A.K. Summers: Tales of the Pregnant Butch
Author: Cathy Camper
March 17, 2014
“Can butches ever get pregnant?” In 2005, following the birth of her son, A.K. Summers began working on a comic that explored the ramifications of that question, and her own experience as a pregnant butch. Her thoughtful and humorous work poses questions like what kind of maternity wear is legitimately butch? Why don’t all bathrooms have baby-changing tables? And why can’t the experience of giving birth be considered butch? In 2012 her story appeared as a serialized web-comic on Activate Comix, and now Soft Skull has published it as a graphic novel.
Lambda Literary recently interviewed A.K. Summers to learn more about her creative history and the creation of her new graphic novel, Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag .
Pregnant Butch provides readers with both a great story, and good advice. But a big part of what makes it good is your skill as a cartoonist. Could you share a little background about your experiences with comics, mini-comics, zines and web comics that lead up to this graphic novel?
I read a lot of comics as a kid. I loved Tintin, Pogo, Prince Valiant, Mad Magazine, X-Men. I had a knack for drawing funny pictures and caricature, but I was also deeply engaged with painting and drawing in a more expressive, figurative mode. As a Studio Art major in college, I gravitated toward printmaking, specifically silkscreen. My subject was—what can I say? —my own love life, but often in the form of a poster for a “women’s” dance or coffeehouse. I consider the many posters and fliers I did for those college events to be my proto-comics. A lot of what I was concerned with in them was representation. I hated the generic symbols of lesbianism—the labrys, the lavender palette, the Mary Daly-ish misspellings of “woman.” They were all artifacts from the lesbian-feminist generation prior to mine. What did they have to do with me and my teenaged closeted backwater dyke experience, which was closer to lesbian pulps than feminist awakenings: lust and secret heartbreaking love, absurdity, struggles with conformity and the terror of discovery. To me, lesbianism was raw, overpowering feelings, fury and self-preserving irony—the “camp” more associated with gay men than dykes—and an absurdist sensibility more in tune with Harvey Kurtzman than Andrea Dworkin.
After college, I moved to Chicago where I found a job in the printing business, with a color separator. While I was there I started doing a comic zine I titled Negativa: Chicago’s Astute Lezbo Fantasy Mag. It was more of the lesbian agitprop I’d been doing in college—but in booklet form. This was in 1990-91 and the desktop graphics revolution was on the verge but not quite happening. I laid out my zine the old-fashioned way, with line shots of the copy and black & white scans that our scanner operator made for me on the sly. I stripped them together with rubylith and orange masking and made final positive films. Then I’d photocopy the zine and leave it in bars and cafés or mail it to other zine people. When I left that job to start graduate school (at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), I carried on with Negativa, switching from photocopy format to silkscreen and offset print. Zine culture was very exciting. People were funnier there than anywhere I’d ever seen. My favorite zines were Bimbox and J.D.s (with Jena Von Brucker, Caroline Azar, Johnny Noxzema and G.B. Jones), out of Canada. One thing I really loved about doing a zine was how the worlds of queer zines and drag-performance overlapped. It was a heady, electric, hilarious scene—the world of Holy Titclamps and Joan Jett Blakk. The zine scene in Chicago was semi-curated by this guy Steve Lafrenniere, who seemed to know everybody who was doing queer underground culture. He introduced me to the work of the great Vaginal Davis! An inspiration.
While I was still at the Art Institute, I started doing animation in addition to print. I had developed this character in Negativa called “the Bald-headed Dominatrix.” She was leather clad, with a shaved head and linebacker shoulders, a kind of “more sex radical than thou” figure, but more of a hapless boob than a badass top. (What can I say—sometimes the sex-positivity of the 90s was oppressive.) I was fooling around with images of the B.H.D. one day when a friend from the film/video department suggested that she would look great animated. So despite being in the printmaking program, I spent the next year making a 12-minute cell animation for my MFA thesis. It was titled, Topless Dickless Clueless and was surprisingly successful on the independent film festival circuit. (Well, successful enough that I decided to make a second animation, anyway.) Animation number two was intended to be just one chapter in a huge opus I was calling World Without Femmes (about my distressing inability to find a girlfriend). But that one chapter (World Without Femmes Part III: Street of the Discounted), another 12-minute short, took me until the year 2000 to produce—almost 5 years! And it didn’t do as well as Topless Dickless at the festivals. Nonetheless, I started work on another animation. (During those 5 years, I also tried drawing a gay male-themed comic with a writer friend called Meat Park. We only did one issue, since we couldn’t get a publisher interested in our story about a robot-staffed sex theme park based on the Meatpacking District in 1970s New York—go figure.) World Without Femmes was my last animation short that made it all the way to the production phase. I gave out of steam on my third short (the project I show myself working on in Pregnant Butch) and once my son was born I just never went back to it. Animation is an exciting, crazy-beautiful form—but not for one person to do. Too much work!
I started thinking about doing a comic when my son got to be toddler-aged and I got the idea for Pregnant Butch. I didn’t start out to make it a long-form comic though. Originally I thought it would be maybe 16 pages. The long-form comic, where you’re drawing the same characters for pages and pages, telling a story instead of a short, satirical commentary, introduced me to the rigors of comics. Consistency, especially—ugh.
Doing PB as a webcomic was not my initial idea. I have an MFA in Printmaking! I like books! So my clever friend Josh Neufeld suggested doing it as a webcomic on Activate Comix when I tried and failed to sell PB as a book (the first time around —in 2008). In retrospect, it was brilliant. Firstly, the schedule of posting pages every week forced me to finish it. Then there were these people who posted comments or wrote me emails about PB—people who were actually following it. After the crappiness of not selling the book, getting this sense that there was a responsive audience out there was quite uplifting. It really made it much less of a slog.
In Pregnant Butch, you draw yourself as the comic book character Tintin. What inspired you to take that approach?
Before getting pregnant, I was talking it over with a friend who asked what I thought I would look like pregnant. Without thinking, I answered, “like a pregnant Tintin,” and drew her a sketch of the boy reporter with hair flip, knee britches and beach ball under his sweater. For me, this image represented a best-case scenario for how I might embody pregnancy. After I’d actually been pregnant (when my son was about two), and was thinking about PB, that image of a pregnant Tintin resurfaced. Initially I intended to create a set of observations taking aim at the gender conventions around pregnancy. When I started writing, however, Pregnant Butch quickly became more of a story of my own experiences. Tintin started out as an ironic figure—a man-boy on a ludicrous pregnancy adventure—but as the story broadened, Tintin came to serve other purposes as well. Most obviously, he helped glue together the variety of graphic styles I use in PB. His iconic hair flip makes it possible to identify the main character Teek in all her modes: cartoonish, grotesque, realistic, and idealized. Teek is recognizable as the same character in large part thanks to Tintin’s use as a graphic anchor.
Tintin also offers a lot of resonance as something other than man or boy, while still decidedly masculine, a figure of action and heroism. I love Tintin for his indeterminate status (Is he an adult? He has a wallet but no facial hair…), which offers a real point of identification for both children and butches.
Your book is mostly about real people and events from your life. Did this raise any issues for you to take that approach?
Yes. I have declared that I will never ever do another memoir. It is just plain tricky to depict real people without hurting their feelings, pissing them off, trespassing on confidences. The person it was hardest for in PB was my girlfriend, whom I call “Vee”. For the most part, she was tremendously patient and forbearing. But at one point when I was serializing PB as a web-comic, and she was unhappy about the private nature of some page I’d just posted, she said to me, very pointedly, “You do know that all my colleagues are reading this?” So, yes, memoir is tough on relationships. I am looking forward to some nice, relaxing “fiction” in the future.
Unlike so many pregnancy advice books, your book examined a lot of assumptions people made about gender and pregnancy, for example, that pregnancy is a femme thing. Have some of these assumptions changed since you were pregnant?
I was pregnant 10 years ago and the world has changed a lot since then. Most of my life being gay has felt only semi-legal. The overturning of sodomy laws and official recognition of gay marriage are a huge change. And the Trans revolution—my God. The notion that gender is something more to do with an internal sense of self than with an external set of genitals is becoming popularized. I found myself recently being lectured by a straight mother of two about the trans politics of Glee (after I’d been foolish enough to admit I’d never watched—despite identifying as a show tune queen). I do believe we’re living through a paradigm shift.
That said, er, um, uh…I don’t know whether assumptions related to gender and pregnancy have changed fundamentally. One change I can speak to is that mainstream people have become much more circumspect about making public assertions about the “natural order” of things. That’s something for sure.
In your introduction, you mention how younger people have abandoned the term butch, and how female masculinity has been reframed as a transgender issue, rather than a sexual one. Do you have a sense of how younger readers are reacting to your book, given this shift in thought?
Unfortunately, I don’t. I set out to write a book about my own particular story, then some way in realized I was writing about an experience I shared with a lot of people. After all, my title itself was asserting a pregnant everybutch status! But almost as soon as I had come to grips with the fact that PB was about more than just me, I realized that people other than butches also had experiences with gender-challenging pregnancies—that an awful lot of masculine pregnant people identified with the experience…just not as butches. One way this was demonstrated to me was via an online comment during the serialization of PB as a web-comic. There’s a section in the book about feeling threatened by the wave of FTM transitions that occurred in the late 90s. One panel depicts a Transman bodybuilder flexing on the beach, in a kind of Venus on the half shell pose, while Teek, in an unflattering speedo tank suit, gapes. The trans guy informs Teek, “I don’t go by ‘Butch’ anymore. Call me ‘Todd’.” In an aside to herself, Teek says, “Just call ME ‘Clarence.’“ Anyway, this commenter wrote, “I was enjoying this comic up to this point but this panel seems to be making fun of ‘chosen names’. It threw me for a loop, because I was trying to get at that fear of butch inadequacy occasioned by the Trans paradigm shift. Was I making fun of “chosen names”? Well, yes. The kind of chosen name that just seems so flat and ultra-masculine that it begs for some fun-making. Argh! I take it back—memoir is not the hardest thing—making jokes is the hardest thing!
OK, to get back to your question: no. I don’t have a sense of how younger readers are reacting to my book. I honestly don’t know how interested masculine people twenty years younger than me will be in pregnancy, though they tend to be a lot savvier about comics than people my own age. Maybe the fact that it’s a comic about a masculine-identified character will seem relevant. I am going to do my first college talk about PB in April, so I’m really interested to hear what seems relevant and not about a butch identity to people in their twenties—if any show up, that is.
You seemed worried that this book showed a negative, dark side to pregnancy. Contrary to that, I thought your book was also really funny. For example, when discussing gender stereotypes, you mention how no one questions the right of any male to be in a lumberyard. Your drawing of a doofus asking for a piece of wood totally cracked me up. Any comments on how both the negative stuff and the humor worked together?
I’d be dead without funny! It’s a point of access to real joy and a coping mechanism—though it can also get in the way of actually dealing sometimes. One of my great challenges as a parent has been learning to “gentle it”—to keep the jokes while making room for talking about feelings without sarcasm or obfuscating irony. It is rough! I hear myself sometimes sounding like the world’s biggest therapy dweeb, but the alternative is awful. When you hear an adult speaking sarcastically to a child or making some particularly bleak crack to a kid, I find myself thinking, “Oh grow up!” Of course, PB is a book for ADULTS (as I’ve had to tell my son many times), so it gets to make light in the midst of stuff like self-hatred, shame, vulnerability and doofuses in lumberyards.
In the introduction I wrote that I was concerned that I was presenting a bleak portrait of butch pregnancy. It felt fraught because I worried that (A) my story might be taken as representative of all butch pregnancies. (I heard butch voices in my head remonstrating me, “Hey! MY pregnancy was awesome…”) And I heard imaginary straight voices concluding that butch pregnancies were tormented, neurotic, less-than experiences. (B) I fretted that the darkness in my pregnancy tale would somehow reflect back on my son, the result of that pregnancy. I’ve never regretted doing it and I am profoundly grateful to have him in my life…but oops—the question was about humor, was it?
This book will of course be read by an LGBTQ audience. But as a librarian, I hope it reaches a much larger audience, since the issues of pregnancy and gender it discusses are important issues others will confront and need to learn about as well. Have you heard about any birthing classes or other places including your book in their curriculum?
When PB was running as a web-comic, it was excerpted in the midwifery journal, Squat. So far that’s all I know of.
Can you give us any hints about what you will be working on next? I look forward to reading it!
Currently, I’m working on the script for a children’s graphic novel. My son has been impatient for boring old PB to be over with and I’ve promised that the next [graphic novel] would be for kids. I do also have some ideas about another adult book—I have a real yen to tell a coming-of-age story. And I’m coediting an anthology of butch “ruminations.” I’ll be sure to let you know when any of these projects have a title and a fruition date!
Photo via Aksummers.com