By: Alex Falck
For my final installment (for now) in my Trans Author Interview series, I spoke with cartoonist and activist Sophie Labelle. Here in the States, she’s best known for her webcomic Assigned Male, which follows a cast of trans and queer pre-teens as they process trans identity and experiences. But in her native Quebec, Labelle says, she’s better known for her role as an activist. Labelle has spent the better part of 2018 on a world tour, and you can find out about her upcoming events on the Assigned Male Facebook Page. I had the opportunity to talk with her in person while she was in Chicago.
Most of the characters in your comics are about middle-school age, but they often talk like adults. Why did you decide to use kids as your main characters?
There are many things to it. First, there’s the fact that I’ve been working with trans youth for a long time, and these kids are on Tumblr and they do talk about these things. I love when people say, “Kids don’t talk like that.” You’ve never met trans kids. Trans kids hanging around other trans kids, they will talk about these issues, and especially the kids in my comics, they have very supportive parents. I didn’t want too much drama in my comics. I wanted to focus on the issues themselves, not the struggles in the characters’ lives.
Also, most of the main cast is neuro-divergent. Being neuro-divergent myself, being on the autism spectrum, it’s always been something that was part of my life—talking and none of my peers understanding what I said. I wanted to put that in the comic as well, in the same way that other comic artists have done immersive effects in their comics—I’m thinking of Mafalda or even Calvin and Hobbes.
I think it’s very particular, the way that because I talk about gender and LGBT stuff and sexuality, somehow it’s less realistic than kids talking about philosophical concepts and political issues, like in Mafalda for instance. Somehow, because my characters are trans they should just be avatars of trans people’s struggles and it has to be dramatic and it has to be based on our experience, but these characters have their own thing going, you know?
You mentioned working with trans youth. Is that something you were doing before you started the comic, too?
Yes. Well, that’s what I was doing. Now I just do the comic. I’ve been part of Montreal’s trans-feminist communities since I was a teenager, basically. Now I’m 30 and I’ve only been drawing the comic for four years and a half. Before that, I was an elementary-school teacher and I was also doing a lot of activism.
Because I draw trans characters and my characters are teenagers, people just assume that I’m a teenager myself, even though I keep repeating that I’m not, that it’s fiction. People just assume I’m 14 and the comments are like, “You draw so well for your age!”
When I went to your reading, you mentioned that you’re working on a novel in English and you have a couple novels that were published originally in French. Are the novels in French going to be translated for the English market?
I really want to, but the thing is that my most recent novel, first and foremost, was published by a pretty big publisher in French Canada, and now it’s a question of rights. I just can’t do like my comics and translate it myself, as I do with Assigned Male. I have to wait for the publisher to pick it up and since it’s a big company, I don’t have much say in it.
That’s very frustrating. Is that part of why you switched over to self-publishing and crowd-funding for your comic books?
I didn’t switch there, that novel was a request from that publisher after I started publishing my comics.
That’s very cool, to have the publisher approach you instead of the other way ‘round!
(laughs) Yeah, yeah, no, I feel like a diva, just waiting for the publisher to come to me!
Parts of me are very lazy, but also I’m just constantly overwhelmed by everything. My schedule is booked until May 2019! So reaching out to a publisher hasn’t been a priority for me. It would be great not having to deal with all the book orders and everything, but at the same time, I like this contact with my readers, you know—I’m shipping my books myself, I’m printing them myself, and it’s my own little product—my craft—and the fact that I can make a living out of it is pretty satisfying for me. I don’t feel like I need anything else right now.
Anyway, the publishing industry allows books to get distributed and seen and everything, but it doesn’t pay. I have a lot of friends that are published authors and their books are doing pretty well and they can’t pay the rent with that. It’s hard, it’s very hard until it’s a bestseller internationally.
The mixed effect of the internet on creative people is something I think about a lot. It’s a lot easier to share your work, but harder to make money off of it—people get so used to creative work being free that they’re reluctant to pay for it.
Well, the fact that my audience is so well defined allows me to find it more easily, and also the fact that there’s not a lot of media that targets trans people themselves. Usually when a book is published about a trans character, it’s never for trans people, it’s for a cause or to educate non-trans people, it’s never because we’re just part of society. So the fact that I could just reach that audience and create stuff first and foremost for them allowed me to find a market.
Yeah, I find trans people are usually very eager to support a trans person who’s making work for them.
Yeah, because usually what we see in the bigger industries, in movies and even in the publishing industry, it’s always cis people who get all the jobs, you know, to represent us, for some reason.
Do you find that things are a little better, a little easier for trans people in Quebec than in the states?
Oh yeah, a lot.
Of course there’s still very important issues to be addressed, for example it’s very hard if you’re an immigrant in Quebec to change your IDs and your gender marker on documents, but it’s still a lot better than most Western countries. I feel very privileged to be from there.
My thanks to Sophie Labelle for taking the time to talk with me. If you’ve enjoyed my Trans Author Interview series, you can find extended re-edits of the interviews coming to Medium.
Alex Falck is a Children’s Librarian at the Chicago Public Library. Alex is particularly interested in hearing and amplifying the voices of historically silenced people, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. Alex listens to lots of podcasts, and blogs at teenlib.tumblr.com. Find them on Twitter @AlexandriaFalck.