Give ‘Em Elle: Koi Boi and Trans Representation in ‘The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’
Koi Boi, a young Marvel superhero who’s been around for about a year, is transgender. Specifically, he’s trans-masculine. Most likely he’s a trans man, but since he hasn’t specified, I don’t want to push him into a binary that he may not identify with.
If you don’t know who Koi Boi is, you’ve been missing out on Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and that’s a shame because it’s a great book. Koi Boi and Chipmunk Hunk are crime-fighting partners and friends of Squirrel Girl and her roommate Nancy Whitehead. Koi Boi wears an orange shirt and talks to fish, but that’s pretty much where his similarities to a certain DC hero end. He’s also an Asian American college student named Ken Shiga, but that’s about all we know about his life. Except that he’s transgender, and apparently hasn’t had top surgery, because he wears a binder.
But to know that, you have to really be paying attention, because nobody’s said it in the comic yet. There was a scene in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #9 in which his binder was visible as he changed into his costume in an alley. That issue came out at the end of June, but just last night on Twitter a couple of queer comics creators were discussing the scene, and Magdalene Visaggio tagged Squirrel Girl artist Erica Henderson into the conversation and asked directly: “Is that a binder?” Henderson did not hesitate to answer.
So there you have it. As subtly revealed in Squirrel Girl #9, and confirmed by the series artist, Koi Boi is trans.
The readership of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has always included a lot of trans and queer fans, as well as allies, so reaction thus far has already been largely positive. I had previously speculated that Koi Boi might well be trans, just because in my experience the “boi” spelling is a lot more common among queer and gender-nonconforming folks than among cisgender men. (Big Boi from Outkast notwithstanding.)
But I can’t say I’m satisfied. It’s nice to be able to reveal that your character is trans on Twitter, but eventually you’re going to need to do it in the comic.
Don't misunderstand, I have nothing bad to say about Erica Henderson or Ryan North. They’re both creators I like a lot, and they seem to be consciously moving in a very positive direction here, and on Squirrel Girl in general. But I want to be clear, especially within the context of Marvel Comics, that more movement in that direction is needed, and I hope it comes soon.
I’m totally in favor of more transgender superheroes, and I’m especially excited about Marvel having a trans hero who’s human and apparently transitioning in a manner familiar to real trans people. I mention that because previous Marvel trans characters have included an angel named Sera and a moloid named Tong. And if you want to include gender fluid characters in the discussion as well, we find ourselves in the realm of Skrulls and Asgardian deities. While all those characters are great, a human trans guy who uses a binder is probably easier to identify with for a lot of readers. And that matters.
But it’s not the only thing that matters. It’s telling that this public conversation is only happening two months after the issue came out. The binder Koi Boi is wearing is pretty recognizable as such to anyone who’s seen one, but clearly a lot of people missed it. And the less clued in you are about trans stuff, the less likely you are to pick up on it. We’ve been told that this is a trans character, but only in a code that not everybody can read.
That has two effects, both unfortunate. First, it means that cis people who don’t know much about trans people and could really learn something important from a positive portrayal of a trans character haven’t caught on that Koi Boi is trans.
And second, it means that lots of young trans people who aren’t yet comfortable enough with their identities to fully engage with trans communities, or perhaps even to admit to themselves who they are, also haven’t caught on that Koi Boi is trans. Or if they have, they only see it as a subtextual reading that’s not being fully supported by Marvel (which is true).
So while it’s great that we’ve established that this character is trans through clues, and through tweets by the series artist, we need more. Trans people, especially young trans people, who hunger for representation need more than this. And cis people who don’t see the point in introducing trans superheroes, or who actively don’t want them, also need more than this, if they’re ever going to learn a lesson.
Marvel Comics needs more than this. Marvel has done its best to avoid queer characters in prominent roles --- down to straightwashing Hercules as he gets his own series, and refusing to acknowledge that Angela is queer even as she was in the midst of a love story with another woman --- and has let most of its queer characters fall into limbo every time a run featuring them ends.
This is the same Marvel Comics that once bragged about Freedom Ring as a groundbreaking gay hero and then immediately killed him; bragged about the Rawhide Kid and then made him a joke; rode high for decades on Northstar being the first prominent gay superhero and eventually gave up on finding anything to do with him.
Marvel needs to do better. And while embracing a transgender superhero wouldn’t be a balm that erases all past wrongs, it would certainly be a step in the right direction.
I’d like to be optimistic that this will happen. After all, Erica Henderson said on Twitter that this “was step one.” So hopefully one of the coming steps is actually saying in the comic that Ken Shiga is transgender.
It doesn’t have to be a big dramatic scene — and certainly not “a very special episode.” But when you’re trans, there are moments when being trans comes up in conversation. And there’s no reason we as readers shouldn’t witness one of those moments. It might be the first time he comes out to Doreen and/or Nancy, or they might already know and he just mentions it casually. There’s a lot of ways to do it, but it needs to be done.
Otherwise, you’re just sending coded messages to people who know how to read them. And while that can be fun, it leaves out too many readers who need to see that message. Until you can actually be direct about who you’re representing, I don’t think we can call it representation.