I love to write. For the most part, it comes easier and faster for me than drawing or cartooning.
Ruminations and observations from my trip to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in 2004-2005.
More ramblings from my trip to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia in 2006.
Heroes Wear Tights: A Look at Transgendered Characters in Comic Books
A paper I presented at the San Diego Comic Con in 2003.
Blood For Pachamama
My experience at a blood ceremony in the central Bolivian highlands in 2002.
Ruminations and observations from my trip to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in 2004-2005.
MOST PROFOUND REVELATIONS ABOUT RELIGION
The thing that first struck me about Theravada Buddhism (which is the form practiced in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, but not in Vietnam, where Mahayana Buddhism is dominant), is that to the ignorant observer such as myself, it looks a lot like Catholicism. They're both focused on the teachings, character, and visual image of one man (the endless seated and reclining buddhas become as mind numbingly similar as all the crucified Jesuses), they both have monks in cool robes (though saffron beats brown hands down), and neither of them is afraid of kitsch. Neon halos on the buddhas, anyone?
The differences between the two religions are also interesting. Whereas Christians regard their prophet as an actual god (or rather one of the triple manifestations of the one God), Buddhists view the Buddha as a normal man who achieved enlightenment, to which every person can aspire given a few lifetimes of hard work.
Buddhism also, in my view, comes much closer to the reality of death. Whereas I don't believe in reincarnation, except as a beautiful allegory for the dissolution of the body and the subsequent rebirth of our components in other forms like a worm or a flower, I think the idea of nirvana is spot-on. Christianity's idea that after death our consciousnesses remain essentially unchanged, and that we get sent somewhere where they either stick bird-wings into our scapulas or beat us for eternity with hot pokers, seems unspeakably silly. When we die, we die. End of story. Our consciousness is dissolved into the universality that exists behind such things, which nirvana is as good a name for as any.
My problem with Buddhism is that the crux of its teachings concentrates on getting us to nirvana as quickly as possible. In Vientiane, Laos, I had a little breakdown at a particularly vulnerable moment and ended up laying on the ground of a temple crying to myself (don't worry, I was alone). It was all because of my intense love of life and therefore fear of death, which I realized would always keep me from Buddhism, in which the first Noble Truth is that "life is suffering."
Life is not suffering, not for me! I don't want nirvana! I don't want to die! I love life, the grand, majestic mystery, in all its often gritty, seedy glory, and I can't imagine wanting to dissolve my consciousness any sooner than I have to! I'd much rather keep on getting reincarnated than dissolve into the eternal.
MOST INSURMOUNTABLE CULTURAL DIFFERENCE:
The mole hairs. Throughout South East Asia (especially in Myanmar, for some reason) there is a grooming tradition for men in which the long, wiry hairs that grow from facial moles are actually cultivated. Faces otherwise completely shaven will sport anything from a few hairs reaching out like thin, twisted fingers, to a shock of hair up to several inches long. The hair is usually black, though some older men have white mole hair.
I pride myself in my acceptance of cultural differences, but the mole shrubbery took some getting used to. I had to resist staring, especially when the men would carefully stroke their hairs, as well as fight the urge to just reach out and yank on them. I felt like it would wave at me when people talked or smiled at me, and I just wanted it to stop.
The mole hair look was particularly difficult when combined with the:
MOST DISGUSTING STIMULANT
The beetle nut. Wrapped up in a bundle of leaf, the beetle nut is chewed for its mild stimulant effect, like smoking tobacco or chewing coca leaf, and is similarly addictive. It's mostly an old-person thing (though it's also popular among the younger generations in Myanmar), and there's nothing like a wrinkled face flashing a big, beetle-nut smile of bright red, bloody-looking gums and rotted, blackened teeth.
BEST PLACE FOR A SPIDER MAN FIGHT SCENE
The ruins of Angkor in Cambodia. Angkor Wat, the largest and one of the best preserved of the ruins, would be the best place for a truly spectacular battle. I spent many slack-jawed moments staring out across the three levels of immense, intricately decorated buildings and pillared halls, imagining Spider Man scampering through a tight, shadowy hallway to evade pursuit, then crawling across the sheer walls and impossibly steep staircases covered in friezes of apsara (sacred women dancers with perfect circular breasts and fingers hyper-extended backward in graceful arches), and finally flinging himself out over one of the great, central courtyards, catching the carved side of a tower with his web, and swinging back around to land a kick on his enemy's jaw with an appropriate POW!
Unfortunately, the adversary would be Angkorr (double "r" intended), a little known and particularly idiotic Marvel super-villain who materialized from the mystical ruins of mysterious Angkor to menace the world's heroes in some lame 80's comic. Sad to think that's the only Cambodian character in American comic books...
BEST PLACE FOR A FEEDING FRENZY
The tailor shops of Hoi An. Hoi An is a gorgeous little port town in Vietnam, full of amazing Chinese and European colonial architecture… but I barely saw it, as I was in the midst of a shopping frenzy. All I could see was fabric like fresh blood in the water. Now mind you, I HATE to shop, especially for clothes, and am extremely bad at it. It intimates and frustrates me and makes me feel inadequate as a gay man. But luckily my mom and Sarah were with me to show me how it's done. Each day I warmed up to the process a little (it certainly helped that it only cost around $10 to get a shirt custom made in one day), and ordered clothing a little more daring… so that by the time we left I was actually eyeing the Chinese buttons and flared silk pants. Mercifully I was gone before it all got out of hand.
In one of the tailor shops a really amazing thing happened. I met:
THE MOST FAMOUS PERSON OF MY TRIP
There was a couple that caught my eye. She was a gaunt, white woman in her 50's, her face taut from too much plastic surgery, and with fancy sunglasses perched on top of her big, bleached hair. She looked like she was from Florida, but her accent was Australian. She was arguing in tight, clipped tones with the saleswomen about a suit for her husband, a handsome man with a full head of silver hair. He was, in fact, going for the Chinese buttons… under her direction of course. We joked about how we needed women in our lives to help dress us.
The next day I met another Aussie couple in the same store (she was also directing his clothing purchases), who told me that I had met Bob Hawke, the prime minister of Australia from 1980 to 1990, and also the Guinness Book of World Records holder for drinker of the tallest beer mug. I wasn't sure which title was more important to them, and to Australia in general. His wife was Blanche D'Alpuget (I'm not making up her name…), a writer who apparently was interviewing Hawke for a biography when they started dating.
I thought it was incredibly cool to have met them, but my mom told me I was being silly when I kept on mentioning it. And in truth it was pretty negligible compared to:
THE OTHER FAMOUS PERSON I MET
OK, so Esia isn't that famous really… which is a crying shame. John Weeks, an expat mini-comics creator living in Phnom Penh, introduced me to Esia, one of Cambodia's greatest living cartoonists. He produced comics in the 1980's, after the Khmer Rouge had been deposed and the Vietnamese were in control of the country. Unfortunately Cambodian comics publishing died out after the Vietnamese left, and all the comics sold in markets across Cambodia now are reprints from the 80's… from which the cartoonists make nothing, of course.
Esia is a masterful artist, even more impressive considering that he now has partial paralysis on the right side of his body and has had to teach himself how to draw again with his left hand. He ekes out a living by illustrating educational tracts for aid groups operating in the country, and doesn't do comics persay anymore. He does, however, have a graphic novel of over a hundred pages that's virtually finished, for which John can hopefully find some funding to print it. It was amazing meeting him, a genuine Cambodian national treasure, and a truly world-class cartoonist.
By the way, speaking of the Khmer Rouge, they were truly the:
Visiting S.O. 21, the grade school that Pol Pot and his cronies turned into a torture and death camp, was like visiting Auschwitz. The Khmer Rouge killed probably around 1.5 million people (they're still finding mass graves, so the number will always be uncertain), and at least that number died from starvation and hardship during their reign. Because bullets were scarce, most of the victims were bludgeoned to death or hacked apart by machete. There is a tree in the killing fields against which they would bash the babies' brains out.
When you hire a moto dop (motorcycle taxi driver) to take you to the killing fields, he will invariably ask you whether afterwards you want to go to the shooting range nearby as an additional attraction. Apparently you can pay extra money for them to put a chicken out on the range for you to shoot, and I heard a rumor that if you pay $100 you can bazooka a cow.
We humans respond to death strangely.. Which brings me to:
THE STRANGEST CORPSE
Ho Chi Minh takes the cake. Apparently he asked to be cremated upon his death, but the Vietnamese government knows a good personality cult when it sees one, and had him embalmed instead, a la Lenin. Once a year he gets sent to Russia for touch-ups. I filed past his corpse, looking like a Madame Toussaud wax figure in repose and bathed in an eerie white light, with my hat in my hands alongside a crowd of Vietnamese school children on a propaganda field trip.
After leaving the mausoleum, which is a tremendous display of socialist-style architecture, I plunged back into the streets of Hanoi, which are a tremendous display of unbridled capitalism. I wonder what Uncle Ho would say about the new Vietnam.
BEST PLACE IN WHICH I SHOULD HAVE SPENT MORE TIME
Luang Prabang, the jewel of Laos. This is one of those true rarities in the world, a city combining a stunning location (at the intersection of the Mekong and Khan rivers) with gorgeous architecture (both French colonial buildings and old Buddhist temples), beautiful arts and crafts, good food, friendly people, an unusually interesting selection of travelers and expats, and a temple-studded Mount Phousi (pronounced "pussy"… tee hee hee) rising up in the middle of the city. I highly recommend this place. I spent about four days there, and wish it had been longer.
STRANGEST POSITION IN THAI MASSAGE
You have the client lying face down on the floor. Spread his/her legs and bend them at the knees. Sit down on the client's raised feet, above his/her buttocks. Reach down and pull the client's arms back so that his/her hands are resting on your thighs, palms down. Reach under the client's shoulders to the front of the deltoids and pull back three times, arching his/her back with a soft, medium, and hard stretch.
Do not try this at home.
BEST WAY TO WIN AN ICE CREAM CONE
My mom and Sarah and I had a running game as we traveled in Vietnam. We would count the number of white man/ Asian woman combos that we observed (there were around 20 a day on average, and covered a full range from sex tourism to marriage), and we would get a free ice cream cone when we spotted an Asian man/ white woman combo. There were three free ice creams in two weeks.
In Thailand, quite possibly the biggest sex tourist destination in the world, the daily count would, of course, have been much, much higher… but still not a lot of ice cream cones.
THE MOST AMAZING THING SEEN IN BANGKOK'S RED LIGHT DISTRICT
You think I'm going to write this down here? Are you crazy? My parents are reading this travelogue…
More ramblings from my trip to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia in 2006.
WORLD'S LARGEST FOUNTAIN
Singapore is a country that has been eaten alive by shopping malls. There is
one on virtually every block and they often connect to each other by
air-conditioned walkways, creating a sprawling purgatory of bright, twinkling
lights, non-confrontational background music, smiling sales ladies, and
shopping. Like the world of Las Vegas' casinos, it is hard to find your way
out after you have ventured inside; the malls are intent on devouring you as
thoroughly as they have the land of Singapore, which apparently was, until
recently, a sleepy fishing community.
Now, clearly I am a biased observer. I HATE malls. They give me a rash if I
get stuck inside for too long. Singapore has made its pact with the twin
devils of consumerism and authoritarianism, and from all accounts most people
are happy with the bargain. And who am I, privileged first-worlder that I am,
to judge them for trading fishing nets for Prada bags?
But I figured that just maybe the "Fountain of Wealth" was an attraction worth
going to. It sounded historical, fountains have a ring of culture to them, and
so I, desperate for somewhere to go that did not contain a perfume store,
decided to venture out my last night in Singapore, despite being tired and
foot-sore from so much unaccustomed walking.
Of course getting to the fountain entailed trudging through miles of malls. I
watned to walk on actual streets, but it proved impossible. The fountain was
surrounded by malls on all sides, in the middle of a high speed roundabout with
no side walks; pedestrians were expected to get to the fountain by an
underground mall access. I finally stumbled upong it, my mind's eye burned
with after images of boutique clothing stores and Starbucks displays, to
find... the largest fountain in the world. That's right, more water is pumped
through the Fountain of Wealth than any other; it's an enormous metallic circle
on three prongs reaching up three stories that lives to squirt water.
I was lucky enough to arrive in time for the famous nightly light show, which
consisted of laser projections of ads along with messages written by the
spectators ("George luvs Lisa! Singapore 4 ever!") projected on the spray.
The Fountain of Wealth is without a doubt not only the "world's largest
fountain," but also the "world's least cultural fountain," the mutant, gushing
baby of the malls in which it is cradled.
I stared at the monstrosity with mouth agape and feet throbbing, struggling to
keep my sense of humor. And then I looked up at the crowds gathered above at
the fountain's street level and everything got significantly more disturbing.
The throngs of people there were all high school kids in matching ad-sponsored,
soaking, school-trip t-shirts, and they were all dancing in unison. There were
specific steps, done in specific, lurching rhythms by gangly teenagers, who
occasionally would stop and begin clapping and cheering and jumping up and
down, hugging each other excitedly.
I went up to the ground level to get a closer look. It is impossible to
describe the sheer gusto with which the youths were performing their routines.
Even though I must have spent a dumbfounded half an hour staring at them, I
couldn't figure out who was leading the dances and how they all knew when to
stop, cheer and clap, and then start again. Eventually they all, through
another mysterious signal (perhaps emitted from the fountain on some teen
hormonal wavelength?), put their hands on each other's shoulders and ran around
the fountain squealing with delight, changing direction in unison according to
more unseen signals.
My lips curled in unbidden disgust. Here were high school students
demonstrating feverish happiness, loads of community spirit, and healthy,
flushed faces (which are all good things, right?), and all I could see was
horror. Who were these Stepford children? What kind of drugs were they
feeding them? Where were the glowering bullies, the disgruntled goth kids, the
brow-beaten brainiacs, the teenage dropouts from my high school? American teens
wouldn't be caught dead acting like that! These kids needed a good beating!
Not that I was going to be the one to give it to them. Singapore had won. I
was confused, exhausted in body and spirit, and all I wanted was to slink back
to my hostel and lick my wounds. I looked around me... Beyond the hectic
roundabout surrounding the fountain was literally a fortress of malls, in my
weary eyes extending and refracting into infinity like the sea. It would not
be an easy walk back.
A thin, young man hunched over in the midst of a small group of people, his face
smeared with red paint. His tongue darted back and forth in his opened mouth as
they put the bright, silver hooks in his back. Some of the hooks were attached
to green oranges that dangled brilliantly against his dark skin; others
connected to chains that his friend gathered behind him in one hand. The
friend pulled on the chains, while with his other hand he steadied the young
man, chanting words of encouragement in his ear.
In front of the bent-over man stood an even thinner one, stripped to the waist
as well and wearing layers of sarongs and sashes. He, however, was also
adorned with garlands of flowers, a turban of sorts, and was smoking heavily
and theatrically on a cheap cigar. He tilted his painted face back and laughed
a silent, grotesque laugh, smoke spilling out of his contorted mouth. His arms
came back, the fingers twisted and locked like a butoh dancer.
The man next to me saw me staring, nudged me, and said "the god" and made a
motion of something landing on his head. I nodded and took the last picture on
the disposable camera I had gotten specifically for the occasion before wading
back into the heart of the surging crowd. This was Thaipusam, Malaysia's most
important Hindu celebration, which takes place every year by the Batu caves
outside of Kuala Lumpur.
I tried to stay to the side of the procession but invariably became a part of
it, sucked in by the pressure of bodies, inching forward in a rhythm completely
out of my control.
Milk splashed on my shoulder as a woman pushed up against me, eyes closed and
holding a decorated copper jug on her head, her cheeks pierced by a long,
silver skewer and her forheard and hair running with spilt milk. Behind her a
group of musicians picked up their pace, men banging out rhythms on drums and
cymbals, with one chanting into a microphone, urging them on. I've heard
Indian drumming before, and have marvelled at its careful complexity, but this
was different. This was trance music, ecstatic pounding.
A chill went up me and brought tears to my eyes. A man strapped with an
enormous Hindu icon began spinning. He was holding an orange up in the last
two fingers of his raised right hand, his head bobbing from side to side with a
frozen smile on his face and his tongue hanging out, pierced by a long
decorative skewer. His feet danced and the icon spun in its spectacular,
layered crown of peacock feathers as tall as its bearer and three times as
wide. The icon was mounted upon a metallic star, and from each of its many
points hung a cahin which looped around to hook into the dancer's back, chest
and belly. He spun, the feathers waved and bobbed, the drummers struck harder
and more insistent rhythms, the singer cried out into his clutched microphone,
beads of sweat popping along his jaw and forehead.
Finally the dancer stumbled to the end of his spinning. Helpers rushed forward
to adjust the weight-bearing struts on his shoulders and reattach hooks and
chains. A woman, solemn-faced, stepped up to the dancer holding her young boy
in her arms, who had just been shaved and his bald head covered in yellow
paint. The dancer stopped, concentrating, and reached up to the boy, pressing
the orange to his small forehead until the juice ran down and his baby face
trembled. His mother then pulled him away as he began to cry, petting at his
The crowd swept onwards and there were fewer and fewer moments of rest or spaces
for anything but the crush of bodies. We surged in slow, crushing waves towards
the 272 stairs leading up the Batu caves, where hundreds of thousands of
worshippers were converging, searching for purification. The pressure
increased; we were being funnelled from a wide crowd into a single stairway
wide enough for three or four people. I took full, deep breaths to prevent my
ribs from being squeezed out by the people hugging me like bandages.
Finally I made my way through the funnel and up the stairs, lurching in step
with the others and trying not to fall backwards onto some heavily pierced
penitent. When I got to the top of the stairs I made my way quickly to the
side as the space widened, enabling the crowd to thin out.
Up against a railing, I was catching my breath when two very blonde South
African woman came up to me and asked me to take their picture. I said of
course, and got the two of them smiling in front of the dark mouth of the cave,
in which you couild make out the soft glow of fire from the temples full of
candles inside. It was a good picture, I think. I handed it back and the one
woman said "So what do you think?"
"It's amazing," I replied.
"Well, it's really very sad."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, we're Christians, so we know that they're lost." She gestured out across
the crowds. "All this, and they're lost. It's sad."
I stepped back dumbfounded, and they moved quickly on. What I should have said,
and what I have been repeating to myself for two days now, fantasizing that I
could conjure up this woman once more in her canary-yellow polo shirt, is:
"Lost? Are you out of your fucking mind? Look around you! They found it! It
found them! You'd have to have the skin of a thick, hairy coconut not to
recognize the spiritual power swirling around us! The divine just reached up
and slapped you in the face, lady, and you didn't even notice!"
"What happened to your religion, your spiritual life, that you can't appreciate
transcendance? Where are your ecstatic dances, your piercings and blood
lettings, your speaking in tongues, your fasting visions, your peyote rituals,
your dovenings and chantings and Suffic whirlings? Where's the blood? For
Christ's sake, your religion was born in it, bleeding feet and hands nailed to
wood; you even drink your savior's blood and devous his body every Sunday! When did yhou drain Christianity of its blood, making it as pale and dry as
Of course I didn't say that to her, and I'll never have another chance to. My
only hope is that she'll wake up in a cold sweat some night, thinking of the
drumming of the Thaipusam, and she'll figure out: what would Jesus really do?
It seems to me that one of the fundamental goals of religion is to create
transcendance, and then to bring what is learned by that back into our daily
lives. But there is a struggle within all religious traditions between the two
sides of this project, between the experiential and the social, between
transcendance and order. Some elements focus on the teachings of their
prophets, while making sure that no one else has any new visions that could
interfere with their interpretations, and others encourage new visions, and
I'm sure Hinduism contains both of these elements as well, but I for one am glad
to have landed, at least for a day, smack dab in the middle of the spinning, the
pounding, the chanting, and the blood.
OLD MUSLIM MEN:
I love old Muslim men. I love their big, white beards, spreading
electric from their chins. I love their lined faces, hunched postures,
and bright eyes. The dignified way their caps sit on their heads and
their long shirts bunch in liver-spotted hands. The way they eat,
scooping rice vigorously with their hard, right hands. Their toothy
smiles and judging glances heavy with bushy eyebrows.
But what I love most is something that is revealed in the way they
shuffle confidently through the marketplace and wave gnarled fingers at
children when they play too loudly, the way in which they are present and
solid. It comes from the dignity of being listened to, of being
respected and noticed. Old men where I come from, so often without that,
seem like ghosts in comparison, already dead and translucent, back to pad
half-seen about us younger people.
WORLD'S MOST X-TREME DESERT:
It was so hot and humid in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's sticky capital, that
I gave carte blanche to a desert maker in a local food court? and wound
up with one of the most exciting snacks of my trip.
I was in KL's bustling Chinatown, a backpacker magnet trying its decadent
best to be Bangkok's Khao San Road. Despite the fans spraying little
jets of mist out onto the seating area in which I was slurping noodles,
the heat was killing me. I needed sweet and I needed cold, and I needed
it fast. The desert guy saw this, sauntered over to my table, smiled and
said "ABC ice?" I of course said, "yes, please." Anything with "ice" in
the name had a particular allure at the moment.
Soon, the vendor came back with a gigantic mound of multi-colored shaved
ice in a big bowl. The mound was as large as my head, and topped with
fruits and syrups. He made me understand that I had to eat quickly, as
the bowl wouldn't be able to contain the melted desert and I would wind
up with an enormous puddle spilling onto the table.
ABC ice? Even now, a few months later, the words conjure feelings of
awe. It was a bold desert, unafraid to contain virtually everything you
could think of. Underneath the fruit, syrup, and ice were chunks of
black jello, green jellied worm things, sweet, canned corn, peanuts,
kidney beans, more unidentifiable jelly things, and of course a bedrock
of sweetened, condensed milk.
On top of being exciting, ABC ice was also quite tasty (though I could
have done without the peanuts, actually), and it cooled me down for sure.
I got the brain freeze and the sugar buzz I was looking for, thanks to
the world's most extreme desert.
I'm here at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, one of the greatest
masterpieces of the colonial era. I'm sitting on a plush wicker chair on
a marble veranda tucked between the opulent hotel entrance and one of the
many verdant courtyards. My shoes are off; I feel decadent.
It shames me to admit it, but I love the trappings of old school
colonialism. I know it's wrong to revel in a culture of exploitation,
but dammit, the aesthetics were marvelous! All the whitewashed verandas
and elaborate courtyards of columns and arches adorned with faded
European motifs. The palm trees, ferns, and exotic broad-leaved plants
forced with European rigor into tight rows along walkways enclosing large
squares of grass so evenly mowed you could bounce a polo ball off it.
These lawns sprinkled with benches of metal filigree and lawn cherubs who
lounge seductively beside the gravel pathways, beckoning with graceful,
chubby fingers. The marble stairs, more white set with blue veins, like
a faded Caucasian who hides from the sun and starts to go translucent
with age. And even now you can see them, the old white men dressed in
white linen strolling along the marble floors, casting just the hint of a
shadow on white walls. White on white on white. Accentuated only by the
dark stained teak of certain shutters and windows, the baked, rippling
russets of roof tiles, and the blood splash of a red carpet stretched out
across a marble entrance.
God, it's all so sexy! The languid, graceful fingers of ceiling fans pet
the heavy air, coax it just enough to whisper the clean, starched table
cloths, the fern potted in blue and white ceramic, the elaborate, ivory
outfits of swarthy door men and waiters.
Absurd. Grotesque. Colonialism wrought such havoc? but there is the
undeniable allure, perhaps buried deep in my European genes, of the
elegance of this surreal snow globe in the middle of a world of such
SWALLOWING A COBRA'S HEART:
Jogyakarta is considered the artistic and cultural capital of Java, and
is my favorite of the cities that I visited in Indonesia. It's vibrant
and bustling but without the overcrowded and dingy feel of Jakarta, full
of history and things to do and see, and with friendly people to boot.
I'm also a sucker for anyplace where all modes of transit coexist on the
same streets, something that has become increasingly rare in the world.
There's nothing better than dodging bicycles, becap (tricycle taxis),
andung (horse-drawn carriages), motorbikes, and cars all at once.
I also had the good fortune to meet Mario, a German who had been living
in Indonesia, in Jogya. Meeting Mario was a coup that added to the whole
experience of the city, both because of his easy company and his facility
with Bahasa Indonesia, the national language.
On my last night in the city before we separated and I went off to Bali,
we decided to eat something exotic that we hadn't tried before. We
noticed a small stand on the side of one of the main roads advertising
satay, an Indonesian specialty of marinated, grilled meat on thin wooden
skewers served with a spicy peanut sauce. Both of us had had plenty of
satay before, but the difference was that the specialty of the stand was
horsemeat, which neither of us had tried before.
The woman running the stand threw a woven mat down in the abandoned
parking lot behind the roadside stand and grilled us up some fresh, tasty
horse. We ate our satay lounging under the two or three stars that poked
through Jogya's pollution layer, talking through the dense, layered din
of Indonesian traffic.
After we finished the meal, we thanked the woman, Mario telling her that
we appreciated the opportunity to try some exotic meat. She asked us if
we had ever eaten cobra. Our eyes widened, and she became excited...
This was not just food, she told us, but medicine! Eating cobra
increases vitality, and cured her of her Hepatitis A after the hospitals
had failed. She told us to meet her at the stand at 8:00 am the next
morning, and she would take us to the snake man. We were thrilled at our
The next day we stopped by on the motorbike we were renting (I was riding
on the back, so anyone who knows about my driving skills should just
relax), and followed the woman and her husband on a half-hour drive to
the outskirts of town, where the urban environment began to crack apart,
crumbling asphalt and decaying buildings finally giving way to dirt roads
and ordered rice fields.
We finally came to a family compound that was most notable for the
nine-foot long snakeskin tacked down to boards and left to dry in the sun
by the entrance. A couple, in their seventies but with skin aged hard
from their own exposure to the Indonesian sun, came out to greet us and
invite us into their simple, concrete building. Neither of them could
speak any English, and the man only minimal Bahasa Indonesian (he spoke a
tribal tongue from the Jogya area), so most of the communication was
through his wife and Mario, with help from our friends from the roadside
The man, smiling a broad, toothy grin, hauled out a large, writhing,
black bag. He pulled it open, and we could see a mass of seething snakes
inside. The man sat back on his haunches for a moment, contemplating,
and then struck, reaching quickly into the churning bodies and pulling
out a four-foot long cobra.
He threw the snake to the floor, where it immediately raised itself up
and flared its hood, hissing. Mario and I steeped back quickly. I like
to think that I didn't squeal, but I can't be sure.
The man laughed and stepped on the snake expertly, his bare foot inches
behind the hood, holding the cobra in place. Mario asked him why he
didn't wear gloves or shoes (all he had on was a t-shirt and shorts) and
he laughed some more and said he's been doing this since he was fifteen,
and wasn't afraid.
He then grabbed the cobra behind the head with his left hand, put it down
on a wooden block, hauled out a butcher knife with his right hand, and
chopped the head off with one clean stroke. The wife brought over a cup
full of (as she explained to Mario) Red Bull and honey, and the man held
the snake's body over the cup, pouring as much of the blood as possible
into the mixture. I looked over at the head, and noticed it was still
trying to bite even after the decapitation, grotesquely flipping itself
over by the movements of its jaw. The body continued thrashing as well,
even after the man had skinned it and dumped it into a bucket of water.
After the quick wash, he hauled the still-quivering body out of the
water, and used his knife to pry out the spinal cord. Then came the
liver, penis (which is predictably small on a snake), and finally the
still-beating heart of the cobra. All of this was dropped into the cup
of sweet, bloody Red Bull.
The man handed the cup to me with another big smile. His wife explained
to Mario that this drink was good for vitality and strength? She said
this with a wink and flexed her arm, bringing her fist up in an
unmistakable sign for a very particular kind of vitality and strength.
She and her husband were concerned for me, as I had explained that I was
thirty-five but had no wife or children. Clearly I needed some help of
the kind that a good, old-fashioned cobra drink could give me.
I grimaced, thanked them, and peered down into the murky contents of the
cup. The heart was still beating under the oily, surface slick of blood.
I brought it to my lips, opened them, hesitated? and then downed it, fast.
The taste, or what I could discern of it in my fast gulping, was actually
not so bad. Red Bull, honey, and blood actually go quite well together,
it seems. As for the organs? well, they slid right down. I don't think
I could actually feel the beating heart as it went down my throat, but my
imagination made up the difference. I tried to stay alert to any extra
vitality, but, while there was certainly an adrenaline rush, I don't
think this Indonesian medicine will be taking the place of Viagra any
What an amazing thing to be able to look at Raksasa, the Balinese demons, under a darkening, purpling sky. The endless sculptures and reliefs that protect entranceways from supernatural evils, their round and bulging eyes and wide, leering smiles spilling with fangs and framed by rippling lips, at once ornate, terrifying, and slightly goofy. Bats flutter into the sky, replacing sunlight's sparrows, darting back and forth in the last bit of purple, then grey, then darkness. I stare hard at the demon before me waving a wicked looking machete. I am trying to draw him in my notebook but his features fade to a silhouette before I can capture more than his outline, his wide, drugged eyes and four of his monstrous teeth. I can feel him still smiling at me in the dark.
HEROES WEAR TIGHTS: A LOOK AT TRANSGENDERED CHARACTERS IN COMIC BOOKS
By Justin Hall
Although transgendered* characters are a rare phenomenon in American comic books, the books that have featured them encompass a surprisingly large range, from Gilbert Hernandez's groundbreaking "Love and Rockets" to Eric Larsen's superhero comic "Savage Dragon" to Guy Davis' punk-rock mystery series "Baker Street." These characters are virtually all strong and sympathetic figures and are handled by some of the best creators in the comic book medium; lesser cartoonists simply steer away from creating such problematic characters.
Three of the most important and visible transgendered characters in American comics are Wanda, the pre-op transsexual from the "A Game of You" story line in "The Sandman"; Lord Fanny, the transvestite shaman of "The Invisibles"; and Bill, a fantastical transgendered superhero in the pages of "Promethea." These three protagonists are all
powerful and heroic figures, and sexualizing presences as well. This is especially evident
* A note: Though the semantics of gender bending are very much in debate, for the purpose of this article I will be using the term "transvestite" to mean someone who dresses in the "opposite" gender's clothing, "transsexual" to mean someone who identifies and lives as the gender into which he or she was not born (this includes the pre-op, or before sex-change surgery, and post-op transsexual), and "transgendered person" as a catch-all phrase that includes the previous two identities.
in the context of comic book heroism and superheroism, which has been deliberately asexual for so long. The more openly fetishistic and sexualized nature of the
transgendered character, combined with her inarguable similarity to the superhero, allows
for a more revealing look at the fetishism inherent in superheroism itself.
All three stories also deal with the breakdown of conventional notions of reality. In all of them time, death, and material reality are subverted. This subversion is facilitated by the inclusion of the transgendered character, who acts as a destabilizing agent or as a built-in allegory for the limitations of perceived reality.
Marjorie Garber, in her book Vested Interests, makes an important statement about the effects of transvestism in an artistic work. She identifies what she terms the "transvestite effect," where cross-dressers by their very presence in a body of work challenge binary views of reality:
The.. presence of a transvestite in a text…that does not seem, thematically, to be primarily concerned with gender difference or blurred gender indicates a category crisis elsewhere, an irresolvable conflict or epistemological crux that destabilizes comfortable binarity, and displaces the resulting discomfort onto a figure that already inhabits, indeed incarnates, the margin. (Garber 16-17)
In the three texts discussed here only one of the characters, Lord Fanny, is an actual transvestite, but the concept applies equally well to the other transgendered characters and their stories. "Category crisis" is rampant; fixed perceptions of time -- as well as conventional distinctions between life and death, dreams and the waking world, or imagination and reality-- are all subverted. The transgendered hero, besides her obvious challenge to gender roles, also either directly upsets a host of other conventions or enables that process through her presence in the story.
"A Game of You," the storyline running from issue thirty-two to issue thirty-seven of "The Sandman" featuring the transsexual Wanda, revolves around a series of category crises. The drama focuses on how the two worlds of the dreaming and the waking world, which are supposedly separate and inviolable, begin to bleed into one another. Neil Gaiman, the series' writer, begins the storyline with Martin Tenbones, one of the dream friends of the main character Barbie, coming over into the "real" world to ask Barbie for help and then dying there, shot by police officers. Thessaly the witch, in turn, leads two other women (the three of them a bizarre and distorted representation of the triple goddess: crone, mother, and maid) along the moon's road to bodily incarnatation in the dream world. The binary opposition between the dream world and the waking world has been challenged.
It is Wanda, however, who is left behind when the others leave the waking world for the Dreaming. Thessaly doesn't let her walk the moon's road to the Dreaming because the moon only lets women take that route. One category crisis, that of Wanda's sex, prevents her from being part of another, the crossing of the boundary between dream and reality. Gaiman has set up a story device in which it is the transsexual, because of her "falseness," who must remain in the real world and ultimately die there. This calls extra attention to the destabilization of the conventional boundary between dream and the waking world, the primary category crisis occurring in the story; the figure who is the narrative's anchor to reality is the most false.
Gaiman also plays with the distinction between life and death: the first character to die in the story, George, has his skin, eyeballs, and tongue removed from his face by Thessaly and nailed to a wall so that she can call him back from the dead to tell her of her enemy. She also brings back the spirit of Wilkinson, a dream creature "killed" by the villain's henchmen, to speak to her. When the Sandman arrives to destroy the dream land, however, Wilkinson is "alive" once more and walks, along with the rest of the dream characters, into the final dissolve of the Sandman's robe. There is a lot of dying in "A Game of You" -- indeed Death herself, the Sandman's older sister, makes an appearance at the end. But for many of the characters -- who at times can move, talk, and provide aid or trouble for the living -- that death is not the binary opposite to life that the reader expects.
Wanda's death is the most important in the story, and her funeral is the emotional climax. It is her demise, however, which actually removes her category crisis, with Death redeeming her and validating her in her womanhood. Barbie, in a dream, sees Wanda standing beside Death, transformed into a real, "gorgeous" woman, with "nothing camp about her, nothing artificial" (Gaiman #37 p. 23). Shawn McManus' illustrations show this; before her death Wanda was clearly, through her body and facial structure, drawn to be a transsexual, but in these final images her face becomes smooth and oval, a perfect representation of female beauty. Death has determined that Wanda's final form is what Wanda knew it to be all along. While for the other characters in "A Game of You" death is fluid and problematic, it actually purifies Wanda and ends the category crisis of her gender. Once again, it is the transsexual character who becomes the anchor of the story. Barbie is left in confusion about what happened to her dream world and what will happen to her life, but Wanda is purified, redeemed, and beyond uncertainty.
Death is also challenged in "Promethea," the epic magical fantasy written by Alan Moore and illustrated by J. H. Williams III and Mick Gray, with help from Jose Villarubia. Indeed, the series' transsexual superhero Bill was killed in 1969, long before the story takes place. Or rather, her human channeler William was, but she remains after his death as the incarnate spirit of his imagination. Bill is not transgendered in any real-world way: she is not a transsexual, a drag queen, or a transvestite. She is one of the embodiments of the Promethea spirit, a force of female creative energy that manifests itself through various women throughout history but which was channeled this once by a gay man. Sophie, the current incarnation of Promethea, asks Bill when they meet: "You're a guy. How does that work?" Bill: "Hahhhh… Not very well a lot of the time, to tell the truth. And I'm not a guy. William Woolcott was a guy. If I'm anything I'm his imagination, and Bill's imagination was… Well, to be honest, Bill was as gay as a spring lamb." (Moore 5). Later, Bill clarifies her identity to Sophie as they view an image of William Woolcott at his drawing table: "(William's] drawing Promethea, with so much passion that, to his surprise, he can physically become Promethea! Bill hadn't necessarily ever wanted to be a woman, but I guess he'd always wanted to be a goddess." (Moore 17)
This is an interesting, fantastical kind of transgenderism; Moore is combining a passionate gay imagination with a transformative feminine energy, a combination so powerful that it creates a transsexual state. Bill is essentially proclaiming that William was never a "natural" transsexual, a male who felt that she was "really" a woman, but rather closer to a drag queen who takes on an exaggerated and super-powerful feminine role. Esther Newton, in her book Mother Camp, which deals with female impersonators, describes performers who are afraid of being "too transy," or dressing too convincingly. A drag queen should never go on stage dressed "too much like a real woman." (Newton 51) They are assuming roles of power (fake, exaggerated women) as opposed to weakness (real women). Likewise, William becomes Promethea, a goddess, though he would never consider becoming a real woman.
Bill's character is explored in depth in the story "Rocks and Hard Places" in "Promethea" number seven. In this story she takes Sophie on a tour of the Immateria, or the realm of imagination, seeking to change Sophie's false perception of a binary distinction between imagination and reality, and therefore begin her, along with the reader's, magical understanding of the world. Moore has said that "Promethea" was always intended as a vehicle that would "enable me to explore the magical concepts that I was interested in before a mainstream comics audience that may never have encountered these ideas before." (Campbell 23) When Sophie mentions the "real world," Bill responds with: "Uh-uh. You mean in the material world, not the real world. It's all real, honey…. What's important is understanding that mind and matter aren't separated. They're just different points in one system, different stops on one highway." (Moore 12). Just as Bill and William are two sides of the same coin, so are the realms of the imagination and the material world. This parallels Gaiman's blurring of the preconceived distinctions between the dream world and the waking world in "The Sandman." Transgenderism, because it is a symbol for destabilization of category, becomes a trope for the fundamental unity of existence, which only appears broken into unassailable binaries.
It is the transgendered character, or rather the transgendered persona of the character, which survives death to remain alive in a realm of imagination and spirit. Transgenderism is once again a force that transverses boundaries, which calls attention to the category crises in the rest of the text that disrupt the binaries of death/life and imagination/material reality, or dream/waking world.
"The Invisibles," a series created by writer Grant Morrison and featuring a host of different artists, has many of the same thematic concerns as "Promethea" and "The Sandman." Morrison is also interested in exploring the fluid relation between imagination and reality and life and death. One of his finest characters in the series is Lord Fanny, a transvestite shaman. She is one of the core members of the Invisibles, a kind of post-modern superteam. Her origin story "She-Man," which ran from issues thirteen to fifteen, is where he delves the deepest into her character.
"She-Man's" subversion of death is the most direct of the three texts discussed here. Lord Fanny, as the child Hilde, travels to the realm of Mictlantehcutli, the skeleton lord of death. There she confronts him and then manages to make her way back to the living world, through her own cleverness. In this way the story reads like a classic fable, and indeed throughout the piece Morrison references the legends and beliefs of the Mayans, as well as the Orpheus myth. Morrison puts a spin on the tale, though; the main character embarking on this heroic initiation, that in the story is traditionally reserved for girls, is a transvestite. Her grandmother's hope is that they will be able to fool the gods by raising Hilde as a girl and then slashing her thigh at the time of the initiation to simulate menstruation. This is the drama set up at the beginning of the story: will Hilde be able to trick the gods long enough to get the power she needs and not get caught and killed in the process? In "A Game of You" Wanda is not able to convince the Moon that she is female enough to walk the moon's road, although in the end a greater goddess, Death herself, validates her womanhood.
Hilde's transgendered identity, however, in the end actually turns out to not be of significant importance to her surviving the rite of passage. The lord of death wants Hilde to stay, and so to escape she plays her trump card by pulling down her panties to reveal a penis. Hilde: "You don't know who I am! I'm not just an ordinary little girl. Look." Mictlantehcutli: "Hmm. Do you think the lord of the dead land has never seen the likes of you before, boygirl?" (Morrison #15 p. 3). Hilde's transvestism is neither shocking nor effective and does not come to play the most decisive part in her initiation. Rather her wits (she tells the lord of death a joke as a trade for her freedom) and her ability to grasp the reality of time and magic are what are most important to her success. The category crisis of her gender, which seems so problematic at the beginning of the story, quickly fades before the true crisis in the narrative, that of the breakdown of preconceived notions of time's sequential flow.
"She-Man" is a story told in multiple time frames; there is the "present" storyline featuring Lord Fanny dealing with an enemy agent who drugs and beats her seeking information, as well as two other narratives from Fanny's "past." All three narratives describe moments of initiation in her life: when she confronts the gods in Mexico to become a woman and a shaman at age eleven; when she is raped and beaten by wealthy sexual predators in Rio, and then invited to join the Invisibles at age eighteen; and when she kills a man in London trying to destroy her and her friends in the "present." These disjointed time frames explain how time really functions and feels for a shaman of Fanny's power. All time occurs at once and can be viewed as one thing, if one is only open to the viewing. "I understand the secret of magic. There is only one day. There is only ever one day and it is today, the day of nine dogs, day of magicians, day of initiations" (Morrison #14 p. 23).
"A Game of You" also contains breakdowns in sequential notions of time. Although only one day occurs in the waking world, Barbie spends several weeks making her way through the dream land. However, in Moore's "Promethea," and Morrison's "Invisibles," the transgendered characters themselves are capable of seeing through the illusory, straightforward perception of time. Both Bill and Lord Fanny are able to witness the moments of their own initiations into superheroism and their own deaths as well. Moore and Morrison see transgenderism as a place of power from which to work this kind of magic, the magic of seeing clearly through established preconceptions and illusions to the real nature of things. The very act of playing with the illusion of gender gives one a vantage point by which to recognize other illusions and to see to the reality beneath their skirts. "She learns the secret common language of shamans… that language whose words do not describe things but are things" (Morrison #15 p. 15). Indeed, Morrison himself claims to have done drag at times during his run with "The Invisibles" to focus his own magic.
Transgenderism facilitates another kind of category crisis, or more accurately crisis of identity, peculiar to comic books. The superhero genre has had a curious stranglehold on American comic books since their inception; even non-superhero comics are often colored by, or deliberately play with, this powerful association between medium and genre. The superhero is a peculiar figure in American pop culture, and one that until recently has escaped close inspection within the medium in which it was created. Certainly ever since Fredrick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent there have been social analyses of the superhero, but comics themselves have only recently begun to pick apart their own best-known icons. Using transgenderism in a comic book narrative is a particularly powerful way to do that work, as their existence brings into relief much of the curious nature of the superhero. Simply put, the transgendered character and the superhero are disconcertingly similar.
Two of the most important distinguishing characteristics of the superhero are secret identities and fabulous costumes. Wearing a superhero costume is at times even referred to within comics as "wearing tights." The parallels to transvestism are obvious. In "The 99 Dollar Drag Queen Make Over," an American comic book written by an out transvestite, Fiona Mallratte writes that transforming into her drag identity is "kind of like being Spiderman. You have a secret identity!" (Mallratte 13). Mallratte, with illustrator Steve Lafler, even introduces a super drag queen later in the comic called the Liquid Liner.
Cross-dressing is often a kind of fetish, and superheroism smacks of fetishism as well. Some modern comic book creators -- notably Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming in "Powers," Rick Veitch in "Brat Pack," and of course Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in "The Watchmen" -- have sexualized the previously asexual superhero. In "Powers" there are superhero groupies who swallow the semen of certain heroes to gain limited superpowers themselves, and in "Brat Pack" the Mink recruits his kid sidekick from the local parish and then indoctrinates him into an abusive sexual relationship. These revisionist and more sexualized versions of superheroes owe much to the groundbreaking "The Watchmen," which was the first comic to deconstruct the concept of the superhero on a large scale.
A momentous scene in "The Watchmen" is when Laurie, the Silk Spectre, and Dan, the Nite Owl, finally have sex. They had tried before as civilians, but Dan wasn't able to until they put on the costumes. Afterwards, Laurie says: "Dan, was tonight good? Did you like it?" Dan: "Uh-huh." Laurie: "Did the costumes make it good? Dan…?" Dan: "Yeah. Yeah, I guess the costumes had something to do with it. It just feels strange, you know? To come out and admit that to somebody. To come out of the closet." (Moore, Watchmen 28). With "The Watchmen" superhero comics came out of the closet themselves; superheroism, with its fantasies of power, mystery, and costumery, was revealed to have a sexual, fetishistic side as well. This fetishism brings it yet another step closer to drag and transgenderism, which a few creators are interested in exploiting.
Superhero references occur in all three of the texts discussed here. DC Comics, the originator of the superhero icon, publish all of them, though through different arms (both "The Sandman" and "The Invisibles" are under the Vertigo imprint, and "Promethea" is published through Wildstorm/ABC). "The Invisibles" references the superteam concept, albeit in an extremely unorthodox way; each member of the group has a set of "powers" and abilities, and is related to a different element, a motif that shows up in some other superteams. Lord Fanny is, as a superpowered, costumed adventurer, only one small step away from a superhero. At the beginning of the "She-Man" story she stops two abusive men in a transvestite fashion store with her mental powers. It could have been a scene from a superhero title such as the X-Men (which Morrison has gone on to write). But Lord Fanny is also a former street whore who still picks up strange men in bars for casual sex.
As she is vomiting into the sink, trying to recover from a brutal beating and rape, Fanny's eighteen-year-old self thinks, "Tlazolteotl, the eater of dung, goddess of lust and shame, is my patroness…. In return for the gifts she gives I suck men in alleys and cars, I open my ass for men in dark and dirty rooms. And Tlazolteotl says, ‘I have made you strong. And wise. And incorruptible. I have shown you the worst there is, and made you free.'… You who teach witchcraft and forgive all who fall… I will take all the filth of the world and turn it into the purest gold" (Morrison 10, 11). It is precisely Lord Fanny's perversity, her sexuality and her shame, which is the seat of her power. This is the superhero's secret origin, reimagined as a magical initiation and a subsequent decade immersing herself in the immensity of human lust and brutality. Batman spent many presumably asexual years studying martial arts in order to be a superhero; Lord Fanny spent those years having lots and lots of sex.
"The Sandman" is nominally set in the continuum of the DC universe, although the series quickly distances itself from the standard superhero trappings. In "A Game of You," however, there is an important reference to the iconography; Wanda's favorite comic book, the one left on her grave by Barbie, is "Weirdzo," a deliberate allusion to Bizarro, one of the characters in the silver-age Superman comics. Weirdzo was a superbeing who lived on a square planet and did everything backwards, which became a fantasy for Wanda as a repressed child growing up in a religious family in Kansas. For her, Weirdzo was the culmination of the superhero's promise of the reimagined identity, where everything could be backwards and maybe therefore right. Her childhood superhero fantasy took the form of a wet dream, with the young Wanda (then Alvin) making out with Weirdzo Lila Lake (an allusion to the Bizarro Lois Lane). The wet dream becomes a nightmare later in the comic, when the agents of the cuckoo invade Wanda's dream world and bring the Weirdzos to cut off Wanda's penis. Superheroes once again are sexualized and fetishized as they get closer to the transgendered character.
Alan Moore continues his revisions of the superhero icon from "The Watchmen" with "Promethea." William/Bill is a fantasy synthesis of the ultimate transsexual and the ultimate transvestite. He can "wear" at any time a perfect, complete female body but still retains his masculine body as his normal-life "secret identity." Bill uses her female form for superheroic adventure and also to have fantastic sex with her straight FBI agent boyfriend ("I mean, sex with Promethea," Bill tells Sophie, "and there really are fireworks. Hundreds of little blue stars.") (Moore 16). Her transgenderism, which is an inextricable part of her superheroism, has a clear sexual component to it; Moore, like the other artists discussed, is using transgenderism to point out the fetishized nature of all superheroes.
Bill represents the era of the classic comic book superhero, which stretches from the Golden Age of comic books, beginning with the first appearance of Superman in June 1938; to the Silver Age, which saw the reimagining of the concept in the mid 1950s; to the late 1960s, with the Julius Schwartz-led revamping of DC superheroes and the birth of Marvel Comics. William Woolcott the cartoonist was working in comics and becoming Promethea from 1939 to 1969. His death coincides with the end of the Silver Age.
Bill says of herself: "I was Promethea longer than anyone. I wasn't the strongest Promethea or the most clever, but I'd like to think I was the nicest." This is the perfect description of the Golden and Silver Age superhero; the heroes of the Modern Age became more intense, grittier, and not as interested in being nice. In 1969 the comic book world took a good look at the superhero, saw through many of its inherent contradictions and anachronisms, and killed it in order to reinvent it, just as William's lover discovers his contradictory nature and kills him so that a new Promethea can be born. Thus Bill's transgenderism, and her superheroism as well, becomes a trope: the cheerful illusion of a simple time eventually must be destroyed when the world looks up the superheroine's skirt.
Bill is a heroic figure, the quintessential superhero from the time when the concept was created and developed, but whose earthly life ends in a murder of sexual and romantic passion. Moore has taken the classic superhero and sexualized her; Bill and Dennis are having the fantastic sex that Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor must have been having, but which comic books until recently were unable to depict. In the end, though, it is this sexuality, combined with Bill's transgenderism, which ruins them both. Bill tells Sophie about William's murder by Dennis: "What's most awful is that it came out of nothing except our love. That wonderful, burning, holy thing. It destroyed both of us" (Moore 17). Transgenderism sexualizes the classic superhero icon, which is then destroyed under the weight of that libidinous, romantic empowerment.
Wanda, Lord Fanny, and Bill are three very different characters in very different kinds of stories by very different creators. They all share remarkably similar functions in their stories, however, ones that relate to Garber's idea of a "transvestite effect." They serve to blur boundaries and question binary distinctions and normative sequences, either directly or indirectly as destabilizing presences in the texts. They are also sexualizing presences, especially in the context of comic book heroism and superheroism, a realm that has been deliberately kept asexual for so long. These transgendered characters break apart conventional notions of identity, imagination, time, sex, and death to create a bit of chaos, and perhaps enlightenment in the process. Wanda, Lord Fanny, and Bill are characters that help to tell stories that stretch boundaries and challenge assumptions.
Campbell, Eddie. "Alan Moore Interviewed." Eddie Campbell's Egomania #2.
Paddington, Australia: Antelope Pineapple Pty Ltd., 2002.
Gaiman, Neil, Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran. "A Game of You." The Sandman #32-
37. New York: Vertigo Comics, 1991-2.
Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York:
Mallratte, Fiona. The Ninety-Nine Dollar Drag Makeover. Bugcomix.com,
Morrison, Grant, Jill Thompson. "She-Man." The Invisibles #13-15. New York: Vertigo
Moore, Alan, J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, Jose Villarubia. "Rocks and Hard Places."
Promethea #7. La Jolla, CA: America's Best Comics, 2002.
Moore, Alan, Dave Gibbons. The Watchmen #8. New York: DC Comics, 1987.
Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1979.
BLOOD FOR PACHAMAMA
I stand in the back of the church during the 11:00 o'clock mass and take in a deep breath, which is a difficult thing to do at over 14,000 feet. I am trying to find respite from the madness outside. I shouldn't be in this town, not at this time.
It is Sunday May fourth, the height of the three-day Festival de la Cruz in Macha, a small pueblo in the highlands of central Bolivia. Six to seven thousand campesinos from at least fifty outlying communities around Macha march up to two days to bring their villages' crosses, which are little gods, to pay homage to the bigger god of Macha's church tower. The tower is the tallest building in the area, and represents the masculine force of the sun in the cosmology of the indigenous people here. Every year at the end of the harvest the crosses, which look like manikins or scarecrows adorned in their woven blankets and leather conquistador helmets, must come to receive energy from the tower in order to bring fertility to their village for the upcoming year.
The priest begins the sermon in Quechua, a lilting, softly guttural language that reminds me of a mix between French and Hebrew. A very old woman with a face of wrinkled leather and dressed in the layered skirts and aprons, long braids, and bowler hat of the women here washes the feet and legs of a statue of a bleeding and bent Jesus, which reaches broken fingers from its alcove. A man hopelessly drunk on chicha, a potent local brew made by chewing maize and spitting it into buckets to ferment in the saliva, sits slumped and unconscious under a painting of the virgin Mary, who looks suspiciously like Pachamama, the Quechua earth mother. A little girl plays with a toy car by his feet, bumping the front end into his boot without a response.
Finally I take another deep breath and turn to leave the church… the sounds of music and violence outside are too insistent to ignore. I blink at the sudden sun. There is an old man laying in front of me, sprawled half-across the church entrance. He is dressed as most are, in traditional clothing made of brightly colored, hand-woven materials. The brilliant reds and yellows are, however, marred by the maroon of dried blood that also mats half his face, and is splattered across his shirt. A woman with a baby slung to her back sits by his side and tries to clean his bloody fists, the pain of which rouses him for a moment before he sinks back into the stupor of three days of solid drinking, with almost no sleep or food. The white people in South America have an expression, "to drink like an Indian." Now, in Macha, I understand its meaning.
I do not offer him help, as there are too many in his state, and he would not want it anyway. Instead I step over him, and am almost run over by a new village group entering Macha's central plaza. They come running and singing and shouting and stumbling like a landslide, urged on by pipe and charrango (a miniature Andean guitar) players in front, and men and women with whips behind them. This group has just entered the town and is making its way around the square towards the church. They break like a wave into the crowds already clustered around the tower and the others spin drunkenly to meet the challenge. Two men grab each other by their hand-made vests and beat each other in the face with their fists. One finally falls and the crowd is on him, kicking at his head, chest, legs, any exposed parts. A woman whips a man savagely from behind and is kicked in the stomach by another. She stumbles back, clutching at the bowler hat adorned with a large, red flower that falls from her head. The police rush in to break up the crowds. One dressed in a jean jacket with "Texas" written across the back attacks an old man with his whip, his mouth contorted with sadism. The drunken crowds fall back, unable to combat the more sober police.
This is no longer the Festival de la Cruz. It is the Tinku, a harvest celebration that existed before the Spanish. The Tinku is their blood sacrifice to Pachamama… every year there must be blood spilt in order to secure fertility for the next year, and Pachamama is a thirsty goddess. Ten years ago, twenty to thirty people died at each Tinku. Now with the addition of community meetings urging less violence, police, tourism, and the paving of Macha's square to minimize the amount of loose stones, the count is far lower. This year only two die.
I edge around the back of the crowd, trying to stay invisible. A man almost too drunk to stand asks me to buy him a drink. I flash him my most neutral smile and slip from his grasp. The trick is to keep moving so that these people, most of whom have never seen a foreigner before, except maybe hanging around the sidelines of the last Tinku, do not have a chance to demand the money they feel the tourist voyeurs owe them.
I reach the building kitty-corner to the church tower and clamber up a crumbling wall onto an abandoned balcony. There are other tourists here, and reporters from Bolivia and beyond, all of us desperately trying to find some way to be observers, as being participants is impossible. There is no shade on this balcony, and I feel trapped by the blazing heat of the sun, especially intense at over 14,000 feet altitude. The tower looms over us, bright adobe-white and erect.
Red woven hats, leather helmets, and bowler hats regather beneath me, moving once again towards a dangerous density. A village group forms a circle, stamping out a dance to the shapeless, haunting melody which has been repeated by every group and which is burned into my head. A man stumbles from the rest of the group and spits out a long, thick stream of blood. He sways, and then mops at his face with his sweater.
And then another group rounds the corner and it begins again, this time with greater intensity. More clothing is caked with blood and dust. Wild, drunken swings connect with faces, chests, backs, and sides of heads. People fall and are trampled, kicked, picked up by friends and family. The police wade in again with their whips but this time are pushed back by the strength of the crowd. Rocks begin to fly. I realize that we are hanging in a little cage here on our balcony, waiting for a rock-thrower to look up.
Then comes the tear gas, police's ultimate weapon. An Israeli friend more experienced in these matters yells at me to cover my face. The gas is somehow bitter and sweet at the same time, and sharp on the eyes. Our fragile identity as observers has been breached; the exhibit has broken through its glass casing.
The crowd scatters and I scramble back down off the balcony crying. I try and skirt the crowds while remaining close enough to see the action. Keep moving, keep moving...
Three men corner me. They are not as drunk as the last campesino, and are able to ask me what I am doing here. I try and say as sincerely as possible that I'm here to see and to understand, "a ver y a conocer." They tell me they have nothing while I have so much money. I tell them they have the Tinku, an amazing tradition that their culture has kept alive despite much adversity.
"So you come here and take our pictures and then you leave, and you give us nothing!"
I don't have an answer for them. At that moment a Bolivian friend from Cochabamba comes and grabs my arm and tells me in English that I should walk away. The three campesinos are indeed getting more and more threatening, so I flash them my neutral smile and we back away hastily. Another campesino at our side snarls something in Quechua and spits at the ground at our feet. There is blood in his spit.
Last night I danced with people here in Macha and drank with them, as I have at many festivals all over the world. They eventually turned aggressive, however, and I had to leave, something that has never happened in all my travels. These people are here for a blood sacrifice… they are not here to be nice or hospitable. This is a private, sacred event to which I have come, camera in hand, without an invitation.
But my thoughts are scattered by the sun, the smell of chicha and tear gas, the matted blood, the reds of the woven cloth, the need to keep moving. Keep moving and moving…
Finally I am in front of the church doors again, and the 3:00 mass is beginning. I let out my breath, step over another collapsed, bloody drunk, and move inside for another brief respite from the Tinku raging around me.