In the last site news, I talked about how simply including people of various identities in your work isn’t enough. Creators have an increasing awareness that representation of marginalized identities in fiction is important, but lacking good examples, many don’t know what good representation actually looks like. This leads to an effect where creators fill their work with as many different identities as possible without giving those experiences the depth of treatment or culturally competent touch they deserve. Such works can feel like they were cast by checklist: “Okay, we’ve got a lesbian character, a trans woman, and a trans man, we just need a gay guy and a bisexual. Flip a coin for the bisexual’s gender.”
Obviously, this is less of a new phenomenon and more of a variation on the tokenism that Hollywood has been guilty of for years. And while it’s certainly true that creators can and do force diversity into their works in gross ways for gross reasons, it’s also a pitfall that well-meaning authors can fall into if they’re not careful. More on this in a second.
Les Normaux is a supernatural slice-of-life following newly minted wizard Sebastien and his introduction to the supernatural side of Paris, a cosmopolitan place populated by ghosts, gorgons, cyclopes and werewolves from around the world. There he meets Elia, a vampire, and the core of the comic follows their relationship, with various side-stories about the romantic fortunes and foibles of their diverse and worldly friends.
This comic is what it is – a light, fluffy romance story that’s not very deep. And as someone who has read many comics that fit that description, I have to say it has a lot going for it, including cute art and character designs, a variety of different kinds of relationships, and a large, diverse cast that encompasses a multitude of racial, cultural, sexual, and ability identities. And yet I hesitate to recommend it, because there’s a feeling I can’t shake about that last part.
Now, let me be clear: it’s great to include tons of different identities in your work. I’m never going to fault anyone for that! But it’s very easy, with identities that you don’t have direct experience with, to fall into the trap of relying on stereotypes and clichés to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. And when I read Les Normaux, I feel like I can see those gaps.
Ronnie and Drew’s story is cute, but Ronnie learning to sign to be able to communicate with Drew is treated as romantic, not basic, and the fact that Drew has no other social contact (outside the letters he writes to his dead parents) is never presented as a problem. Tiponi’s envy of Elia’s confidence isn’t in itself offensive, but without being offset by anything unique or interesting about her character, it ends up playing into the “insecure trans person” trope and propping up Elia’s hotness. Raahim’s journey to Paris after his family was killed in his home of Iraq gets used as a Tragic Backstory to advance his romantic plot instead of being treated with the complexity it deserves.
The title basically means “The Normals”, and normals they are: Elia never drinks anyone’s blood, Sebastien never casts any spells, Tehani’s gaze doesn’t petrify anyone, and Drew has parents – dead ones at that – despite being a Frankenstein-esque reanimated corpse-collage. It’s a bit perplexing why KnightJJ would choose to make a story all about monsters – instead of, say, regular humans – if they weren’t interested in how that monstrosity would impact and complicate their lives. Likewise, I’m disappointed that the author seems largely uninterested in examining how these characters’ oppressed identities would impact and complicate their lives. It’s fair to point out that this comic is clearly supposed to be lighthearted and adorable, so maybe there’s no room to fit that sort of nuance – but the author’s mistake is to include scenarios that demand that nuance regardless.
The rest of my criticisms fall into the realm of my own personal taste, so I won’t linger on them. I feel like the show-don’t-tell balance of this comic is solidly tipped in favor of telling – characters expressing their emotions through dialogue, not their faces; the plot advancing through dialogue, not action, etc. I also find that the characters don’t have enough individual personality to meaningfully distinguish them from their friends or partners. It often feels less like a story and more like someone playing with dolls. And maybe that’s what you’re into! Clearly over 15,000 Tapastic subscribers find it worthwhile, but while it initially caught my interest with its style and cast, it’s kinda lost me since then.
But I wouldn’t single out a comic over a mere matter of taste. Les Normaux gives me the sense that it wants to be the better representation that we want and need, but doesn’t quite know how to do that, and in that it’s a valuable learning opportunity for webcomickers in general and, perhaps, its creator in particular. The lesson I hope you take away is this: know what you don’t know, and do your research. If you want to represent someone, ask yourself how they would want to be represented. Listen when they talk about their experiences, learn about their histories, and read the stories they write. Cultivating that sort of respect for identities that aren’t your own – a respect that goes beyond just talking the talk – isn’t an easy process, but it’s a very, very simple one.
The verdict: It’s cute, it’s light, and it’s gay, which should be enough for many readers! But if you’re looking for deep characters or nuanced representation, this may not be the comic for you.