Lost in Transition: Angela, Sera, and How Bad PR Can Obscure Good Representation
Hi, I’m Charlotte Finn. I’m a lifelong comics fan and I’m transgender.
Coming out as transgender means reassessing a lot about your life, your place in the world, and what that world’s been telling you about yourself before you even realized who you really were. In this occasional series, I’m going to be applying that reassessment to comics that feature people like me, or close to being like me, and look them over with a fresh set of eyes.
Are they good? Are they bad? Are they somehow both, at the same time? In this series, I’ll offer my thoughts.
Angela: Asgard’s Assassin #1-6
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Angela created by Neil Gaiman & Todd McFarlane
Back to Western comics this month, with a recent short-run series leading into a current ongoing.
Angela has a, shall we say, somewhat interesting path into the Marvel Universe, beginning life as an angelic hunter in the long-running Todd McFarlane superhero horror comic Spawn. However, you don’t need to know a thing about what happened in Spawn to read this series, since the only common thread is the name and the costume (and even then, the costume doesn’t last long).
In this series, Angela is revealed to be Thor and Loki’s sister, raised by angels and beholden to their way of thinking, which is purely transactional --- nothing is done without a price, and selflessness is considered weak. This makes her a difficult character to like, but fortunately, the book surrounds her with more sympathetic characters, one of which is the subject of this column.
The story itself is good. There’s a plot with a newborn child of Odin and Freya being abducted by Angela, and the revelations about why are teased out and resolved well, with nice twists and turns. I’ve been away from the Marvel Universe for a while, so one thing that struck me was just how far they’ve remade the place to be more like the movies, even with the Odinson no longer being Thor. There are the dark elves from Thor 2; everyone’s very quippy, even the terribly serious main character; and the Guardians of the Galaxy show up and are exactly like they are in their film…
… but despite them showing up, I liked this comic anyways.
(I didn’t think Guardians of the Galaxy was a very good movie. I know, I know. Pistols at dawn.)
The art is also good, depicting the fantasy-science realms of cosmic Marvel well. One aspect of the art that I’m not sure how to feel about is Angela’s various costumes and how she gets her new one. I know that one half of the creative team of Asgard's Assassin are women, and I know that Angela’s roots lie in the same environment that produced the bad girl books of the 1990s, and I know those comics are popular with women overall, even if I could do without them. But seeing a costume with a cleavage cutout touted as “well armored” caused a bit of an eyeroll on my part, and I did mutter “of course she has to wind up naked to get it.”
But all that may be beyond the scope of this column, which is more about Angela’s companion, Sera, who is a transgender woman of color, and a very good representation of one. Although, since she’s an angel who does magic spells, she’s not a very realistic one --- but she doesn’t need to be.
Last month, with my review of Wandering Son, I talked about how sometimes a realistic depiction of a marginalized group is a better educational tool than a metaphorical one. However, education isn’t the only purpose of a story --- entertainment or artistic value matter as well. Sometimes a marginalized person doesn’t want a redux of My Issues 101, and wants to take all that stuff as a given, leaping straight into stories about swordfights and sorcery. Angela: Asgard’s Assassin takes the latter track, showing Sera as someone who abandoned a gender binary --- just not one that we’re familiar with.
The word “transgender” never gets mentioned in connection to Sera in the original series, but she is pretty explicitly meant to be. She doesn’t transition with hormones and surgery, but with magic --- but she nonetheless transitions under circumstances of her choosing, so the metaphor still works. Heven (spelled with no ‘a’) is a realm of strict gender segregation in addition to stifling rules, where the female angels fight in battle and the fewer-in-number male angels are scribes and monks. Sera, in exchange for helping Angela in a critical battle, is given a new lease on life, and the two of them are clearly meant to be a couple in love.
Sera’s a good character and my favorite part of this book. I was surprised when I found out about her, for reasons that are 100% not the fault of the creative team, but speak to a larger issue swirling around Marvel Comics.
The first I heard about Sera being in Angela was in a Rainbow Hub overview summarizing the uncomfortable state of transgender issues in comics in the year 2015. I read it because it offered a different perspective on Prez than my own, and I felt it was a good idea to read about counterpoints made in good faith. I hadn’t heard about Angela from any other LGBTQIA comics fans, and it’s not hard to see why.
Currently, Marvel Comics is in the process of shooting itself in the foot on gay issues with so much fervor you’d think that the foot killed Marvel’s whole family in a mob shootout in Central Park. As covered on ComicsAlliance, here by J.A. Micheline and here by Andrew Wheeler, Marvel seems utterly scared of queer representation. As bad as things were at DC over Batgirl #37 late in 2014, DC has actually cemented a better track record overall on queer issues, as documented here by Jon Erik Christianson --- a fact that seems difficult to hold in the mind because of the way marketing and PR work on the brain.
In the modern media environment, carefully calculated marketing saturation can shape the way we think without us consciously realizing it, and with Disney at their backs, Marvel is very good at marketing. The publisher is able to convince people to like its brand even as the company or its staff do questionable or deplorable things. But the cracks in that façade showed most when they ran like hell from any question regarding queer characters, even ones they’re currently publishing.
I got the impression that if I wanted comics starring people like me, Marvel was feeling pretty whatever on the subject, and their editorial staff certainly wasn’t interested in talking those comics up. That messy way that marketing and PR works managed to work the other way this time. If I encountered any information that Sera was transgender, it went down the memory hole. And that’s how I missed out on Angela: Asgard’s Assassin when it was coming out, even though it should have been right up my alley. I know that we live in the era of the self-selected media bubble, but I talk to people interested in queer comics a lot. If anyone was positioned to find out, I would think it would be me!
We also live in an era of the infinite bookshelf, where the Internet means that there’s room enough for every story. But while the bookshelf is infinite, our time and our money is not, and a book isn’t going to find its audience without someone telling people it exists. I wish that I hadn’t had to depend on a single line in a comics review to let me know this comic existed.
But this column is, in some ways, evangelism for good transgender representation as well as a critique of the bad. So if you need someone to tell you about Marvel’s transgender gay angel sorceress, here I am. If you like the fantasy corner of the Marvel Universe and are on board for --- or at least, okay with --- a little cheesecake, Angela: Asgard’s Assassin has my recommendation.