April Daniels’ 2017 YA novels Dreadnought and Sovereign aren’t just queer superhero stories. They’re stories that show that superheroes have been, or should always have been, queer in the first place.
The series features a closeted 15-year-old trans girl named Danielle, or Danny. In the first scene of Dreadnought, she is out secretly painting her nails when she witnesses a super-battle between a new villain, Utopia, and the world’s most famous superhero, Dreadnought. Utopia not only wins but kills Dreadnought. Danny tries to help the hero, and for her courage, Dreadnought passes on his powers to her.
Suddenly Danny can fly, has super-speed, super-strength, and the ability to see and manipulate the lattice of energy behind everything. Also, and most thrillingly, she becomes her ideal version of herself. Which means that she is visibly a fit, stunning, cis-appearing girl.
Superhero narratives are notoriously empowerment fantasies. But the most famous ones feature characters who are already quite empowered to start with before they bump up to a further heightened level of self-actualization. Hal Jordan, whose origin is a blueprint for Danny’s, was a hotshot swaggering white cishet fighter pilot before he got the Green Lantern ring and was able to fly solo. Bruce Wayne suffers from the trauma of his parents dying, but he’s also a wealthy playboy billionaire even without the Bat-suit. When they gain superpowers, they are to a large extent embracing the status they’re already widely considered to be entitled to.
Not so Danielle. Her father is homophobic and emotionally abusive—he shouts at her so continually and brutally that she has hearing loss in one ear. Her family life has been a grinding daily horror of fear, hiding, and self-loathing. Becoming empowered for her means not just getting to swoop around in the stratosphere. It means she gets to be herself in a way she was never allowed to before and that her parents can’t take away from her.
Not that they don’t try. When they see her new body, her parents rush her to the doctor to try to get her on testosterone. “NOW they want to treat me. NOW they want to change my gender. NOW it’s all hands on deck to consider the pressing possibility that something might be wrong with my body,” Danny thinks with a mixture of rage and despair. (As Dr. Samantha Hancox-Li points out on Twitter, this is depressingly true to life. People who are perceived as cis, but gender nonconforming are often fast-tracked into hormone therapies that are difficult for trans people to access.)
Danny can make herself invulnerable, so no one is going to give her medical care without her consent. But her parents aren’t the only ones who despise her when she reveals who she really is. Her best cishet male friend turns out to be a misogynist and a creep. Dreadnought’s old super-team, the Legion Pacifica, wants her on board because of her powers and the Dreadnought name. But several members (in line with real-life reactionary fans) are uncomfortable with having a non-cishet white guy carry on the legacy. One of the Legion’s members, Graywitch, is even a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF,
Many superhero stories, especially since the Marvel era in the sixties, feature heroes who are stigmatized or disliked. The X-Men are famously targeted by the government and the public in many storylines for being mutants. Critics and fans have argued that this can be read as a metaphor for queerness, or as a parallel to the way that LGBT+ people are treated. That’s true. But the metaphor resonates a lot more powerfully when the superhero in question is actually queer.
One of the best parts of the Dreadnought novels is the way that Daniels shows the allure of superhero empowerment fantasies for marginalized people, while also suggesting that the genre’s focus on violent problem solving has some downsides.
Danny loves her new body and she loves being able to whoosh into the stratosphere and see the beauty of the earth from space. But—bullied and traumatized throughout her childhood—she also loves that being a superhero means that she gets to beat the snot out of people. She is constantly surprising supervillains with the depth of her rage. “They see this cute little blond girl and think I don’t have it in me to hurt them. Very quickly they learn better. When I’m in a really good fight, the anger explodes out of me…When I’m fighting, everything is perfect.”
A rage junkie who can punch through buildings poses some obvious dangers to themselves and others. Danielle—especially in Sovereign—comes close to crossing a number of lines. What saves her isn’t her superpowers, but friends and chosen family—supersoldier crush-object Calamity Jane, electric-powered nonbinary Kinetiq, and especially multi-bodied lesbian alcoholic android and surrogate mom Doc Impossible.
April Daniels’ genius is in recognizing that all the superhero tropes—empowerment, transformation, double identities, public stigma, struggles around the morality of violence—work better when the protagonist is queer. Dreadnought got her powers passed down to her by a cis man. But she shows once and for all that the most perfect superhero is a trans woman.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.