The comics industry has seen a surge of trans-centric comics within the past few years, particularly works inspired by the real-world experiences of transgender individuals. Some examples include Dylan Edwards’ Transposes and German cartoonist Sarah Barczyk’s Nenn mich Kai. One of the more recent installments in this trend is Julia Kaye’s comic diary Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition, published by Andrews McMeel.
As readers of The Comics Journal may already know, Andrews McMeel is a standard publisher for bound collections of newspaper strips, such as Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury, and Non Sequitur. In this respect, Super Late Bloomer’s publication with Andrews McMeel speaks volumes. Kaye’s first and only book-length publication to date, it is a bound collection of select strips from her acclaimed web comic Up and Out. Though the web comic began as a run-of-the-mill gag strip, Up and Out transformed alongside Kaye herself into an autobiographical comic documenting her personal life as a transgender woman. Super Late Bloomer is a selection of these daily autobiographical strips covering less than one year that document Kaye’s first months of hormone transition. It operates as a comic diary of sorts, brimming with all the emotional poignancy and self-expression typical of any diary.
This doesn’t stop Super Late Bloomer from showcasing a certain brand of “humor.” Readers may find themselves, as this reviewer did, smiling at certain strips as they identify with those embarrassing foibles of modern humanity. For example, in one three-panel strip dated July 6th, 2016, Kaye writes of her gender transition, “Maybe it’s silly but the opinions I’m most nervous about are ones I’ll never hear. Old HS friends. Exes.” Who hasn’t—if even for a fleeting moment—wondered what former lovers or high-school classmates might think if only they could see us now? It’s a mortifyingly self-conscious curiosity, but readers may still smile at its familiarity. Within the illuminating trans-centric focus of Kaye’s diary, instances of such red-faced human camaraderie appear frequently—the pain of self-doubt, the nuisances of online dating, and even that occasional, embarrassing recourse to external validation. It takes a certain brand of new-age courage to be so vulnerable, particularly on the public platform, but this vulnerability charges Super Late Bloomer with a heartfelt sincerity often found by tiptoeing into a sibling’s bedroom to glance at their closeted diary. The comic is both emotionally raw and strangely comforting.
Of course, social media has induced a proliferation of such admissions—or rather, proclamations—of human insecurity. Kaye, however, stands out. She lacks the self-pity and isolating exceptionalism often characterizing these confessions. She evidences a self-concious ability to turn social taboos and emotional turmoil on their heads with wry humor while still conveying the emotional impact of these experiences. For instance, in a strip dated September 16, 2016, she depicts her first catcalling experience as a rite of passage into womanhood, a double-edged sword for Kaye. On the one hand, being catcalled indicates society's acceptance (and so affirmation) of her as a woman, an acceptance of great importance for Kaye during her transition as she makes clear throughout Super Late Bloomer. On the other hand, how great can she feel being accepted via objectification? So she accepts her bittersweet certification of femininity with a deadpan expression. This propensity for melding sincerity with humor is one reason Kaye stands out. Her self-awareness combats the inherent narcissism of any diary enterprise. It makes reading her diary just plain enjoyable.
Kaye’s drawing style reinforces the diary aura. When her web comic first started out as a gag strip, Kaye constructed the comic from computer-generated colors and formatted lines. On these pages, however, her hand-drawn, black and white style lends each strip an intimate immediacy while further mirroring the newspaper strips her diary already matches in its daily and seemingly disconnected installments. Her shaky panels and doodle-esque caricatures visually manifest the requisite quality of any comics diary, the impression that nothing was rehearsed or sketched out beforehand, that everything was drawn and written on impulse, as stream of consciousness, so that readers feel they are peering into her own closeted diary. Through these bare bones, sans punchline doodles, the cartoonist’s raw emotional matter materializes onto the page. Like most great art, Kaye’s final product appears effortless yet sophisticated.
Graphic memoirs are nothing new, and they have been a dominant mode for many transgender comics. But Kaye’s comic diary is novel. She blends the self-expressive introspection of a memoir with the piecemeal, quotidian thoughts of newspaper strips. Almost every installment of Super Late Bloomer (there are two exceptions) consists of three panels and rarely, if ever, does a strip end with any resolution. Matching human thought, Kaye’s strips linger without summation. Only once one has read the whole collection does any underlying connection between these ostensibly disparate strips become clear, that Super Late Bloomer not only documents Kaye’s transition from male to female, but the accompanying transition from isolating self-hate to self-acceptance. Mirroring this coming-of-age story, readers will notice a visual künstlerroman, Kaye’s own coming to maturity as an artist. Compare the first and last strips of the collection. Her panel lines straighten and her style cleans up. This artistic transformation is both gradual and subtle, nigh imperceptible, but so is the journey to self-acceptance. In this way, Kaye’s comic diary harbors the undergirding theme of all diaries: self-growth. Super Late Bloomer documents Kaye’s growth as transgender, human, and cartoonist.
In the final strip, Kaye draws herself on her bed before falling asleep and writes, “I’m increasingly running out of things to say. Most of my ideas have become general woman issues. I’m still learning to manage my [gender] dysphoria, but I’m moving on.” So the final strip leaves readers dangling. Like life, and so any dairy, there is no final summation, no closure, only a transition from one stage to another. As the strip suggests, the gender transition phase of Kaye’s life seems to have come to an end. But life and comics carry on. Whether Kaye will continue to write on general woman issues or queer romance (a direction in which her web comic has recently turned), her poignant vulnerability and unique doodle style are a welcome voice to comics. Their resulting combination is both refreshing and heart-wrenching. Her web comic continues, and Kaye has recently taken a position working on the Disney show Big City Greens. She has yet to announce any intentions of publishing future book-length comics, whether as longer graphic novel works or additional bound collections of Up and Out. Here’s to hoping the first will not be the last of her book-length comics.