Aftershock Comics' Alters volume one, coming out this Wednesday, enjoyed a fair bit of attention back when the series started. The reason was because the series would feature a trans lead character as the focus of this first volume of stories – and the reaction that this was being handled not by a trans creator, but rather by writer Paul Jenkins.
I'll admit, I went into reading this series with some trepidation: seeing a trans character written not just by a writer who is not trans themselves, but also doesn't identify as any part of the LGBTIA community, I feared the possibility of clumsy tropes, heavy-handed metaphor and humour that missed the point, or worse, was actually offensive.
It's certainly happened before, and while part of me is always happy to see any representation of voices that are not often seen, it's frankly gotten to the point where those audiences that do identify as those under-represented communities are tired of attempts that cause more anger than happiness. And similarly, no matter what the optics of a middle-aged white cis-gender man writing about a minority group like the voice of authority is always going to scan badly.
In Alters, we do get some of it. Early issues in the volume have some scenes that….don't read too well. For example, there's a scene in the first issue, which I think many may have seen in articles in the past, that just doesn't track well.
The longing look at the wig on the nightstand, the fondling of her face as she wears it, the fact that she refers to her female identity as another person, and not her actual self: it tracks poorly. It reads wrong, and like the heavy-handed idea of what that person may be going through, without actual understanding.
But what I will say is this: it improves. Jenkins even makes a point of saying as much himself in the editorial notes, which have also been included in the collected edition. In this, we learn that with each issue, Jenkins would learn new things, that the project included trans consultants as well as trans colourist Tamra Bonvillain, and that Jenkins was working hard to be as informed as possible, whilst also being open to correction and new lessons.
And as the story, which follows Charlie a.k.a. Chalice, a young trans woman starting her transition, living with her family while still in the closet, and also dealing with her discovery that she is an Alter, a growing group of humans with superhuman abilities that is emerging in the world, progresses, the amount of nuance to the representation of the trans issues improves. But perhaps more importantly, the trans aspect is not the character's or the story's main or only focus.
Yes, they touch on it often, but the main thrust of the story is much more about being in the closet and the situation with Alters emerging in the world, and Chalice's nemesis, Matter Man.
Overall, the story does feel familiar. It's not a million miles away from Marvel's merry mutants. But it is a bit of a more modern update at times, and more importantly, it's fun! The story is a fun, entertaining one, though admittedly, the villain at times is a little hammy and OTT.
The art is great too, and again improves as the story progresses. Yes, Leila Leiz's art is fantastic from the get-go, but as the story reaches it's climax it gets even better, smoother, more fluid.
Despite the well-publicised concerns over who was telling this kind of story, I have to admit, Alters is overall really an enjoyable read. It does end with a number of dangling plot threads, which I would have liked to see resolved in this first arc, but hopefully these will be completed in following arcs.