By Channing Joseph
When Kylie Wu was growing up, her parents thought that they were raising a little boy, and when she looked at herself in the mirror, that's what she saw, too.
But somewhere inside, a voice always whispered that that wasn't true.
One experience stands out in Wu's memory, from when she was in the 5th or 6th grade -- long before she learned the word "transgender."
"I was playing basketball," she told MTV News in an interview this past June, "and someone said, 'You play like a girl,' and I remember having this feeling: 'But I am a girl.' "
Now all grown up and living in West Los Angeles, California, Wu prefers surfing to basketball but spends much of her free time drawing new installments of "Trans Girl Next Door," a popular Web-only comic series showcasing her day-to-day life as a smart, funny 25-year-old transitioning to the person she's longed to be since those days on the playground.
Wu isn't the only trans woman drawing comics -- not by a long shot -- but she has become the most prominent one in a growing cadre of young illustrators depicting and celebrating the real lives of transgender people. In a series of interviews I did with people who create, publish and curate comics featuring lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) people, many of them described how important it is for young folks struggling with their gender or sexual identity to be able to see others undergoing similar struggles, both in comics and in other media.
It's worth noting that even the mainstream outlets are catching on. As of June, DC Comics -- home to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman -- now has three series starring gay or bisexual characters, including "Catwoman," "Constantine: The Hellblazer," and "Midnighter." In addition, LGBT supporting characters, including the Green Lantern, are featured elsewhere in the DC Comics universe as well as in titles by Marvel and the historically conservative Archie Comics.
Emeric Kennard, a 20-year-old aspiring graphic novelist, remembers the frustration and longing he once felt as he was growing up in the small city of West Linn, Oregon. No matter how widely he searched or how many comics he read, he never seemed to find any stories about the lives and experiences of other trans men.
"I did find some comfort in specific comics," Kennard told MTV News, citing Colleen Doran's "A Distant Soil," Jaime Hernandez's "Locas" and Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman."
“Comics inspired and sustained me,” the rising junior year at California College of the Arts continued, "especially as I reached adolescence and was forced to come to terms with my own identity in a town that was typically either apathetic or overtly hostile to LGBTQ folk." But, he added, "Sadly, in none of these or any other comic I could find at the time was there a transmasculine character with a leading story arc."
For Elizabeth Beier, the creator of the autobiographical comic series "Bisexual Trials and Errors," simply including LGBTQ characters in mainstream comics is often not enough. It's also crucial that LGBTQ folk tell their own stories, she insists, as comic superstar Alison Bechdel has done in her work depicting lesbian life, most notably in "Fun Home," the 2006 graphic memoir that has become a perennial bestseller and been adapted into a Broadway show that won the Tony Award for best musical in June.
"Both Alison Bechdel's work and 'Trans Girl Next Door' are examples of how powerfully queer people can tell their own stories," Beier told me. "Someone who is adding ‘a gay character’ into a mainstream comic, especially if that person is straight themselves, will probably not get into as specific of detail ... as I try to do in my own comics.
"[My series] 'Bisexual Trials and Errors’ isn't just about being bi -- it's about myself and my search for relationships in a way I think straight readers would identify with, too," she noted, "but I put the word ‘bisexual’ in the title, and large on the cover, because I want bi folks to know there is a story about them on the comic book shelf."
Kennard argues that LGBTQ representation in comics is particularly important for young people because "comics can be illustration or literature, or both at once. They can convey experience in an immediate, visceral, visual way that words may fail at."
For this reason, he added, "I do think they have a special allure for young adults, adolescents and children, many of whom love art, struggle with reading long texts and want compelling stories to distract or empower them while they reconcile with the realities of their lives."
The comic industry's mainstream is slowly embracing this notion and reflecting the community.
"A generation ago, it was rare to see LGBTQ characters as anything other than punchlines or broad stereotypes in popular media," Andrew Farago, the curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, told MTV News. (The museum has begun to sponsor an annual Queer Comics Expo, to highlight the work of LGBTQ artists.) "In the 15 years or so that I’ve been attending comics conventions, the number of LGBTQ creators and fans has been steadily increasing, and there’s been a sharp uptick in LGBT characters in mainstream comics in the past five years."
Charles "Zan" Christensen, a gay man who grew up reading "X-Men" titles, said that at 15 he realized why he found "these outsider characters ... so intriguing." Like the X-Men, he "really was different from the other boys at school," he said -- except, unfortunately, he had no mutant powers.
Though LGBTQ characters have started to get a little more space, attention and respect at large publishers like DC Comics, Christensen has been putting out comics featuring them since 2010, the year he founded Northwest Press, a Seattle-based independent publisher specializing in graphic literature by and about LGBTQ people.
"I decided to create a press to provide a home for some of the great projects that were queer-focused and unable to find a publisher," he said of his motivations, after hearing too often from other comic artists who, like himself, were being shut out by the major publishers.
Although Christensen is committed to independent publishing, he believes it's crucial that LGBTQ people are depicted in mass popular culture as well, "even if they're not as nuanced and genuine as they could be."
Why? "Because those are the representations that are going to reach younger people who might not have access to independent queer media," he said. "A trans character in their monthly Batgirl comic might help them feel less alone and more comfortable being themselves.”
The fact is that "Trans Girl Next Door" is already playing that role in the lives of some trans youth, and it's not lost on the series' creator.
"I do get that my comics have a certain amount of positive impacts on some trans folks out there," Wu admitted.
Reading Wu’s comics is like looking through a window into her life -- as she plays pranks -- e.g., painting her dad’s toenails while he’s asleep -- goes shopping, battles acne, sees her doctors, dates guys and experiences changes in her own body as well as in other people’s attitudes toward her.
Some of those experiences are annoying or offensive -- like when people she doesn't even know ask probing questions about her private parts. Others are enlightening -- like that awkward moment that she had feared would come sooner or later, when someone on an elevator looked right at her and asked, "Is that a man or a woman?"
“I worry much much less about what people think of my gender because I survived that,” she told me of the elevator incident.
For the most part, her comics tackle serious issues with playful, lighthearted humor, but Wu doesn't shy away from tragic stories that have no funny angle, like the death of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl from Ohio, who took her own life in December 2014. She left behind a suicide note that read: “The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living ... because I’m transgender."
"I was absolutely devastated when I read this," Wu wrote on her blog at the time. "I wanted to tell her that she can and will live a happy and wonderful life ... but how can I convince a transgender kid that their life is full of promises when there is so little transgender representation on TV? When there are not enough uplifting and positive trans stories in the media? Where there’s still a huge chunk of society that sees us trans people as freaks?"
Since "Trans Girl Next Door" went live in late 2013, the series has gained thousands of fans around the world -- transgender and cisgender alike -- and some installments of it have even been translated into Japanese.
In addition, Wu has been featured in this year’s Trans 100 -- a list of notable people “working on trans issues in the United States and having a positive impact" -- as well as in Elite Daily’s list of 10 prominent millennials making a difference in the trans community. She shared the latter honor with big names like the "Orange Is the New Black" star Laverne Cox and bestselling writer Janet Mock.
Still, Wu confessed that the process of understanding and accepting her own gender identity took a long time and -- despite the success and acclaim she's experiencing today -- remains a challenge for some of her loved ones.
"My mom asked me why can’t I just be gay," Wu sighed. "My dad still thinks there is something wrong with me."
For now, she takes comfort in the fans that write to her all the time to say her comics make them feel better about being trans.
"It makes me feel whole," she told MTV News. "I love drawing comics, and it’s also kind of helping people, so it’s totally the best thing ever.”