CULTURE & ARTS
04/24/2018 01:27 pm ET

How A Graphic Novel About A Dog Tells A Groundbreaking Story Of Trans Sex Work

The creators of the must-read comic "The Pervert" hope trans narratives will one day be as ubiquitous and mundane as "Jennifer Lawrence rom-coms."

 Warning: This article contains explicit content and may not be appropriate for work environments. 

The Pervert

“The Pervert” is a comic about a Seattle-based trans woman struggling as a sex worker to make enough money for hormones and gender confirmation surgery. 

The protagonist, named Felina, is also a dog ― a millennial Snoopy type. 

Written by Michelle Perez and illustrated by Remy Boydell ― both trans women ― the comic offers a humanizing portrait brimming with wit and melancholy, despite the fact that it revolves around an anthropomorphized canine. In the opening scene, Felina goes down on a “fiscally conservative, socially libertarian” guy in a fast food joint. While performing the act, she zones out, focusing her attention on the dining establishment’s hypnotic ball pit and the kids playing inside. Her mental landscape is illustrated in dreamy watercolors, a palette reminiscent of a bowl of Fruit Loops.

The comic juxtaposes the carefree image of a play-place with the reality of, as Perez put it in an interview with HuffPost, “the time I sucked some dick for fast food.” Perez modeled Felina’s story after her own experience doing sex work in Seattle. The reader dissociates along with Felina ― and Perez ― marveling at the uncomplicated beauty of the rainbow orbs in her line of sight. 

“It’s really not sanitary in the ball pit,” Felina’s inner monologue muses, flitting between tasks. “I read there’s all kinda poop particles. He pays extra so he can cum in my mouth.”

The ball pit ― a space whose nostalgic associations and rainbow colors mask an insalubrious underbelly ― is an apt metaphor for “The Pervert” overall. The emotionally wrecking comic employs adorable animals to navigate a narrative that’s complicated, dark and often heartbreaking. The fluid, pastel hues and naive creatures offer an emotional reprieve from the intensity of the storyline.

The uncomplicated and emotional charm of the characters’ aesthetics makes the frank and often disturbing details of their struggles easier to confront head-on. As Boydell told HuffPost, “It lets you fictionalize the trauma a bit.”

The Pervert

For Boydell, opting for a classically cute character was an act of self-preservation, making the uglier moments of the subject matter easier to tackle. Additionally, she believes appealing to readers’ nostalgia evokes an intense emotional reaction right off the bat. The artist, then, need not waste time gaining readers’ trust if she employs visual tropes they already know and love. 

“As a child, there’s a neural understanding that gets strengthened each time you read a comic or watch a cartoon,” Boydell said. “If you use a character design that taps into someone’s childhood memories, you really draw someone in.”

Sometimes, the effect really messes with the reader ― for example, when Felina tells her boss at a factory, who bears a striking resemblance to Clifford the Big Red Dog, that she’s trans. It’s a cringeworthy encounter laden with ignorance and good intentions that culminates with the boss saying, “Oh, I see. Don’t want a bad vagina.” You’ll be hard-pressed to look at Clifford in the future without hearing echoes of this moment. 

“The Pervert” is a series of loosely connected vignettes divided into six panel grids with a sea of white space floating between them. In one scene, Felina goes on an OK Cupid date with a femme cat, who finds her description of herself as a “rent boy” to be “fucking hot.” (Felina sometimes presents as male with her shaggy, Beatles-inspired do, and dons a longer hairstyle when presenting as a trans woman.) When she and the cat begin to hook up, the cat’s boyfriend barges in, asking to join. 

“God. Fucking. Damn it,” Felina says to herself. Out loud, however, she says, “300. Condoms. I’ll eat his cum for an extra hundred.” Though this situation resolves itself without much fanfare, Felina flashes back to an earlier time when a similar situation led to a punch in the face.

Being privy to both Felina’s verbalized and unverbalized thoughts, readers see in vivid detail the toll sex work takes on her sanity. “Each day of this, I’m just part of someone else’s day,” she divulges to her friend, a cam girl named Weed Trap. “All I’ve ended up doing is giving more and more to these fucking strangers.” 

The Pervert

The risks ingrained in Felina’s job aren’t only psychological. In one scene, while having sex with a brawny male client, she frantically scans his living room for household objects that could double as a weapon if things turn violent. In the end, the man doesn’t hurt her but does cum inside her, another peril of the job. 

While skateboarding down an empty street, streaked with soft waves of blue and grey, Felina says to herself, “I think I’m sorta embracing a philosophy where I don’t value my life as much anymore.”

Perez has a remarkable ability to boil muddled and grueling emotions down to a single, searing line of prose. The skill, she said, isn’t all that different from crafting a good tweet. “It’s about creative limitation. Not exceeding those parameters,” she explained. “You don’t need to say a lot. If you are really deft with words you don’t have to write a treatise.”

The terse anatomy comics demand in their text is echoed in Boydell’s visuals. The medium imbues meaning into the white space between panels, actively alluding to what can’t be seen or said.

One thing that does appear rather explicitly is sex. Readers see Felina having sex ― oral and anal ― with a variety of men, women, cats, dogs and other creatures. The only time we see her entire naked body, however, she’s in the shower alone, washing off blood. (Earlier, Felina beat up a car mechanic who called her a “fucking gross tranny.”) Eventually she curls up into a fetus shape on the floor. The panel zooms in on the red-stained water swirling down the drain. 

The early reviews of “The Pervert” call attention to the graphic nature of the sex scenes. For Boydell, however, they’re really not that big a deal. “I actually paid all my living expenses in college by running a furry porn site,” she said, “so this was relatively classy by my standards.” She rated the comic a six out of ten on the NSFW scale.

In our conversation, I commented that Boydell’s innocent drawing style made the images of intercourse all the more shocking. (Have you ever seen a dog riding another dog’s face?) Boydell agreed. “It’s very upsetting for people when childlike characters are sexual,” she said. “It’s not an accident. There’s lots of policing in queer spaces online because everything is going back to Reagan-era homophobia. If the character is kid-like in any way, people say it’s disturbing.”

In its raw depictions of sex ― sometimes hot, sweet, perfunctory or grueling ― between trans characters, “The Pervert” is breaking new comic ground. But neither Boydell nor Perez consider the work to be political. Rather, they see it as an autobiography, elucidating a story that’s rarely brought into focus, especially not in the comic world. (In an interview with AutoStraddle, Boydell recalled the painful experience of seeing her first trans comic character: a corpse in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman.”)

Of course, depicting sex work and trans stories will remain somewhat political as long as it remains infrequent, and thus, exceptional. Perez hopes for a day when her story is just as boring as a “Jennifer Lawrence rom-com.”

“Maybe I don’t want all this weird heterosexual shit jammed down my throat all the fucking time,” she said. “Maybe I don’t want a bunch of sedate, heteronormative shit be the only thing we aspire to. I do not ask for tolerance or even acceptance. I want normalization. I want people to see us as fucking boring as they are.”

The Pervert
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