Sophie Labelle has been making the webcomic Assigned Male for years online and in collections like Nice Gender! Did your mom pick it out for you? and Dating Tips for Trans and Queer Weirdos. Labelle described the comic as “a bunch of very sarcastic and sassy trans and queer teenagers.” Which is true.
The adventures of Ciel, Stephie, Frank, Eirikur and others are funny and relatable, but they’re also thoughtful and poignant. Labelle has been making three and four panel comics for so long that she clearly understands the rhythm and style of them, but doesn’t necessarily deliver a punchline at the end of every strip. Sometimes she wants to make a dramatic point, other times she wants she to shock us. There are strips that have punched me in the gut and there are strips that have made me laugh out loud in public.
Labelle is touring the United States this fall and she has a novel coming out next year, and we spoke recently over e-mail about the strip, how she works and community.
How did you come to comics?
I’ve been making comics since I was seven. For the shy, effeminate boy that I was perceived to be, it was a way for me to reach out to the world and communicate with my peers and siblings. Comics being heavily masculine-coded – which is less and less true, thankfully! – adults in my environment encouraged me a lot towards that interest. “Finally he’s acting like a typical boy!”
It’s also through drawing and comics that I found community. As an exuberant trans kid growing up in a rural area where models were rare, I craved belonging. I met my first trans friends online, through art communities. It was an important moment for me.
How did Assigned Male start? How did you end up making a webcomic?
I put my first webcomic online at 14 – I’m 30 now – and since then, I’ve been trying to commit to a project for long enough for it to gain an audience. My entire life, I’ve been feeling that my art was never good enough, and always ended up deleting everything after a couple of weeks. I felt the same about Assigned Male when I started it more than four years ago, but unlike all my other projects, that one got a lot of visibility very quickly. A lot of hate also, but it really showed the potential it had, and so I kept drawing.
The webcomic format allows me to reach a lot of trans and gender non-conforming people, which are often very marginalized socially and economically. The fact that everything is available online makes it that the people who need these stories the most have access to them, and I think that’s the most important aspect of it. As I said, if it wouldn’t have been of the community I found online, I might not be the person I am today.
When you started, was there a model you had for the strip or something you were looking to?
I’ve always been an enthusiastic fan of Allison Bechdel, the author of Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home. The way she chronicled the lives of queer women without making a show out of it really influenced me. I went to a talk she gave a couple of years ago, in which she said that her intent had always been to create “an encyclopedia” for the use of queer women, in which she could document their daily lives. I try to do something similar with Assigned Male, although it is far from being exhaustive. I simply wish to create content in which trans people can see themselves in.
You often alternate between two kinds of comics, and I’m being very broad, but there are comics about the characters and their lives, but then you also have comics where you’re making a point or addressing questions.
One of my intentions with the comic was to serve as tools for trans and queer people. I was seeing so many of my friends repeating the same gender 101 or basic trans stuff all the time, or getting asked very intrusive and insensitive questions, so I wanted to create a series that could be used to save them some time or save them from awkward situations.
But I also really like storytelling and I always feel the need to explore my characters relationships, so that’s why I alternate between the two styles!
I’m also curious about walking this emotional line because the strip isn’t dramatic in general, but you’re also using the three and four panel strip and the rhythm of that in very effective ways even if you’re not setting up a punchline.
Putting my work online and getting the feedback of so many people, I did learn a lot about rhythm and punchlines. I’m glad it seems to be working!
You work with children. How has that has affected how you’ve worked or thought about the strip?
The kids who read my comics are often trans or gender non-conforming themselves, so I guess my knowledge of how they perceive it is biased by that! My comics are rarely meant to be educational, and I think they see that and appreciate it. What we often see in them, though, is trans youth being empowered and talking back to adults and being confident, which is rarely a situation in which queer and trans kids will be portrayed. From what I know, this empowers them as well.
How do you work? Can you walk through how you write and how you draw a typical strip?
I usually take a whole day off to write a bunch of new strips. I need to be in “the Zone.” Sometimes it can take a while and I have to stay off the internet, so I usually venture out to a coffee shop without any electronic devices. I usually write 12 to 20 strips in advance, most likely a full story arc. The drawing – on a graphic tablet – is usually a lot more “mechanical”, in the sense that I can do it even when I’m in transit or very tired. I usually draw the strip one or two days in advance.
When you publish collections of the comic, you publish them in both English and French. Why? Or is this a very American kind of question to ask.
I am a French Canadian from Montréal! My first language is French, and I never spoke English on a regular basis before starting this comic – now most of my life happens in English, I talk with my boyfriend in English, I dream in English…
At first, the comic was in French only, I only started translating it to English a couple of weeks later. It was very important for me at first, because one of the thing that led me to start publishing books was that absolutely nothing existed in French back then, so I always make sure all of my work is available in that language. It also made me aware of the lack of resources for trans folks who speak less hegemonic languages, and that’s why I translated some of my books in more than a dozen languages.
Is there a chance we’ll see a longer larger collection of comics one of these years?
Absolutely! I’m working on it.
I read that you’re writing a novel. Can you say anything about it?
I was first approached by a major French Canadian publisher almost two years ago, to work on a series of novels based on my characters. It has been a wonderful experience for me so far, allowing me to explore my character’s personalities in ways that a three or four frame webcomic on social media doesn’t really allow me to. I feel like I know my characters a lot better since working on this series, and it definitely impacted the comic positively. Since I’m only publishing one new novel a year in that series and I’m having so much fun writing, I decided to write an extra one this year, in English this time! It should come out in 2019.
You’re doing a U.S. Tour, and you are really touring the country, which is great for us fans and readers, but I’m sure you’ll be exhausted before it’s over.
It’s gonna be a very long and thorough tour! I’m going everywhere a group or association invited me, so if your town or city isn’t on the list, reach out to an organization to see if they’d be interested in having me!