been taught differs from who we are and who we choose to be.
Houxbois first came to my attention as an incisive critic who held the comics industry accountable for transphobic failures, both the horrific and the more quotidian, though nonetheless harmful. From responding to the abject transmisogyny on display in AirBoy Issue #2 to calling Saga to account for using inaccurate language and at best muddling the message around trans bodies in Issue #31, Houxbois found herself at the center of the debate around trans representation in comic books.
Though she longed to have a more constructive and trans-centered and -driven conversation, Houxbois tells me that there was "so much traumatic, horrible sh** happening in this industry that I felt compelled to respond to." Houxbois felt stuck in a defensive posture, bracing for the next terrible thing she would have to write about.
"It took a pandemic for there to be a ceasefire on transphobia in the [comics] industry," Houxbois says, noting that for the first time since wading into the conversation in 2014, she felt like she could breathe.
In addition to consulting behind the scenes on some big-name comics (including Bitch Planet), Houxbois had previously drawn a few comics she never published and written a short comic for IDW's Love Is Love anthology. That one-page comic about the important role of queer bars in gender exploration showcased Houxbois's narrative strengths and reminded readers of the interconnectedness of trans, nonbinary, and queer communities in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
When the pandemic offered Houxbois a critical respite, she was poised to launch her webcomic on her own terms. Around the same time, she started taking HRT and it turned out that was the missing element for her. Houxbois describes feeling her anger melt away and finally having "the emotional space and the time to really think this through and to start creating for myself."
Where the line should be
Houxbois knows her influences and is generous with crediting them. Conversations with her are like reading syllabi on queer and trans representation in comics, and her comics themselves are just as metatextual, or perhaps transtextual — which seems a more fitting term for a comic and creator so deeply entrenched in transness.
At points, my cheeks flush while she's talking because I can't write down the works she's referencing quickly enough. She jumps from Blue Is the Warmest Color and Sex Criminals to Wet Moon and Grease Bats with breathy excitement. And her influences aren't restricted to comics. She references popular and deep-cut films and TV with ease, from Poltergeist to the Wachowskis' oeuvre to the work of Christopher Nolan. She tells me about how porn creators have taught her to wield point of view in panels and build suspense over multiple panels through micro-moments. She theorizes on how to give comics kinetic energy. When you talk to Houxbois, you understand you're in the presence of a deeply passionate storyteller who sees herself clearly among the body of creative work around transness and sexuality.
If Houxbois were to choose a single influence that made her flip the switch and start creating her own comic, however, it would be Emma Jayne's Trans Girls Hit the Town. This tender and intimate black and white comic follows two trans women as they grapple with online dating, friendship, jealousy, and being alive in a cisheterocentric world. "I read it within my first month of HRT and it really shook me out of a fog," says Houxbois. "Even on the brightest, shiniest day, direct-market comics are holding the conversation back so far from where it could be. Trans Girls Hit the Town reminded me of where the line should be."
During her early days on HRT, Trans Girls Hit the Town lit a fire inside Houxbois: "I felt a compulsion to share about myself that I hadn't felt before." And she knew that if she was going to make her own trans comic it was going to center trans sexuality.
The political is deeply personal
Transcription is a rare kind of comic. Yes, it's a journal comic, but it also contains a creative reimagining of canonically and non-canonically queer and trans characters from comics and elsewhere. Yes, it references other comics in panel composition and easter eggs, but it also shows the creator, or at least a fictionalized version of her, having an emotional reaction to reading comics. Yes, it's an explicit webcomic, but it's also a porn experience, particularly due to it being hosted on OnlyFans. Yes, it's evocative and entertaining, but it's also political and unapologetic. And that expansive breadth of content and reach of the creator has a remarkable impact, which was, of course, Houxbois' goal.
"I'm mixing porn with politics," she says. "When I put everybody into Mystique's POV as a trans woman with a penis [looking down at Daken], I'm getting you to question all of your assumptions about the sexuality of this scene. How do we feel about bisexual men? How do we feel about trans women and trans women's bodies?" For her, that's the political aspect of Transcription: "My ideological goals for the comic don't necessarily match my own personal desires." That's part of what makes it such a powerful project: It pushes the reader and the creator to consider those things that might regularly lie outside their frame of reference.
Mixing the personal and the political in an innately sexual way reclaims trans sexuality from the ways it's been represented in mainstream comics and, frankly, most of popular culture. And Houxbois is fully aware of what a weighty task that is. In a recent essay for Autostraddle, she writes, "To me, conquering the stigmas and suppression of trans women's sexuality means granting access to a self-directed, unapologetic vision of trans sexuality. It's a position that requires an incredible amount of vulnerability and comes with all kinds of dangers and pitfalls, but it's one that I'm finding myself thriving in and rewarded by."
Reading Transcription makes me feel a little less afraid about exploring my gender and my sexuality at the same time. From thinking about what HRT could do for my life to reinforcing my belief that the gender binary is killing us, she's shown me how to love myself and my transness a little better, a little kinder, a little harder than I might have before. And if that's not the purpose of a trans journal comic, I'm not sure what is.
Transcription is available online and the first collected volume will be available in October.