Written by: Paul Jenkins
Art by: Leila Leiz
Colorist: Tamra Bonvillain
Cover by: Brian Stelfreeze
Published by: AfterShock
“As the world struggles to accept the emergence of a new kind of human species known as alterations, or “Alters,” a young woman must navigate the path to becoming her true self, while struggling with the complications of her civilian life and the responsibilities of her newfound power.
There’s a lot to say about Alters, the new comic line from AfterShock. It’s certainly a daring narrative, or thinks it is, introducing a character being advertised as the ‘World’s First Transgender Superhero!’ The character in question: Chalice, one of the newly spawned ‘Alters’, or humans who end up with superpowers out of nowhere.
It is wonderful to see more comics about trans characters. Representation for transgender issues is still woefully lacking, and in addition to Chalice, her brother has cerebral palsy and is telekinetic. Nowhere in this first volume does Chalice have to deal with slurs, anti-trans sentiment or other negativity directly.
The narrative also creates a deliberate balance between being trans and having superpowers. Chalice talks a lot about ‘intersections’ – living three different lives at once. It’s a nice subversion of the more common trope in superhero stories, science fiction and fantasy, where changelings, mutants and robots stand in for marginalized characters.
Leila Leiz is an excellent artist. Especially in the domestic and quiet scenes like above, her skill’s put to good use. It helps that she’s working with a talented colourist, Tamra Bonvillain, who as a trans woman has also given her input on the story.
Unfortunately, Chalice’s powers remain a little bit too vague to be believable. “Manifesting quantum powers in the physical realm” only remains an okay explanation for the first issue. By the fifth, it’s a noticeable dodge out of any real explanation at all. In addition, the fight scenes are confusing and disorienting, the panel structure making it unclear who goes where.
The strength of the narrative is in the balance between Chalice’s trans identity and superhero identity; but one has to wonder if she was originally thought up as an X-Men character. The discrimination against Alters hasn’t yet been given anything original to distinguish itself from the “mutant racism” that plagues just about every comic book universe. This then brings us to…
With more research, more care, and less back-patting, Alters could be a beautiful, beautiful comic book. It’s full of potential, the art is gorgeous, and it has ideas that need just a little bit more watering to grow to their fruition. It’s obvious that Paul Jenkins has put a lot of effort into getting trans readers and helpers – in the editorial, he even makes a point of asking readers to make sure to always gender Chalice correctly.
Unfortunately, despite all this effort, the first volume is riddled with problems. Teddy, Chalice’s little brother, apparently comes down with cerebral palsy despite cerebral palsy being a prenatal condition. Chalice puts on a wig and stares in the mirror in amazement in one of the most stereotypical scenes of the book.
This scene in particular touches on the core problem of the book; instead of rejoicing in transness, it treats Chalice’s transgender identity as a problem to be solved, a conflict, an oddity. Chalice’s trans self isn’t her – it’s some other person separate from her. Transness as a secret identity is a survival tactic.
It doesn’t mean that this isn’t a valid story to tell. Saying that would discount the experiences of the trans women who have read over this comic book. However, the story that doesn’t get told nearly as often is the one where ‘Charlie’ is treated as the secret identity and Chalice isn’t treated as the costume. Trans women aren’t ‘pretending’ to be women. Having Chalice’s true self be treated as so much of a separate identity comes with some nasty implications.
While the intentions behind this comic are good, it still has a long way to go before it reaches the standard it’s set for itself.