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Monday, 20 February 2012

The Princess (LGBT History month)

 The Princess
A webcomic by Christine Smith
What's it about?
The Princess is about Princess Sarah, aged about 8 years, maybe 9 or 10, who was born with a male body and named Seth by her parents.  The first strip introduces Sarah to us as a happy, confident girl:
Sarah's parents are divorced and she lives with her mother.  Her mother is having difficulty accepting Sarah's decision to dress as a girl, as she's worried about Sarah being bullied and having a hard life if she doesn't present as male.  However, Sarah finds support from her best friend Irma, her father, her aunt and her aunt's friends.

As much as it's a story about being trans, it's a also a story about young kids, their imaginations, school, pre-pubescent crushes and adventure! 

What's good?
 It's presented in strip format, meaning that each instalment has 4 horizontal panels, making it easy to read and digest.  I read 250 issues in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half.  It starts off very strong, immediately setting you up with Sarah's personality, her home life and the main themes of the comic.  This is instalment number 2:

The characterisation is really strong.  Everyone in it has a distinct voice and a distinct look.  The characters are engaging, the writing and the art is funny.  Being written and drawn by one person - Christine Smith - the comic is plotted perfectly with both dialogue and action presented seamlessly to deliver the punchline.

Given how I'm not particularly girly my favourite character is Irma, not Sarah.  Irma is, well not a tomboy, but a superhero fan, a cynic, a fighter and a fan of moustaches.  She wears one because she doesn't see why she wouldn't.  Sarah gets bullied by Chuck, a schoolmate who crushes on Sarah but is unsure how to feel about that. because he knew Sarah as a boy.  So Irma beats him up.  Not that I'm condoning violence, but, well, Irma's great!  It's always satisfying to read about bullies getting their comeuppance.

Sarah is more of a pacifist, and likes girly things and doesn't like being mean to people.  A comic focusing on just one of them may not be so interesting, but the way they bounce off each other is one of the most enjoyable things about the strip.

For more awesome Irma, check out this strip too.

This would be a good webcomic for trans kids to read, to show them they aren't alone.  It's part coming out narrative, part comedy, part story about dealing with bullies, part young crushes.  Sarah and Irma and her family are (mostly) good role models.  In spite of Sarah's mum's reluctance to accept her daughter, Sarah is generally happy, because she can now be herself.  I think that if people wanted to learn more transgender stuff, including their reactions and feelings to a friend or family member coming out as trans, this strip would be a good place to start.  Even the characters who don't want to accept Sarah and are giving her grief are nuanced, complex characters.
What's bad?
Sometimes the story pauses for a series of statements about being trans and dealing with people's reactions.  This sometimes comes across as more of a lecture and less of a smooth part of the story.  These scenes always make sense as part of the story, but they don't always seem to flow very naturally.

I understand why they are in the strip - it's part of Sarah's story, her life, and as a young kid dealing with other people's reactions to her these conversations are of course going to crop up.  I think it's also important to have these discussions in popular culture products.  Reflecting on my experiences being bisexual, I can empathise with others who don't see themselves represented in the world around them.

But regarding the literary construction of the story, these gender discussions don't always seem to fit neatly in.  Whether this bothers you depends on your personal taste.

What's the art like?
Like the newspaper comic strips it's laid out like, the art is is quite cartoony, with the drawings carrying the story as much as the words do.
Then there's visual gags and recurring background detail which make me chuckle every time, for example, Clark's cheeky chest hair:
As seen by the above samples, the strip starts out black and white, then becomes colour.  It really comes into it's own with the colour strips, as the art seems to come alive, in a 2 dimensional way at least.  i quite enjoy the pastels shades used to frame each strip - it reinforces the girly nature of the main character, and Princess Sarah, at heart, is utterly utterly girly.  She is always wearing a crown and seems to live her life according to how she thinks a Princess should act.  It's nice to sink into something so unashamedly feminine.

More information
I've put this as all ages because most of it can be enjoyed by little ones - around about age 8 I reckon.  They may not understand all the cultural and gender discussions but they'll be able to enjoy the gag strips.
Kids younger than 8 probably won't enjoy it so much.

Christine Smith also writes and draws Eve's Apple.  You can follow her on twitter @pinkbatprincess.

Thanks to Christine Smith for letting me use example strips in the review.


  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful critique of "The Princess." I saw it first in "No Strait Lines" a collection of LGBT comics, and was looking for it online when i found your review. I'm a transsexual, tho i didn't grow up in a home, at a school, nor in a time period where i *could* transition as a child. I'm very glad to see you're recommending "The Princess" for children, not just because it's a great comic for kids, but because that's really the way to change the world, by teaching young people. Hopefully, someday, a male transsexual will write a strip about a young trans boy, that will appeal to males, because in my experience, it's men that have the hardest time dealing with who i am. Many react like Chuck in "The Princess" actually, and to any man reading this comment...attraction to a woman is a heterosexual feeling, so how can feeling attracted to a trans woman mean you're gay? if you accept trans women as *women* feeling attracted to us wouldn't bother you so much! And even if you feel a little bit of attraction for another man, that doesn't mean you're 100% gay and going to marry another man someday...it means you're *normal*...psychologically, no one is 100% strait nor gay, sexuality is more a scale than an absolute. So, if you're basically strait, having a slight feeling of same sex attraction will likely be fleeting, like most attractions. Thanx again for your critique, it was wonderful - i look forward to reading more of your blog :)

  2. Hi Kitten.
    Thank you for commenting and I'm glad you approve of the review. I think it's really important to highlight comics with trans characters and to highlight those written for kids.
    Kids aren't born with the prejudices adults have, they learn them and become adults with prejudices. Or they could learn not to be prejudiced. Hopefully strips like The Princess will help bring that about. :)