Lost in Transition: ‘Cucumber Quest,’ Rosemaster, and the Making of a Transgender Villain
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.
Writer/Artist/Colorist/Letterer/Creator: Gigi D.G.
Despite how weary comics can make me, I’m of the opinion that there are more good comics out there than ever before --- thanks, in part, to the decades-long evolution of the webcomic.
Webcomics occupy an interesting spot in the evolution of the medium because they’re everywhere, they’re countless in number, they have little lag time between leaving the artist’s pen (or tablet) and greeting the viewer, there are no gatekeepers in the form of publishers, and for the most part, they’re free. All of these would seem like positive things, and they can be, but there are downsides.
“Free” can turn into another word for “the devaluation of labor” in a medium that has never valued it as much as it should; the lack of people to say “this is a bad idea” means you can get just as many comics about, say, white supremacy as you get about interracial gay couples in love; since there are so many of them it can be difficult to impossible to get noticed. It’s often observed that the giants of the webcomics community are merely the ones who got there first, and in many ways that’s still true.
But sometimes a comic conquers these obstacles, finds an audience, excels at its craft on every level, has wonderful characters, and in the process showcases how to navigate that sticky quandary of how to write a marginalized character as a villain. The webcomic Cucumber Quest by Gigi D.G. is just such a series. There will be spoilers for the third chapter and third interlude, if you haven’t read them.
Cucumber Quest is a comic about an epic quest against great evil that takes place essentially on Planet JRPG, evoking the particular sensibility of an afternoon looking through a glowing TV and down on a set of broadly drawn, pixelated characters. It’s a world with no falling damage, so you can fall from Literally One Hundred Feet Up…
… and you’ll be just fine. It’s no mere retro gaming pastiche, however, evolving over its seven hundred and counting pages into a web of complex relationships, sympathetic evil, and honest character growth.
The first thing that needs to be said about Cucumber Quest is that it’s a stunning display of what comics can do when one person is doing everything involved with its creation. Gigi D. G. does the writing, the art, the coloring, and the lettering, and all of it is of a whole. The lettering’s colored to match the color scheme of every panel, and the color scheme is seamlessly blended with the art, which in turn serves the writing and the script. The writing is the art is the coloring is the lettering is the writing in Cucumber Quest, and it’s breathtaking to behold. The result is some truly innovative uses of color and lettering and storytelling, like this page:
Everything in the storytelling shifts to accommodate the mood and intent of the scene it’s in. It never gets old. Cucumber Quest is fully of its medium and couldn’t be anything else but a comic.
This emphasis on a unified aesthetic helps give each “level” of the story its own identity, and I mean levels literally. The intrepid, if reluctant, heroes of the story have been journeying to various lands and fighting the various “end bosses” of each realm --- each called a Disaster Master. One such villain is Rosemaster, formerly known as Thornmaster, and while the word ‘transgender’ is never used, she obviously is. Rosemaster isn’t the only trans character in the story (we’ll get to that later) but Rosemaster is the standout, because she’s an unambiguous villain.
Last month’s column (okay, last month-and-a-half-ago’s column) was all about what flaws a transgender character is allowed to have. Villains, by their nature, need to be flawed --- otherwise they’re not villains, since if you don’t have flaws, you’re not doing anything wrong. But any flaw on a marginalized character is going to wind up reflecting on the entire intersection of identities that said character represents, which is a problem if you’re one of the few --- or only --- such characters in the story.
Gigi D. G. navigates this thorny (so to speak) patch of pitfalls by first establishing that the Disaster Masters, and their leader, the Nightmare Knight, aren’t all that they seem. The Nightmare Knight and his lieutenans are destined to be continually banished and to continually return, and this is by design. The Nightmare Knight’s powers rely on him being feared, and if he is not feared, his powers fade --- along with the Disaster Masters, who he’s created. He is keeping all this a secret from them --- but Rosemaster (and the next “level boss,” Glitchmaster) find out part of the truth, and Rosemaster decides for herself to do something about it.
By making her a more nuanced villain and giving her agency in deciding her own fate, Rosemaster retains sympathy --- which is the first step to writing a good marginalized character to begin with. If you can’t sympathize with a group of people who aren’t like you, you can’t write them well, be they hero or villain or anything in between.
Furthermore, for the most part, all the stereotypes about transgender people --- stereotypes that are harmful because they paint transgender people in a negative light --- aren’t the flaws and traits that drive Rosemaster to villainy. Rosemaster is never depicted as delusional or insane. Her evil plan, while relying on trickery, is never of a sexual nature --- she never tries to manipulate someone into sleeping with her only to reveal she’s transgender. Her identity isn’t revealed through voyeurism. Her visual appearance is never the butt of a joke. The one time her identity comes up, it’s respected, even by the heroes trying to vanquish her. She’s a villain and a transgender woman, but she’s a villain and a transgender woman that the narrative respects.
About the only thing that’s even somewhat questionable about Rosemaster is that her powers rely on being able to control people using their names --- names being somewhat sacred to transgender people. Even then, you could make a compelling argument that mastery of her own name --- deciding that it is Rosemaster and not Thornmaster --- leads thematically to mastery of the names of others. Besides, this is a fantasy comic, and true names have a history within the genre.
Most of all, Rosemaster is handled beginning to end by one creator. There’s a unified vision there that you wouldn’t get with, say, a villain passed between creators at the Big Two, each bringing in their own biases. This means that there’s a unity of vision as to who Rosemaster is, and is not. There’s never going to be a creator coming in later and saying “actually, Rosemaster was a gender-flipped magical clone of Thornmaster, who identifies as a dude, and whom I’m bringing back.” (Not that that could ever happen in comics, of course.)
Since she’s a villain, she winds up defeated, which is the other obstacle to representation for marginalized villains. If your representation is tied up in characters that are either taken out of the narrative or don’t spend as much time in prominence as the heroes do, then there’s an argument that by its nature, the representation is less than it could be if it were heroic. But the solution to that is “more representation…”
… and it looks like that's going to happen, as it's heavily hinted that Bacon figured herself out off-panel.
Cucumber Quest is fully readable online, and there’s a lot more in store for new readers that I haven’t touched on. Beyond being informative on how to respectfully and skillfully handle a villain who’s marginalized, it’s just plain good comics. And thanks to the upside of webcomics, it’s one mouse click away, transmitted to the reader as easily as this essay was. If you have the time --- and at 700 plus pages as of this writing, you will need some time --- do check it out.