There are so many X-Men out there! You can’t walk round your private island paradise anymore without bumping into twenty mutants. But that raises a question which Shelfdust are going to try and answer! Who is the Best Mutant? We’ll be inviting some of the best writers in comics to argue their case!
By Dani Kinney
Jessie Drake is the best mutant in the absolute worst contexts. That’s right, I’m not here to argue the textual supremacy of the character. As the only explicit & visible trans mutant to date, the character’s meta-status has over time, developed an implicit critique of Marvel publishing and the mutant politique. Jessie’s first and only comics appearances to date have been in Marvel Presents: Wolverine #150 & 151.
Jessie’s story emerges in the valley, formed by multiple intersecting stories. Wolverine is sent by Charles to find the young mutant, whilst Matt Murdock is on the hunt to find Mary Walker. In turn, Mary is on a crusade against the violent & abusive men of Hell’s Kitchen. In the scramble, falling through the gaps at nearly every turn is Jessie who, as a character, will eventually fall through the gaps of Marvel’s ongoing publication history.
To understand Jessie’s dynamics and embodiments within comic-book history, we need to zoom out into the way trans people navigate life & living in the US and other Eurocentric societies.
It’s known (or should be) that the bodies of marginalized people are inherently political. The trans body itself lies at a particularly tense intersection of politicization. We are paradoxically compelled to erase our transness while simultaneously expecting to constantly render our transness legible. This push-pull is generated by a system of interlocking and synergistic power structures that seek to monitor, police, and regulate bodies as extensions of or indicating criteria for identity. This is observable in the medico-legal paths trans people navigate to achieve stealth, which itself creates a discernible paper trail, tethering the body the surveillance documentation of their identification and embodiment. To be trans is to sit at an intersection of legibility and erasure, for which there is no concise resolution nor cogent thesis.
Visibility of trans bodies and trans people is complicated, both the media we consume and in the world we inhabit. I don’t know if it’s advisable for one to have an uncomplicated view of what it means to be visible and trans in our world. To pass in this world is an intersection in itself. It is both assimilation and safety; sublimation and power. The emphasis on passing upholds the terminal cultural narrative that to be trans is to aspire to a cisnormative framework of gender.The very idea of passing is dependent on a cisnormative model of gender, to which trans folks must adhere, aspire, and perform, is that of cis men/woman. We’re forced to internalize these norms by a complex system of legal, medical, and social practices and structures. Society itself urges us to pass, saying that the only way to be accepted in cisnormative society is to adhere to and assimilate into the cis framework of gender presentation.
But passing is also, for many, a way to access a safer and more comfortable life. It is a way of evading the intense and violent transphobia of our world. It’s also for many, the most comprehensive way to alleviate their dysphoria. So while passing may be seen as an act of assimilation, it also is unquestionably life-saving both in response to the existential threat of dysphoria and the threats of violence that all legibly trans bodies face in a cisnormative society.
Either way, the ability to pass is a privilege of access to the necessary legal and medical pathways & procedures that allow one to pass. But recognizing it’s a privilege, does not mean we should vilified passing or those who choose to pass. Passing is a balm to the dysphoric experience, and in that way it can save lives. It also shields us from the many threats of violence that legible trans bodies face.
And yet, the moment an individual passes, society immediately becomes fixated on the idea of disclosure. We’re compelled to both obscure and regnder legible our trans identity. This complex tension is something every trans person must negotiate for themselves. We’re expected to be both visible and invisible in the moments that best serve the binary norms of our society’s status-quo.
Visibility in a media-rich society is like an impossibly fraught. In 60 years of major publishing comics, Marvel is still not in the double digits with its trans characters, while the Summers’ family tree only continues to grow. What representation exists is not uncomplicated and even in its best instances, is marked by the history of trans erasure. And erasure of trans experiences and trans bodies is a prime tool of transphobia. As comics readers, we hopefully all understand that stories, whatever their sources or origin, play a major role in humans’ development of their own mannerisms, their expectations for the world, and the formation of implicit value-systems. To render trans people visible in stories, within a cisnormative society, presents an embodies transgression of those binary gendered values. They become a marked outlier, in need of qualification.
Some stories frame this transgression as an inherent threat to US public security and private security alike, matching the prevailing transphobia of the western world. Fewer stories attempt to expand on how these embodied outliers can be used to scrutinize and critique the very nature of this binary gender framework and the oppressive institutions and systems of social, medical, and legal control and oppression they perpetuate.
It’s baked into the idea of “representation”, good or bad, there is a requirement to in one way or another disclose the character’s identity in an explicit manner. Much of this need for explicit naming is because frequently subtextual or implicit visibility is easily “retconned” or overwritten; sometimes it is just simply outright ignored. Trans readers are locked into a tension of wishing for representation and the aspiration that trans characters not be reduced to their disclosure.
Enter Jessie Drake.
Jessie Drake is a trans youth, who we first meet as a captive of a fring military-cult run by one Dr. Zachary Hoffman in Marvel Presents: Wolverine #150. Over the course of the two issue arc (#150 & #151) she appears in, Jessie experiences a variety of forms of housing instability. It is easiest and most accurate to describe Jessie as being homeless/houseless/unhoused placing her amongst the 40% of all homeless youth that are trans. She represents what happens when the dominant power structures and support systems in her life abandon her both in terms of the institutions of mutant power and in the real world.
Given the attempts by the Trump administration to legalize the discrimination of trans people in homeless shelters and the quiet nature of Biden’s work to overturn the proposed ruling, the scene at the end of issue #150 comes a little close to the present anxieties trans people may fear. In her story, the very fears we hold about the impact that proposed ruling become realized, and as a result she becomes the embodiment of many, many fears trans that youth hold. She recieves the exact form of mistreatment which that legislation seeks to legally protect, placing Jessie among the 70% of trans people who experience some form of mistreatment in housing shelters, including being harassed, sexually or physically assaulted, or kicked out because of being transgender (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2015 US Transgender Survery).
Jessie is placed in the care of Mary Walker (Typhoid Mary) out of necessity, as Mary is the one who breaks Jessie out of the military facility she was being held within. Mary becomes Jessie’s guardian, as far as the story lets us know, the only dependable caregiver Jessie has. So far as we know, Jessie does not have any family that she can turn to, conveying to us that she very likely was driven out by her family. Conceiving this could be because Jessie as mutant or because she’s trans. She finds herself without a stable sense of home, while being buffeted by the adults inhabiting. After a violent escape from the facility, Mary whisks Jessie to the supposed safety of a women’s shelter.
It’s here that the scrutiny of Jessie and Jessie’s legibly trans and gender-transgressive body, folds into the real world surveillance of and subsequent violence towards, trans bodies. A staff member of the shelter ‘clocks’ Jessie and non-consensually outs her – leading an unstable Mary Walker to physically assault, misgender, and abandon Jessie at the very shelter within which she was just misgendered and abused.
Jessie is once again, even within her own story, pushed to the periphery. Mary Walker embarks on a personal crusade to track down and punish abusive men, detailed in a file Mary stole from the shelter she previously fled. Wolverine, whose sole task was to ensure the safety of this young trans mutant, becomes otherwise entangled and will ultimately abandon this mission by the end of issue #151. There’s a period of time, while Mary is off on her crusade of radical adjudication and Wolverine is involved in a paternal pissing contest, that Jessie is utterly alone. Driven from the shelter, without a sense of home, or any watching over her.
These are fear and lived experiences that are all too real for trans people, particularly trans youth who come out within unsupportive homes. We know very little about this period of time, but from Mary’s actions, as reported in the 616 news, we know she’s immersed in her crusade against the abusers of Hell’s Kitchen for approximately a week. Where is Jessie during that week? Her experiences are marginalized and liminal within a story that is meta-textually marginalizing and liminal.
The more I read of the Daredevil/Typhoid Mary work by Nocenti, the more I see a level of politics that even for Marvel writers today is immensely radical in its scope. As I’ve stated elsewhere previously, this story is permanently marked by the limited understanding of trans Identity, which unfortunately were the prevailing mainstream narratives surrounding trans people at the time. And while the story focuses on a model of trans experiences that centers suffering as the primary lense through which we see trans life, these are also harrowingly real experiences that Nocenti is working through.
In the story’s conclusion we see Jessie return, and speak words of truth about herself to Mary, telling her she’s trans (though using language we now consider to be woefully outdated). It’s a beautiful moment of visibility for trans people, to see themselves reflected on the page… and it will be the first and only such scene for almost 40 years. This scene holds space for Jessie, not just to come out to Mary, but to help Mary resolve the complex escalations of her plurality. It’s not lost on me how this scene folds into a real world dynamic, where trans women are constantly engaged in a process of deconstructing and conceptualizing of what femininity and identity mean in our world, and how cis women are the ones who often benefit (at times unknowingly) from this emotional labor.
However positive this scene feels, it’s the last time we’ll hear from Jessie Drake for the foreseeable future. With the current wave of legislation SPECIFICALLY targeting trans youth, what does it say that this character, already on the margins, is further pushed out? For youth turning to comics, what could it have meant to see her thriving in the Krakoan era? Marvel creates no such image of hope. What they do instead do, is implicitly tell trans youth, you will be lost and forgotten one day. Her erasure isn’t just sloppy editorial, its a narrative erasure that tells trans youth something very specific about the world around them. Jessie Drake embodies trans erasure, trans youth erasure. She is the embodiment of so many fears and anxieties trans person fear at all times, but especially in this political moment. She is the thesis of all trans youths’ fears at this moment. I want her to be okay because I want every fucking trans kid to be okay. And I’ll start any fight with any person it takes to push the needle
I’ve written extensively on the queer-futuristic potential of Krakoa, but we’ve rarely seen this potential realize. We still see the results of an editorial mandate to reduce the broader intersections of the LGBTQIA2+ umbrella, to put forward a model of queer representation that utterly favors mostly cis gay man, a majority of whom are white. Jessie’s story being one of metatextual and explicit abandonment allows the character themselves to embody the beginnings of a larger deconstruction of the queer-erasure-complex deeply rooted in Marvel’s storytelling history.
Jessie being trans adds a layer to this deconstruction. She isn’t just a metaphor for marginalized groups being left behind by dominant “liberal movements” such as the X-Men. She exists as an escalation of the mutant metaphor. She is an embodied intersection, and that intersection alludes to how in comics as a medium, in the 616-universe, in our real world, trans people, specifically trans children, are further marginalized than other intersections under the LGBTQIA2+ umbrella.
In two issues of comics, she’s able to illuminate tenuous fault lines of the mutant metaphor. We have left behind our single visibly, explicitly youth trans mutant. What does that say about Krakoa? What light does that shine on utopia, if its successes are a simultaneous erasure of the most vulnerable members of the community? What does it say about our society, or about the industry of comics, that trans people’s stories are still so problematic and liminal in this way?
Amidst an onslaught of genocidal attacks on the trans people and specifically targeting the rights of trans youth, what does it mean for Jessie to still be at the margins of utopia? What does that tell readers? While the life saving gender affirming care trans people rely on is being criminalized, Jessie’s absence in some implicit way recapitulates the types of erasure that exists in the anxieties of the trans community. Jessie was erased, and there’s no canonical sign she made it out alive; will I? With all of these attempts to outlaw gender affirming care, will we make it through or will we be clipped off at our roots.
Jessie Drake is the best mutant, because she embodies the most absent intersection of the mutant metaphor. While the metaphor has precious few (and many imperfect & and flawed) intersections with race, disabilities, and queerness, the intersection of visible trans characters is still limited to the liminal and the peripheral at best.
Something beautiful happened over time. Jessie Drake achieved cult status. There’s something potently primed for fan-made storytelling and art about a character for whom so little story has been told. There is a deniability to they ways that these stories or this art would conflict with what is canonical. There is no contradictory data to undermine the fan-cannon. In that way, the queer and trans artists of the interenet have claimed the character as their own. More story and character development has been constructed through tweets and fan-art than in published Marvel comics. I think the lack of verifiable information makes Jessie a blank canvas, for trans artists to explore their own narrative through. It’s been an emotionally raw experience to constantly be tagged in Jessie Drake fan art, because this character truly belongs to the fans in a way few other characters do. We project onto her, and there is nothing to say we’re wrong in constructing those projections.
Jessie embodies the permeability of storytelling, in a universe defined by visibility, representation, explicit canonical data, and strictly transphobic editorial mandates. If you spend enough time, Jessie Dake tells us so much about the fanbase, the Marvel editorial biases, the intersections of the mutant metaphor, etc. She embodies a deconstructive pivot point to create and critique the industry at large. Her story and its lack of resolve is poetic and harrowing, but out of that beautiful art has been made that has handed the character back to fans in a way I’ve seen with no other character. For all of these reasons, Jessie Drake is the best mutant, for all the wrong reasons.
Marvel Presents #150
Writers: Ann Nocenti and Steve Lightle
Penciller and Inker: Steve Lightle
Colorist: Marianne Lightle
Letterer: Michael Higgins
Dani Kinney is a trans & non-binary comics-critic, artist, writer, sensitivity reader & volunteer patient advocate. When they’re not doing any of that, they are the coordinator of an internationally attended trans health & wellness conference. Their other comics crit work can be found over at WWAC and Graphic Policy. If you’d like to follow their unhinged advocacy for trans people, you can follow them on twitter here!
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