Meg-John Barker navigates gender through space and time in new graphic novel


Meg-John Barker’s second graphic novel Gender: A Graphic Guide is out now. Here, the author tells DIVA how they relate to the book on a personal level and muses about the future of gender in all its shapes and sizes…

DIVA: Why did you choose the graphic medium to talk about gender?

MEG-JOHN BARKER: Comics reach an audience that wouldn’t read a long book or could get pretty confused and I think the images with the words can really help make these complicated ideas a lot simpler. Also, you can visually represent the characters who represent the readers. We always have these four characters going through the book. So, you can locate the reader right at the heart of it. Instead of just telling the reader stuff in a traditional book format, you can visually represent them, so they can see the person they would relate to and can see them struggling with the ideas in the way that they might struggle. Also, you can see images of the represented thinkers, and I think that’s helpful as well. It’s not just dry words on a page – you can see that person’s face and what they look like. 

Did you have an audience in mind when writing the book?

Yes, they are really represented by the four characters. We want to make them representative of a number of intersections, so they can also think about class and race, disability and sexuality. We always imagine the mainstream audience of people who just want to know more about gender, but also what might be useful to college students. The idea is to include the main theories that gender studies would cover. My hope is that someone reads the book and thinks, “This stuff on masculinity is really fascinating, I’m gonna go and get that book.”

Is the guide an attempt to reclaim the oftentimes sexist and misogynist comic genre?

That’s a really good way to put it. We certainly spent a long time looking for the right illustrator, because so many illustrators who are available are straight white guys and a lot of them wouldn’t be familiar enough with these ideas. It’s so amazing that Jules [Scheele, the illustrator] is on board for the series. My own reading of comics has been pretty much all women and all queer people writing memoirs or superhero comics. But, absolutely, there is that history in comics of misogyny and homophobia and we’re just beginning to get some decent representations of queerness and people of colour. But now, people in comic shops might see this book and it will teach them a way to critically read the other comics that they’re reading. 

Why did you choose a Doctor Who inspired narrative for the guide?

When we made Queer: A Graphic History, it felt like it would be playful to have a theme running through. Since we’re now doing a number of books in the series, I thought it would be nice to stick with this idea of having a somewhat playful, underlying narrative. And for gender, sci-fi just seemed obvious, because it’s all about going back and forward in time. And we just had the first female Doctor Who! Does that make Doctor Who non-binary? Or sometimes female, sometimes male? 

One chapter is concerned with the future of gender. Is there such a thing as a gender utopia?

It was quite a fun thing to unpack in that chapter. I think of the whole concept of utopia v. dystopia as another binary. It was really interesting to see that a lot of intersectional sci-fi authors have been questioning that in the last years. A lot of the early sci-fi was like, “If women would rule the world, it would be awesome.” And now, it’s much more complex. Flipping the hierarchy isn’t going to work. So, yeah, the answer is pretty complicated. I’d certainly like to see a world where diverse genders are equally accepted – that would be amazing. But what you get from the book is this weight of history, of patriarchy and of saying gender is binary in the western context – that’s not going to end over night.

Is there a chapter in the book you relate to on a personal level?

The whole book! I mean, it was so hard to write. So interesting and challenging. Kiera [Jamison, the editor] and Jules felt the same. I was realising, “Wow, I’m a trans person during the trans moral panic writing about gender, I’m a survivor of #MeToo, trying to write smart things about that.” It felt really personal all the way through. There was this sense of responsibility to get it right. But there was also something celebratory about writing it, because this is my take on what the world can learn from trans people, from non-binary people, survivors and other people who are impacted by gender in negative ways. There’s so much creativity coming from that, and so much power. 

What motivates your writing?

What really drives me as a writer is creating self-help books which draw from academic ideas and trying to make them accessible. A big part of that is locating a lot of our problems in wider society, rather than in the individual, because many of the problems are in the messages that you’re receiving and the structures and systems around you. When it comes to writing, there’s something about finding your authentic voice. For me, I try to write about the things I’m passionate about. Finding writing processes where you get to be completely free and creative is vital.

Gender: A Graphic Guide by Meg-John Barker is out now

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