"Real Life" Outs Main Protagonist as Transgender?!

It's been a strange year for webcomics.

Scott Kurtz decided to reboot "PvP."  "Penny Arcade" actually mined more comedy from the fact that the world is shut down during a pandemic than the night show hosts have been able to.  And now, we have Greg Dean doing something with "Real Life" I don't think I've ever seen happen for a webcomic before: Update the series after having not posted a comic for over a year!  Oh, he's also outing the main character as transgender after more than ten years of him being a heterosexual, married man with a wife and two kids.  Which, I have to be honest, is NOT a direction I saw coming for a series that has largely been inoffensive and non-threatening for the vast majority of the time I've been reading it!  Now, please don't misunderstand me when I use terms like 'inoffensive' and 'non-threatening' as knocks against the series, as they are actually compliments.

Personally, I like inoffensive.  I like good natured fun.  Sure, "Penny Arcade" is a hoot because it's edgy and throws in a lot of f-bombs, but I don't want EVERY series to be like that just because THEY do it well!  I may like the adult humor of "Friends" and "The Simpsons," but sometimes you want something pleasant and harmless like "Home Improvement" and "Boy Meets World."  So when I say "Real Life" is simple fun, I say it as a compliment.  I can go to the site and (despite the authors personal feelings) know that I won't be reading a comic that comments (too much) about political affairs, doesn't call people out for their stupid religious beliefs, and even though the series is quite topical, it's strength is that it looks at topical humor and gives us a joke that is funny while not being abrasive.  Despite the occasional use of the f-word here and there, "Real Life" is a comic I can show pretty much anyone and it won't be offensive (but it will be worth a few laughs).

Which is why the current storyline that is taking place really turned my head.  At the beginning of the story we find our hero Greg (the avatar for the comics writer and artist) looking at a Facebook post that highlights an example of people who may be transgender and not know it.  Something about that post clicks with him and he starts having what can only be described as an existential conversation with his "core self," who happens to be female (and pretty upset for having been ignored for thirty years).  The setup of the current storyline seems pretty clear: Greg is realizing that, deep down, he is a woman, and will exit this conversation with a new view of himself which will turn his world upside down.

Now...before we continue I do want to acknowledge that transgenderism is a controversial topic.  It doesn't matter if you don't think it should be, the fact is to many people it is!  It's not just religious people either; there are some well schooled doctors and scientists who have words about the mental state of trans people, and whether you agree with them or not doesn't change the fact that they are there.  I'm not going to discuss the political feelings behind trans people because one of the reasons this "Real Life" storyline has been so successful (thus far) is precisely BECAUSE it removes the political aspect of it!  I'm not saying it won't be addressed in the future (honestly, it's going to be hard to avoid), but for the time being the focus is on the main character and his coming to terms with feelings that were always there and how he feels about them.  That is ABSOLUTELY the best way to approach potentially sensitive material like this: With heart and a bit of good natured humor!

It most reminds me of the time when Lynn Johnson decided to out Lawrence as gay in "For Better or for Worse."  In this story, oldest son Michael's friend Lawrence revels that he is in love with another man, thus outing himself as gay.  At the time this was a hugely controversial storyline to put in the newspaper (many editors wouldn't even print it), but it resonated with people.  Many of whom were not gay themselves.  It did deal with the temporary fallout with family members and close friends, but it was largely successful because it told a relatable, human story without getting too deep into the political or religious beliefs people had on the subject.  In hindsight that was a good long term approach because as the issue became less political the story has actually gotten better with time, making the conflict more about how family members were shaken by the fact that well intentioned future plans would have to be re-evaluated as a result of the revelations.  What's more, "Real Life" isn't in a newspaper, so there's no fear of angry letters to an editor from someone threatening to cancel their subscription because they don't like what they read.

Greg has the absolute freedom to write this story however he wants.  He can use whatever terms he wants.  He can explain what's going on with the characters in his own words, without worrying if an editor will scoff and say something along the lines of "I understand where you're going with this...but the readers won't, so change it!"  That unchained freedom is going to be a gift to this story, but that freedom can also be its downfall if not handled properly.  Long story short: If Greg plays his cards right he could have a potentially game-changing storyline on his hands.  I held off on writing this blog post for a week because I wanted to judge the storyline on it's own merits as opposed to its intentions.  See how it was playing out first.  Because good intentions will NOT make a storyline great!  Being the first at something isn't always what it's cracked up to be either.  I also don't want "Real Life" to become too political.  Since reading this story I've gone through a couple of years worth of tweets from the author and saw a side of him I would have been completely unaware of otherwise.  Knowing the strong opinions on the world the author has, I'm more than grateful that he doesn't share some of his views in the comic itself (even though I agree with some of those views).

Again, the strength of "Real Life" is that it's pleasant to read, and being strong to the person's face can rub even those who agree with you the wrong way.  So far that has not been the case.  The storyline has been interesting.  It's clear there is a lot of introspection going on.  The idea that the main character is having an inner conversation with the 'real him' is a great framing device that makes it easy for the reader to understand what's going on in his head while also providing the 'heart' of the story.  This is all going to be important going forward, as the story marches to the inevitable point where Greg has to confront his friends, kids, and (most importantly) his wife about his recent discovery.  The biggest problem is that the jokes felt forced in a couple of the strips, and going forward there may be strips that just need to end without a joke to be most effective.  Whatever your thoughts on trans people are though, this is a GREAT setup for a storyline and I'm more than looking forward to see how it plays out!  Of course, I must confess that I don't PERSONALLY relate to what's going on, but it feels authentic, and if the Twitter comments are anything to go by, the storyline is really resonating with people who have gone through this.

That leads me to believe that this is going to be successful in the long run, and I'll be back to share my thoughts on the storyline when it wraps in a few weeks.  Also, I should also probably take a moment to address why I'm calling the author 'Greg' and 'he' when if you go to his online Twitter profile it's pretty clear he's moved beyond such terms.'s for simplicity.  I've known him as Greg for years.  Readers know him as Greg.  The character is (at the moment) still Greg.  Under all these strips it says 'Copyright © Greg Dean.'  As far as the readers who just read the comic from the site know, the author is Greg.  That will likely change when the storyline comes to an end, but for the time being the character is referred to as Greg and thus that is reflected in this article.  The next time we discuss this things might just be a little different.

Update 7/6/2020: Slightly revised article to replace 'transsexual' to 'transgender' (seeing that the first term is considered outdated by the trans community these days).

Your Comic Book Guy - Kevin

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