Fear of the Shapeshifter

We, as a species, are pretty obsessed with form. Appearance is everything to us. We judge people based on uniforms more than actions. We judge animals based on how vaguely their proportions mirror that of our own offspring rather than their ecological role. We are so convinced we can accurately divine an objective reality based on imagined platonic forms that we end up becoming cartoonish. Maybe it is this obsession with these worlds of ideal forms that has led to such consistent themes in how we utilize shapeshifters in fiction.

Fictional cultures and civilizations of shapeshifters are, almost exclusively, villains. In tabletop games dopplegangers, changelings, skulks and their ilk are uniformly described as sociopathic parasites, incapable of creating their own culture or art and instead using their abilities to usurp the positions of the humans (or elves or whatever) that were truly capable of creation and innovation. They steal identities, rather than create their own. The best role these fantasy races could hope for in the official narratives is that of a craven trickster, amoral but not overtly evil by birth. The idea presented here is that if people were free to take any form they wanted, they would be either unwilling or unable to stop. If you could be anyone as needed, why would you ever be anything for longer than it remained the most useful? Why would you slow down and make one form your own if you could just instantly be one more useful? Not putting the time into improving and changing one form, the argument goes, would translate into not putting the time into improving and developing an individual identity. Dopplegangers of D&D steal identities because their powers prevent them from developing a proper identity, and then the creativity to develop their own new forms. Its a pretty dim view of the fantasy of shapeshifting.

There have also been heroic shapeshifters in myth, folklore and pop culture as well, but those of modern culture all tend to be easy to identify even as they change forms. Stretchy super heroes Mr Fantastic, Ms Marvel and Elongated Man can change their body to any shape but it’s always still their body. Plastic Man has a wider range of forms, able to disguise himself as nearly anything, but still is always locked to the same color scheme and rad shades. He may be an end table, but his tell-tale color scheme means he’ll never be mistaken by the audience for an end table that isn’t him. There are exceptions, but they tend to be much more obscure (is anyone outside of a narrow slice of an already narrow slice of comics fandom going to recognize Chameleon Boy the way they might Ms Marvel or Plastic Man?). The one big name, the Martian Manhunter, is unique enough that he merits his own explanation later. As a rule, heroic shapeshifters change their forms, but not their identity. That is what separates the heroic, individual figure and the formless, identity-free masses.

Identity is hardly a static concept, but the idea that it is a single, unchanging form is pretty deeply ingrained in modern culture. Western civilization is not fond of those who don’t . Its even harder on those able or willing to shift between identities, or even just what western civilization has decided “should” be an identity. This is reflected in pop-culture, where cultures of shapeshifting villains are a mainstay of science fiction including the Marvel Skrulls and Star Trek’s Dominion Founders. Both of these space empires posit a formless existence as being the root cause of each culture’s descent into fascism and paranoia.

For the most part, the Skrulls serve primarily as faceless masses of aliens for the Marvel heroes to fight. Sometimes they are vaguely racist caricatures of whatever culture the average American citizen is expected to dislike at the moment. Sometimes they are not-so vaguely caricatures along those lines. Sometimes they’re just a convenient way to show super heroes murdering someone while still saying “see, they’re not human so our heroes aren’t, y’know, murderers for real!” We haven’t seen many specifics of Skrulls history or culture in the comics, and what we have seen tends to be from isolated writers not working together along any single storyline or plan. Yet it is from these isolated stories that interesting themes have emerged about why the Skrulls are who they are.

The Skrulls have the potential to take any form, and yet in their “natural” state they are all identical. Skrulls all wear the same uniform, all have the same basic anatomy, and even tend to have the same (aggressively sociopathic) personalities. Skrulls are also essentially parthenogenic. They have no “natural” gender or sexes, as any Skrull can become “biologically” male or female at will, complete with working reproductive organs. In addition they have been shown able to become any other possible sex present in any other species, complete with functional reproductive organs. Yet despite this, Skrull culture recognizes a very rigid cultural gender binary and is incredibly misogynist. Aside from a few notable Skrull queens, the glimpses of Skrull society we have seen have shown that women are second class citizens at best, barred from most positions of authority and constantly talked down to by aggressive male war leaders. Skrull women are expected to present themselves as possessing large mammalian breasts, despite being reptiles who cannot produce milk, solely for the purposes of differentiating them and of titillating the male skrull population. This weird dichotomy between a biology that explicitly rejects the gender binary and a society obsessed with it is rarely made part of the Skrulls’ appearance in the comics, but has provided several interesting Skrull “facts” in the background of two specific comics: Runaways and The Incredible Hercules.

Runaways (created by Brian K Vaughn and Adrian Alphona) is the story of a group of kids who, upon discovering that their parents are really a gang of horrible cross-genre super villains, run away in hopes of finding their own non-evil path. While their parents are quickly removed from the board, the legacy of their villainous ancestry continues to hang over them. One of the Runaways, a girl named Karolina Dean who discovers she is actually a rainbow-colored alien, ends up having to deal with her parents’ legacy of war and betrayal in a shocking way. A skrull named Xavin arrives claiming to be her fiance, and that their union is the only thing politically that can end a war her parents engineered that is destined to destroy two worlds. While at first she agrees only to halt the destruction of two people, Karolina and Xavin eventually grow to genuinely care for each other and remain involved even after the arranged marriage becomes unnecessary. Karolina is a lesbian, and Xavin originally presents as male. Despite Xavin’s insistence that skrulls can “change gender” at will, it still uncomfortably seems like a story of a male character tricking a gay woman into a romantic relationship. As we learn more about Xavin, this problem does get dealt with. Xavin was raised in the most mysoginist part of Skrull society, and learned to present as whatever would get them less abuse. In Skrull society this means male, and among the mostly-girl team of the Runaways looking out for their teammate and not trusting a space-bro this means presenting as female. As Xavin learns that on Earth they can present as whatever they want, they admit that they do not actually see themselves as either male or female as either humans or skrulls define it. It is not actually the story of a deviant shapeshifter using their power to trick women, but the story of a character learning to come out as non-binary due to love and friendship.

But while Xavin’s story shows us insight into an individual Skrull, it still doesn’t answer the question of why Skrull civilization is so fascistically uniform despite the potential of its power. For that, we have to look at the second comic I mentioned, The Incredible Hercules (by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente) and its tie-in to the 2008 “major event” Secret Invasion. Secret Invasion was, overall, a pretty dumb crossover event that mostly existed to do a comic about superheroes murdering vaguely Muslim foreigners without getting in trouble. So now the Skrulls were all religious fanatics for the first time in comic history, and in the main series this religion was as thinly-veiled a reference to how the average American viewed Islam as could be. The one actually good comic to come out of the boring alien splat-fest was the Hercules tie-in, where the various gods of Earth put together a squad of divine superheroes to fight the Skrull gods. Ironically, the one comic that actually dealt with the Skrull religion was the one to NOT stick to the lazy stereotypes of Islam. Instead, it created a new mythology that finally sought to explain the dichotomy of the Skrulls. When ancient Skrulls purged the non-shapeshifting members of their species, the last “Skrull Eternal” argued he must be left alive to serve as the template for all skrulldom. Without him, he argued, they would have no form to return to and be left without identity. The “default” Skrull form we see in all Marvel comics is an attempt to emulate this iconic Skrull eternal. His followers argue that through their devotion to him, they remain Skrull even when they take on the myriad other forms of the universe. Through their adoption of his presented gender, they remain male even when they take on the myriad other sexes of the universe. Ironically, Skrull fascism is based on the same obsession of idealizing form that makes Skrull shapeshfiting and rejection of form so terrifying to Earth culture.

Interestingly, the Skrulls debuted around the same time as another Marvel alien, the Kree, and the two became mortal enemies. The famous Kree-Skrull War storyline of the Avengers (1971–72 by Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, and John Buscema) told the story of the two space empires, locked in an interstellar cold war, who were more than happy to use our planet as a tool for proxy battles. The most advanced species in the galaxy were essentially barbaric, un-knowable, nationalist despots who cared not a whit if we lived or died other than as a tool for the embarrassment of their political enemies. Its a great old comic that brilliantly satirized the Cold War-era “nation building” our own country took part in. Both the Kree and Skrull were acting like Americans and Russians, though neither species could be pointed to as “oh THESE are us, the others our enemies.” The Kree were introduced as just as evil as the Skrulls, and arguably their history in the Marvel universe has been even more damaging to Earth. The Kree are genocidal, ultra-conservative space-racists who have repeatedly tried to wipe out our species to cover up their genetic tests on our ancestors. But while the Skrull remain perennial Avengers punching bags, the Kree became all but celebrated allies. The only difference between the two is that while the Skrull are deviant shapeshifters, the Kree are essentially humans, only sometimes they are blue. Marvel’s humanity would rather ally with a species that gloriously revels in fascism, so long that they appear attractive and consistent in form.

The Founders of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 are also ironically obsessed with form for a species without any of their own. The natural state of these beings is an orange goo that naturally takes the form of whatever it is in and effortlessly blends with any others it comes in contact with. The Founders only have identities when they are away from the “Great Link” they all congeal in. The Founders are also head of a far-reaching fascist empire, and see beings of other species, the “solids”, as barely sapient and unworthy of consideration other than how they can potentially harm real, amorphous people. The reason for this is once again tied to their shapeshifting’s effect on their culture and psychology. In the Founder philosophy, to take on a subject’s form is to truly know it. You take the form of a square, you ARE the square and you understand its square-ness in a way no being of another form could. To the Founders, humanity (and Klingons, Bajorans, Cardassians, etc) is no different than any other shape. There is nothing to know about other beings than their shape, and it is inconceivable to the Founders that anything could exist in one of the solids other than what their physical form reveals. Despite being a species without form, they have become sociopaths unable to see the world through any other lens. Like the Skrulls, it is only by teaching one of their outcasts, Constable Odo, that they can learn how our culture can liberate them from their myopic view and allow them to become individuals. Also like the Skrulls, their battle with Earth takes the form of sabotage and infiltration and leads to mass panic and paranoia.

While they are often used as a science-fictiony way of talking about cultural witch hunts, the truth is that races of identical shapeshifters do not tend to make very effective ones when we look at them too deeply. Sure, it is shocking that Star Fleet so quickly begins tossing aside its hard-won utopian ethics and establishes martial law to combat the threat of shapeshifters infiltrating Earth, but… There really WERE shapeshifters infiltrating Earth in that story. Witchhunts from Salem to McCarthyism are terrifying because there is NO real enemy to hunt. As soon as you introduce actual evil shapeshifters into the mix, especially genocidal fanatic ones, you create an actual justification for the witchhunt. It might be more “morally ambiguous” to give space McCarthy an actual space communist threat to fight, but real witchhunts aren’t ambiguous. McCarthy was wrong, and he destroyed lives. None of the women in Salem were brides of Satan, they were simply murdered. The moments where both the Kree-Skrull War and the Dominion War are most effective is when they focus on the sinister shapeshifters not using their power to actually infiltrate and debase society, but instead provoke the already paranoid, racist, murderous humans into doing the job for them.

The only big-name shapeshifting people that stray from the “lack of true form leads to sociopathy” template are DC’s martians. Usually, J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter is the only surviving member of his species, but even when he’s not we rarely see any glimpses of his society. Whenever we see flashbacks to J’onn’s family and the destruction of his people, it always presents the same picture. Martians are all naked, identical and live in unremarkable, unadorned simple dwellings with no obvious art or aesthetics of any kind. They are pacifists who invariably get wiped out, either by natural disaster or alien invasion or their own evil twins depending on the story. J’onn always looks like every other identical martian until he comes to Earth and has to define a new form for himself. Is the best a “good” shapeshifting people can hope for a doomed life without individuality, art or even personality? Is J’onn allowed to be a hero without form because he’s so aggressively non-threatening and the last of his people?

The martians are not simply shapeshifters, but are also telepathic and have every power Superman possesses minus the heat vision. The reason they all walk around naked and identical is because they give no thought whatsoever to physical form. Like the villainous species described above, they simply adapt whatever streamlined form is best for the moment, and so most of the time on boring, empty Mars they all have the same form. Their skin is tough enough to not worry about sandstorms and they cam fly without wings, so a bland biped shape is fine. At the same time, they all possess incredible, worldwide telepathy, and so all their individual expression is mental. We create art of all kinds to try and convey ideas or feelings that are otherwise impossible yo express, but martians can’t even conceive of that problem. Why bother expressing yourself through physical fashion, art or speech when you can be understood so much easier and more intimately through telepathy? At the same time, the fact that everyone’s minds are open means its impossible to lie to anyone. The concept of deception and private thoughts are as alien to them as pants. Not that there would even be reason to lie, as you feel what everyone else is feeling and wouldn’t want to feel any hurt you caused by your deception. Nor would you worry about what other people think, because it would always be open to you. Shame as we know it doesn’t exist on Mars. It couldn’t if society could even exist in that telepathic environment.

Its easy to then write the last martian in Earth as a calm, paternal figure. One who sees our fear of our own weakness even as they see the strength we won’t acknowledge. Often J’onn ends up the bland “dad” of the Justice League, and this may be why J’onn is so often an important supporting character in team books, but has struggled to carry his own title. Its harder, but potentially more rewarding, to write the culture shock. The most interesting J’onn stories focus on just how frustrating the adjustment is. He can’t understand why we lie all the time. Even the little lies we tell each other that he can’t help but overhear drive him nuts and make us look immoral and petty. He could communicate with any martian more easily than he can with the people on Earth he’s grown closest too. In that interpretation he appears stoic not because he’s a wise, zen sage but because he is still learning how to communicate physically and verbally with people who are put off by “invasive” contact between open minds.

This dichotomy helps other martian characters than just J’onn, fleshing them out as interesting, unique characters in their own right rather than just a tragic backstory. One of the ongoing themes in DC martian stories is that martians LOVE trash Earth TV. Why? Because its impossible to read the mind of a recorded image, and the irrational and goofy behavior of badly written characters is pretty much the only art form that can surprise a martian. Teenage Miss Martian flees to Earth because its the only place she can lie about herself, but the allure of human deception is as dangerous and leading to sociopathic behavior in as humans imagine shapeshifting to be. Like the other sci-fi shapeshifters, they’re in a culture where they’re able to express themselves through form in a way he never could before, but unlike the others it isn’t a liberating experience. The awkwardness of a form-based identity for a being who intimately knows how that mindset is contrary to peoples’ true thoughts allows martians a chance to fear and distrust humans just as those humans project the normal shapeshifter fears onto them.

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Anthropology of the Mushroom Kingdom


The so-called “Mushroom Kingdom” is a hotbed of biological discovery. We’ve already covered the intriguing evolution and ecology behind bipedal turtles, giant meat-eating plant colonies, egg-spitting tuatara and even ghosts, but that is still only scratching the surface of the remarkable fictional discoveries ecologists would have made exploring this region for the past three decades if it wasn’t just a videogame franchise. Today we look at one of the less understood aspects of the Mushroom Kingdom ecosystem, its unique hominids.

Hominidae includes all the great apes, including chimpanzees, orangutans and chimpanzees. The Mushroom Kingdom has representatives of that branch of the hominid tree including the Kong (G. gorilla collasua), but it is also home to newly cataloged members of our own genus, Homo. While sapien is believed to be the only living species of the Homo genus, this was not always the case. 2.8 million years ago, the first homo species emerged from the genus Australopithicus, which had itself only relatively recently emerged from the genus Pan, which includes modern chimpanzees. Homo sapien emerged a mere 200,000 years ago, and shared the planet with others including the neanderthal. Sapien quickly murdered or interbred their competitors away and became the dominant life form on the planet. Legends of sasquatches, yetis and other lost, isolated pockets of older homo species have circulated almost as long as those other homo species have been extinct, but there was never any actual proof. No one expected to find proof of a living lost people in the Mushroom Kingdom, and above all no one expected them to look as they do.


The so-called “mushroom people”, or Homo fungus, are radically different than previously discovered homo species. Most are quite short, similar to the extinct “hobbit” species H. floresiensis, and almost entirely hairless. They have flat, almost noseless faces, small eyes, short legs and round bodies, but what is most amazing about these people is their behavior. Homo fungus are eusocial and have a seemingly symbiotic relationship with an otherwise unknown species of fungus. Both behaviors are quite unusual, but intertwined in a way that merits deeper explanation.

Eusociality is a form of animal society that is defined by extreme organization, cooperative care of young, a division of reproductive and non-reproductive labor and specialized behavior groups within the colony. The most well-known examples of eusocial behavior are insects such as bees, ants and termites, though there are also two species of eusocial molerats. In eusocial behavior, there is often a single reproductive “queen” and a host of sterile workers and soldiers who carry out specialized tasks. Homo fungus is only the third species of vertebrate to be discovered living in this manner. Homo fungus society revolves around the protection of a reproductive “princess” with specialized “toad” castes beneath her engaging in physical labor on behalf of the colony. While the toad caste is short and hairless, the dominant princess is of comparable height and appearance to homo sapien. This extreme dimorphism between the princess and her subservient toads is explained by their relationship with the so-called “super mushrooms” that readily grow in the region.


Members of the toad caste live in a symbiotic relationship with a species of super mushroom that grows on their body, covering the top of their head. The mushroom, and the spores and pheromones they emit, seem to be the basis for their hosts’ eusocial society. Spores are implanted onto newborn members of the toad caste, releasing chemical signals that effect their development on an epigenetic level. Genes are turned on and off, cells express genes in different ways than encoded in their DNA, and even heritable traits are changed long after the toad is born thanks to the mushroom they wear on their head. The mushroom keeps the toad caste sterile and physically stunted, but also helps impart a surprising strength. Despite their size, a toad can lift significantly more than a comparable sapien. Symbiotic relationships between plants and animals are not uncommon, such as the mole salamander which has symbiotic plant cells living in its skin that allow it to photosynthesize light or the sloth’s shaggy coat of moss and mold that provides camoflage and protection. However, the extreme manner in which these mushrooms change the genetic structure of their hosts is quite unusual.


Toad culture is almost entirely devoted to the maintenance of the colony. Toads do not have individual names as we know them, which has led to incredibly confusion when anthropologists try to identify specific toads. They are instead differentiated by the colors and patterns of their mushrooms, or by titles indicating their societal function (such as toads of a certain age and proximity to the princess caste being referred to as ‘Toadsworth’ by their contemporaries). Toad culture is also highly mercantile, with many wandering toads setting up temporary “toad houses” where crafts and goods are sold. It is not uncommon to find individual toads operating travelling toad houses even up to 8 worlds away from the central colony. Toads tend to wear simple vests and extremely baggy pants that completely obscure their legs. Toads possess at least rudimentary language, but written records of their history are rare. Toad history and mythology seems to be most often passed down orally, as seen in the legends of settlements such as Roguport.


While the princess caste is always, by necessity of reproduction, female, the toad caste appears to have an interesting relationship with gender and gender expression. Toads recognize at least three genders, with most identifying as agender. Both male and female toads exist, as we would define them, but with the physical difference between the two so minimal and the absence of reproduction, they do not recognize sex among their own caste by those definitions. Instead, they recognize sex by expression. It is not uncommon to find a princess’ retinue including both male and female toads who, aside from specific fashion signifiers of gender, are otherwise physically identical. A common trend among toads observed today is to add mushroom “buds” to their head, creating a fungal illusion of hair, and using this to express different cultural or gender identities. It was this trend, and the cultural bias brought in by homo sapien explorers, that lead early researchers to the conclusion that their were no “female” toads until the discovery of the “Toadette” individual by racing anthropologists in 2003.


the use of pharmaceuticals is a key element of the princess caste’s ability to maintain their dominant position

The princess caste is not given a mushroom, and so she grows taller, more closely resembles other known hominids and remains fecund. She also receives nearly all the attention and results of the toad caste’s labor. Examining ancient murals found in the desert ruins of the Mushroom Kingdom reveals that the mushroom people used to be much taller and closer in appearance to ourselves even when bound to their symbiotic mushrooms. The evolution from an older homo species, perhaps even branching off from sapien, appears to have been a rapid process due to the change these symbiotic mushrooms had on h. fungus DNA. An easy, cynical read of this history would conclude that the original leaders of their society used the mushrooms to explicitly create a caste of sterile, subservient laborers. However, it is worth noting that the princess caste has little to no actual governing power. The emergence of eusociality among homo fungus may also have been a natural form of altruism, with these specialized behaviors emerging to help defend the colony in an environment filled with many dangers ranging from a competing, cosmopolitan empire of turtle warlocks to a landscape of poor, brick-like soil and seemingly bottomless pits preventing the development of traditional agriculture.


Amazingly, homo fungus is not the most dramatic hominid discovery found in the Mushroom Kingdom. At some point in the fossil record of this world, a branch of the homo tree became so evolutionarily distinct that an entire new genus within the family of Hominidae. The two species within this new genus, Mario mario and Mario luigi, are superficially similar in appearance. Both are slightly shorter than the average H. sapien, with M. mario being shorter. Both are largely solitary, fast, agile apex predators, often observed sprinting and leaping between wandering herds of land turtles and goombas. The evolutionary differences between the two species are slight, leading researchers to argue that M. luigi is merely a subspecies, but there are some key differences other than height.


M. luigi is capable of a surprising gliding behavior it uses to cross the many ravines of its territory. After propelling itself forward, the luigi flares out its arms and sucks in its abdomen to create a pseudo concave wing. At the same time, it rapidly kicks its legs in a repeated, undulating motion parallel to the ground to help stabilize its direction. This requires a lot of energy, and as a result the luigi tends to be more cautious and skittish than its relative the mario.

The relationship the twin species of the Mario genus has to each other and to the members of homo fungus is also interesting. Both marios and luigis occupy the same territory, but do so in a surprisingly consistent manner. Anytime a mario dies, a luigi will move in and claim its territory. When a luigi dies, a mario then does the same. While both species are usually solitary and quite dangerous to any creature that wanders into its path, they have been observed cooperating and coexisting with colonies of homo fungus. Homo fungus‘ largest competition, the Koopa empire, will often raid and attempt to capture the princess caste. This is similar behavior to that observed in some ants, where a queen will be captured and to produce a new worker caste for the attacking colony. Marios have often been observed thwarting these attempts, throwing themselves at the largest koopas in attempts to liberate the captured homo fungus. This seemingly altruistic behavior is not entirely unheard of in the animal kingdom. Recently, humpback whales have been observed disrupting pods of killer whales attempting to hunt porpoises and seals. The evolutionary reason for this behavior is not yet known, as unlike homo fungus, marios do not seem to possess a language beyond short whoops, yips and false cognates that superficially resemble the Italian language. However, it may be related again to the super mushroom.

While their relationship with this fungus is not as as entrenched as with the toads, observation has shown that marios and luigis that have access to these mushrooms grow larger, and live significantly longer. The fact that these mushrooms are largely cultivated by homo fungus means that the seemingly altruistic behavior of the Mario genus may in fact be based on their own long-term needs.

Wario and Waluigi are, of course, normal humans. What the hell else would you think they are?

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The Case for a Trans Beast in the X-Men

The X-Men are a subject very close to my shitty nerd heart. They may be stuck in perpetual adolescence and their serialized adventures may be constrained by a corporate system caught between the desire to milk a nostalgic status quo and the desire to not overly reward a competing movie franchise owned by a different corporation, creating a hollow mess of recycled stories and cynical attempts at transferring their audience to other IPs regardless of tone or interest… But still, I love ’em. Look, I have tourettic OCD, a neurological disorder that emerges strongest during puberty, much like the fabled X-gene. When you’re a teenager who is grappling with a body that is not just changing in the normal sense but is literally moving in ways you cannot control or understand, it is VERY easy to identify with escapist fiction featuring nerds who can’t control their laser eyes or vampire skin but still get to look hot and have kinky sexlepathy battles. As a kid, I WAS a mutant, only my crappy mutant power was a physical twitch and it didn’t come with any psychic bdsm subplots.

The X-Men have survived for so long because they can so easily be allegories for many conflicts. From their origins as metaphors for cold war fears of communism and ongoing antisemitism, to their reemergence in the 70s as a metaphor for race relations, to their later status as queer icons and archetypes, to the fact that even today they are still a perfect metaphor for “millennials are the worst” whining from an older generation terrified of a future they can’t control, Marvel’s merry mutants can neatly fit into almost any role. Its not always perfect, mind you. The original WASPy looking X-Men work great when dealing with the reality of being a white Jew and hearing every other white person around you talk shit about your people (and other minority groups!) because they think you’re “safe” to reveal their shitty opinions to. They work less well when Kitty Pryde starts dropping the n-word like its her goddamn mutant power or Havok gives a speech about why Avenger lives matter. There is so much continuity to choose from that it comes down to which characters are used and how the creators use them. Even considering Marvel’s attempts to curb their population, there are enough mutants of various ages, backgrounds and powers to help skilled creators tell nearly any of X-Men’s archetypal stories effectively, aside from one. Despite the fact that X-Men have so often served as vehicles for queer stories, there are a shocking few number of openly queer mutants.

Why do the X-Men work so well as queer icons? Well aside from the obvious “hated and feared for being different” and “explicitly targeted by conservative and religious leaders” aspects, there are quite a number of other X-Men tropes that resonate. Their identities as mutants emerge around puberty, the same time many people in the real world begin exploring questions of sexuality and identity. There are MANY scenes featuring mutants “coming out” to their families that explicitly mirror real world lgbt coming out stories. Comic book homo sapiens often seem obsessed with the fact that many mutants “pass” for humans, that you can’t tell who has elemental-kinesis or adamantium knife hands based on who you’re checking out at the cafe. At the same time they’re super judgmental about any mutants that are obviously “othered” by their appearance or behavior. There’s also the simple fact that many of the X-writers’ had a not-so-subtle predilection for certain kinks that would appeal to groups that historically were either lumped in with all “deviants” or genuinely found acceptance within those kink communities when others rejected them. The fact that the first Marvel characters to come out as lgbt were Northstar and Karma, both mutants, is certainly no coincidence.

Yet there has still never been a trans mutant, and that is ludicrous.

You already know who I’m going to suggest as one trans mutant based on the title of this piece, so I might as well jump into it. I believe Hank McCoy, one of the original X-Men, is one of the best candidates. Now, there is some problems with this choice as well. Trans women are already all too often portrayed in the media as monstrous, unfeminine men, easily identified by their body and hair. Picking a mutant famous for the fact that they can’t pass as human, and one covered in body hair, invites a lot of hurtful commentary and readings. It could contribute to the idea that trans characters in fiction exist as spectacle, something to be consumed by a cis audience, rather than for trans readers to see themselves in. This is the number one reason for not simply having one trans X-character, but several, as having multiple trans characters means not any single character has to be seen as the “default” trans experience or look. However, there is one aspect of Beast’s body that does ring true with at least some trans experiences. Beast’s actual mutant powers have nothing to do with their current form. Originally, Beast was just a husky human-looking nerd whose powers were limited to ambidextrous toes and acrobatic skill. What happened was that Hank McCoy was so desperate to not be a mutant that he experimented on himself and became a blue furry ape/cat-man through science. Remember, Beast was originally part of the X-crew that easily “passed” as human. No one looked at Beast and thought “ew” or othered them in any way. In fact, Beast could even be called handsome or cute for a human, depending on your tastes. There was no reason for Hank to want to “cure” his condition in the sense of wanting to pass or physically fit in better. Instead, Beast’s desire for a “cure” came from an internal feeling of wrongness that could be seen as internalized self-loathing from being surrounded by bigotry, but could also be interpreted in a different light.

Remember that tourettic OCD I mentioned? How as a child the fact that my body would twitch and move on its own created a disturbing dysphoria? How I felt a strong alienation between my sense of self and my physical body? Well…as an adult it now turns out that I may have another reason for this dysphoria. Growing up, the only trans narratives I knew from the media were that of “jokey, hairy pervert in a dress” and very rarely “someone who knew from birth and never had any doubts and then has to suffer and die so the main characters of the story could learn something”. Neither of those felt like someone I was or wanted to be. While the representation of trans characters in the media never really improved, the number of trans people I knew in real life changed. Turns out there’s no single “way to be trans” and the expectation we as a society place on lgbt people to perfectly understand their sexuality, gender and identity before we acknowledge it as real is kind of fucked up. Turns out you can be trans and not hate yourself. Turns out you can be trans and not have realized it, or even doubted it sometimes. Turns out most people don’t get paralyzed with existential dread when looking at photos of themselves, to the point where they actively avoid appearing in as many as possible. Turns out you can be trans and not really attracted to men. Turns out being trans doesn’t invalidate who you like, period. Turns out that feeling completely alien from your body can take many forms, and my own experience with that was not unique. Turns out I might be trans.

Beast is generally written as the smartest X-Man in the room, but also as kind of a colossal fuck-up. Beast can recite the periodic table by heart, create nanotech machinery on the fly, rereads the classics in the original Greek while hanging upside down for fun, and holds at least ten doctorates probably including at least one that is from another planet. But Beast also broke the timestream, almost destroyed his own species a few times, helped contribute to every bad idea every other Marvel scientist has had from “clone Thor” to “murder universal embodiment of life with a laser” to “build extra-judicial prison in literal dimension of madness”, and once told the world they were a gay man in the hopes it would make their ex-girlfriend feel bad. Beast is an idiot, only too smart to realize they are an idiot, and that is a huge part of why the character is so appealing. When you know you are intelligent, it is easy to not consider anything outside what you already know. If Beast had no knowledge of trans people (and remember, there ARE no other trans mutants or avengers right now), they would never consider it as a possible reason for why they they felt so wrong in their body. At the same time, Beast seems to feel IMMENSELY more comfortable in their furry monster body than they ever did in their passing cis male body. Sure, Beast can wave his hands and say “oh science can make me furry but it can’t UNmake me furry, that’s just…science” but we all know the real issue here is that Beast has no motivation towards changing back. Beast would rather be a monster than obviously a human dude, and sees themselves as too smart to have to admit they don’t really know why. Beast felt like a monster before, and now other people see them as one, but its still better everyone see you as the monster you think you are than feel like there’s something wrong with you when no one can understand or see it. At least now everyone else sees something “wrong” with Beast too. Beast’s feelings of wrongness are justified in a way that doesn’t require thinking about something scary and outside their considerable knowledge.

Lets go back to that infamous “I’m gay (not really)” moment from New X-Men. Now, I’m a big defender of Grant Morrison’s controversial but hugely successful run on the X-Men. When I first read that bit, I assumed it was intentionally written as another example of Beast being a big fuckup. That we were supposed to look at Beast being an idiot and laugh, same way we do every other time the brilliant fuck-up does the least helpful thing they could’ve done. Then I read the interviews where Morrison states that Beast was actually making a “great point” about how labels don’t matter man, and how the straights can be queer just like the the gays so why worry about names, bro? Look, I’m not going to defend that. Instead, I’m going to ask what if Beast really IS gay, just not cis. Suddenly, that dumb idea takes on new context, right? Suddenly a lot of Beast’s self destructive choices take on new context. Beast isn’t just someone so smart they act like a dummy, they are someone so smart they’re not quite the dummy they want you to think they are, but instead a different kind of dummy.

Trans representation matters because if people are told there is only one way to be something, they will believe it. They will not only deny people who don’t fit what they are told people “have” to be, they won’t believe themselves when it becomes possible they are that as well. They will hurt themselves without knowing why, turn themselves into monsters or be terrified of themselves and it will be horrible for them. Of course, representation alone isn’t going to fix anything. As I already said, it wasn’t a wonderful upswing in trans media representation that eventually helped me, it was knowing and experiencing the work of real trans people. More than trans X-characters, we need more trans X-writers, artists and editors. Trans actors and actresses in the inevitable movie versions. Same goes for every marginalized group the X-Men have been used to represent. In fact, the quickest way to get more fictional representation into our corporate nerd media is to fix the problem of diversity among who is allowed to play in the official narratives for these corporate properties. Honestly, I could (and should) be spending more time talking about queer creators and the huge renaissance of creator owned and controlled work we are lucky enough to live in right now. That representation I’m asking for in corporate media characters already exists elsewhere. We have one of the most amazing generations of diverse creators working right now working well outside of “mainstream” superhero comics. The future of comics, and media in general, is a future of diversity both in content and creators that I was never lucky enough to experience as a kid, as long as we support and celebrate these creators.

So why focus on Beast here? Well, because I’m not actually talking about Beast, isn’t that obvious? I’m talking about a different fuckup who was too clever to notice the obvious about themselves but knew they’d rather be a monster than a husky nerd boy.

Plus, Beast could change her name to Belle. That is EXACTLY the kind of dorky thing she’d do and come on, it’d be cute.

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Kirby Series Primer and Playlist

Kirby may seem at first glance to be an odd choice for this kind of article. Kirby is hardly an unknown property, easily being Nintendo’s 2nd or 3rd most successful franchise only behind Mario and Zelda. Kirby’s aesthetics have gone on to influence a great deal of media outside games, in particular comics and animation such as Steven Universe, Help Us Brave Warrior, and Cucumber Quest. The Kirby games are also defined by their simplicity, meaning that very few people probably feel any “intimidation” when trying to pick up a Kirby game for the first time. On the other hand, Kirby is also defined by mystery and adaptability. There are over 20 games starring Kirby, which range across multiple genres and themes. Kirby’s position at Nintendo as the default “experimental character” means that a lot of Kirby games are very unique experiences. Even among the primary Kirby platformer entries, there is a range of themes and mechanics under the unifying tone and characters. There is a complexity and variety underneath that simplicity, and while everyone knows Kirby, can everyone definitely say what makes a Kirby game a KIRBY game?


Even Kirby’s origins showcase both the character’s simplicity and mystery. Kirby’s sprite was simply a placeholder during the production of the first gameboy game. It was meant to be replaced once an actual main character had been concieved and designed. Kirby is simply a round blob with a face because that was a simple thing to make and animate quickly. However, the designers grew very fond of simple Kirby, and elected to keep using the dummy character. Kirby’s Dreamland was a smash hit for Nintendo and HAL Laboratory, and ensured the continued role both Masahiro Sakurai and Satoru Iwata would play at Nintendo. Both Iwata and Sakurai were interested in creating a very simple game that anyone could pick up and play, even if unfamiliar with platforming games. The gameboy was a perfect vehicle for this, a portable machine that was still finding its “voice” within a library full of shoddy NES ports and fun shallow experiments. Kirby’s Dreamland kept things simple, with an adventure that a practiced player could complete quickly, but with several options for the player to increase the challenge as desired. What the game lacks in scope, it made up for in charm, with environments that managed to be cheerful and bright despite being monochromatic. While many early gameboy games ran into the problem of the limited screen size forcing designers to trade detail for gameplay (and vice versa), Kirby and his enemies were simple and small enough to give the player plenty of room to play, but also enough cartoony detail to convey appealing expressions and movement. Kirby’s elastic body squashes and stretches across the screen while he moves, and while it seems a small thing now at the time it made him pop out among the sea of more robotic-moving gameboy sprites (including those of Nintendo’s other franchises that made it to the gameboy like Mario and Metroid). The first Kirby game set the template for all great gameboy games to come, making dealing within the machine’s limitations look effortless, but it would be the second Kirby game that really established the “Kirby aesthetic” that we recognize today.


Kirby’s Adventure came at the end of the NES’ life, and was one of those special games that manages to both push the limits of a dying console while also tantalizingly showing how much could still have been done. Kirby’s Adventure built on everything Kirby’s Dreamland put forth, with a focus on simple controls, appealing characters, and bite-sized chunks of play, but added a level of polish that hadn’t been possible on the simpler gameboy. Kirby’s Dreamland featured a few secrets to uncover, mostly little hidden rooms that provided extra lives and interesting visuals, but this was greatly expanded in Kirby’s Adventure. The short levels rewarded exploration and replay, with plenty of secrets to uncover and rewards beyond just additional lives or points. Kirby’s iconic ability to copy his opponents first appeared here, with a wide range of simple powers allowing players to tackle the same problems in new ways. But perhaps the most important change Kirby’s Adventure brought to the new franchise was in its style and lore.

Kirby’s Adventure is, without any hyperbole, one of if not the most beautiful games to come out on the NES. Many lesser NES games tried to fight against the limited palette options of the console, creating garish mish-mashes of primary colors or puke-colored attempts at evoking realism. With the arrival of the Sega Genesis and SNES most developers were off enjoying the seemingly endless new color options available to them, and not even attempting to learn how to make use of subtle, specific palettes. Kirby’s Adventure manages to make the NES’ limited colors look like a deliberate choice rather than a limitation, with thoughtful color choices in place to evoke particular moods or tones for each level. Kirby’s Adventure seems to draw more from classical art history in its color choices than from previous NES games. A generation of players growing up with Kirby’s soft and thoughtful purples, pinks, blues and oranges would go on incorporate them in their own work, showing the game’s fingerprints all over contemporary animation and illustration. Its not just apparent from subtext, as these creators are not shy about making this direct influence on their work known. This game left an impression on people, but the reason that impression was so much stronger than other lovely games was in how it built its relationship between the player and its lore.

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From the moment you turn the game on, you are greeted with a tutorial not on how to play the game, but on how to draw Kirby. The message is clear: here is Kirby, he is simple to create, he is yours, play with him. The plot of the game is as simple as before (the bad guy did a bad thing, go fight him) but alongside that plot is a world of unexplained mysteries. First and foremost is the mysterious Meta Knight who shows up to confound you with monsters or aid you with power ups, only to then challenge you to a final duel of honor and reveal a tantalizing glimpse of his true self. Then of course is the surprise reveal that the greedy King Dedede was actually trying to save the world from a terrifying abstract star terror. There is even the fact that Kirby’s world is full of skybound ruins, airship fleets, ancient castles and underground mazes with no clear explanation for how they got there. The game is full of unexplained mysteries that the player is left to ponder. Later Kirby games would build on this to end up with an aesthetic akin to if you took Lovecraft, replaced the dark with pastels, replaced the racism and sexual frustration with the merchandise of a Japanese stationary shop, but kept the lurking horror in the background. Kirby’s world is filled with terrifying eldritch nightmares lurking between the edges of reality, always ready to reach out and twist the soft, cheerful world we play in. Leering eyeballs staring at you from between the stars, undead angels corrupting minds, living engines capable of breaking and rebuilding reality, adorable animals in clownish clothes having their bodies twisted into horrific forms, cursed knights raging against the galaxy in pursuit of endless combat, and even Kirby himself with the inexplicable void inside his mouth that has taken countless terrified and sentient beings and seemingly erased them from existence. Kirby’s world is the most charmingly appealing nightmare yet created.


The main line of Kirby platformer games would continue to make gradual improvements and variations on the Kirby’s Adventure theme. The most interesting development came in the form of Kirby’s Super Star for the SNES. As noted before, Masahiro Sakurai is a developer whose oeuvre can be defined by a focus on complexity within simplicity and on giving the player control of how to define the challenge and play style. With Kirby Super Star, Sakurai drew from an very unexpected source: fighting games. Fighting games are, to put it mildly, the exact opposite genre you would expect Sakurai to want to draw from. They are all too often esoteric monstrosities of complex controls, insular metagames and intimidating jargon, and in the 90s this problem with the genre was at its peak. Yet Sakurai found a way to take the best parts of this genre, the feeling of movement and mastery that comes from understanding those esoteric controls and special moves, and incorporate them into not only a completely different genre but a completely different philosophy. Kirby’s Super Star is a collection of short Kirby stories, each about the same length of one or two worlds from Kirby’s Adventure. The various abilities return, but while they were simple one-button affairs in Kirby’s Adventure, here they all come with an expanded arsenal of maneuvers. While a new player can still use Kirby’s abilities like before, only focusing on the simplest uses of each ability, more advanced players can use fighting game-style combos and special moves that expand each ability’s versatility. These advanced moves can be used to complete levels and bosses faster, or simply make it possible for a player to complete challenges using favorite abilities that before seemed poorly suited for the task. Not only are the new advanced moves optional, but in a platformer setting are much less stressful to learn and practice (and more importantly, just play with) than in a high stakes competitive fighting game. Kirby’s Super Star’s use of fighting game mechanics also foreshadows what Sakurai’s own actual fighting game series, Super Smash Bros, would look like, with the same focus on simplicity over esoteric button inputs and using the fighting game tropes in new environments.

But Kirby’s library of games includes a great deal more than just his platformer games. Kirby’s simple shape meant it was very easy to slip him into different kinds of games as a ball or puck, giving rise to spinoffs like Kirby’s Pinball Land and Kirby’s Block Ball. Kirby is often the go-to character Nintendo uses for new experiments, such as Kirby’s Canvas Curse and Kirby’s Tilt ‘n Tumble. Kirby’s origin as a dummy sprite would become ironic as Nintendo would use him as a replacement for new and prototype characters if they worried a new concept might not sell without an established IP on the box, giving us games like Kirby’s Dream Course and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. While Kirby is not the only Nintendo IP to absorb new games this way (such as the Star Fox series taking over Rare’s Dinosaur Planet), Kirby has probably managed to successfully “take over” more new IPs than any other franchise in Nintendo’s stable, largely because of how adaptable and simple his design is. Star Fox Adventures was largely panned for not feeling like it belonged with the other Star Fox games, while the fact that Epic Yarn was originally not a Kirby game is usually met with shock.

Kirby’s main series and spinoffs can, and often do, repeat themselves. Yet this repetition never seems to feel quite as stale as it can with other long-term video game franchises like Mario or Mega Man. Kirby’s central theme of complexity within simplicity helps even the stalest entries in the franchise find a way of connecting with its players by letting them define much of the experience for themselves.

Playlist:Below are 5 games that I feel sum up the entire Kirby aesthetic and philosophy best. These are the necessary games for anyone new to the franchise.

  1. Kirby’s Adventure (1993, NES/3DS/Virtual Console): As noted above, this is the gold standard of Kirby games.
  2. Kirby Super Star (1996, Super Nintendo/Nintendo DS/Virtual Console): A collection of “different” games, each taking the same core mechanics and presenting them slightly differently. There’s the fast-paced Revenge of Meta-Knight, the slower exploration-focused Great Cave Offense, the classic Kirby gameplay of Dyna Blade, and even simple racing and fighting games. Manages to feel both light and fully packed at the same time.
  3. Kirby’s Dream Course (1995, Super Nintendo/Virtual Console):: One of the earlier Kirby experiments, Dream Course combines minigolf and billiards. Not as simplistic as other Kirby experiments, Dream Course is a meaty puzzle game that would show just how adaptable Kirby and his universe could be beyond platformers.
  4. Kirby’s Canvas Curse (2005, Nintendo DS): At a time when the gaming press and hardcore fans were still skeptical of the idea of a portable console with two screens and a touch stylus, Kirby’s Canvas Curse was the first game to come out and REALLY justify the DS’ existence beyond just tech demos and vague promises. Canvas Curse has all the classic Kirby hallmarks (exploration, simplicity, vague horror) but with an appealing and intuitive new way of playing
  5. Kirby Mass Attack (2011, Nintendo DS): Kirby was basically king of the DS, with a variety of both classic platformers and new experiments. Mass Attack did away with all the normal Kirby mechanics and instead created a new adventure based around taking care of an army of Kirbies. The game ends up combining a bunch of genres from Lemmings-esque puzzles to arcade action to real-time strategy, all without ever losing that distinct Kirby quality.

B-Sides and Experiments: These games include interesting attempts at tacking the same problem as the previous games in different ways, or flawed but interesting attempts at utilizing the character.

  1. Kirby’s Dreamland (1992, Gameboy/Virtual Console): Lacks the polish of Kirby’s Adventure, and honestly doesn’t do anything amazing on its own that its sequels don’t do better, but is an important look at the evolution of developers’ understanding of portable gaming’s potential, as well as an important look into the design philosophy of two of Nintendo’s most important developers.
  2. Kirby’s Epic Yarn (2010, Nintendo Wii): While originally intended for a new character, Kirby doesn’t feel shoehorned in. There is not a whole lot of substance or mystery to this game, but it does have amazingly relaxing music and gorgeous graphics. Feels a bit more like what people assume a Nintendo platformer is supposed to be like, rather than what most actually are, but still fun to play.
  3. Kirby and the Amazing Mirror (2004, Gameboy Advance): Honestly, not a very good game. It was an attempt to make a Metroid/Castlevania-like Kirby game where you could explore a single, interconnected map and use Kirby’s abilities to solve puzzles. In practice, it was mostly frustrating to have to track down specific abilities every time you reached one of those puzzles. Despite its problems, its worth remembering for its many interesting, but flawed, ideas such as three other computer-controlled Kirbys who would go off and play the game without you, collecting their own abilities, but could be summoned to the player’s location and help out in a pinch.
  4. Kirby’s Pinball Land (1993, Gameboy/Virtual Console): The first Kirby spin-off, and perhaps the most obvious one just based on Kirby’s appearance. A simple affair, but packed full of the same charm as Kirby’s first game. The three pinball boards all feature interesting secrets and engaging methods of advancing.
  5. Kirby 64 (2000, Nintendo 64): A solid Kirby platformer that features fun powers, a cute “road trip” aesthetic with Kirby’s friends tagging along without any purpose other than to cheer you up and pitch in, and perhaps the greatest examples of weird horror in the Kirbyverse. The generic “Ice World” is revealed to be, upon closer examination, our own planet Earth trapped in a frozen apocalypse due to man-made climate change. The final battle is among the best abstract horrors of the series.

Influences, Offspring and Siblings: Kirby was not the only game or series that attempted to develop a balance of complexity within simplicity, or of creeping horror within sweetness, it was just the most successful. Below are 5 games with a similar or parallel philosophy.

  1. Trip World (1992, Gameboy): Trip World stars a vaguely rabbit-like Kirby-creature and features a LOT in common with Kirby’s original adventure, but this is due to a rare case of convergent evolution rather than theft. The game rewards players who take time to investigate its weirdness. Many of the “enemies” are harmless and unique, often only appearing once and having some interesting behavior to observe. Insanely difficult to get a legitimate copy now unless you’re lucky enough to access the European  or Japanese 3DS Virtual Console.
  2. Ristar (1995, Sega Genesis): In some ways, Ristar could have been Sega’s Kirby. A platformer starring what was originally a dummy sprite, built around exploration, defeating enemies by using and interacting with them beyond simple Mario jumping, a colorful world with mysteries and space horrors waiting to be examined, all found in a game at the end of a console’s lifespan pushing the limit’s of the hardware… but in the end it never took off and became just another failed Sega IP.
  3. Super Smash Bros Brawl (2008, Nintendo Wii): Sakurai’s other flagship series that drew a lot of inspiration from his work with Kirby. Why Brawl in particular? Its not as polished or beloved as the previous or later entries in the Smash Bros series, but its more experimental options, as well as the sprawling Subspace Emissary mode which transforms a fighting game into a bizarre platformer, are all pure Kirby.
  4. Avenging Spirit (1991, Arcade/Gameboy) : An arcade game where you play the ghost of a boy murdered by the mafia out to rescue his girlfriend. You can possess enemies to use their abilities. No direct relationship to Kirby, but a fun, faster-paced variation on the power-stealing gameplay.
  5. Klonoa (1997, Playstation/Nintendo Wii) : Klonoa’s world is full of the same combination of soft sweetness and creeping dread that made Kirby so popular. Klonoa’s gameplay is also built around finding the best way of using your enemies to your advantage. The big philosophical difference is that Klonoa’s levels are more linear, with specific puzzles or action sequences as opposed to Kirby’s challenges being open to whatever abilities the player chooses.
I don't care what anyone else says, Jack Kirby's Kirby is a funny idea and this is a good execution thereof

I don’t care what anyone else says, Jack Kirby’s Kirby is a funny idea and this is a good execution thereof

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Star Trek and Queerness



Queer readings of genre fiction and media can be a tricky subject. On the one hand, media that deals with worlds capable of grand, sweeping change are always going to be appealing to those who find themselves marginalized by this one. Queer readings can be a powerful way for a reader to find a place for themselves within a work (or a world) and can also be a useful tool for analyzing or developing works of intentionally queer genre fiction. It can also feed into some of the larger problems our species has with over-indulging in escapism or in uncritically celebrating nerd culture. A perfect example of the later is the now infamous Japanese interview where a Metroid developer made a transphobic joke about Samus Aran’s height implying she was a “new type” or a derogatory Japanese term for trans, which was picked up on by queer fans in the west and transformed into a story about Nintendo making Samus a “canon” trans character to be celebrated. A trans reading of Metroid is possible, of course, but the starvation for representation in media led to a celebration of a rather stupid joke rather than a discussion of what in Samus’ story resonated with those fans, and how to find and celebrate queer artists making use of those themes elsewhere.

Which brings me to this post. After my writing my original thoughts on Deep Space 9, I continued rewatching the series. As a result, I found I had more to say, in particular about the way the show deals with issues of sex and gender. Star Trek has had a rather unsteady relationship with both subjects. Roddenberry’s utopian vision was one where women were treated as equal in every way, but were still confined to short skirts and skin-tight leotards. The show has a very large queer following, but one that has had to provide their own queer readings of the show as Paramount repeatedly stymied attempts by the cast and crew to inject discussion and representation of different sexualities to the series. Every time the series attempted to do an important episode about sex, it invariably comes across as corny at best. Yet the show has managed to tell several very interesting stories that, while unable or unwilling to directly address the subject, have had very interesting things to say about sex and the future. Here we have a series that repeatedly WANTED to be queer, but was actively prevented from doing so in evocative ways by corporate mismanagement. It was then left to the fans (admittedly, myself included) to find different threads in the show’s narrative to draw queer readings from. What can we learn, both about the history of queer representation in contemporary sci fi and about what narratives resonate with us, both as individual fans and as shared “communities” of queer fans?

Star Trek’s history of failed attempts at queer stories goes back at least to The Next Generation, with the infamous episode The Outcast. In this episode, the Enterprise meets a planet without the concept of gender, where the very idea of gender or sexuality is considered heresy. Commander Riker is put off by the whole idea, and convinces the alien he’s partnered with to become a woman and bang him, which throws their society into chaos until she is reprogrammed. Essentially, this episode is about Riker attempting to save a non-binary culture with the power of his dick. To the actor’s credit, Jonathan Frankes wanted the alien species to be less obviously sexually dimorphic, and for Riker’s lover to be masculine. This was shot down by Paramount, who did not want to give the impression that potentially gay people existed in Star Trek. The version where Riker falls for an alien he perceives as masculine would not have been a story about brave hetero cis man Riker fighting the good fight against a vicious queer identity, but rather a story about a Riker who would be considered queer by Earth standards meeting a culture that would superficially appear queer by those same standards, only instead to be revealed as an alien, but still familiar, form of sexual orthodoxy. It would have been an interesting and complicated episode if that had been the case, but instead the episode posits a world where there is no doubt that Riker’s lover is a woman being “forced” into queerness by a morally dubious alien culture. What was to be Star Trek’s first big look at issues of sexuality became a muddled, and largely unloved, mess. The episode often shows up on fan lists of “worst trek episodes”, and is definitely not the brave step forward the show was hoping it would be. The series would not attempt to do any other overt episodes about sexuality until Deep Space 9.


In terms of queer DS9 episodes, the first that would come to most fan’s minds would be Rejoined. The character of Jadzia Dax, a woman who has inherited the memories and experiences of multiple other men and women through a worm-like symbiote, was one of the break-out characters of the series. She was also a convenient way for young queer sci-fi fans to identify with. A being with a mind made of composite lives and memories, who owes their existence to their past as one gender yet is still distinct and individual now that she is someone new, it is easy to see where these readings came from. The fact that Jadzia was confident, hot and beloved by everyone on the station didn’t hurt the escapist fantasy for young trans kids, I’m sure. It was natural that, of all the main cast, Jadzia would get the first gay kiss in Trek history. In the episode, Jadzia meets another of her species, a woman possessing the memories of one of Jadzia’s past lives’ wives. In their society, it is considered to be incredibly taboo for two lovers from a past life to begin their romance again in their new lives, as it threatens to make the symbiotes myopic, nostalgic and less open to new experiences. Everyone is freaking out about how well these two women are getting along, and is terrified that they’ll begin making out at any second.

Then they make out.

The cast and crew went on a media blitz for this episode, telling everyone that the episode was absolute, positively NOT about anything gay. That the lesbian kiss was just a natural part of a story about alien sexuality and no one should or could read anything into it. Considering that the episode has most everyone agree that Jadzia’s new relationship is morally wrong, its at least good that their stated intent was not to portray a gay relationship, even if pretending it was impossible to read the relationship as queer was a bit much. Possibly anticipating the fact that people would see the first gay couple in the Federation being told they were wrong and deviant and find SOMETHING off about that, the writers made one very clever and important choice: in the script, not a single complaint about the couple is in regards to their genders. The idea they were trying to sneak past Paramount’s notorious conservative watchmen was that in the future, gay couples are so accepted that it wouldn’t even be mentioned that Jadzia was dating a woman. Not even the most conservative person on Deep Space 9 would have a problem with that, instead only dwelling on this new bizarre alien taboo. It was a pretty good idea, but one that was sadly hindered by the fact that the episode didn’t take place in a vacuum. Perhaps if we had seen any gay couples in the background, even just in that episode, it would have highlighted how little anyone cared about Jadzia’s sexuality better. Rejoined is not a bad episode at all, in fact its quite good, but its an episode that you can tell had everyone still tiptoeing around issues of sexuality without entirely knowing what they wanted to do with it. Jadzia wouldn’t get many other big queer moments, and in the end it was a different character who would be most remembered for the queer readings surrounding them.


Garak, the Cardassian spy turned tailor, was originally played by actor Andy Robinson as, at the very least, sexually open. He flirted with Dr Bashir and sashayed his way across the station stealing whatever scene he was in. But as it became clear to the show’s creators that Garrak should not be a one-time appearance but should be added to the expanded cast, it also became clear to someone higher up that the vampy, ambiguous Garrak would have to become straighter. Robinson was asked to dial back Garrak’s sexuality (not that anyone could tell, to be perfectly honest), and the show eventually tried to give him a hetero love interest, that of Zaiyal, the daughter of the show’s great villain Gul Dukat. However, the romance between Zaiyal and Garrak never rang particularly true, at least not as a romance. Zaiyal always seemed more drawn to having an older, Cardassian man around who she could project her father abandonment issues on, and rather than a sexual attraction to her, Garrak seemed at first merely amused that anyone would trust him so implicitly, and at most this evolved into a brotherly or even paternal affection for the naive girl. It still made their relationship important, and Zaiyal’s eventual death just as tragic, but it never really felt like the grand romance the writers seemed to hope it would. To the audience, it was always clear that Garrak’s heart, if he indeed had one, beat only for Bashir.

The Garrak/Bashir relationship was what gave us one of the show’s best queer-readable episodes: The Wire. In it, the ongoing suspicions about Garrak’s past are laid bare, but in a way that merely presents more confusion and mystery. Garrak, in a fit of drug-induced mental instability, rattles off several origins for his exile and fall from grace, any one of them plausible enough and none of them remotely true. The only truth in Garrak’s stories is in its subtext. Garrak is an exile from his culture, but it is not by choice nor by philosophy. Whether angel or demon in the past is irrelevant, because forces beyond his control have decided his fate. Isolated from what he loves and wants to be, surrounded by people who cannot begin to understand him, Garrak’s punishment is one of exile not just from his home, but from his identity.

Nothing in this episode is overtly about any character’s sexuality, but the subtext of the episode provides freedom for a powerful queer reading. Garrak’s mental breakdown is revealed to be the result of him abusing a device installed in his head during his spy days. In order to resist torture, agents of the Obsidian Twilight have a surgically implanted device that injects a powerful drug into their brain, creating a sense of euphoria that helps block out the worst physical pain. It turns out that for the last few years, Garrak has been pumping this chemical into his brain nonstop. Why? Because every second of his existence is torture. Every second he cannot be who he really is, every moment he has to talk to these people on this station that he’s found himself forced to associate with, every moment away from the people he wants not to hate him, every moment he struggles with the complete inability to decide for himself if he is a hero or a monster, all of this is worse pain than any Romulan surgeon could ever inflict. So he abuses the machine until it breaks and threatens to destroy him. His salvation comes from Dr Bashir, a symbol of the Federation and the world he was thrust into that does not understand him, but also a symbol of a possible future. Despite everything Garrak throws at him, despite every attempt to drive him away, Bashir never stops trying to save him or stop being his friend. Surely I don’t need to spell out the possible queer reading in feeling so tortured by your inability to freely be yourself that you bury yourself in comforting lies and lash out at genuine affection. Or the possible queer readings of an exile longing for a family that only wishes to punish them for existing, and finding a future in a deepening relationship with someone willing to accept all parts of you. Or even the queer readings of a world where lies and truth about identity are anything but clear cut.

“Oh don’t give up on me now Doctor, patience has its rewards.”

Deep Space 9 has many episodes like this. Stories that are not explicitly about sex or gender, but that readily lend themselves to multiple different kinds of reading. This is what makes good sci if so timeless, it’s ability to present a fictional future that resonates with the many different real world futures that are to come. Yet, Deep Space 9 is also full of episodes that ARE explicitly about sex and gender, and these are… Decidedly less successful.

Some of them are the victim of producer meddling from Paramount. Despite Star Trek’s tackling of various mature issues, Paramount saw it primarily as a family show first. Deep Space 9 ran into the same problem as Next Generation did with regards to Paramount’s vision of a family-friendly federation. When the writers wanted to do an episode that drew on the previous series’ fascination with fuckable holograms and pleasure planets, one that would force the audience to question how much of this future’s culture surrounding sex and consent we could really see as utopian, they ended up with Let He Who Is Without Sin. This toothless episode posits no meaningful questions about a future where the Federation establishes fuck-planets like Risa, nor does it ask us to question how our own 20th century values create their own biases and ideas about sex. Paramount wouldn’t even let them show any sex taking place in the episode. Instead it gives us a bland villain who wants to destroy the concept of relaxation in the manner of a Care Bears villain, and an even-by-his-normal-standards insufferably wet blanket Worf who lashes out at an entire planet in frustration over his girlfriend having once dated a sex worker.


Then there’s the Ferengi. The Ferengi are defined almost solely by a lust for profit and a cartoonish misogyny. Several episodes tried to examine Ferengi treatment of women, and even how this was at odds with the culture’s obsession with space-capitalism (an entire half of the planet is prevented from earning or spending profit for crying out loud). But while DS9’s larger oeuvre turned the Ferengi from failed villains into beloved scoundrels and truth tellers, there were still moments that fell flatter than Rom’s profit margins. The worst of which was the last “Ferengi episode” Profit and Lace, in which Quark undergoes a sex change in order to help win a blow for women’s rights. The episode opens with Quark at his most disgusting, where he tells one of his women employees that she must fuck his ears (Ferengi erogenous zones are their ears. Look I don’t know either) or find a new job. Then, Quark’s mother, the only member of an alien species devoted to capitalism to realize that women spend money, arrives to try and fix Ferengi society, but Quark yells at her until she has a heart attack, “forcing” him into the position of proving to a soon-to-be-arriving businessman that women can be good at business. Quark does this by getting a sex change from Dr Bashir and giving business advice to the lecherous Ferengi. Having “become a woman” and faced similar sexual harassment, he apologizes to his employee, only to find out that she actually now wants to fuck his ears after all. But only just having his junk reattached he’s still too “emotionally a woman” to act on it and be a man and fuck his abused employee in exchange for her keeping her shitty job and its all just a silly misunderstanding and women, am I right folks?

This episode is almost universally despised by fans, critics and the show’s creators equally. The cast and crew believe the show failed because no one could agree on the tone (Quark’s actor, Armen Shimerman, wanted to do it as a serious episode about a son’s relationship with his mother while the writers wanted to do a comical farce) but frankly, either tone would have still resulted in a failure. A “wacky farce” about a man-in-a-dress learning that sexual harassment is bad (except when it’s not?) is, at best, beneath even the worst Star Trek series. A “serious drama” where a son learns to value his mother by temporarily becoming a woman is 1970s comic book-levels of naive “very important” storytelling. Both possibilities also contribute to the ongoing problem with how television treats and portrays trans women’s stories, portraying very personal struggles as nothing but tools to help get some straight cis people what they want or help them learn. Considering how well the Ferengi are used to highlight the hypocrisy of the Federation and other Star Trek institutions, this particular “feeeeeeemales with profit!?” episode really stands out as misguided. Don’t get me wrong, the Ferengi dealing with the disconnect between their stated desires as a perfect capitalist meritocracy and their reality as total sexist, exploitative dickholes was usually great fodder for stories, just as the disconnect between the Klingon ideal of honor and their reality as petty war criminals was, or the disconnect between the Federation’s ideal of utopia and their reality as humans. But for some reason, with the Ferengi it was never as interesting when addressed directly, only when dealt with in the background of larger galactic conflicts and conversations or the more private stories of Quark and his familial relationships.

Is there something about Star Trek that hampers its ability to tell compelling stories about sexuality when it overtly tries to do so? I don’t think so. I think its just an all-too-common case of executive mandate and, more importantly, a lack of queer creators involved or even consulted. A new Trek series is coming soon, and fans have been calling for it to feature proper LGBT representation since it was announced. Honestly, in today’s climate where studios are either allowed to be as openly gay as possible (a la Steven Universe) or at least hedge their bets by piling on gay subtext to milk starved queer fans, its pretty much certain we’ll get some kind of gayness in the new series. It is some kind of progress that queer people are now considered lucrative enough to acknowledge (or hint about more often), but queerness in Star Trek can’t end there. The best Trek episodes from the past series were the ones that focused less on grand epics and heroes and more on ideas. Ideas about what it means to be human in a world where humanity is not alone. What it means to live in a utopia built on tragedy. What it means to be a citizen of the world in a universe of endless worlds. There is much more to being queer than our relationships, and if there is any sci fi series capable of looking at larger intersecting patterns and cultural issues it is Star Trek. If a future Star Trek, or any science fiction series, REALLY wants make compelling statements on human sexuality, the focus should be on representation in the writer’s room and director’s chairs more than in the character guides.

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Stories For Ugly Animals

In addition to the criticism writing, ecology writing and game design you all have grown to love here, I’ve started an additional side blog for sharing some of my illustrated stories.

The name ‘Stories For Ugly Animals’ comes from an anthology I once pitched which was to be a collection of children’s stories about non-stereotypical animal protagonists (heroic mosquitoes, nuturing sharks, wise hyenas, that sort of thing) and when I started putting this new blog together I decided to reuse the name. Eventually, some of the stories from that anthology will appear there as well. Some of my other narrative projects that had (I thought) trouble finding a proper form in game design (like Clione) may find their way there as well.

This week I posted the first story, The Princess Who Married The Moon.

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How do you solve a problem like the Ancient One?


Taken in isolation, there isn’t anything particularly strange or wrong with a character like Iron Fist. He’s a C-list superhero who’s had some good costumes and bad costumes, moments of popularity and moments of obscurity, and a generic enough power/origin story that combines several other story beats like “poor rich dude” and “given knowledge by hidden experts.” Unfortunately for Iron Fist, he doesn’t exist in isolation. He exists in the larger context of the Marvel universe and the even larger context of comics and pop culture history. In that context, Iron Fist has problems. He’s a white dude who is so good at martial arts that he’s the chosen champion of a nation in Asia with more vaguely exotic magic than identities or names. He, a white dude with the power of “trust fund” and “being the protagonist by default,” is better at his vaguely defined martial arts than any of the thousands of literally magic people who invented it, perfected it and have practiced it daily for a millennium. Again, in isolation even that wouldn’t be that big a deal, but he exists in a fictional universe with a serious dearth of Asian characters.

Try to name a few Asian super heroes in the Marvel universe. If you grew up in the 90s you’re probably already thinking of Jubilee. Good, she’s a cool character. You might also be thinking of Psylocke and then already wondering if she counts because of the whole “white British lady’s brain shoved into a Japanese woman’s body” thing. If you’re a hardcore nerd you can probably rattle off some more of the D-listers like Shang Chi, Jimmy Woo, Karma, Sunfire, Sister Grim, Amadeus Cho… maybe even Jolt of the Thunderbolts? Yeah, a lot of fun characters. Ok, great. Now how many of them can a non-nerd name based on their movie appearances? How many are going to headline something set in the Marvel cinematic or television universe or are even expected to appear? How many are going to define an actor’s career? … Yeah, exactly. So Iron Fist, the white dude whose power is being better at secret vaguely Asian magic-punching than anyone in Asia gets a TV show but we can expect to see an Asian super hero in…. Marvel Phase 7?

On top of that, we have Dr Strange. Dr Strange is slightly higher up on the hero food chain than Iron Fist (let’s generously call him B-list). In fact, Iron Fist takes a lot of his “rich schmuck stumbles into exotic greatness” origin directly from Dr Strange’s template. Stephen Strange is a wealthy, accomplished, dickish surgeon who injures his hands and is forced to give up his calling. In a fit of desperation, he travels to a monastery in Tibet and is trained in magic by the Tibetan mystic known as The Ancient One. After hard work, he becomes the Sorcerer Supreme, the most powerful magician in the universe, and decides to use that power to fight bank robbers. Oh, and his hands get perfectly healed because why not? Pretty basic stuff, and falling into the same trap of orientalism we saw with Iron Fist. Stephen Strange, white drunk failure, is destined to be better at Tibetan magic than any Tibetan.


But Marvel had a plan! They wouldn’t allow themselves to be accused of stereotyping Asian cultures or people. The Ancient One, generic ‘exotic mystic’ archetype, would be played by a woman! What progressive casting. Except… She was a white woman who was still playing a character who lives in Asia running an mystic monastery. So now instead of subverting any expectations we simply have a story where TWO white people get to be better at a culture than anyone belonging to the actual culture.

To be fair, nothing in the Ancient One’s appearances in comics has EVER been authentically Tibetan. Both the “magic Eastern magic” of Dr Strange and the “magic Eastern Kung fu city” of Iron Fist are based on reductive stereotypes. Asian actors are already pigeonholed into roles like those, so should we really be upset that Disney/Marvel is electing not to throw more generic stereotypes onto the pop culture pile? Isn’t Marvel trapped in a position where they either get grief for not casting an Asian actor or get grief for contributing to racist stereotypes?

The problem with that line of argument is that it presumes representation is an either/or proposition. The premise that you can ONLY have Iron Fist be a “mystic martial artist” of a racist variety if he’s played by an Asian actor, or that the Ancient One HAS to be a generic stereotype stock character, is faulty to begin with. It also presumes that you can only cast Asian actors in stereotyped roles. “Well, it’s either the wizened Tibetan mystic or nothing, sorry” isn’t a great argument, and yet I keep seeing nerds and nerd reporters uncritically repeating it. For another thing, it takes the movies in isolation from each other, when in fact, they are part of a much larger pattern of Marvel media. The great innovation the Marvel Method brought to pop culture was an interconnected fictional world on a scale never before heard of. If the Marvel cinematic/television universe had actual diversity, no one would bat an eye at the current Iron Fist or Dr Strange issues. But as already noted, this version of the Marvel universe is incredibly white. Asian people are just one of the many groups not represented by heroes of this world. In this larger context, the fact that Asian actors can’t even get to play such stereotypical roles doesn’t look like a blessing, it looks like another example of an entire group of people being shoved aside. This is only looking at it through the lens of one specific fictional universe of one company too. It gets even worse when we look at it in the larger context of American movies where any Asian character deemed “cool enough” gets cast as Scarlet Johansson. We steal Aang, Goku and others for our own, without even the pretense of reciprocation.


White characters in nerd media get to be anything they want. If a white boy wants to be the King of the African Jungle, then of course he can, it’s part of a grand tradition. If a white girl wants to dress “like a geisha” and be the best ninja ever, then its her right. How dare anyone suggest that such character types be reserved for any one group of people, isn’t that racism? Yet the presense of one black actor as a Norse God sends certain white people into pangs of existential horror. White Iron Fists and Ancient Ones are normal, expected to be uncontroversial even, yet mere discussion of Black James Bonds or Asian Dr Stranges are met with fury. Why is it so easy for us to conceive of a story about a white dude being the best at anything, yet not the inverse? Why do we never see the Iron Fist archetype as, say, a wealthy Vietnamese dilettante getting lost and stumbling upon a secret city of Roman descendants who practice a magic-infused version of cestus boxing? Or a Tarzan archetype story where Jane is a woman from Mali who finds an wild-man who had been lost in Alaska as a child and raised by bears, battling and surpassing the superstitious white villagers, and whom she must help adapt to the modern urban center of Timbuktu? Or the heir to the last great viking poet-king turn out to be from China? Why is a white Japanese cyborg normal but a black Batman not even suggested?

As far as we have come, too many of us white people still want to simultaneously have access to every space while angrily guarding our own. One “white space” is opened and we rant about “creeping PC culture” and “authenticity” but we throw our generic white trust fund protagonists into other cultures en masse and respond to their complaints with “its not serious, why do you want to keep people out! It’s a compliment! We’re saving you from stereotypes!” If you go by what the loudest white nerds scream, white identity is marked by a terrifying cross of fragility and entitlement. Luckily for white people everywhere, we’re actually not as fragile as we allow our worst nerds and studio executives to tell us we are. Whitewashed movies like Gods of Egypt, Dragonball Evolution, Last Airbender, etc have all bombed. Bombed HARD. Marvel is scrambling to damage control with Dr Strange so hard right now because they KNOW that even white people avoid these movies. Yet conversely, movies with diverse casts do well. Look at how white men came out to see The Force Awakens in huge numbers despite the presence of a woman and a black man as central characters. Studios insist that only white actors are bankable and yet all measurable evidence points to the contrary. The truth is, white people, like all people, like seeing many different kinds of characters on the big screen, and are fully capable of seeing themselves in the actions and emotions of people who are not like them on the surface. So why have we allowed inept, racist studios and their useful racist nerd fans to dictate the idea that white people are by definition fragile, xenophobic and petty? Why do we allow “whiteness” to be defined by a group of us who thinks so little of ourselves? Why do we ignore the simple economic reality that, even if they weren’t morally justified goals, diversity and representation sell?

The other problem with the “either/or, damned if they do” argument is that it presumes that a Dr Strange movie or an Iron Fist tv show NEED to exist. Despite what some nerds might think, none of the current new Marvel movie franchisees are based on popular enough characters to exist for their own sake. Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy knew this, and worked hard to justify why they deserved to exist. Audiences didn’t care that these versions differed from the comic book versions in significant ways. The Daredevil TV series, despite being based on a character at least more popular and known than Ant Man, still had to actually justify its purpose as part of Marvel’s larger narrative and themes, as well as demonstrate it had value and appeal to audiences on its own. So far, the Dr Strange movie has not tried to show us it has anything to it other than “hey here’s that one character you might know.” Corporate properties are rarely successful if they can’t justify their existence beyond “hey we own this thing, go see it.” This is why Avengers originally found huge success in focusing on strong character-focused drama, giving audiences a reason to care about what had previously been one of Marvel’s more aimless main properties (and the reason Fox and Sony had originally jumped on X-Men and Spiderman instead of any Avengers). On the flip side, not even the presence of beloved, near mythical icons like Batman and Superman could save the execrable and aimless Batman Vs Superman for very long and it has hemorrhaged ticket sales following its opening weekend. This is why the Jem and the Holograms movie tanked while the comic reboot is such a fan favorite. People will only reliably pay money to see media that justifies itself to the audience.


Marvel now insists that their movie version of the Ancient One is “Celtic” and therefore the casting choice is not erasing anyone, and yet the character still lives in Asia (now Nepal to avoid angering the lucrative Chinese market) and runs a Magic Eastern Monastery(tm). Why not move the location to Ireland? Or somewhere else in Europe? It would make more sense for that interpretation, and there is no shortage to wonderful stories of magic traditions to draw from. Hell, if you are so desperate for a story of someone from another culture being drawn into a world of old magic, why not then cast an Asian actor as Dr Strange? The amount of people who would go see a Dr Strange movie simply because it was a Dr Strange movie is negligible. The amount of people who would go to see a character-driven story that justified its existence, combined with the amount of people who would go to see a character like themselves represented in a movie, is significantly more than that. On the other hand, they could have just as easily kept the original Ancient One backstory and just put thought into it. There’s no reason Dr Strange AND his mentor can’t both be not-white, if you really want to move away from the orientalism of the original comic. There is not shortage of Asian actresses that could have played the Ancient one and allowed Marvel to retain their “subversive” casting plans without whitewashing the film, and no shortage of Asian actors and actresses to play Strange or any number of other Marvel characters across any number of genres and backgrounds. How could Marvel have solved the Ancient One or Iron Fist problems? A better question would be, of the near countless ways, which would have been the most interesting? That is a larger discussion, and I wish Marvel/Disney had enough respect for their audience to ask it.

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