Comics these days are no stranger to taking stands for social justice and diversity. Case in point is the introduction of Dr. Victoria October in the pages of Detective Comics. And it’s not just the inclusion of a transgender character that is important, but also how her status was revealed. Screenrant had this to say:
The DC Rebirth made it clear that Batman is a transgender ally, and his main comic books are keeping that support alive. Even now, it’s possible that devoted fans of Batman comics missed Bruce Wayne’s stance on the issue – which was the entire point. The company-wide relaunch brought a Rebirth to Batman’s title series, while he united the rest of the Batman Family in the pages of Detective Comics. That team ended up being led by Batwoman, one of the most visible LGBTQ comic heroes. But it also introduced a new, openly transgender scientist to the DC Universe: Dr. Victoria October.
At the time, we couldn’t help but appreciate that Batman supported Victoria’s transition, mentioned and alluded to in vocabulary that non-LGBTQ readers could completely miss. But those in the community would see the exact message being sent by writers James Tynion IV and Marguerite Bennett. In the months since that issue, Detective has kept the conversation going. But as other comic titles and publishers battle the opposing forces of readers calling for diversity and those who claim it’s more marketing spin than progress, Detective is deserving of praise.
Because it isn’t Detective Comics‘ goal to simply acknowledge transgender individuals’ existence. It’s to help every reader understand what gender identity can mean to those outside of the crowd – and just as importantly, what it might not.
AS we mentioned before, the introduction of Dr. October was a far cry from what most readers would expect. Typically, and for admirable reasons, comic publishers can headline the creation of LGBTQ characters or heroes. The idea being that making their sexuality or gender identity THE story means a more diverse audience can see themselves represented – and the publisher can be seen taking those strides. But with Detective Comics #948, Tynion and Bennett explained only that Victoria and Batman’s working relationship went back a long time… to before Victoria was even Victoria. And when her transition was completed, Batman conveyed his congratulations in the form a greeting card (AS Batman, no less).
Dr. October would take a step away from the story soon after, before returning in Issue #959, when her specialty in modified human genetics and physiology made her a powerful ally. Brought in to examine one of the Dwarfling servants engineered by the Order of St. Dumas – the ancient religious sect that created Azrael – Victoria got to the root of something new. Not the genetics relevant to the situation, but the power of pronouns. When this “creature” objects to the term being used by the good doctor, Victoria apologizes for such a “thoughtless” choice. She then places the power in the subject’s hands to identify itself by name – Nomoz – as well as preferred pronoun, and species. A small touch, but not any less elegant than Victoria’s introduction.
The story being told is no coincidence, focusing on the injustice and cruelty of the Order’s treatment of Nomoz. It’s an appropriately comic-book-y story of denied personhood, and the damage done to one’s identity and spirit under such forces. To the casual reader, Dr. October agreeing to treat Nomoz as a man and not a creature seems an act of respect and dignity (which it is). To readers in or adjacent to the LGBTQ community, Victoria’s respect for the right to name oneself voices powerful support. And for those in between, cheering for Nomoz being given the dignity he deserves, it’s an invitation to view the idea of gender identity through a new lens.
The scene marked a powerful linking: having done so once before, Tynion again blurred the line. On one side, a superhero defined by his dual identities and his surrounding world. On the other, the real-world conversation about identity politics and transgender expression. And when Dr. October recently returns in Issue #970, she shines a light on an even more complicated wrinkle on the path to self-actualization for transgender individuals.
The conversation comes from an unexpected, but absolutely logical place, further confirming Tynion’s deft touch. To put it simply, Dr. October has devised a treatment to ‘cure’ Clayface, as most readers would put it, and return him to his human form. For obvious reasons, it’s an opportunity that Clayfa– Basil Karlo can’t help but act on. Until apprehension takes hold, as Basil fears that the year spent fighting evil alongside the Bat-Family won’t be enough. That even if his body is cured, the guilt and regret of his Clayface actions will continue to haunt him. And for reasons many reader can already discern, that’s one question Dr. October has considered herself.
It’s hard to overstate the potency of Tynion’s storytelling here, since Victoria’s personal struggles offer encouragement, support, and advice for more than just transgender or LGBTQ readers. When Basil voices the fear that his crimes stemmed from his own darkness, and not his mutation, Victoria says she’s already faced that realization. Before her transition, she hoped that a battle with depression, a “prickly” demeanor, and crippling doubts were all symptoms of her transgender identity. Symptoms that, once “cured” by transitioning from male to female, would disappear. But they didn’t
As before, Tynion communicates the greater message in only a handful of words: embracing transgender identity may not be the “cure” that anyone might assumes it would be. Depression, anxiety, doubt, and an aversion to social interaction can remain after transition – an insight that many readers will, and should take to heart. But as Victoria explains, that’s a good thing: knowing that depression is tied to who you are, not what you are is a victory. And an insight in which more than just LGBTQ readers can take solace.
Yes, it’s being explained to Clayface. And yes, it’s not overt enough for every reader to grasp. But as was the case with Dr. October’s previous appearances, the message of advocacy and compassion is clear for those who may need it most.
We are living in very precarious political times, so it’s not surprising that the arts (including comics) are taking a stand. Hopefully more comics writers, artists and publishers will follow DC and James Tynion IV and Marguerite Bennett’s example.