Alters 1

Today, Ryan M. and Patrick are discussing Alters 1, originally released September 7, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.

Ryan M: Sometimes an idea just looks good on paper. The Bumble profile that charms followed by a chat that falls flat. The sandwich on the menu that has all your favorite ingredients and tastes like none of them. Ideas are important, but the execution needs to meet them. I find myself engaged intellectually with the ideas presented in Alters 1, but mostly unmoved emotionally thanks to a exposition-heavy set up.

To be fair, there is a lot to set up. Charlie’s story takes place in a world where he is just the latest in a series of Alters, humans that undergo a change and can manipulate physics in various ways. Charlie’s life is also fairly complex. He is the middle son of a traditional and somewhat regressive family. His older brother has cerebral palsy and Charlie helps care for him. On top of the world-building, family to establish and Charlie’s new powers, Charlie is transgender. That is a lot to deal with in a single issue. With all of that, Paul Jenkins chooses a narrative device that while helpful with exposition, hinders the emotional impact of the story.

Charlie’s diary entries act as narration for the issue and it creates a distance between the reader and the story. Jenkins uses the narration to skim through the history of the Alters in a single page. The diary entry is written for a person who doesn’t live in the world. I may be pedantic, but a diary should act as a place for confidences, not necessarily a spot for explanation of the things that one could take for granted.

Because Jenkins is forcing so many broad strokes in just a few panels, none of them have any resonance. Without scaling the story down to a human level, it’s all general truths that don’t evoke anything of meaning. Anyone of these panels being built out into a scene could have made the story more engaging. What specific ways did they think Octavian could save the world? How did the new Alters change the world? Even the Chicago Incident doesn’t pack the punch that five thousand deaths should. The image of bodies strewn across a smoke-filled street should be devastating, instead is feels rote. The choice to deny any specificity in these images robs them of impact.

The final image, that of Matter Man with blood dripping from his mouth can be found in two places in the issue. It’s not clear if it’s metaphorical blood, literal blood or an affectation, but it was provocative in its first appearance. The second time, when Matter Man commits murder of an innocent, we see the same blood mouth but no context. Is he literally a vampire in addition to being a self-proclaimed “unreasonable maniac with a hair-trigger temper?” It’s not clear, but at least we are given clear motivations for him and a scene of him trying to achieve those goals.

I’ve ragged pretty hard on the diary device, but perhaps Jenkins is using the first fifteen pages of the story as a way to show us that Charlie needs to gear up before telling his own diary that he is trans. Even so, the choice to skim through so much world building while giving the reader little more to latch onto than a hand writing and a fairly generic confrontation. At that point in the book, there is no reason to care about anyone but Chalice or even to trust Octavian and his crew.

The reveal of Charlie is pretty striking, especially after seeing Chalice and the woman in the coffee shop. It’s a genuine turn in the narrative and, the diary entry narration takes a break, letting Leiz’ art stand for itself.
charlie

By giving the art some space to tell the story, the turn of Charlie’s identity plays really well. We don’t need Charlie to tell us much about his mom after we see her standing in her Chico’s sweater standing in front of a mis-matched framed pictures of a family. Once Leiz is given the space to communicate with the reader, there is a connection. The image of Charlie taking off Chalice while sitting cross-legged in front of the mirror feels so authentic and real. The specificity of the moment gives it power.

Patrick, what did you think of the issue? Am I being to hard on a first issue that offers some fresh dynamics? What do you make of the brewing conflict between Octavian and Matter Man? I didn’t explore the way the book deals with presenting Charlie and Chalice. How well does the story deal with the three streets of Charlie’s “intersection?”

Patrick: Ryan Mogge, starting me off with the tough questions! I’d say your note about specificity in the mythology can apply to my own observations about the expression of Chalice’s gender identity. The “Chicago Incident” might be a pretty generic naming convention for a non-specific disaster, but I don’t find that much less compelling than Charlie’s performance of either gender. And I hate to use “perform” in this context, but the texts suggests that Chalice, the woman, is something that Charlie becomes.

chalice-puts-the-wig-on

Notice that the wig has that shock of black hair in it all the time. That’s part of the Chalice-the-superhero design, meaning that the only time she is herself is when she’s literally wearing a costume. Like Ryan, I’m totally into the idea of following a trans teenage superhero, but the idea of double-closeting this character serves to trivialize the very real transition she’s going through. It’s clear that Chalice isn’t totally comfortable being a superhero – as evidenced by the fact that she first runs away from this universe’s Justice League, and then awkwardly smashes through their base by issue’s end – and that’s the only way we ever see the character presenting as female. As Charlie, there are more subtle shades of who the kid is. We see activity, and even if he’s blindly going along with his day job or a family outing to the ballpark, Charlie has the rich life. Chalice doesn’t. Literally all she does is disappear and reappear.

Part of this is simply a problem of an under-developed protagonist. Not only do we have that extra level of removal in the form of the expository diary, the cast is filled out with characters that do not see Chalice. The family seems totally oblivious – at least to the extent that we can say anything about how the family views Charlie. Other than making a point for both parents to refer to their three children as “boys,” we don’t have any sense of what their relationships are like. Even as just a slice-of-life, the trip to the ballpark plays like the least relevant peek into Charlie’s home life. It’s a little bit like the run-down of this Alters-populated word: there are a bunch of details, but none specific enough to breathe life into the characters.

I’m also disappointed in the way Chalice is drawn. She’s not depicted as a trans woman, but as a cis woman, with hips, waist and breasts to match. I know this has got to be a delicate balance for Leiz – playing up Chalice’s more masculine features could come across as equally insensitive. But just drawing Chalice as a cis woman is a form of trans erasure. It’s a tiny detail, but Leiz draws Charlie’s Adam’s apple, but Chalice’s throat is a straight line. I’d like to write this off as an expression of how Chalice sees herself, but again, there’s nothing to suggest that she is freer or somehow more herself as a woman. It also doesn’t totally track for me that Chalice’s costume would show so much skin, potentially revealing so many secondary gender signifiers.

chalice-on-the-street

I don’t know – all of that could be written away if we knew anything about Chalice in a non-superhero context.

I guess that’s my over all take-away from this issue: Jenkins and Leiz aren’t mindfully wielding the tools at their disposal. This extends way past concepts like planet-wide superhero genesis or trans issues, and right on to nearly every detail. When Matter Man issues his statement at the end of the issue, he does so on TV. That rings false – that’d be on YouTube or Instagram or something. In the statement, Matter Man issues a “Jihad” (his words), which is a rough appropriation of a concept that is very culturally specific, but not at all applicable to this situation. And then there’s the biggest sin:

small-town-outside-milwaukee

Couldn’t Google Wauwatosa or Waukesha or Muskego or Racine? “Small town outside Milwaukee” summarizes my problems with the issue.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

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8 comments on “Alters 1

  1. Y’all are kind of waffling on what pronouns you use throughout this article, so just for the record: I think we should be using “she/her” pronouns to refer to Chalice no matter whether she’s presenting as “Charlie” or not. She isn’t switching genders between the two identities — she’s a transgender woman, she’s a woman even when she has to continue to dress as a boy in front of her family.

    Anyway, this issue really is a huge waste of potential, and feels really “off” both in how it presents Chalice’s being transgender AND in the way it fleshes out the rest of the world. Jenkins lays out tons of exposition yet glazes over some of the most significant facts (what’s up with Matter Man and his opponents, largely; it’s a hazy, mostly implied conflict and dynamic). This even applies to some of the minor things; why skip over Chalice discovering her abilities, especially when the fact that she skinned her lip while doing so is an important plot point, but then start with Chalice just hovering in a major populated area with no context? We never do find out why she’s there, especially since outing yourself as an alter in this world is such a dangerous prospect. It’s a really, really odd introduction to the character. And what are her powers? Chalice mentions flight, the rebel dudes mention a ton more, then she teleports away — does anyone know the full extent of her powers? What powers does Chalice realize she has? This issue is frustratingly unclear in so many respects.

    There’s so much that feels weird about her life as Charlie too. Most states make an individual present as their gender for six months to a year before beginning to take hormones and making a physical transition, so it feels very strange to me that Charlie would be able to begin transition while still completely in the closet — even if the option is available to her, why did she do so, again, when there’s nobody in her life who knows she’s trans, when it’s still such a deeply kept secret? Is it her way of kicking herself out of the closet? Does Charlie have anybody in her life who knows she’s trans besides her doctor, assumedly? And Charlie’s relationships with her “friends” and family just feel trite at this point.

    There’s a lot about this issue, as well-intentioned as it may be, that just rubbed me the wrong way, from the way it handles its “issues” to its worldbuilding to just plain ol storytelling chops.

  2. I’d almost argue that if we stick with she/her, that’s it’s probably also not appropriate to call the character “Charlie” either. Whether we’re talking about names or pronouns, it’s deadnaming either way.

    But I think that’s the whole problem with making Chalice both her true gender identity AND her superhero identity. We don’t have any problem casually swapping “Superman” and “Clark,” so Ryan and I did the analogue in the piece. That is the right way to discuss superheroes, but the wrong way to talk about trans people.

    And actually maybe that extends to her powers too. All three of us want to know more, but like, maybe that’s not information we get to have. It’s an extension of the question of what strangers get to know about someone’s body.

      • Also, I’m always always always of the opinion that you address people by the names and pronouns they want to be addressed by. We don’t have any relationship with her, but I have to assume that if we were at the baseball game with the whole family, she’d want us to call her Charlie.

        • If we were at a baseball game with the whole family, she’d want us to call her Charlie, but only because she’s still in the closet. The real question is that if what she would want us to call her when she’s away from family, and understands that she doesn’t need to hide that she’s trans

    • First things first. She is definitely her. Just because she’s in the closet doesn’t mean she isn’t a woman, and knowing that she is a woman means we should use feminine pronouns. Spencer and Patrick, you are right.

      The naming thing is more interesting. The rule is that you call the person what they wish to be called. But we are lacking information, and our understanding of superhero tropes is making it confusing. Some trans people don’t change their names too much, and choose the feminine/masculine version of their old name. So it could be that Charlie’s name is still Charlie, but that now it is short for Charlotte instead of Charles. If that is the case, the right name would still be Charlie. Or her preferred name could be something completely different, like Alice or Tara or any other name I could mention – if you are going to change your name, you might as well take advantage of the name. And, by choosing a very different name, it avoids being reminded of your deadname. A reminder of their deadname can piss them off even when the name is being used to discuss completely different people. If this is the case, then we don’t have the lead’s real name, and Chalice is the best we can do (because that is the only name we know that the lead is fine with being called).

      And then there is the idea that Chalice is her name. A trans person doesn’t have to choose a typical name, and I know several who have very atypical names. And honestly, the name Chalice is not very different to the names of my friends. But there is a complication here. Chalice is a superhero name, and from our existing knowledge, superhero names are fake. It is where the premise of the book starts to fail.
      The premise of this book is actually fantastic, in how it combines the foundational trope of superheroes that is ‘character uses a mask and costume to safely self actualise’ with ‘in the closet trans person lacks a safe way to self actualise’. But a key part of the superhero trope is that who they are under the mask is ultimately the important part. That ultimately, Superman’s true identity is Clark Kent. That’s why I like to use real names in my comments. Because ultimately, the superhero title is supposed to be an artifice, and that Clark Kent is more important than Superman. Peter Parker is more important than Spiderman. And Bruce Wayne, outside of badly written storylines, is more important than Batman. Superhero books have trained us with the idea that we should look beyond the mask. Which suggests that Chalice is not her name. Even though it is the best name we’ve got.

      Which is kind of a problem. Everything I am hearing, there simply doesn’t seem like there is enough focus in properly exploring the character. I read a review from Emma Houxbois, who is a transwoman, and she savaged it for its lack of care in how its approached the topic. I mean, the fact that there is such a confusion in what to name her is telling

  3. Patrick, does Matter Man know or care what small town outside of Milwaukee this victim came from? Does his audience? I realize this was only a small part of your problem with the piece, but you well know that even people from Wauwatosa probably wouldn’t say “I’m from Wauwatosa” if they were speaking to people outside of Wisconsin — they’d either round up to “Milwuakee” or down to “outside of Milwaukee”. Matter Man could have been more specific, but only if he wanted to force his viewers to google “Wauwatosa” — as it is, I kind of think “small town outside of Milwaukee” makes a lot of sense in this context.

    • It just comes off as a placeholder for something more meaningful. Even if Matter Man doesn’t give a shit where this poor guy is from, I’d like to see that expressed in the way he talks about it. Does he think a small town is beneath him? Is there significance to being outside Milwaukee specifically? Is there a class or type of person he’s targeting here? He wouldn’t need to name the place, but nothing about this is specific. He’s killing a rando, and that’s such a generic villain beat, I just wanted it to mean something more.

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