Circa 198X: Superpose, Science Fiction Histories, and the Trans Child

Image courtesy of the author.

Decades are slipping together in the town of Port City. 1980 breaching the surface of 1970. On a day in the summer of 197X, there is a gap that snaps open the shore, slicing sky and water as though the landscape were a screen that could be cracked––and if cracked, then shattered. This glitch is just the visible sign of what is wrong with time.

In a way, it’s a relief to see a sign of what can’t be confirmed. Decades are always slipping into each other here, too, where I sit and look at Port City at my computer in a room in Los Angeles, and it never feels like a perceptible event. Here, other decades slice and stitch the present with mercenary fantasies of history. Stranger Things’s third season conjures a 1980s without AIDS (but with a whole lot of anti-communist anxiety), and in academic circles the 1990s return again and again, whether or not it was called to the seminar table.

The time that slips through to me here on Netflix or in seminars is more style than substance; or, more insidiously, what passes as the past is only the slimmest version of a decade, insistently American and idealized and universal.

But where and when is Port City? A seaside, stagnant tourist town, Port City is the fictional mid-Atlantic city in which Seosamh and Anka’s online epic Superpose is set—a raced, classed geography inflected by post-Cold War migrations and economic history. Superpose is a webcomic with ARG (alternate reality game) elements, which is an abbreviated way of describing something that is mostly an online comic, but is also “heavily mediated and narrative-driven scavenger hunts that unfold both in physical space and online,” to quote Patrick Jagoda. In Superpose, physics-breaking events transpire—I will not describe them all—that irreversibly fracture and glitch time. This brings the otherwise realist webcomic into surreal, uncanny moments like the one at the Port City seaside. Outside the central comic, this slipping of time charges a cryptic set of experimental webpages (hidden in a dancing pixel on the comic’s homepage) with temporal meaning, and has the reader becoming a conspiratorial party to the comic’s secrets.

I have often followed Seosamh and Anka’s self-descriptions in explaining Superpose to people as trans science-fiction. Indeed, trans comics and writing has had a special affinity for the speculative, with so many works avoiding the autobiographical by turning to science-fiction and fantasy. Speculative settings provide the genre-space to explore trans lives in less restrictive (or differently restrictive) storyworlds, without the obligatory tropes that control even the subversions of stereotype in trans memoir. Yet reading Jules Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child—produces an alternative to the “out” of speculative freedom: the possibility of calling Superpose a work of historical fiction. What would it change to call this comic a work of historical fiction, and to think through its tightly rendered (to the point of cracking) historical moment?

Although Superpose is about glitchy time and quantum physics and big, big lasers, it is also very centrally about a gay, brown, trans nineteen-year-old living out the limited transition that has been afforded him by numerous (unspoken) restrictions. In the partially redacted year of 198X, an Rx box and a syringe sit by Rafael’s sink, but surgery doesn’t seem to be on the table. Rafael wears a homemade binder, struggles to gather the money to change his legal name, and faces awkward misrecognitions at school and work. His transition, like that of many teens in Gill-Peterson’s history of 1970s trans boyhood, is a mix of medically assisted and DIY adolescence. While his friends make career and college plans, Rafael Padilla remains stuck –– in transition, in time, and in Port City.

Image courtesy of the author.

Given his age in the story and what the creators have said about his medical journey, Rafael most likely began transitioning in the late 1970s, before the 1980 addition of “gender identity disorder” to the DSM. Gill-Peterson notes that the 1970s clinics from which Rafael would have sought care primarily helped white children; this makes the comic’s historical premise unlikely, though not impossible. John Money—a sexologist and medical researcher—advocated early hormone treatment and top surgery for a fifteen-year-old white trans boy who wrote to him in 1973, but advised a “stunningly unethical” course of action for a black trans girl whose case was brought to him. As Gill-Peterson writes, the “fact of blackness often amounted to a disqualification from the discourse of transsexuality altogether,” and the treatment Money recommended––estrogen, in fact—was intended to rehabilitate the trans girl into effeminate homosexuality, with the added eugenic “advantage” of being a “functional castration agent.”

When I reconsider Superpose as historical rather than science fiction against the backdrop of Gill-Peterson’s work, slightly different desires animate the making of historical representation and world-building. The question I want to think about now is the one that Gill-Peterson raises throughout her book: what is it that we are looking for when we seek out trans children in the historical archive? This is a parallel question to the one that opens Anjali Arondekar’s For the Record, a book which similarly jumbles but does not reject the search for sexuality’s histories in a hostile archive. Arondekar asks, “Why does sexuality (still) seek its truth in the historical archive?… And conversely, what kind of archive does such a recuperative hermeneutics produce?”

What are we looking for when we constantly bring the past into the present? Or try to make visible what kinds of pasts are always already stitched into a given present? Neither Arondekar nor Gill-Peterson can refuse the attachment to historical recovery wholesale. But what role does a fictional trans teen, whose transition would have begun in that mire of shifting practices, play in this entangled problem of recuperative desires? How should we read the ambivalence of nostalgia and resentment, mourning and celebration, in Superpose’s historical fiction?

The urgency of Gill-Peterson’s archival project is tied up with the contemporary pressures of overrepresentation and newness put upon the (white) trans child, who overshadows the Black trans woman/girl –– a figure rarely if ever granted childhood, and only spoken of in terms of her mortality. Gill-Peterson seeks an object somewhat afield of either figure, and to displace this framework by seeking it. She is interested in the trans children who have sought (or been involuntarily captured by) twentieth century science, whose clinical records teach us much about their encounters with trans medicine.

That more responsible and politically motivated desire to reframe a contemporary problem through historically-minded archival work floats alongside the other implicit one of “representation,” which has something to do with seeing your own experiences refracted through a longer trajectory of others. This representational desire to “see yourself” is a catchword in social justice-oriented publishing, but is rightly treated with suspicion from a number of directions—not only academic. As Gill-Peterson tells us, “[r]ecovering a trans masculine subject from the 1970s would serve only to cover over those stark forms of antiblack governance, medical objectification, disenfranchisement, and confinement to which some trans children were subjected in the 1970s.” In other words, you can’t write a celebratory history of that decade’s trans medicine, in the same way you couldn’t write a celebratory history of this one’s; in visual terms, figure always comes at the expense of ground.

I am not interested in reading Rafael as a figure of trans adolescence or trans childhood or early transsexuality, partly because the comic’s power is that it never treats him as such. Rafael is not an “abstract cipher of this or that etiology of gender, this or that political platform” (to borrow Gill-Peterson’s words once again).

In fact, what is figural or allegorical about Superpose is its treatment of time, not its treatment of characters. Perhaps the question to ask, then, is not one about how the work enters 1970s-80s history, but how it thinks about the various encounters we have with “the wrong decade.” I’m thinking of one image in the work’s ARG rabbit-hole: a pastel Polaroid of a freeway sign on a hidden webpage reading “Welcome to Port City.” When you hover over the Polaroid with your cursor, the photo begins to shake, and tiny text below appears that reads, “that’s not how time works.” It makes me uneasy.

Image courtesy of the author.

Superpose crosses the wires of the virtual and the real, sending readers physical ephemera from its hazy personal histories at the same time as it sends us off to mysterious URLs and binary-text translators. Light (neon, laser, or “natural”) is the curious connection between these modes –– a perverse reversal of Tavia Nyong’o’s writings on photographic “crushed blacks.” In Afro-Fabulations, Nyong’o theorizes crushed blacks (underexposed, indistinct value areas) as the necessary condition for a cinematic image to project flickering “outlines without interiors, surfaces without depths, and a history folded upon itself so as to perpetually produce doubles.” He excavates blackness as the ground of uncertainty, opacity, and possibility, reminding us that “whatever else memory is, it is virtual.”

But Superpose is relentlessly interested in light, and in light as something that can blot you out, or change you, leaving you disoriented and muddled. When Rafael and his friends turn on their big, physics-breaking lasers, untold and inarticulate effects ripple out from them looking steadfast into that light. The neons that press upon both the characters’ faces and the readers’ change them and their relationships to time. Even the landscape—even sequential time—cracks under the pressure of that light.

Superpose’s light is not about illuminating what is (or has been) beyond representation, but what is constantly burdened as representation: neon, nostalgia, and its transformations. In this way, it’s both like and unlike Nyong’o’s discussion of crushed blacks, as light here puts pressure on the feelings of memory and historical representation rather than heroically opening up a historical subject for our viewing. Fabulating history through playful re-tellings that are neither true nor false, Nyong’o writes, puts what cannot be changed “under the pressure of transformation.”

I have been thinking about how easy it is to sell the fantasy of the 1980s, and what form our encounter with its mercenary return tends to take. I have been thinking about what it is that Superpose is doing here, which is not to sell the fantasy of the 1980s but which does seem to build upon other media’s use of a cleaned-up, glammed-up 198X. On the same page that the Polaroid appears to tremble to the touch, what looks like a “home” link melts when your cursor hovers over it.

Image courtesy of the author.

Reading Superpose brings Gill-Peterson’s project into a different kind of light. Her historical concern is about how a figure like “the trans child” becomes visible (and then overburdened with meaning), not about bringing any figure or its Other into visibility. Her first chapter, “The Racial Plasticity of Gender and the Child,” begins by ruminating on metaphor’s functions in scientific discourse. There, she writes that an analysis of metaphors like those that animate and anchor developmental plasticity in the child opens up transsexual science’s “discourses, data, and historical effects to a kind of dynamic analysis that includes critique, contestation, and the potential for creative mutation and difference.”

The vitality of “creative mutation and difference” resonates with the deviating impulses of Nyong’o’s love of “crushed blacks” and Superpose’s love of cracked light. Unsteady metaphors are often better at emphasizing the glitches caused by repetition, whether we’re talking about repeating experiments or history. Moreover, I am coming to understand Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child as an examination of the metaphors that medical science uses to see things and not, as the book might have been, a search and rescue for trans children in the archive.

If science and history are entwined in the trans child, then the scene with which I opened—when time and space glitches at the seashore in the year 198X—cannot be a science-fiction move separate from the comic’s interest in historical writing and drawing. Instead, that opened-up, pixelated panel holds together the histories of computational technology and gender “plasticity.” These two are quite different technological discourses, one aiming to make the world quantifiable and predictable, the other aiming to intervene in the unpredictability and unquantifiability of the sexed body. The child becomes a metaphor and test subject of that intervention; they grow up into a subject of personal computing.

Maybe I needed this fictional scene in order to think about these two together in the first place. Like the trans child, both plasticity and computing feel utterly contemporary to me; it is easy to misrepresent their longer histories simply by the distortions of time that are disciplinary periodizations.

As a project that’s antithetical to nostalgia (class histories, trans histories, geopolitical tensions without the shine of American patriotism), Superpose makes trouble with the forms in which pasts return (distorted, dissolving, misused, abhorrent). It also, self-reflexively, makes visible the form in which it opens up (on? Through?) our screens and slips those pasts to us. The aesthetic experience of the network—what Jagoda calls the “key form of our time,” the thing that Superpose’s ARGs give you an experience of —is here about/of late twentieth-century history.

Unlike the endless summoning of 80s glam excess for present consumption (including, literally, the Stranger Things tie-in apparel sold by Target), the 1980s are troubled, frustrated, and textured beyond nostalgic aesthetics in Superpose. But there is still something attractive, or romantic, about it: the soft light of a neon sign at night on the boardwalk, a humid summer, fireworks. The hand that Rafael extends to his co-conspirator in building physics-breaking machines, or the soft admission to the new friend (not that he’s trans, but that he’s gay). I am glad that time, this adolescence that never fully arrives, can slip into mine.

Tony Wei Ling is a fiction editor at Nat.Brut, comics critic at Anomaly, and staff operator at Trans Lifeline. They study comics and contemporary fiction at UCLA, with a special interest in comics labor, injury and illness, and issues of race+form.

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