The short-lived anthology Island featured great artists producing great work, but one of the stand outs had to be the series of stories by Remy Boydell and Michelle Perez around a young trans sex worker. Beautifully painted, powerfully raw, the stories from Island have been collected along with a number of other stories that have never been published in the new book The Pervert, which is out this week from Image Comics.
The Pervert utilizes a structure and approach that might be more familiar to prose readers accustomed to short story collections following a single character. The book isn’t interested in tackling stories and themes that are common in trans narratives. It is a story about sex work that refuses to glamorize or demonize sex workers and their work. The artistic choices and the way the book is drawn, using mostly anthropomorphized animals, forces the reader to rethink their assumptions of the characters’ gender. It also lends the story, which can be dark and ugly, a certain dreamy quality.
The book can be laugh out loud funny, but also tough to read. It is beautifully drawn, and tackles ugly topics. It is in the end heartbreaking and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since finishing it. I spoke with Remy and Michelle about the book and how they worked.
Michelle Perez: I wrote essays/video game criticism, as well as reviews in media. I kept busting out at the seams trying to stuff my voice into the work. Right now you’re always fighting for a voice against a million other writers as hungry as you, either working for free or being paid garbage.
Remy Boydell: Originally I was working doing T-shirt design, and I hit a ceiling where as soon as I made something popular, it would get ripped off by other companies and I wouldn’t make any money from it.
Deep down I’ve always been into comics and I think I got through performance anxiety by thinking, “Well, this will be harder to rip off, and that’s why I’m doing it.” It’s probably why I’m not shy at referencing stuff satirically, since I’ve had companies straight-forwardly copy, paste, resell my stuff.
I can work until I puke, so crunch culture in comics hasn’t bothered me yet. I love doing it to myself. That’s not an endorsement, that’s a statement.
How do you describe The Pervert? What does the book means to you?
Michelle Perez: The book is deeply personal, adapting stuff that happened to me in my life, and still sorta happening?
Remy Boydell: It’s very much a “first book” but I’d say it holds up. It’s very personal for Michelle, but I think I managed to balance out the harsher bits with the art direction. Equally, the writing is good, so it doesn’t matter that I was still finding my feet art-wise.
Michelle Perez: A stylistic flourish of Remy’s. Comics is a visual medium, and it seems like a nod to the fact that the writer seems to get billing over the artist nowadays, which is screwed up.
Remy Boydell: I think a lot of the book has a cinematic feeling, and we wanted to get weird with it. If anyone’s struggling with posing characters, take the script, act it out in front of your webcam, and take shots while you act it out gesturally. My flatmate knows a bunch about acting, so I dressed her up in a business shirt and made her act out the whole ‘big red dog boss’ scene. Helped like crazy.
How did the two of you start working together?
Remy Boydell: I liked how angry Michelle was all the time.
Michelle Perez: Remy approached me after we did a little script work together, and wanted my help to do a really strong pitch for a strip we could do with Vice. That didn’t pan out, it didn’t have that Stoner Ennui that is sort of required there. So we went our own route and ran it at ZEAL. The response was great. Remy and I would later go on to date.
Michelle Perez: I cant speak to the stylistic choices Remy made. For the most part, what I see when i see the book is two people trying to make a really LEAN book. The minimalist presentation, the characters sorta knocking on that door of nostalgia.
Remy Boydell: I had a bunch of books of classic cartoons when I was a kid as well as growing up with Nickelodeon and the like. My origins on the internet were mostly rehashing classic designs because it’s a short-circuit to grab people’s attention. I can draw people normally, but I’ve always loved art with this extra level of abstraction a bit more. You can work through trauma by fictionalising it, you can tell everyone their childhood favourites are actually gay now and make everyone mad online. It’s great.
There are totally human characters in the book as well though.
What was the process of how you two worked? Based on the credits my guess is that there was a lot of collaboration at each stage?
Michelle Perez: The structure was us sharing ideas about shows we had watched, and experiences we had, and what we both liked in comics. I ended up learning a lot about Remy simply by talking about comic books we enjoyed, and artists we love. We kept in constant contact through email and DM.
Remy Boydell: Okay! Michelle would write a first draft, then I’d go through and read it a few times. Once I’d read it enough, I’d go through the text file and write [PAGE ONE], [PAGE TWO] etc, to divide it up across the pages I’d draw. We usually hit about 15 pages per chapter, but I just had to feel out whatever felt appropriate in pacing. I’d ask for her to sign off on revisions, since I remember there were way too many scenes with the character smoking thoughtfully. That was the main thing I ended up cutting.
I’d then take the group of pages for the chapter through the rough pencil, tight pencil, ink and painting stages. My rough pencils are impossible to ‘read’, so I usually just photographed them once they got to tight pencil stage. I had a lot of freedom with the visuals, so I didn’t get them sent back for changes on this project. All in all, with that method I ended up doing 15 pages per ten-day period, start to finish.
Michelle Perez: For the writing portion, Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell was basically what I wanted to steal a bit from. For those who haven’t read it, its a sort of procedural inspired comic, where each issue can be read on its own and you get the story. We structured the pervert the same way, given it was going in an anthology. If you stick with the long haul it’s an overarching story, but each segment was written to work on its own
Remy Boydell: This is a personal choice, but I’ve always felt graphic novels read better in chapters or episodes. I think it’s probably really rare to find someone my generation or younger making a “tome” of uninterrupted story for 200 pages, since we all grew up on manga. It never even occurred to me to do it any other way.
Did you make the stories in the order they appear in the book?
Michelle Perez: Yeah. That said, they’re told out of order. The idea there was to have a really vague idea about our lead, their headspace, and what we learn about our lead. The thing about a Trans Narrative is this sort of Reveal that is inherent. We took the piss out of that really quick.
Remy Boydell: 100% !! The character’s hair grows out over time, even. I think we might have skipped a chapter or two in the partial serialisation in Island, in order to be flexible with the total page count. It seemed like a massive undertaking to edit a thing like that, so I wanted one of my jobs to be to accommodate that to help the wheels turn easier there.
One reason I ask is because the first story, the three page “The Pervert” really captures so much of the tone and feel of the book, and both made me laugh and hit me in the gut. You get darker and you go in different directions, but that story felt like almost a mission statement of what this is.
Michelle Perez: The idea was also to get people thinking that this person has been at it for a bit. This isn’t some delicate flower, and they’re for the most part like anybody else. I keep doing this job, and god damn it do I hate it.
Remy Boydell: The first three pages were made purely in anger. Michelle because I’d sent her first script back to her with some dismissive commentary, me because I felt like I’d been snubbed randomly by a friend at a music event that day. I did the whole thing in one sitting. We kept the other stuff in line with the first chapter since it felt ‘pure’ when it came out. I don’t care about the other 157 pages as much as those first three pages.
You have not just sex, but explicit trans sex in this book, and I’m guessing that having that in the book was important to you.
Michelle Perez: For me, sure. America’s weird disdain for actual sex is nowhere as weird as our love for guns, and bombing poor brown people we’ll never meet. There are people out there that have, and will continue to fuck their guns. I am a proponent of people fucking people.
Remy Boydell: It wasn’t for ‘representation’ at all, it was because the book is mostly repurposed autobio. Having said that, the first trans comic I ever read was just about getting straight up murdered, so I guess it’s an improvement.The only deliberate cartoon I made about that kind of thing was an internet short called ‘buffalo belle’ which is probably buried somewhere.
Could you talk about the ending?
Remy Boydell: I think there was going to be this ending where the character ends up being a fluffer in porn. What ever happened to that, Michelle?
Michelle Perez: The ending basically coincided with Remy and my relationship ending. It was a weird tenuous time, and basically had some of the worst arguments we’ve ever had with regard to the book. The third half was originally going to go in a really weird religious direction. Maybe I can touch on that stuff in the future.
The stories here first appeared in Island. How did the comic end up there?
Michelle Perez: I’d been tweeting to Brandon Graham for some time and he’s a cool guy. I introduced Remy to him on twitter, and we skyped a few times after we showed him the first strip in ZEAL. We asked if his anthology with Emma Rios needed some new stuff like this and he chomped at the bit. It was great
For people who read Island is this a collection of what was in the anthology? More than what they’ve read?
Michelle Perez: It collects everything that was in the book, and what we intended to run in it for a long time (unfortunately Island ended).
Remy Boydell: We only published about 30% of the book before Island ended! A real shame too, since it was paying my rent for a while.
So what’s your final pitch for the book? Why should people pick up The Pervert?
Remy Boydell: If you buy a copy it’ll get printed, and I’ll eventually use the money to buy some more paper, and then I’ll do a better drawing. Then it starts over. We’ll create this symbiotic cycle, dude.
Michelle Perez: Remy worked on new backmatter that seems to resemble trading cards. Also, Will Toledo from Car Seat Headrest wrote an intro for the book. I think you should buy this book if you like good storytelling, good art, and you have contempt for bad storytelling and bad art. Buy this if you hate things that suck.