Figuratively Speaking: Astro City and Self-Acceptance Through Metaphor

Everyone feels different sometimes. But some people feel different more often than others. There are differences that the people around us can struggle to understand, and differences that are mysterious even to ourselves. There are differences that define our paths in life, determine what we are capable of, what will come easily and what we’ll have to work at.

When you’re dealing with something like that – when you’re afraid (or sure) that you won’t be able to follow the example of those around you, it’s that much more important to have stories you can relate to. Stories that help you feel valuable. That visualize what living well means for you, that make sense of this world and your place in it.

It’s a universal need for a world of individuals. Everyone has their own. Astro City: Beautie #1 (2008) is mine. It’s a comic book with which I made a profound personal connection. And not because it’s the story of someone exactly like me, but rather a story about what being me feels like.

Published by WildStorm. Cover by Alex Ross.

Astro City is an independent comic series created by Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, and Brent Anderson. Debuting in 1995, this distinctive creator-owned series has maintained remarkable consistency even as it jumped between publishers. The Beautie one-shot was released by WildStorm in 2003, and was later collected in Astro City: Shining Stars, still in print. Astro City’s current monthly series from Vertigo began in 2013, and collections of all earlier material have also been re-released by Vertigo.

Astro City‘s intent is to dramatize superhero comic history from a naturalist, literary perspective – to explore the emotional lives lived in the backgrounds of a world of super battles. Each story features a different protagonist, describing the same superhero-packed metropolis in a different voice, from the mightiest of heroes to the humblest of onlookers.

Astro City: Beautie #1 concerns an android super heroine that was built with the likeness and personality of a fashion doll. Within those interactions of her identity – woman and doll, human and machine, stereotype and individual – I saw myself reflected more clearly than ever before.

As a transgender woman, a lot of the things that set Beautie apart from other women also apply to me. She was never a little girl. She cannot bear children or menstruate. All these things that were presented to me, time and again, as proof that I am not a woman. But Beautie, lacking these presumably essential components of womanhood, is still presented as a woman. It effectively goes without saying. And why not? How many people believe Siri can’t have a gender without a biological sex? Considering the challenges of my experience in another context lead me to new connections and new perspectives.

There are more on-the-nose parallels between Beautie’s story and the experience of transgender women. Like a Barbie doll, Beautie has no genitals. Which means that she’s had to tell flirtatious men that she doesn’t have the equipment they’re expecting to find, and brace for disappointment. Beautie lives in Astro City’s gay district. And while Beautie finds she has a lot in common with gay men, it’s also clear that they cannot fully relate to each other.

Then there’s the fact that Beautie is built in the likeness of a fashion doll. I loved Barbie dolls as a kid, and I absorbed a lot of messages about why that was wrong. I was told that as a boy, I was too good for Barbie. I didn’t need such vapid, frivolous toys. I was also told that girls were too good for Barbie: that the dolls reinforced unhealthy and outdated gender stereotypes. Apparently the only thing worse than being a girl was being a Barbie girl!

Beautie embodies that unrespectable, stereotypical model of womanhood. She stands shoulder to shoulder with her superhero teammates, her glittery pink costume clashing with their reds and blues, their silver and black. She showed me, as literally as possible, that it’s okay to live up to the stereotypes if you want to.

I could relate to Beautie’s android nature for another important reason: I am autistic. In addition to her feminine personality traits, Beautie has the classic “robot” personality. She speaks in a formal, concrete style. She can seem stiff, even uncanny to those around her. Her understanding of emotions is limited. No supervillain is as intimidating to Beautie as the challenge of making “appropriate responses,” as she calls them, in social situations.

Beautie shares some of the challenges I face as an autistic person, but for a different reason. Being autistic can often feel like being a robot to me. It makes my abstract and mysterious condition feel simple and straightforward. It softens the stigma of disability, for robots confused by emotions and social behavior are not defective.

If Beautie were merely a human with autism, or a transgender woman of flesh and blood, her story would not have the same effect on me.  As we advocate for the representation of diversity in pop culture, let’s not forget the value of stories like this one. In life, we don’t always describe everything exactly as it is. Why should art be the same?

Casey Bohn is a writer and illustrator from Nashville, Tennessee. She has written for Broadly, The Mary Sue, and Birth.Movies.Death, and published comics through Charles Forsman’s Oily imprint.

Kurt Busiek has won over two dozen industry awards for his work. Among them are multiple Eisner Awards and Harvey Awards for Best Series, Best Single Issue and Best Writer. In 1996, Marvels was named a Best Book for Young Readers by the New York Public Library. Kurt lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two daughters.

By age 23, Alex Ross was hired by Marvel Comics to illustrate Marvel’s central characters in the comic book event, Marvels (1994). In recent years, Ross has applied his artistic skills to outside projects with comic book roots, including a limited-edition promotional poster for the Academy Awards. In 2015, Alex was chosen by Apple Corps LTD to be commissioned as the first artist in over 30 years to paint the Fab Four. Driven by the Beatles legendary music and inspired by the generation’s new trends in art, “Yellow Submarine” is a classic of animated cinema. Alex has often been referred to as ‘the Norman Rockwell of comics.

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