Published on January 18th, 2012 | by Joe Glass0
Tales from the Four Colour Closet – Givin’ Transphobia Shade: Madame Fatal
Last week saw the release of Shade#4 from DC. A little bit of a step outside from the main plot of the series, this issue features the titular character remembering the last time he saw his great-grandson, back in 1944. But one of the more interesting aspects of the story is the first extended use of a Golden Age character that DC have owned the rights for for the better part of half a century: Madame Fatal.
Hiding in plain sight, and appearing prominently on the cover, Madame Fatale not only saves the day but kicks ass in doing so. But there are plenty of superheroines in comics, what makes this one so special? Simples: this one is actually a man in drag.
Originally created in 1940 by Art Pinajian, Madame Fatal is retired actor Richard Stanton. When his daughter is kidnapped by supervillains, he uses his expert detective skills, cane fighting prowess and natural ability as an actor to become a masked vigilante and fight crime. But unlike other superheroes who just use a small mask or cowl to hide their identities, Stanton goes so far to use a staple of his old theatrical profession: dragging it up as a woman masked adventurer.
Sadly, Madame Fatal was never a popular character, largely due to the cross-dressing angle, and was put out to pasture before her story was ever completed. DC purchased the character as part of a bulk buy in 1956, but has rarely used him. In fact, the most prominent uses prior to this final appearance was as the butt of jokes by other characters, some of which were in poor taste and mildly homophobic. Even outside of the world of comics he’s been treated as a joke, making a Cracked.com list of worst superheroes, purely because his superhero gimmick was to fight crime in drag.
Madame Fatal was the first cross-dressing superhero (Ma Hunkel/Red Tornado following as the first cross-dressing superheroine). And there’s so much that could be done with that character, that idea: I mean consider it, if the whole point of a secret identity is no one being able to tell who you are, what could be better than masking your entire gender?
And yet, she was treated like a joke; sadly, this is often the case with trans issues (covering the breadth from cross-dressing to gender identity as a whole). The only times that gender identity issues have been covered positively and sensitively that I can think of was in The Invisibles, Sandman and Runaways. Out of those three, only Runaways is a mainstream superhero comic, the other too being mature readers Vertigo titles.
Leading UK gay magazine publication GT (Gay Times) recently suggested that ‘Trans is the new Gay’; that in today’s modern society, trans people and issues are the ones shoved into the background, or laughed at, reviled or spat upon, where once it was the gay society.
But why should it be in comics? The trans issues and experience can be mirrored so well by the superhero formula. The duality of being, the discovery and slow drawing out of the true self, the life as an outsider, the hardships. Consider Spider-Man: Peter Parker starts off as quiet, nerdy, agoraphobic. When he is Spider-Man, he’s loud, witty, a regular life and soul of the party. And now we can see that this was arguable Peter’s true self the whole time, as now Peter is just as open, funny and liked as his alter ego.
Similarly, Superman: what is Clark Kent but a form of human drag? He dresses like us, he acts like us (in an extremely exaggerated sense), he employs different hairstyles and accessories to be a ‘human impersonator’.
Madame Fatal’s story was effectively (and finally) concluded in Shade #4. I think it would be a shame if it was the last we saw of this character or perhaps a new character to pick up the legacy. And I hope that we see more complex and different trans issues (which I hope to explore further in future editions) in comics to come. Inclusivity does not mean picking and choosing which minorities get included; it should be for all.