Who am I? A man? A woman? Gay? Straight? Am I normal? These are questions every transgender person likely asks themselves. Trans man Morgan Boecher attempts to answer these and more in his semi-autobiographical graphic novel, “What’s Normal Anyway?”
Boecher, who recently read from the novel at Bluestockings Bookstore and Café on the Lower East Side, began his female-to-male transition during his senior year of college. Believing that the transgender story was essentially unrepresented in mainstream media, he felt he had a story to tell. A self-described “charging rhino,” Boecher began drawing comics, a medium that allowed him more freedom than a traditional memoir would.
Graphic novel tackles the ups and downs of being transgender
“What’s Normal Anyway?” was originally released in weekly installments on Boecher’s blog, WhatsNormalAnyway.net, over the course of three years before being published through a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign. As the name suggests, the graphic novel tackles transgender acceptance and defining one’s own sense of normal.
Boecher draws in a loose minimalist style, letting his words do the story’s heavy lifting. This is not to say that the drawings are not good. On the contrary, he illustrates the character’s expansive range of emotions in vivid fashion that helps drive home his message. In a time when memoirs and personal essays are a dime a dozen, Boecher’s work stands out as a fun, quirky, heart-felt story.
The story starts with Mel in the early stages of his transition, documenting them in a video-blog. He is immediately overwhelmed by a comical trial and error physical marathon — struggling with packers for his pants and binders for his torso to achieve a flat-chested appearance. Mel dabbles with different facial hair combinations, along with a slew of other hairy situations. Next come the testosterone shots, which lead to humorous bouts of T-rage. All this in preparation for top surgery.
Mel’s biggest struggle, however, is an emotional one. In addition to learning to accept himself, Mel faces constant obstacles on the outside — from unsupportive parents to everyday encounters with people who mistake him for a girl. Mel stresses over being outed in a men’s locker room, spewing endless evasions until a cisgender character suggests he be upfront and simply state he is trans.
Mel does not go the journey alone, though. His amped-up — if more than a little bit naïve — personality is balanced by his voice-of-reason roommate Leena, who while making no attempt to understand the hurdles Mel must jump nonetheless remains supportive. Their friend Beef, a meat-headed straight man, is that guy who says all the wrong things — from “Dude you gotta watch sporting events and drink beer!” to “You know, you’ve got a pretty hot bod” — not out of malice but simply out of ignorance. Leena and Beef aren’t the perfect sidekicks, but their shortcomings fairly represent the larger society’s deficit in understanding trans issues.
On the other hand, Diego, a fellow trans man, manages to steer a lost Mel on the right path — getting him in touch with the correct doctors and support groups, all the while being a role model who understands everything he is going through.
A charming story, “What’s Normal Anyway?”’s greatest strength is its humor, lightening up what could be very heavy subject matter and even presenting it as slapstick. In the process, Mel’s journey comes full circle. By the end, the hero has had successful top surgery and, more importantly, come to accept and love himself. The other characters’ plot lines tie up rather quickly at the end — a little too conveniently, but there’s no particular surprise there.
Boecher is now at work on a prequel comic, offering readers a glimpse of Mel’s earlier days as Melissa. Installments are available for viewing at whatsnormalanyway.net.
WHAT’S NORMAL ANYWAY? | By Morgan Boecher | 145 pages | $15 at whatsnormalanyway.net.