The Best of Assigned Male
I wasn’t familiar with the Assigned Male webcomic by Sophie Labelle, so this comprehensive collection seemed an excellent starting point.
Stephie, a trans girl (11 years old when this series starts), and her non-binary friend Ciel hang out together. Ciel names themself at a camp for trans and queer youth. Stephie gets a boyfriend. The events here are so low-key as to almost be non-existent, but that’s not the point. Instead, the goal is, per the author, to show “non-conforming kids simply having fun with each other and exploring what it means to be themselves.”
I found the chapter introduction text pages very helpful in understanding when each work was made and what the artist’s goal was. Many of the chapters have a longer story backed up with several short strips. They don’t have gags so much as incidents, where Stephie tells someone (and thus the reader) how people should treat her or how some do the wrong thing when interacting with trans people.
The cast mostly talks to the reader or each other (but still aimed at the reader), so the book isn’t particularly exciting visually, although we get backgrounds, and the author is proud to have designed different outfits for the characters in every comic.
The dialogue sometimes chooses taking a stand over being believable as something 12-year-olds would say to each other. Steffie is a very insightful, well-spoken character, an excellent mouthpiece for the way trans kids should be treated.
Although a couple of the section introductions talk about the need to see trans and queer characters in stories that aren’t about being trans or queer, just about all the comics here explicitly address the topic. Often, the comics are short illustrated essays, where one of the characters states the way the world should be when it comes to unbiased sex education or breaking through cultural programming about masculinity. The final chapter, “Sex Ed for Everyone”, was thus my favorite section, as the subtext becomes text and Stephie and Ciel talk about teaching kids about gender diversity.
This approach is usual for this kind of book, one with an explicitly sympathetic point of view, a book that aims to provide positive representation for trans and queer people. It’s educational while being entertaining, and many of Labelle’s points will stick with me because Stephie made them. (The publisher provided a review copy.)