Lost in Transition: Grace is in the Details in ‘Wandering Son’
Hi, I’m Charlotte Finn. I’m a lifelong comics fan and recently, I admitted to myself that 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.
Wandering Son, Volume 1
Writer and Artist: Simura Takako
Translated by: Matt Thorn
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
Wandering Son is one of the best comics about being transgender that I’ve ever read.
Okay, so I do have a few nits to pick, and I should probably call it a manga instead of a comic, and I should probably make this column as long as it usually is instead of just telling everyone to go buy it, but essentially, I stand by that opening sentence. It’s a rare and great day when I read something that gets as much right about the place I’ve found myself in as Wandering Son does.
The story begins in Japan’s version of the fifth grade, with Nitori Shuichi meeting a new friend, Takatsuki Yoshino (family names first, given names second, following traditional Japanese custom). They are confronting all the stresses of school life heading into the fog of puberty, and both of them are slowly coming to the revelation that they’re transgender, with Nitori Shuichi designated male at birth and realizing they’re a girl, and Takatsuki Yoshino realizing they’re a boy despite being designated female at birth. (For clarity’s sake I will refer to each character with a gender neutral pronoun, since they aren’t 100% sure what their genders are just yet.)
Right off the bat, I have to compliment this work for including the perspective of transgender men, who are too often overlooked in the transgender community and in transgender fiction. This is the first depiction of a transgender man I’ve covered for this column that is an actual transgender man and not a occasional metaphor for one, as in Ranma ½.
Transgender men face all the discrimination leveled against transgender and nonbinary people, and on top of that, they too often face scorn from transgender women for “adopting the cloak of male privilege,” i.e. allegedly taking the easy way out of patriarchy (as if anything about being transgender is a stroll in the park). Kudos to Wandering Son for not ignoring this facet of transgender life.
Of course, a rarely seen depiction of a real cross-section of life is only half the battle, just as it is with transgender girls; the other half is making it a good one. In this too, Wandering Son excels. The book takes advantage of the larger format and lengthier volumes of manga to tell a story that works off the slow build and the quietly dawning realization.
Setting the story at fifth grade and keeping it there means that the entire first volume deals with the slow realization on both Nitori Shuichi’s part and Takatsuki Yoshino’s that they actually are transgender. This volume is a coming out story --- but the first person that every LGBTQIA person comes out to is themselves.
Usually I like comics that hit the plot hard and don’t let up, but the downside to such storytelling shorthand is that it relies on the viewer being able to fill in the blanks on their own. So that type of power-plotting has pitfalls in the depiction of the lives of those marginalized by society; if the reader doesn’t have the background necessary to fill those details in on their own, misconceptions can arise.
Wandering Son’s decompressed style offers one solution to the problem; by having the story take up the space it does, at the pace it takes, it leaves room to fill up with the details of life while transgender.
Those details are in abundance. The story is packed full of the small realizations and embarrassments that ring true to a life like mine, things that seem so obvious in retrospect, like the attraction to “passing” as a gender you’re told that you’re not; the anxiety dreams (there are several, rendered vividly, and each one is genuinely upsetting); attraction to things you’re told you shouldn’t be into; moments of defiance that surprise everyone around you, yourself included; fumbling around to describe something you don’t have a fully formed language for; the befuddlement, disgust, objectification and occasional curiosity in the eyes of others. It’s all there, and it all rings true and heartfelt.
(I do have to caution readers, especially transgender and nonbinary ones, that this book doesn’t shy away from some of the harsher elements of being transgender and young. Slurs are used, sometimes unexpectedly; people react in a way that has cut close to home for me in some ways, and preyed on deep seated fears in others. This book is still 100% recommended for its true to life details; this is just a heads-up on some of the details that may be a little too true to life.)
As for the art, Takako’s artwork keeps background details to a minimum, focusing on the emotions and the state of the protagonists in each panel. The storytelling is clear and understated, letting the story work on its own merits and in its own time. The art frequently segues into depictions of dreams, fears and emotional states, as befits how emotional entering puberty is in general and realizing you’re transgender in particular. All of it works perfectly.
One thing I also have to mention is the presentation of this book by Fantagraphics, bound in a proper hardcover and with high-quality paper, ensuring that all inks are sharp and vivid. This book is given the metaphorical red carpet it deserves, and packages like Wandering Son are why Fantagraphics has the prestigious reputation it does.
A big part of being transgender is realizing that cultural norms about gender are social constructs, and that they were built up – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously or by accident – into the shapes they find themselves in, in modern society.
But there’s no one “modern society,” and another place that Wandering Son is educational is its appendix into the gender norms and terminology that predominate Japan. Being a white woman from Canada who only realized she was a woman relatively recently, my shedding of the attendant privileges of being straight, cisgender and male has been a work of dubious progress; one thing I still retain is whiteness, and the way towards recognizing that what I thought was an expansive view was really just a pinhole has been listening to the real and fictional stories of other people. I’m glad that books like Wandering Son have helped me look at my own struggles from perspectives I don’t share.
My issues with the work are, in the end, minor, but no perfect comic exists, and no perfect transgender comic exists either. There is a scene in this comic where Nitori Shuichi is being dressed up as a girl by other girls in their study group, and while they don’t say no, they also don’t say yes, and it veers close to being one of those “force feminization” fetish scenes. The world seems to be one where the notion of transgender people is unheard of (the word “transgender” doesn’t appear in the text itself, nor any approximation of it) – though sadly, this isn’t too far off from how too much of the world already operates.
These complaints aside, Wandering Son is a top-notch story about the realities of being transgender in a society that is our own – nothing more, nothing less.
I personally have a weakness for stories with spaceships, lasers, magic and the like, and I think that those are fine vehicles to explore being transgender – and there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism into a world where there really are such things as transitions that take less than a day with no complications. Possibly my single favorite transgender comic of all time stars a Superman stand-in and said stand-in’s greatest villain, after all. (Then again, Superman makes everything better.)
But fiction can, and should be, more than escapism. Sometimes you want an escape hatch, and sometimes you just want a story to reassure you that when it comes to the environment you’re seeking escape from, you’re not alone, and there are others like you whose presence makes living there more bearable. For the latter, realism is a critical component, and it’s the sheer sense of realism, of lived-in details, that gives Wandering Son so much of its strength. It’s a manga series I intend to finish out as soon as the rest of the volumes arrive.
Of course, that might take a while, since a search online for Wandering Son in digital format turned up nothing I can link to with a clear conscience – nothing on Comixology, ComicBlitz, or Fantagraphics’ own website. The downside of high quality hardbacks from Fantagraphics is that they are expensive high quality hardcovers from Fantagraphics, stocked in few local shops of mine, so the series might take a while to show up and be affordable. But Wandering Son is worth the hassle. It earns my heartfelt recommendation.