Theory

Rereading Superman as a trans f/man

Dan Vena

Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—While a noteworthy body of scholarship exists that "queers" the superhero, few attempts have been made to "trans" such famous comic book characters. I offer an introduction to trans identities via my own personal narrative and a cursory example of trans reading practices within the fields of comics and fandom studies. Writing as a trans f/m (fan and man), I set out to trans superheroes and also to rethink the temporal space of boyhood, which is typically positioned as the supposed beginning of one's manhood and one's passion for comic book heroes. As an example of this reading strategy, I offer a reinterpretation of the Superman origin story that explicitly highlights the hero's own innate transness.

[0.2] Keywords—Boyhood; Comic books; Comics studies; Nostalgia; Superhero studies; Superheroes; Transgender

Vena, Dan. 2017. "Rereading Superman as a Trans F/Man." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.1063.

[0.3] When men are growing up and reading about Batman, Spiderman, and Superman these are not fantasies, these are options.

—Jerry Seinfeld

1. Introduction

[1.1] I spent the majority of my childhood fantasizing I was a superhero. In my make-believe world, I transformed from a clumsy kid to a swift crime fighter. I populated my make-believe town with cardboard cutouts of buildings, peppered with stuffed animals as citizens, and fashioned an arsenal of necessary tactical tools from the art construction supplies at hand. I entertained myself like many young boys do, play fighting through imaginary obstacles to rid the world of evil ne'er-do-wells. However, having been assigned female at birth, I became a slight wonder to my parents, who assumed my tomboyish behavior was just a phase. To some extent, it was. Twenty years later, I forewent the label "tomboy," preferring the gender identifier "man" to express my experiences and expressions of masculinity. With this insight, I began an ongoing journey of transitioning, jumping through medical hoops and psychological evaluations, undergoing several surgical interventions and taking hormone therapy, all to access a body that my childhood self believed I would inherently grow into.

[1.2] That said, the process of transitioning is not solely a physical journey. For me and for others, transitioning also requires the production of a more unified gendered self that is both recognizable to the individual and to the world at large. Given the cisnormative, transphobic conditions in which we live, this includes the ability to authenticate one's masculinity and one's claim to manhood as genuinely valid (note 1). In general, whether this is done through normative, patriarchal rituals of initiation or through alternative expressions of masculinity is of course up to the individual; this individual may or may not share any investment in challenging hegemonic displays of masculinity; nor must their personal expression of gender have any alignment with deeper political projects. Working with a body whose morphology stands at odds from cisnormative definitions of maleness (and thus presumably an authentically male self), trans men must learn to navigate masculinity in ways both akin to and different from their cisgender counterparts. These navigations may lead to wholeheartedly different expressions of masculinity, or they may conform to more mainstream or traditional notions of what is appropriately masculine. It is thus not uncommon for trans men to adopt or reproduce normative social scripts as a means of legitimizing our male gender identity because abiding by dominant cultural values—problematic as this may be—helps validate us as suitably male (Noble 2006, 35). So although trans and cis men alike may struggle to define their masculinity, I suggest here that the journey trans men undergo to manifest and express their gender may produce markedly different results in relation to textual reading practices.

[1.3] I offer my own experience as a trans man and superhero fan as an example of this phenomenon. While adjusting to new social negotiations as a man (or, that is to say, as someone actively read as a cis man), I relied on my childhood hero, Superman, to guide me in understanding the complexities of masculinity. This (re)turning to a childhood figure is, as S. Bear Bergman (2009, 31) explains, a common practice among trans men, as these figures may represent a temporal moment when the formation of one's masculine identity began to take shape. Yet the longer I studied the Superman script, a Bizarro (note 2) outcome occurred whereby I began to read into the character my own trans journey of becoming. This essay is meant to act as a narration of this rereading, especially in light of the fact that Superman, as a character, has never transitioned (although he has transformed, maybe, in the safety of a telephone booth) or expressed any form of gender dysphoria. The importance in selecting this character, while partially nostalgic, is meant to highlight the ways in which a figure does not need to be intentionally written as trans or as having transitioned bodily forms in some capacity (for instance, Mystique from the X-Men) to potentially resonate with trans fans (note 3). I hope to render into discourse the affective reverberations and resonances of my lived experience, coupled with striking moments of engagement with the Superman mythos, which have come to inform my reading practice as a trans man and comics fan.

[1.4] On the one hand, this essay is meant as an introduction to trans identities for unfamiliar readers and as a sketch of trans reading practices within comics and fandom studies. I borrow here from Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore (2008), who suggest that the method of transing (as opposed to queering) be used to explore and explode the gender dynamics operating within a particular text (note 4). Because gender is often misconceptualized as having concrete categories (as located and fixed onto the sexed body), any expression that does not conform to cisnormative regulations is often erased by mainstream culture. Transing seeks to expose the erasures that occur and to highlight the very gaps where gender slippages are made apparent (Stryker, Currah, and Moore 2008, 13). Writing as a trans man, the project of transing superheroes also includes rethinking the temporal space of boyhood, which is typically positioned as the supposed beginning of one's manhood and one's passion for comic book heroes. In returning to this temporal moment, I reevaluate the place of nostalgia within comics and fandom studies and how its affective response remains contingent on cisnormative organizations of morphology and temporality (note 5).

[1.5] On the other hand, this essay also forwards an initial rereading of the Superman origin story as influenced by my own experiences of transitioning genders. Within the world of comics, an origin story typically refers to a canonized account that explains how a hero or group of heroes came into being. The assumption that one may be able to precisely locate the moment or moments during which the superhero identity began to take shape may ring familiar to trans readers, who may similarly be asked to continually locate the origins of their own gender identities—the presumption being, of course, that cis persons are not usually asked the question "When did you know?" While the textual examples used in this article in some way entertain the idea that a point of origin is possible to locate, I wish to show how these narratives are perhaps the most malleable to reinterpret from a trans reading position given the overlapping and persistent preoccupation with locating identity within a specific temporal boundary. In regards to the examples used, I reference an eclectic collection of Superman cultural products I engaged with as a child, an adolescent, and a transitioning young adult, which places the time period of these texts roughly between 1990 and 2011. Pulling examples from comic books, animated television series, and live-action television shows, I meditate on an assemblage of texts that fuse to create a comfortable Superman narrative that I alone am familiar with. While this may serve as a frustrating starting point for academic inquiry, this type of personal engagement is necessary when investigating alternative reading practices since they remain contingent on our own lived experiences and the axes of identity that we all continually navigate. We each have our own version of a superhero's narrative. While we can rely on a single author's interpretation, or on the canon of a popular television show, ultimately, as fandom scholars know, we write the stories that suit us, and for marginalized readers, this can manifest as an interpretive strategy that actively works to reread and redefine these seemingly stable narratives (note 6).

2. Superhero (sub-)standards

[2.1] Comics studies scholar Peter Coogan (2009, 77) defines superheroes as heroic individuals who use their extraordinary abilities in a selfless, prosocial manner. But through their narrative exploits, superheroes, like other fictional genre characters, come to represent the dominant cultural values of the society they are produced within. The symbolic meanings of superheroes thus remain continually in flux; they are constantly affected by the social and political conditions of the era (Coogan 2009, 77; Harrison 2010, 122). These back-and-forth oscillations between challenging and/or reinforcing dominant ideologies ultimately make the dynamic of (re)serialization possible.

[2.2] Yet regardless of how a superhero may be crafted to embody, reject, or question certain political or moral values, the male superhero in particular is almost always meant to represent a normatively gendered individual. The male superhero is—and here I use a loaded psychoanalytic term flippantly—almost always the embodiment of the ego ideal, a quintessential male subject whose masculine identity is validated through his hypermasculine physical attributes and his subsequent masculine-defined feats of heroism and strength. The superbody's illustrated adherence to dominant codes of masculinity not only reinforces the hero's gender within the pages of the comic but also informs readers outside the comic how male-identified individuals should look and behave. Specific emphasis is placed on the superhero's musculature, which serves as the clearest signifier of masculinity and legitimizes his body as suitably male (Bordo referenced in Brown 1999, 27) (note 7). Within this paradigm, the superhero's steel-hard body (with Superman being the literal Man of Steel), bulging in its (mandatory) skintight suit, is the manifestation of phallocentric masculinity and suggests that a flaccid or soft body is both literally and figuratively shamefully weak.

[2.3] Given the dominant masculine ethos of the comic industry as well as the mimetic androcentricism inherent in comics studies, the assumption remains that the main receivers of these messages regarding gender are cis boys. Though there is some scholarship that explores the relationship (assumedly cis) that girls and women have to comic books and superheroes, it remains implicit that readers have a stable or coherent gender identity as defined by cisnormative culture. However, as my own stake and enjoyment in comics and superhero popular culture attest, this is not always the case. Scholarship in the field of comics studies must reevaluate how it defines and visualizes comics readership if it aims to produce more nuanced understandings of the superhero. Part of this work entails rethinking prevalent conclusions, as highlighted by Richard Harrison, who suggests, "The superheroic body represents the body some boys wish they could have, [and] the secret identity represents the selves that some boys want to show the world but cannot—and there are a lot of those kinds of boys" (2010, 127). Though Harrison expands further on this account, suggesting that superheroes appeal to the outsider in us all rather than to our specific gender (129), his definition of "boy" (or man) nonetheless remains unopposed (note 8). Indeed, as Harrison's statement forces us to ask, what kinds of boys are we discussing? If his definition of a male reader remains partially contingent on the desire for an alternative body, then certainly trans fans fit the bill. While not all trans folks may subscribe to the narrative of being trapped in the wrong body, for me there remains a strong yearning to escape the perils of embodiment and the friction created by gender dysphoria. When I read a Superman comic, for instance, what I desire most is not to become a crime fighter or a hero but to occupy a (cis) body that will feel livable. Though a response of envy or desire may be common among cis and trans readers alike, its affective characteristics and textures may differ dramatically.

[2.4] As Harrison (2010) notes, for (cis) boys, superheroes may come to represent potential ideals they are seemingly capable of fulfilling. Jerry Seinfeld's joke, which heads this essay, aptly summarizes this expectation, suggesting that superhero narratives are often very real experiences for (cis) boys. While improbable, they are not altogether off the table as feasible life options. Tzvetan Todorov explains the fantastic as a hesitation, a pause, that causes character and reader alike to rethink their positioning within reality ([1970] 1975, 25–26). We can make room to understand Seinfeld's joke in a similar manner, and to insert within it a trans perspective that expands on the apparent expression of desire. It may be that for the cis or trans boy as comic book reader, the narrative of the superhero opens up a fantastic moment in which a breakdown of the acknowledged order of "the real" occurs and confrontation with "the imaginary" in the form of the superhero becomes possible (Todorov [1970] 1975, 25). If this is so, the momentary pause (however long), in which the young boy determines the lived possibility of becoming a superhero is precisely what constitutes the fantastic in this scenario. The fantastic is an undisturbed moment in which one makes a choice, and as soon as one does, the fantastic evaporates ([1970] 1975, 31). If we are to continue with this example, in both instances, the possibility of becoming a superhero is already foreclosed and overdetermined by the body, which, as both cis and trans boys grow, often falls short of the superhero standard because of ability and/or because of one's birth-assigned sex/gender (note 9). Presumably, within this type of encounter, the process of acceptance and of coming to terms that one is not Superman is an evitable step of maturation for cis men before they reach adult manhood.

[2.5] If we extend this Seinfeldian scenario even further, after making this realization, a cis reader may not necessarily abandon an interest in comics but instead may lose the imaginative, fantastic element associated with the medium that allows him to genuinely believe, at some point in time, that he could have become Superman. This is, of course, why the joke lands so well. For trans readers, however, the fantasy of becoming may be equally tantalizing because of the caged boundaries of the sexed/gendered body; but the prospect of becoming may also be regarded as an impossibility because the superhero also remains cisgender. In both iterations, superheroes may become markers of childhoods passed, of dreams well spent, of first forays into masculinity and manhood, though this journey may be abruptly halted for trans readers by the looming onset of puberty. In this respect, a particular nostalgia may accompany these characters—a nostalgia often found on the very comic pages they inhabit.

[2.6] Opening John Byrne's six-part miniseries The Man of Steel (1986) is a letter from the inker, who was then DC Comics' vice president and executive editor, Dick Giordano. In his foreword, Giordano reflects on the times that he, as a boy, listened to the adventures of Superman on the radio while eating his favorite cupcakes. He calls these "fond memories of another time, another age." He goes on to note how the series' writers and artists (all cis men) equally share in these nostalgic connections to Superman, referring to the team simply as "ex-boys." It is clear that Superman evokes for these men their lost boyhoods, providing them with an appropriate portal through which to revisit their childhood—and therein lies another potential appeal of the superhero. Amid the rough-and-tumble of the superhero story is a delicate thread of nostalgia that allows male readers to access times of childhood joy, when superheroes were still thrilling realities that one day they could take part in.

[2.7] Nostalgia, as it is typically known in our shared pop-cultural lexicon, is often categorized as a reactionary, overly idealist response to an encountered object, moment, or experience. For instance, Linda Hutcheon (1998) presents nostalgia as a "rejection of the here and now," produced when an individual determines the present as sufficiently problematic in opposition to a more ideal (often falsely imagined) past. For Hutcheon, nostalgia is a reaction to avoid the teleological progression of the present time and is cast as "an attempt to defy the end." While the debates regarding queer or trans interpretations of nostalgia certainly complicate Hutcheon's more normative expressions of the phenomenon (the depth of which can only be hinted at here), I wish to use the term nostalgia a bit more loosely to better reflect how the concept is taken up within mainstream comic book culture, as exemplified by Giordano (1986) (see Dinshaw et al. 2007). For my purposes here, I understand nostalgia to be a profound psychic affect that forces one to acknowledge a rupture between past and present, but that does not necessarily incite the individual to escape the current moment. Unlike Hutcheon's paradigm, which seems to align nostalgia with a linear trajectory of time that moves ever forward, thus abandoning the possibility of return, the kind of nostalgia I evoke here requires a complete rethinking of normative organizations of time. Inspiration is thus taken from Elizabeth Freeman's (2010) work regarding chrononormativity, which demonstrates the ways in which the sexed body is produced and held hostage to normative frameworks of development marked by continuity and coherence. As trans individuals, our bodies brush up against and defy normative temporal orderings (for example, in the movement from girl to man), which in turn causes a schism in the nostalgic response, evoking a unique teleology that subsequently reorganizes measures of temporality in unfamiliar ways.

[2.8] Returning here to the concept of boyhood, as invoked by Giordano, this temporal space, which seems ubiquitous to mainstream comics culture, can be for trans men an ambivalent time of pleasure and frustration. To think back on this time requires the acknowledgment that I was not recognized as a boy (note 10). Though I was barred from adopting this gender identity because of my birth-assigned sex, the period of childhood—when one is encouraged to imagine and play—provided me with the freedom and space to behave knowing I was a boy but to have others believe I was simply playacting (note 11). It was within the safe temporality of childhood that I could momentarily forget or dismiss the inevitable experience of womanhood. However, within the same moment of nostalgic recollection comes the painful awareness that as a trans man, I have been robbed of my socially sanctioned boyhood (note 12). Because boyhood is such an emotionally and psychologically complicated time for trans men, it is not enough to generalize that superheroes allow men to nostalgically reflect on their childhood in a leisurely and pleasurable manner, as Giordano (1986) seems to be suggesting. I suggest that trans men cannot simply return to a time of (idyllic) boyhood because we were never seen as boys to begin with. To preserve the origins of the term nostalgia (note 13), the home time of boyhood for myself is an obscure psychic space that requires me to grapple with the fact that I was not born male and was hence denied access to a particular corporeal self that may be more authentic and aligned with my gender identity. Within this mental space or state comes the acute awareness that my physiological home is lost forever. My attempt to return to this ideal and to locate the body that "should have been" (Prosser 1983, 83) has fueled my desire to seek surgical intervention, which aligns my experience with that of Prosser's. As he explains:

[2.9] In the case of the transsexual the body constructed through sex reassignment surgery is not one that actually existed in the past, one that is literally remembered, but one that should have existed; sex reassignment surgery is a recovery of what was not. The body of transsexual becoming is born out of a yearning for a perfect past—that is, not memory but nostalgia: the desire for the purified version of what was, not for the return to home per se (nostos) but to the romanticized ideal of home. (84)

[2.10] Therefore, the nostalgic experience is one that is literally written onto my body; carved into each surgical scar is my understanding of home, of a body that can legitimize my gender. However, during my ongoing transition, I have also realized that I will never acquire the cis body I long for. In a sense, the nostalgic experience becomes my own personal kryptonite. It wounds, just as it harms Superman, through the realization that we have been deprived of something incredibly meaningful. For me it is my home body; for Superman it is his home planet. I (as well as other trans folks) and Superman are both thus held to the mercy of time and memory, haunted by a specter of a past we could (never) have had.

[2.11] An understanding of the comic object and text as a nostalgic trigger therefore requires acknowledging how the accompanying affective responses may be marked by larger personal histories of corporeal and psychic rupture, as is the case for me (and presumably other trans folks). It is my argument that this relationship to the body and to time comes to shape trans reading practices as markedly different from those of their cis counterparts. Returning to the moment of the fantastic, I originally stated that for both trans and cis men alike, the entry into becoming a superhero is already overdetermined by the limitations of the body. For me, when I read a Superman comic, I acknowledge, on a raw, fundamental level, that I cannot become him. Yet, if I may contradict myself, perhaps there does in fact remain a lingering dusting of the fantastic in this engagement where the fantasy is not foreclosed entirely. In an attempt to reduce the dis-ease felt by my own internalized transphobia ("If I am not like Superman, am I a man at all?"), I choose to reread and reconstitute the Superman narrative in a more familiar manner that legitimizes my own masculinity and mirrors my entrance into manhood. In this moment, the door to becoming is left open, except it is not I who is transitioning. Superman himself begins to take on an identity more in line with my own transness.

3. A man for all seasons

[3.1] In Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek's Up, Up and Away! (2006), Superman has lost his powers for a year and must instead fight crime as mild-mannered Clark Kent. In this series, the focus shifts away from Superman's extraordinary powers to Clark's journalistic prowess as a hard-hitting, highly ethical reporter—his style being in part cultivated by the Daily Planet's editor in chief, Perry White. This portrayal of journalistic integrity carries with it a nostalgic harkening back to a supposed time of reporting innocence, when the printed word still contained cold, hard facts and reporters resisted exploiting the truth for political gain. To emphasize the bygone days of journalism, artist Pete Woods consistently accessorizes Clark with an old-time newsman's hat to signal his staunch, individual adherence to this old code of principled reporting.

[3.2] Adding to the nostalgic undertones of Johns and Busiek's text is Woods's artistic choice to consistently clothe Clark in his Smallville varsity jacket, signaling the character's own nostalgic feelings for his hometown and boyhood. It is perhaps fitting that, within a narrative that sees Superman robbed of his powers, Clark (re)turns to supposedly simpler days when his extraordinary abilities did not interfere with or commandeer his day-to-day to routines. He regresses to a time before Superman, when he was unconstrained by sacrificial and heroic commitments. Up, Up and Away! depicts Clark as he should have been—the supposedly natural progression from Smallville citizen to Metropolis ace reporter. The letter jacket becomes a signal of this changing point, when Clark's powers and dutifulness forced him to abandon this uniform for another. In comparison, Clark's time before Superman seems overtly simplistic, but as other origin stories attest, this moment in time is anything but ideal. Clark's years in Smallville are consistently characterized by feelings of isolation, loneliness, and anxiety as he begins to navigate his changing body and a potentially new identity. Though this reads like any other individual's transition through puberty, there is still something affective and materially different about his experiences that cannot be accounted for or described as typical teenage angst that resonates with me as a trans fan.

[3.3] Though the experience of puberty for cis boys can presumably be an awkward and uncomfortable time, it nonetheless signals a temporal and physiological shift wherein they develop the necessary psychological and physical characteristics needed to be read as male in society. (Of course, an individual may accept, reject, or subversively perform these traits/attributes.) As part of their maturation, cis men may even be socialized to forget the fear and anxiety of puberty in order to smoothly transition into manhood (Noble 2006, 49). However, for trans men, puberty becomes a time when the body betrays the authentic masculine self, disallowing the individual to identify (both to himself and to others) as masculine (Rubin 1998, 11). It is this note of betrayal—by a body that seems to morph outside of expectation—that similarly reverberates within the Superman narrative. For Clark, puberty also becomes a time of increased anxiety as he begins to experience his body in new and unanticipated ways. In Jeph Loeb's Superman for All Seasons, Clark reacts in fear to his changing body, telling his father, "Pa. I'm scared" (1999, 27). And while his mother, Martha, explains that this is "all part of growing up," Clark remains distraught over a body he no longer recognizes as his own (95).

[3.4] In both instances, the body becomes the focal point of discomfort and signals that one is distinctly different than other young men. For trans boys, their female physiology acts as the primary marker of their illegitimacy (Rubin 2003, 124, 141). As Rubin points out, one of the most important ways a man asserts his masculinity is through his body. If his body conforms to phallocentric, often hypermasculine standards, then his manhood will typically go unquestioned. It is the failure to approximate this normative body that often forces men, trans and cis alike, to feel grief over their "lacking" qualities (2003, 166). However, for trans boys/men, these feelings of distress cannot be soothed in the same way because it is the very makeup of the body—which may have breasts or postsurgical scars, a vagina or a neophallus, differing patterns of fat distribution, a larger waist-to-hip-ratio, shorter height, less muscle mass, and a higher voice—that places them directly at odds with accepted notions of cisnormative masculinity.

[3.5] Conversely, although it may seem that Clark/Superman is the quintessential phallocentric male ideal, a trans rereading of the narrative creates room to challenge this assumption. I suggest that Clark/Superman is also marked by an otherness grounded primarily in physiological difference. In Superman for All Seasons, his father, Jonathan, tells Martha, "He's changing. The boy. He's…different now," suggesting Clark's body can do things "that other boys can't" (Loeb 1999, 17–18). Clark is positioned through his father's description as outside the acceptable norm for boys. Though Clark may supersede these other (supposedly more normal) boys in physical ability and might, his body is too much for the town of Smallville to contain. As his father's words foreshadow, "We knew he was special, but…People will talk" (9). Because "Clark knew them all and they all knew Clark" (22), there is nowhere Clark can retreat; Smallville seems to act as a containment for the young man who must eventually seek the freedom of the big city, Metropolis, in order to truly flourish (an echoing of the desires of some trans and queer folks to move to supposedly more inclusive urban centers). Further highlighting the otherness and strangeness of Clark's body within the town is Tim Sale's art, which continually depicts Clark as being too big for the panel. His body is often drawn towering over that of other Smallville citizens, suggesting that he is different both physically and spatially—both in Smallville and in the comic's frame. He is out of place; his body does not belong.

[3.6] While the body certainly serves to out Clark as other, the production of his identity via his relationship with Jonathan also mimics various transitioning narratives wherein parents are the first to spot and worry about their child's supposed difference. Indeed, the theme of transitioning is underscored by the opening panel of the comic, a framed image of Superman's chest with Jonathan's accompanying narration: "Folks tend to call him 'The Man of Steel' nowadays" (Loeb 1999, 9), clearly indicating his son's adoption of a new name since leaving home. "Believe it or not," Jonathan continues, "there was a time before all that" (9). These words, which serve to underscore the existence of a surprising ("believe it or not") and distinct temporal rupture ("a time before all that") wherein Clark has assumed an altogether unexpected identity, also form a subtle lament. Perhaps Jonathan also carries with him a nostalgic yearning for the uncomplicated joys of Clark's childhood, a time before his son's alien powers marked him as other. As the narrative continues, it is clear that Jonathan is at first uncomfortable with his son's newly forming identity. As he tells his wife, "We both knew that one day we'd have to face this Martha" (18). I can only imagine a similar exchange between my parents as they watched their small superhero in training and wondered what might be in store for their daughter, the same little girl who insisted on being a pirate each year for Halloween so that she might have an excuse to paint a beard on her face. Similarly, as I imagine my own mother to have coached my father, Martha reminds Jonathan to "be gentle" when he confronts Clark about these changes (27).

[3.7] In another reiteration of Superman's origin stories, the television series Smallville (2001–11), which also focuses on Clark's adolescent years, explores the lengths that Clark/Superman must go to in order to hide his identity from others. A striking example is provided in 1.04 "X-Ray," which aired in 2001. Clark becomes aware of his ability to see through objects, namely through the school's walls—and into the girls' locker room. Given the show's context and overarching preoccupation with adolescent angst, Clark's x-ray vision can be read as a metaphor for male sexuality and spontaneous bodily responses. (The initial manifestation of Clark's x-ray vision happens as sporadic flashes that come on without warning.) Upon revealing his new superpowers to his parents, Clark is instructed to practice self-control and to train his eyes as he might other muscles in his body. Through sustained conditioning, Clark's parents hope that he might be able to avoid detection, should he be caught in the act of staring.

[3.8] Additionally, 1.04 "X-Ray" also seems preoccupied with the conditions of leading a double life and the fear one may have of being found out or seen through. In an appropriate subplot, viewers follow Tina Greer as she navigates her high school experience as a shape-shifter. Able to physically morph into another person, Tina is caught using her powers by her mother who, upon seeing her daughter shift, states, "Stop it, Tina. You promised you wouldn't do that anymore." Foreshadowing the Kent's later anxieties of Clark being caught in the act, Tina's mother strongly discourages her daughter from adopting alternative bodily presentations, which, in this instance, include crossing gender boundaries (Tina had previously assumed Lex Luthor's identity in order to rob a bank). Here I am reminded of the countless outfits I was wearily cajoled into taking off by my mother, who often attempted to curb my masculine presentation for fear that my gender identity would not be immediately legible. (The question, "Are you a boy or a girl?" was continually posed to me during my childhood and well into my adolescence.) Similarly, through Tina's exchange with her mother, viewers are reminded that bodies ought not betray established frameworks of identity; within this paradigm, morphology ought to indicate a stable ontology.

[3.9] Yet Tina brazenly defies these supposedly natural orderings of the body and continues to use her shape-shifting abilities. In the episode's most interesting exchange, she eventually approaches Clark while morphed as Lana and talks openly about the pressure to conform to social expectation. And while Clark thinks that "Lana" is referring to her aunt, who is her guardian, viewers can surmise that Tina is actually speaking about her own mother:

[3.10] Tina/Lana: She wants me to be something I'm not. It's like having a dual identity. There's the person that everybody sees and the person you want to be.

Clark: I know the feeling.

[3.11] Through this exchange, an affinity is established between the two characters wherein viewers are encouraged to acknowledge their mutual status as outsiders, as determined by their shared unruly bodily differences (Shyminksy 2011, 294). Further strengthening their connection is the fact that Clark is the only one who can actually see through Tina's disguises and expose her real identity, the hint here being that it takes one to know one. Though this shared bonding over dual identities may again speak to a more general feeling of teenage peer pressure (that is, to blend in socially), it also parallels familiar narratives of living in the closet, wherein one is continually forced to repress expressions of an authentic self for fear of being outed. What makes Tina such a striking character—and presumably such an effective villain—is not only her criminal activity (she robs a bank, steals a car, and murders her mother) but also her refusal to abide by normative expressions of bodily identity. Clark, on the other hand, in respecting his parents' desires to hide his superpowers, actively seeks to be read as a normal teenager (note 14). However, although he may try, Clark ultimately will never be able to fully repress the strangeness of his body. It will always expose him as other. Like me and many trans men, Clark experiences a constant tension between belonging and not belonging; together, ours are the bodies that simply do not fit anywhere (MacDonald 1998, 6). For Clark/Superman, it is this precise inability to conform to normative organizations of physiology and temporality that lend him the nickname "The Man of Tomorrow." The dimensions of today prove too inadequate to house him (note 15).

[3.12] In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Brian Singer, director of Superman Returns (2006), was asked about the challenges of crafting a Superman story for the screen. Singer answered, "Although he has a difficult past of being an orphan and a stranger in a strange world, he's not as tormented as a lot of characters like Batman or Wolverine, where there's a lot of angst to explore" (Staskiewicz et al. 2013, 34). Singer's interpretation, primarily disappointing for its lack of insight, is perhaps not an uncommon one. Seen as the all-American boy scout of the comic book industry and offshoot film and television franchises, Superman is often lambasted for his overtly good-guy demeanor versus other grittier, darker figures such as Batman (Waid 2002, 6). It has become somewhat of a trope now in comic stories, television series, and animated shows for Big Baddies, as they are known, to physically accost Superman to an extreme in order to prove a point: he may be the world's strongest, but he is certainly not the toughest. In 2006 (the same year as Singer's film), the animated series Justice League Unlimited (2004–6) reimagined the complexities of Superman's day-to-day life in their now-famous final episode, 3.13 "Destroyer" (2006). In what looks like a moment of defeat for the Justice League against one of DC's more heinous and powerful villains, Darkseid, Superman emerges from the rubble and explains,

[3.13] [Batman] won't quit as long as he can still draw breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I've got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can't you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am.

[3.14] Meant to be a jeering incitement into an epic battle sequence, Superman's "World of Cardboard Speech" (as it has been dubbed) also reveals the grief and frustration of living in a world not suited to one's body. The fragility of cardboard invokes the image of a precariously balanced society, one that Superman's movements could potentially destroy. The logics and architecture of this world are thus depicted as too demanding and ultimately exhausting for the hero to navigate. (I am reminded here of my own childhood activities of knocking down cardboard-crafted cities—and also, more painfully, of the daily struggle to find spaces of inclusion amid a world organized for and by two sexes, with finding accessible washrooms being a prime example.) Evidently Singer has overlooked this particular aspect when he describes the character's limited amount of torment. To live isolated in a world that is fundamentally at odds with the logics and materiality of your own body resonates powerfully with me as a trans man and points to a large amount of anxiety to play with as an artist. We can perhaps attribute Singer's oversight to his own experience as a white cis man who has, I assume, been able to easily navigate society, although Singer's openness as a gay filmmaker may complicate his relationship to privilege. It is this continued positioning of Superman as wholly unaffected by the material differences of his body that fuels my investment in a trans rereading of the character. I wish to highlight the moments of slippage whereby Superman does not and cannot conform outright to normative expressions of bodily intelligibility.

4. If you will excuse the Marvel reference…

[4.1] I want to offer a final anecdote to conclude. One night, in an attempt to impress a date, I chose to play up my boyish charm by wearing a Captain America T-shirt to a casual dinner. The shirt was met with a small, sweet chuckle—not an insulting reaction, but curious nonetheless. It was not until later that evening that she offered to explain her reaction to my shirt. She laughed in part because her previous cis partner had been nicknamed Captain America because of his muscular, toned physique. She also laughed because I, an unfit, unremarkable, trans man, wore a Captain America T-shirt, thus assumedly worshipping this hypermasculine image—one that I actively resist in my own expressions of masculinity. I assume she saw a failure of embodiment. But what exactly was I failing at becoming? Captain America? A cis man? Perhaps I was a silly, soft little trans boy in a T-shirt, and nothing more.

[4.2] This self-doubt is regrettably a common experience for trans men. Bergman (2009, 72–73) aptly summarizes these feelings of illegitimacy and inadequacy: "The great and terrible truth of transgender life, [is] that they will never let you be real, ever again…I didn't know it when I signed on—maybe I should have, but I didn't—but the transperson is always a knock-off, as in, 'Why would you date a fake man when you could have the Real Thing?'" After being bombarded with cultural images of "real" men, or men whom we should at least aspire to be (such as superheroes), is it a wonder that trans men (like cis men) may question their claim to manhood? That evening I posed a similar question to my date. I asked why she was willing to go on a date with a trans man when she could (and did) have the real thing. She responded kindly by saying, "You are the real thing." If this is true (and of course I wholeheartedly assert my claim to a masculine identity), then what does it mean when I—a trans man—wear a superhero T-shirt? When invoking the superhero, am I not simultaneously recoding him as trans? Is this not what I am doing when I reread the Superman narrative? Through this interpretation, I do not fail at embodying Superman; in fact, I am perhaps a closer replication of him. By rereading the metatexts of the Superman narrative, I ironically succeed at Seinfeld's quest: I become Superman—or rather Superman becomes me.

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1] An earlier version of this work was originally completed under the supervision of Jane Tolmie. Thanks go to her and also to Eleanor MacDonald, both of whom provided sage guidance and support throughout the writing process. The duration of my master's degree, during which this work was completed, was funded through Canada's Social Science and Humanities Research Council.

6. Notes

1. Susan Stryker (2008, 19) defines the term transgender as referring to "those who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned to at birth, as well as those who seek to resist their birth-assigned gender without abandoning it or those who seek to create a new kind of gender location." On the other hand, the prefix "cis" means "on the same side of," and hence "cisgender" describes persons who identify with their birth-assigned sex/gender (22).

2. Originally created by Lex Luthor's misfiring duplicator ray, Bizarro is a failed copy of Superman who became most famous for his inverted sense of logic: good means bad, happy means sad, and so on.

3. As a trans man who is actively read as cis in everyday social interactions, the fact that Superman's body is not observably different resonates doubly. Because our differences are not outwardly apart, I feel a kinship to Superman in that we are both masking an uncomfortably bodily truth that would out us as altogether other should it become known. For a sustained conversation on transformations, transition, and identity politics in superhero comics, see Kirkpatrick (2015).

4. While queer theory and trans theory certainly intersect and overlap at points, I use the term transing in order to highlight the divide between sexuality and gender. Though the two may inform one another, they are not mutually exclusive. Arguably they require that a distinct type of reading practice be developed for each in order to fully explore the nuances of both identity categories.

5. Of course, the rereading I posit here is not the only possible transing of superheroes. Mine is simply one story among many of trans individuals who share similar experiences. Though there does not yet exist an extraordinary number of documented stories on the topic, some can certainly be found within online fan communities, personal blogs, and magazine Web sites. This latter point is highlighted by a roundtable discussion moderated by Suzanne Scott and Ellen Kirkpatrick (2015). Another example is offered by blogger Rachel (2013a), who, identifying herself as "a post-operative transsexual woman," describes the history and appeal of Superman's underrated counterpart, Supergirl (2013b). Although she makes no explicit reference to her gender identity and her attachment to the character, her post makes clear the existence of trans comics readers and their investment in superhero narratives. Riley Chattin (2013, 1–2), on the other hand, discusses his identification with Superman, the Hulk, Wolverine, and other such heroes as a transgender man. Discussing, for example, his childhood bond with Christopher Reeve's Superman, Chattin highlights the acute awareness of difference he and the character share. It is subsequently due to both their otherness and the social isolation associated with being other that bonds Chattin to the hero. What Rachel and Chattin reveal, implicitly or explicitly, are their attachments to comic book characters as based on a shared sense of experience, one particularly rooted in their journeys as trans individuals. It is within these conversations that I situate my own experience.

6. For an alternative methodological consideration of rereading Superman via critical race and queer theory, see Esteban Muñoz (1999).

7. The recent increase of superhero-inspired criticism based on the Marvel Universe franchise certainly validates this claim. However, it also suggests that the only engagement male comic readers and viewers may have with the text is one of ego identification for the sole means of self-improvement, thereby foreclosing other reading positions, including those grounded in queer desires. Admittedly, my project also separates trans reading practices from those tied to sexual desire. I acknowledge, however, that trans individuals may approach comic book characters with a range of intentions, and I do not dismiss the possibility that trans readers may not only see themselves reflected in the male superhero but may also simultaneously see an image they find to be sexually alluring.

8. Further room can and should be made to interrogate Harrison's (2010, 129) claim that superheroes homogeneously appeal to the "outsider in us all," given that most heroes represent a privileged social grouping (most being white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied, educated men). Here Harrison's claim runs the risk of glossing over the real-life factors that marginalize and disenfranchise particular subjects to produce some as more outside than others. That said, I understand the difficulty in attempting to position Superman (who is otherwise a privileged character within the diegetic world of comics) as a reflection of a marginalized subjectivity. To this extent, I wish to clarify my intention in that I am not suggesting Superman is an accurate reflection of trans lived experiences. Rather, I argue that parts of his narrative may reverberate with trans readers such that we/they are inclined to reread certain aspects of his mythos. The stake here is that this rereading may open up new possibilities for comic characters, such that they no longer remain exclusive representations of hegemonic cis-heterosexual masculinity.

9. In stating this, I also acknowledge the productive overlap that should be fostered between trans, crip, and disability scholars considering the shared investment in destabilizing ideas of gender and the body.

10. "Trans boys" as I use the term here denotes female-bodied children who either identified as masculine or male at a young age and transitioned to a male identity later in life. This includes trans men who as children may not have known themselves to be male but, upon transitioning and reflection, came to see the formation of their masculine identity in their childhood. "Trans boys" does not signify young children who begin to transition during their childhood or adolescence. Although there are an increasing number of children who transition, it goes outside the purview of this work to speak to this identity.

11. Green (2004, 15) echoes this sentiment. While playing with a neighborhood boy in the early 1960s, Green off-handedly exclaims he will one day grow up to be a man, to which his friend remarks, "Yeah, I can see that."

12. Rubin (1998, 32) records a similar lament when he expresses resentment over the time of adolescence when young boys typically hold a carefree demeanor towards their bodies. Boyhood, as Rubin understands it, is a time of bodily exploration during which the boy feels a certain amount of freedom in his own skin and is most often given social approval to explore his body in a visceral, messy way. Trans boys, like Rubin and me, on the other hand, are often confined to social understandings of feminine behavior and because of this are discouraged from exploring their bodies in similar fashion.

13. Originally meant to describe an acute medical condition of extreme homesickness requiring clinical intervention, nostalgia has since been depathologized and is no longer associated with the loss of one's (physical) home (Davis 1979, 1).

14. As used within the trans community, "passing" refers to an individual's ability to be consistently read as cisgender. Here the onus is problematically placed on the trans individual to conform to an established social script of acceptable gender presentations and behaviors, rather than pressure being placed on the social collective to dismantle the oppressive conditions of gender and sex in the first place. Additionally, the concept of passing is informed by lengthier histories in relation to race, ethnicity, and nationalism. The term has also been used in colonial and imperialist contexts, and because of these histories, the concept of passing is always tied to larger intersecting axes of identity, including but not limited to race, class, and ability.

15. For a lengthier investigation on the intersections between this nickname, the eugenic movement, and trans histories, see Vena (2016–17).

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