Morgan Boecher is the creative talent behind What's Normal Anyway?, a semi-autobiographical webcomic about the life of Mel, a young queer guy juggling life, college, and his own journey of self discovery and medical transition from female to male. From his love and hate relationship with his binder, to passing in public, and discovering the dubious joys of men's rooms and ass-hair. Through Mel, Morgan carries readers through the turbulent, exciting, sometimes heartbreaking, and often funny process that many trans men experience. Along the way he alternatively educates and challenges the ideas and preconceptions of the comic's loyal fans.
I interviewed Morgan via email about What's Normal Anyway?, the power of webcomics, and his own journey of self discovery.
ET: What was the genesis of What's Normal Anyway?
MB: What's Normal Anyway? was the result of my reality coming together at the same time as it was falling apart. Coming out as a man and subsequently identifying as trans knocked my whole world off kilter, and I needed a way to wrap my mind around it all. Then YouTube vlogs came to my rescue! I watched video after video, mesmerized with the stories people told and the transformations they made.
"That could be me!" I realized, "I could be one of those hot, femmy dudes!"
In those early moments, I'd never felt as "real" as when I heard my thoughts and feelings matched in other trans people's stories. I wanted to say something that helped people feel real and accepting of themselves. That's when I dusted off the 'ole bristol pad and began making cartoons after a college-length hiatus.
ET: Do you consider WNA to be activism, and can you speak a bit about using humor, and comics in particular, as activism?
MB: Sure WNA counts as activism! It's the kind of activism that suits me the best, at least. A movement toward a more inclusive society requires a cultural shift in addition to a political and legal one. We need as many creators as community organizers because art and media build platforms from which we can assert our experiences and lives. Humor is really useful in activism since it has the power to heal people inside the community while inviting outsiders to open their minds. It's a generally non-aggressive way to be real about pain and injustice without having those difficult, serious talks. I'm trans. I have difficult, serious talks all the time. Sometimes I still want to laugh without ignoring or denying the challenges of being who I am.
I love using comics as cultural activism because I can stick them online and there they are for the world to see and spread around. The message is constantly at work and it rather beats continuously yelling through a megaphone in Union Square. The beauty of comics is that they can distill complex issues and events into a succinct series of illustrations and words that deliver a quick and complete message. Activists must be able to communicate their cause in thirty seconds or less, because often that's the span of attention they're given, so comics are great vehicles for activism because they deliver information rapidly. Plus people love looking at pictures.
ET: What's Normal Anyway? is an incredible resource for guys going through the physical and social process of medical transition! What resources have you found particularly valuable through your own transition journey, and have they influenced the development of the comic?
MB: Thank you for saying so! I am thrilled when I hear about people getting something out of WNA. I am incredibly fortunate to have come upon as many resources as I have throughout my transition. The most valuable ones are the people I've spoken to about their own experiences. The very semester during which I came out to my professors, an alumna of my college returned to give a lecture about her transition. She described the excruciating ordeal of electrolysis to remove facial hair and the grueling process of preparing herself for genital surgery. She also spoke about her fairly regular life as a human being - her job, her girlfriend, her family. I realized by talking to other trans people that people survive being trans, and often they thrive.
ET: You've written that "certain traits of Mel's life" intersect with your own. Do you find it more or less challenging, both personally and creatively to work with the elements you've drawn from your own life, or ones that differ from your own experience?
MB: Both personal experiences and made-up ones are more challenging and less challenging, depending on what I'm writing. Drawing from my own life is easier in the sense that it gets me to what I want to convey more quickly and accurately (why don't I just make him live in Florida so I won't have to research another arbitrary place and I can get to the story already?). On the other hand, making the comic semi-fictional gives me license to tell more interesting and perhaps more useful stories (There's no one in my life who embodies the fumbling ignorance of a good-intentioned but clueless cissexist? I'll invent one and name him "Beef"!). However, attempting to write outside of personal experience is tricky because readers can tell when you don't know what you're talking about. Therefore, I insist on acquiring substantial (usually anecdotal) evidence when I decide to go out on a creative limb. The downside of using personal experience is when it, well, gets too personal. Luckily, humor offers a degree of distance from whatever I'm talking about; a layer of lightheartedness that can help me confront my demons, but also help me run away from them.
ET: One of the things that really resonates for many people about Mel is his sense of self, for instance: "...the whole point of being out is so I can be ME. It defeats the purpose if I try to 'act like a man.'" Can you elaborate a bit about the distinctions between being your authentic self and "acting like a man? And how one figures out the difference?
MB: I ask myself those questions every day. The trick is being able to know what your own needs are and negotiating social situations with that knowledge and with patience for other people. Sometimes I catch myself trying to put on a masculinity that really isn't me, for the sake of other people's expectations. Other times I avoid trying on masculinities that would feel good to me, for fear of coming off as "trying too hard." For example, I had this whole debate with myself about whether taking voice-masculinizing lessons would undermine my "authenticity." I concluded that it wouldn't because I want to work toward a more masculine voice. Just like how I wanted to look more masculine by taking hormones and lopping off my tits. It feels a lot better than not doing it. At the same time, trying to parse out when I'm acting and when I'm being is no simple matter, because the world undeniably influences my behavioral choices. In any case, it always helps to check in and ask myself whether whatever I'm doing feels right or not. Usually I'll be able to tell if I pay attention.
ET: Mel's story breaks from the common narrative of the trans person whose actions and behaviors were always indicative of their "true gender." (in quotes since not all trans* people feel that their gender has been a constant throughout their lives) I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that this is something you and he share in common. What does your/Mel's experience look like as opposed to that common narrative?
MB: My first departure from the common trans narrative is that I'm glad I had a girlhood. One day I could host teatime in a tutu and the next I could be head of the velociraptor pack. I suspect that a boyhood would have been more restrictive in terms of gender-related proclivities. Another difference is that I like being able to talk openly about the days where I and everyone else thought of me as a girl. Rather than cringing when I look at old photos, I reflect on them with wonder. It's downright amazing that I live in a world where transition is possible and that I've been able to do it. However, the difference from the common narrative that I am most grateful for is having unending support and acceptance from the people whom I love.
ET: The comic is in equal parts touching, funny, and illustrative (if you'll pardon the pun) of many aspects of trans guys' experiences. Do you consciously work to balance/emphasize those disparate aspects of the comic, or does it develop organically?
MB: I do pay attention to balancing "heartfelt" with "funny" within the narrative arcs as well as within the episodic strips. I see them as representing different personality types, one who is very comfortable expressing emotion but not as sharp witted (heartfelt) and one who can easily laugh at the world but would rather bury their feelings (funny). Both of these personalities could benefit from taking a page from the other's book, so I bring them together in the comic. Perhaps some readers feel that they lean more to one side than the other. I certainly do!
ET: Do you have a favorite panel or story arc?
MB: "Meal Time with Mr. Gendercook"
ET: Anything you'd like to add?
MB Only that I'm super grateful for all of my readers and commenters! I never feel like I can say thank you enough to fans so I'll dedicate this last question to doing so. Thanks, y'all!
What's Normal Anyway? has been running since 2010 and updates on Mondays.