I’m not sure how many of you will have heard of this webcomic by Jenn Manley Lee. I never had until my friend lent me the published, real-paper version of the first volume (the author is currently part way through the second volume of a planned three). It can be read at www.dicebox.net
The reader follows the journey of two friends, Molly and Griffen, who travel together in a let’s-see-what-happens kind of way, paying their way by working on ships or in factories. Griffen is witty, obnoxious and self-destructive. Molly is strong, pragmatic and optimistic.
Dicebox takes place on multiple planets and space ships. It reminds me quite a bit of the Firefly universe: everyone goes about their business pretty much the same way they do in real life, but in space. There don’t seem to be any aliens or androids around, just people, non-sentient machines, and some weird bugs. This means that the story is more character-driven than a lot of science fiction. Recurring themes are Griffen’s mysterious past and Molly’s disturbing nightmare visions. Molly spends a lot of time trying to keep Griffen out of trouble. There isn’t a lot of exposition, and that’s part of what keeps you reading: the working-out how who knows whom, why they act in certain ways toward each other. I found it pretty hard to follow at first; it’s the kind of fiction that makes you work a little harder. This also means it’s worth a second read; I was amazed how much I had missed the first time.
If there is one thing I love about Dicebox, it’s the way it deals with gender and sexuality. The Dicebox universe, or at least the parts that Griffen and Molly visit, is a utopic melting-pot of gender and sexuality representation. For starters, there’s a gender neutral pronoun that many of the characters go by, which every character seems to be familiar with: “peh”. It is used when you don’t know the person’s gender identity or when it isn’t relevant, but many characters seem to go exclusively by peh, and those that do tend to exhibit a mixture of masculine and feminine traits. Speaking as someone who has always struggled with gender, the inclusion of a third pronoun gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling of representation.
But “peh” isn’t used by every character who wouldn’t fit into our gender binary. Griffen goes by “she” despite looking so androgynous that I didn’t realise until quite a while into the first volume that she wasn’t a man. Though her sex is canonically female, the author of the series describes Griffen’s gender as “a little more elusive.” Likewise, there are people in the story who appear to be presenting as one gender or the other, yet still choose to use the gender-neutral. In the comic so far, there is no obvious conflict stemming from gender issues, and being Trans or non-binary doesn’t even seem to be noteworthy.
Given the nuances of sex and gender in Dicebox, it’s unsurprising that terms like “gay,” “lesbian”, “bisexual” and even “queer” seem to have been dropped from usage. Sexual preference is never noteworthy, it seems to be taken for granted a person will be attracted to whoever peh is attracted to. Griffen and Molly seem to be attracted mostly to males and females respectively, but it wouldn’t be right to label Griffen as straight or Molly as gay because of this. No character ever labels anyone’s sexual orientation in Dicebox, even their own. The sex scenes have the touching awkwardness and lack of grace that anyone who has had or seen real-life sex will instantly recognise, a welcome relief from the choreographed, over-romanticised, porn-like sex in a lot of fiction.
Ethnicity is dealt with in much the same way as sex. Despite the racially diverse setting, racism never comes up, with no instance of anyone even mentioning race or nationality. This doesn’t mean that cultures have been lost, however; the names, clothing, and architecture of Dicebox is a jumble of different aesthetics clearly based on those from cultures in the real world. Everyone seems to speak the same language; it’s unclear whether this language is actually English or just written as such for the benefit of us present-dwelling chumps.
The comic updates with one page a week. The art is higher quality than most published graphic novels, let alone webcomics. Unfortunately this brings me to a drawback of Dicebox: it doesn’t fit into a webcomic structure very well. No page is stand-alone; scenes and conversations last for many pages. I read the first volume printed and bound and loved it. Then I went online and read all of Volume Two that had been written, and even though I like it on paper better, it was great. But once I got up to the point where I had to wait a week for the next page, I found it frustrating. Even if the format doesn’t fit quite right, I’m glad that Dicebox is a webcomic, because I have a feeling that, though brilliant, it caters for a small enough niche that it might not have been published otherwise. If you can bear reading the pages week to week, good for you, but I prefer to check back every few months, and intend to buy the second volume on paper.
Dicebox gives us a world of rich, strong characters and realistic interaction, and not just that: It gave me what I had wanted to see for a long time: a story in which there are trans people, non-binary people, people of colour, queer and pansexual people everywhere, but none of these characters are defined by the single trait of being in that group. We are all sick of LGBT and POC characters whose entire story or motivation is their gender, sexuality, or race, and Dicebox represents a refreshing step away from that kind of half-hearted representation.
43 Cartoon Theme Songs, all played by the Ensemble ACJW from “The Academy”, a program of Carnegie Hall, The Julliard School, and the Well Music Institute in partnership with the New York City Department of Education
…and edited with incredibly awesome post-production cartoon geekiness!
The squees can be heard from a mile away.
Can you list the 43 Theme songs?
The Australian comic book industry is a small community, concentrated in Melbourne, straining at the seams with brave and original talent. On Australia Day this year, the good people at Sci-Fi and Squeam from Joy 94.9 FM - a Melbourne-based independent radio station catering to the gay and lesbian communities – did a two-part podcast about women in the Australian comics scene.
The podcast includes interviews with women in the industry, as well as broader discussions about sexism, the roles and experiences of women in the industry, and the challenge of finding a place for women within a male-dominated, male-oriented medium.
We also recommend the regular Sci-Fi and Squeam podcast every Tuesday night from 10 to 11 for fun news and discussions about all things gay and geeky.
[Image from Hamlet by Nicki Greenberg, via SMH]
So what does happen when you put a homosexual and a staunchly anti-gay person into the same room?
This social experiment asks exactly that!
Using a similar premise to the viral video “First Kiss”, where complete strangers are asked to kiss someone they’ve never met, this video challenges some anti-gay participants to step outside their comfort zone in a similar way.
It doesn’t require these born-and-raised homophobes to go so far as to kiss a gay stranger; just to have a hug.
It’s a big leap for most of the straight participants, who seem to be speaking to a gay stranger for the first time, let alone hugging them.
Some of the participants appear to be from very religious backgrounds, one lady even crossing herself after she is introduced to a lesbian girl.
What happens afterward will surprise you!
There’s plenty of speculation to be had about the curative powers of hugs, but this video will doubtlessly make you smile.
At the end of the day for these awkward participants, maybe the experience will plant a little something in their minds that starts to change their views?
Watch the full video here:
Imagine you are a different person.
Not just a different version of yourself, maybe smarter, or stronger, or with magic powers, but a different person entirely. A different gender, race, sexuality, religion. Imagine you grew up rich, or dirt poor. Imagine you are an Armenia teenager who helps his widower father run a stall at a fish market. Imagine you are your next door neighbour. Imagine you are China’s first transgender ballerina. Imagine you grew up consuming different media, fancying different people, being called by different pronouns.
Can you imagine the entire inner and outer life of a person whose experience is completely different from yours?
This is the exercise that writers are asked to undertake. Unless we choose to write very true to our own experiences, then we have to be able to get inside the heads of people who are different to us. Sometimes these characters need little more than a basic wire framework of experience and personality. However, central characters need to be more than just a cardboard cutout. They need life, and that life generally requires some note of authenticity.
There are some very basic tenants or characterisation that any not-completely-awful writer will know; things like not reducing a character to a single trait or quirk, not making them a stereotype, and ideally, not defining them entirely through their relationship to another character. It can be a little more difficult to write ‘authentic’ emotions, but this is where the writer employs both their own experience and their ability to empathise (fairly essential to the majority of quality writing). As long as the author has experienced a reasonably wide range of emotions – happiness, anger, embarrassment, grief – they should be able to project their emotions onto their characters.
There are some emotional experiences, however, that can be extremely difficult to write accurately if the author has never experienced them. Empathy can only extend so far when it comes to accurately representing experiences such as: being an adopted Asian child growing up in a white Australian family; depression, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness; the tension of being a woman walking alone at night or the constant feeling of being watched and judged that comes with being female; the body dysmorphia that many trans people experience; being a homosexual child trying to figure out their crushes and whether or not they are ‘normal’.
Even if these experiences do not occur within the story itself, they will affect the lives of the characters, their personalities and how they behave. Can a writer who has not had these experiences convincingly write a character who has inevitably had them as a part of their life?
It is not impossible for an author to write outside of their own emotional experiences. Many writers do it well. But it is far, far easier for a queer woman to write a straight male than it is for a straight male to write a queer woman. Why?
The stories of straight, white, cisgender men are everywhere.
Big beefy male action heroes, skinny male nerds, sensitive male musicians, wise, elderly male professors, unhinged male psychopaths, compelling male assholes, evil male villains, average joes, guys-next-door, male athletes, male politicians… the narrative landscape of our society is a veritable cock forest. Just about every possible model for ‘straight, white, cis dude’ has been done a hundred thousand times. Churning out a male character becomes almost second nature given just how often audiences are expected to identify with each and every one of them. That doesn’t mean they are bad characters, or that writing them is inherently lazy – rather that it is much easier to write a good male character with so many variations to build upon.
The dearth of other narratives means that writers must build much more on experiences that may be alien to them in order to create their characters. This requires a good deal of empathy and skill, and is often where many writers can tend to fall flat on their faces.
Because of the lack of wide variation in, say, female characters, writers who learn from those who’ve come before them can often end up regurgitating sexist tropes. Female characters can end up having their personalities revolve around the fact that they are female, i.e. they exhibit only traits associated with stereotypes of femininity (irrational moodiness, superficiality, mothering, etc.). While not always bad, these sorts of characters are usually pretty terrible and can bring down a narrative with otherwise well-written (male) characters. (The best way around this, of course, is to recognise the fact that women are multi-faceted people who can possess a variety of strengths and personalities and still be interesting, well-rounded people. Game of Thrones is an excellent example of a show which contains a wide range of unique, powerful women.)
An alternative to this can be to write a character with a neutral model. This is sometimes done in films and video games, and has been responsible for some excellent female characters (Ripley from the Alien films was written this way, and she frequently ranks highly on feminists’ lists of best female characters). However, there is a limit to the sorts of narratives these ‘neutral’ characters can inhabit; sometimes plots are about a character’s gender, or race, or sexuality, and while gender may be irrelevant in a sci-fi or dystopia, it probably makes a difference in stories about the American Civil War or a romantic dramedy set in a Catholic high school (these are also stories in which gender by necessity intersects with issues of race/sexuality/etc., other issues generally irrelevant to the narrative of the straight, white, cis dude). Gender and race are also usually fairly visible in ways other traits may not be. While no character should be defined by their sexuality or their gender identity or their faith, these issues shouldn’t be invisible; the “Dumbledore was gay all along” model is a fairly lazy method of representation and is unlikely to get your writing a tick from anyone other than well-meaning straight people.
Ultimately, the best way to write a character outside of our own experiences is to do a lot of research, and never presume to be able to tell the story of someone with different experiences to us better than someone who has had those experiences. If you think it’s too much effort to research what it’s like to be trans and think you do a better job all on your own (looking at you, Jeffrey Eugenides), then think about the amount of time you’ve spent researching the Middle Ages, or how planes work, or how to dispose of a body, or how to survive a gunshot wound, all for the sake of a throwaway line in a story you stuck in a drawer. If we can do all that to provide authentic details, then we can research a character at least well enough that we aren’t going to misrepresent and offend an entire group of people.
It may be impossible to write a character that isn’t you in a way that is truly convincing. That doesn’t make you a bad writer. Writers are also not necessarily obligated to write characters who aren’t straight, white, cisgender males. We don’t have to write anything we don’t want to write. But if we really want to try to be good writers, then we probably should.