Interview with Michelle Perez, author of The Pervert
Michelle Perez wrote the single best comic about growing up trans in the midwest. Remy Boydell, who has worked with the band Car Seat Headrest and recently wrote/drew a solo comic, illustrated the book.
Michelle and I talked about passing at work, making a living as an artist, and Jeff Bezos’ habit of consuming iguanas. The Pervert is a refreshing read that you should check out this Pride Month. You could go to the Bank of America/Dollar General sponsored parade, for sure. But I think reading The Pervert would be more rewarding. Just my advice.
WIC: Give me a short introduction to yourself, and what you were doing before you wrote The Pervert.
MP: I wrote the book, The Pervert, and it was drawn by Remy Boydell. Well, prior to that, I had worked at The Rainbow Hub as a music reviewer, I’ve done essays and articles for Women Write About Comics. Uh, Medium Difficulty, a blog that since went defunct, I wrote a column for them. I wrote for Five Out of Ten Magazine, some longform articles about video games criticism and one short form story.
WIC: Has it been hard to make a living as a writer?
MP: Has it been hard to make a living as a writer? I would say the old axiom, ‘Keep your day job.’ Definitely live by that. Because for a lot of people now, your social media presence is less an optional thing and more a networking lifeline, basically. You have to be careful about what bridges you do or do not burn. A lot of your professional contacts who you speak to… You kinda have to have a lot of forethought. It’s very difficult to be a writer.
I’ve always been writing while I was doing a job in a factory of some sort. I wrote some in Tennessee. I wrote while I was working a call center job, just calling people, political cold-calling. When I worked in a chemical plant, I was writing. I wrote when I was in a molding injection plant. In Michigan, a lot of auto jobs aren’t happening anymore, but molding injection… for the parts that actually go onto the cars, like the plastic stuff? That’s what I would do, and I would write in my offtime.
It’s incredibly difficult, and there are so many voices that you are trying to get heard over because they want the same thing you do. And now with the advent of content farms and people working for free (despite the fact that they never should). It’s incredibly difficult to really establish your own voice in a culture of writing that oftentimes values this really awful, “for exposure” mentality.
Sorry I answered so long. It is incredibly difficult to be a writer.
I would say, stick with it. I got off lucky. I had parents who supported my endeavors. Basically, some people put their kids through college. They were basically putting me up in their house while I got a book published through Image Comics. They’re like half the reason the book’s even out.
WIC: Oh, wow. Do you think you’d be writing about different stuff if you were well-off, and making your living as a writer?
MP: This has kinda come up before, but, for me, writing The Pervert, a lot of…. I’ve heard people say that it’s a romance. I’ve heard people say that it’s a commentary on stuff. But my perspective was that it was about work and what you put into it and what it takes out of you. It’s weird. My actual experiences with survival sex work were pretty wild and not that great. There’s always some sort of toll associated with it?
If I were rich right now, like, in the comic book industry, right? Just for an example? Let’s say that I was Brian Michael Bendis… You know who that guy is, right? Well, basically, anytime he goes someplace, one of his demands is, ‘I want dental. I want healthcare.’ Or maybe that stuff is industry standard. I should phrase that more carefully, but… Those are the things you get at a higher level, if you’re touching all the flagship stuff.
If I were making the money he was making or Mark Millar, for example, who, like… No one can say no to a Mark Millar premise for a comic book movie. Just go ahead and gut the thing, do whatever you want, just make us millions. Yeah, my perspective on life would be totally different if I were rich as shit. I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t be a Marxist.
Oh, man, I’d probably pretend that I didn’t know all of my friends. I’d be awful. I’d probably be a really bad person if I were well-off. Most of the people who are really well-off, like a lot of the people who are millionaires or billionaires, seem very incapable of handling simple, day-to-day interactions. They talk to people like they’re from an alien planet, trying to learn their ways.
WIC: Yeah, like looking at a picture of Jeff Bezos and staring into his eyes is very disturbing.
MP: Yeah, no, there’s a photo of Jeff Bezos just eating an iguana, a dead iguana. Now, if you never told me that was Jeff Bezos, I would be like, ‘Why is that asshole eating that iguana? That seems bad for him. That seems bad for the iguana.’
But, you know, like, what kind of conversation did he have to initiate with the people organizing the meal? Like the planners? ‘Hey, I want potato salad here, but really fancy-schmancy, talking top-of-the-line potato salad… No! I want like six dead iguanas, a la carte. Just wheel out those iguanas. Mm. Mm. That’s rare. Yes. You don’t wanna prepare that iguana wrong.’
And then there’s people yelling in the back, in the kitchen, like, ‘We gotta get this iguana just right!’
Ugh… No, no.
WIC: You said that you’re a Marxist, when did that come into your life?
MP: Prior to my time as a more vocal and out person online, there was a friend of mine who was big into Mao and would talk about a lot of Communist theory. And myself, why, I can’t say I’ve come from the college end of the spectrum.
For me, I see the value in unionization. And for the most part, I’ve only worked in factory settings, and basically, it sorted clicked for me. Because I’ve been a DIY person ever since the beginning. I’ve never got any professional schooling, you know, aside from high school. Everything I learned, I had to teach myself.
WIC: How did your experiences working affect the writing of The Pervert?
MP: As far as class struggle, I wanted to keep the themes sort of universal. A lot of people think the book is romance-themed. Like, there is a lot about human connection, but I kinda wanted to think about that in terms of work. Not to spoil the book, but there’s a moment near the end where a character sort of says, ‘Okay, here’s my name. If you wanna get to know me or whatever, we can do it, but like, at a distance.’
I think it’s indicative of how a lot times in a lot of work, in sex work, in regular-ass work, service jobs… Hell, I’ve heard of a lot of social workers sometimes thinking of the emotional labor they give to people in social work as comparable to an experience a lot of sex workers have. Because a lot of social workers, a significant amount of their time is about listening to the other person. Sometimes, in sex work, that’s literally all it is. You’re just kinda there, like an object in the room.
I wanted the book to be more about the narrative than have it be a thought catalog of my thoughts on class consciousness. I wanted the delivery of that message to be much more subtle. There was actually only one edit to the book. It was about the food box, the food pantry bit in the book. For the most part, Remy was like, ‘This is kinda on the nose.’ And I was like, ‘All right, I’ll rewrite that.’
WIC: And the book is autobiographical, or excuse me, partially autobiographical…
MP: Well, it’s not like a one-to-one value of everything that happened. Some of the stories are kinda composite characters, I guess. I didn’t want to… directly involve anyone. It feels like good policy not to narc on anyone.
WIC: Yeah… Tell me more about the scene where the protagonist is talking to her, like, very liberal Canadian boss. He’s an accurate representation of a very specific type of person.
MP: Well, that’s one of the few instances in the book where I wrote it almost exactly as it happened. I was kind of not feeling the work environment I was in. So, I was like, it’s not like they’re gonna know if it’s the truth or not. I’m just gonna say that I’m trans to this guy and see how it goes.
I said to him, like, ‘All right, before I go any further with this: You know, I’m not trying to say that one way or the other is right or wrong, but could you tell me where you fall on the political compass?’
And he’s like, ‘Ah, you know, I’m a moderate. I come from Canada originally.’
I was like, this could mean anything! I could get a promotion. I actually got a raise that day, and he asked all of these questions. I think, in a lot of popular online discourse, sometimes there’s not a lot of room for messiness that doesn’t necessarily bother you but will definitely infuriate someone else. So, I was just trying to be aware of that being something that can happen.
How the conversation actually went down in real life was, he had asked me, ‘All right, you got a name you’re gonna be goin’ around with? We could call ya that!’
And I was like, I’m not gonna be called that in a factory setting. I just wanted to keep you informed, and this has totally backfired in my face in a way that I’m not gonna state out loud… Woof…
WIC: Passing is a subject that is explored frequently in queer literature. How did you approach the discussion of passing in The Pervert? Was it something you were consciously thinking about during the writing process?
MP: Well, Remy was the person I turned to for this, because I wanted to specify a lot of stuff. One of the interesting things about using anthropomorphic characters is that the discussion of passing can be done in a lot softer terms… because the character you’re working with is already a soft, furry creature. So, aside from the haircuts, the way our mind works when we think of cartoon images is… our memories from childhood as they relate to them. You know, you see a bow on someone’s head, that means Girl. And you see this even in simple stuff like Super Mario. Like this Bullet Bill has a bow on it, so that’s Ms. Bullet Bill.
For this comic, it was a matter of working with our format, which is that we were using vignettes. There’s a state the character is in where the character is clearly coded male, and then there’s a state where the character is clearly coded female. I think getting that across, without having to name it, is something I wanted to do instead of having a straight-up, on-the-nose discussion of it. Because that allows you to talk about it in a truthful way, instead of how most people decide to use any trans narrative, which is, ‘I’m going to teach you all of these things because I know you, a member of the audience, do not know about this or that.’ I think it’s really cynical to think in that way. So, we had stuff where… It was also just sort of a joke, the fact that all the characters were anthropomorphic.
We had Felina [the protagonist of The Pervert] talking to her friend, ‘Wow! Look at how this HRT is affecting my skin!’ And instead of a femininely drawn hand, we break with the realistic-looking anthropomorphic furry, and it just reverts to a dog’s paw. That’s our way of not looking at it as seriously as we would have, normally. Because how are you going to quantify that visually, except as a joke?
I think, for me, personally, I think there’s a few different ways things, mechanically, work. There’s the online discourse, which is in a state of hyperpartisanship, which I get. I understand why it’s that way. I don’t know if it’s the default, or if it’s like… That’s not a bug, that’s a feature.
In person, people always seem to gravitate towards the path of least resistance, which is, I’m either going to be very Centrist, or I’m gonna go with the party line, Left or Right. I’ve been in Michigan, I’ve visited some of the support groups in the state. And for the most part, I wouldn’t say that trans people are necessarily left-leaning in the Midwest so much as, it’s kinda more… liberal to mid.
And that’s not a value judgement, it’s… The general thing I wanted to do first and foremost was… we wanted to write a good story. I can’t predict who and who isn’t going to buy it.
So, I try to think, okay, here’s who the audience could be. I’m just going to try to think of it in accessible terms. Because me and Remy’s discussions about that were, we don’t want to make an after-school special. And for me, getting things wrong in the discourse… I don’t worry about it as much as I used to. I just think of any problems I may have, and just try to be upright about them. One thing I distrust the most is someone that says, ‘I’m going to try to get this right every time.’
I think you should just admit your faults, work on your stuff, and not make it necessarily a thing you’re trying to be seen saying, if that makes sense. Because then you’re just posturing. It’s like if someone tells you, ‘I’m never going to hurt your feelings.’
You’re gonna look at that person like they’re a sociopath or something. That’s horseshit! You live in a world with people. You’re going to screw up. It’s not like you should be glib and smug about it. But you know, everything’s messy. You’re gonna cause discomfort. You just have to try do the least you can.
I think political violence and societal violence are inexorably linked to any sort of media portrayals of trans people. For me, I think the online, rightwing, cryptofascist jackasses that usually go on like, ‘You’re gonna mess this up for trans people because you’re gonna get people thinking you’re all violent,’ are full of shit.
I don’t know, I wanted to have a flipping of the familiar tropes where we see a disempowered trans person is beaten to a pulp and summarily murdered or something.
It was based on an actual thing where… something happened. No charges were filed. And you know, that was that.
It was basically, this guy… He was facing this situation, thinking, ‘I’m gonna be known as the guy who got beat up by a trans woman.’
It wasn’t like a feelgood moment at the end of it, a triumph.
I think that an uncomfortable topic of discussion with trans stuff is that a lot of times, you deal with remnants of learned behavior.
This interview was edited for publication. You can find The Pervert in your local library, bookstore or megacorporation’s website. It’s worth the read. It won’t make you a furry, I promise. But I won’t lie to you… it might…