Yes, I’m going to talk more about early-2000s webcomics. No, I’m not sorry. Okay I’m a little sorry. But the differences between modern webcomics and, for lack of a better word, “historical” webcomics are fascinating, especially when identifying the strengths and failures of the medium throughout the years. For instance, the most obvious stylistic influence on modern webcomics is clearly other webcomics; there’s a self-sustaining culture that has grown up around putting pictures with words on the internet. But back in the day? The biggest influence on most early webcomickers was newspaper comics.
It makes sense, right? The people who saw the accessibility of the internet as a reason to start making comics of their own weren’t generally superhero fans – cape comics were struggling to find readers in those days – but everyone read the newspaper funnies. It’s practically impossible to find a webcomic now that uses a strip, three-panel, or gag-a-day format but they basically all started out like that in the early Aughts. And, don’t get me wrong, that was terrible. Newspaper comics are the worst of the worst, crammed into the tiniest possible size constraints and forced to churn out repetitive drivel day after day. But they also defined the idea of a comic for most people, and that effect is unmistakeable when looking back on the bad old days.
Which brings us to Venus Envy. In 2005, I knew I was trans but I hadn’t yet come out to anyone. Isolated in a rural town, I had only the internet to turn to – and that wasn’t much help either! You kids these days don’t know how good you have it with your Tumbler and your Trans Lifeline, get off my lawn, etc etc. Ten years ago you had the TS Roadmap or the Susan’s Place forums, and that was it. This was convenient in one regard, at least: every single remotely trans-related thing on the internet that was available in English passed through those forums, so when I saw someone talking about a webcomic (I loved webcomics even then) about a trans girl (which I was, at least at the time) I was pretty dang excited.
Venus Envy is about Zoe Carter, a high schooler who’s just trying to get through the day without being outed but is constantly bombarded with trans-related mishaps. She goes on disastrous dates, gets injured constantly in soccer practice, endures the homophobic and transphobic comments of her peers, and silently panics about popping a boner during class (I guess if we weren’t constantly reminded that she’s trans via slapstick comedy, we’d forget). It’s pretty bad, but it actually made me feel better about myself than talking to people on Susan’s Place did, and I kept reading it long after I’d left those other sites behind.
I know what you’re thinking: “Hey Wisp, that premise sounds kind of familiar.” You’re not wrong; there are major parallels between Rain and Venus Envy. Both are about teenage trans girls going stealth to survive high school, and both are laden with over-the-top transphobia. Why did I give Rain an F and Venus Envy a C? Well, Venus Envy is capable of making a joke that isn’t based in transphobia, for one! And despite giving a lot of screentime to the hateful words and actions of some of the characters, Venus Envy makes sure to provide a counterpoint, to clearly show that we’re not supposed to remotely agree or sympathize with those characters. And while Zoe definitely receives more than her share of abuse over the course of the comic, she’s usually enabled to laugh it off or get revenge, and she’s never treated like the punching bag that Rain is.
While there are serious problems with Venus Envy (starting with that name, jesus christ), it’s clear that Erin Lindsey wanted it to be a positive and nuanced representation of trans characters in a field that had none. And frankly, even though it really shows its age at this point, I still like it a whole lot better than most mainstream portrayals of trans people in TV and film to this day.
Even in its day, there were problems with it. For one, it’s basically all white characters. Landon, Zoe’s obligatory trans boy counterpart (and end-game romantic interest?? I guess we’ll never know now), was Latino, but that was never made clear by anything other than him inserting various Spanish words into his dialogue; writers, don’t do this. Every year without fail there was some kind of exploitative gory art commemorating Trans Day of Remembrance, which I hated even then. It also included some digs at nonbinary people! Thanks for that.
And ultimately it started to run out of steam on its slice-of-life concept and newspaper-strip format. This was a very common problem that early comics ran into: after surviving for like a decade, writers started running out of ideas, but didn’t have a clear way to bring the story to an elegant close. Sometimes this lead to creator abandonment; sometimes it led to ER-esque plot escalation far beyond the original tone or premise of the comic. In Venus Envy’s case, it was both, resulting in a dramatic and bloody showdown between Zoe and her friend Nina, because, I forget why, before updates finally stopped with Landon sitting at Zoe’s hospital bedside. What the fuck!!
Final verdict: This isn’t a comic I would recommend to anyone these days – its gender politics are a bit too antiquated – but if you want to see how far the Trans Web has come in the ten years I’ve been trans, read it while imagining that it’s all that there is.