I’m getting back into the swing of reviewing, and recently read an advance copy of The Pervert, a new graphic novel from Michelle Perez and Remy Boydell. The book will be released by Image in May, and the story features a trans woman living in Seattle doing sex work alongside other odd jobs. The comic is a stark and revealing look at sex work in a major city, but more importantly it’s a story of being trans and struggling to find your personal identity.
The Pervert follows a fairly strict formula – short vignettes in a 2×3 grid. The chronology of these vignettes is fractured, and we see the protagonist in various stages of accepting herself and her personal, physical presence. At one point, she refuses to let johns know that she is trans and refuses to do sex work as a woman, separating her true self from the sex work she engages in. But that determination wavers as she depends more and more on sex work to get food and shelter. She states, “my name doesn’t really matter. I think I’m sorta embracing a philosophy where I don’t value my life as much anymore.”
Being transgender and dealing with the dysphoria and physical risk associated with it is an important theme of The Pervert. In her sex work, the protagonist sometimes passes as a rent boy, and other times she has sex with people who want a transgender partner. This uneasy movement between roles and the anonymity of her work wears away at her. Another major theme of The Pervert is the closeness of death. We see the dangers of being a sex worker and the high stress environment that they work in. The protagonist in The Pervert does house calls, but she is constantly evaluating her surroundings, looking for a potential weapon or escape route. She jokes about being a cop with other sex workers, but the fear of stigmatization and arrest are real. Perez & Boydell’s character contemplates death at the hands of a john multiple times, and obliquely in the form of suicidal ideation. She fights with men who insult her.
There’s also a thread of desperation that runs through the book. The protagonist is constantly living on the edge, one bad decision away from homelessness or destitution. At the end of the book, she ends up having to leave Seattle to go back home to Michigan, everything she doesn’t want to do, because of finances.
Boydell’s art throughout the book uses a 2×3 panel structure that is only occasionally broken for one-page splash images. Boydell works in watercolor, which suits the tone of the book well. Blues and reds are often used as washes that lend emotional heft, and the colors are often washed out or darkened down in sexual situations. Many of the characters are anthropomorphized, and some take the form of other pop culture icons (Clifford the Big Red Dog, Choo-Choo, Owl from MMO). The people who are antagonistic to the protagonist are the ones who are portrayed as human (the worst offenders are fittingly portrayed as comics’ serial blockheads). The style is “cute” but it’s hard to parse – does The Pervert follow in the long line of furry comics? I don’t have enough education on this to say with any authority. Regardless, the use of anthropomorphic characters and the cute illustration has the tendency to disassociate the characters from the emotional and physical hardship of the story. That dissociation also works on the very frank sexual content of The Pervert.
There’s a lot of sex in The Pervert, although the sex isn’t generally portrayed as titillating. There is a recognition in The Pervert of the convoluted role of sex, and it is used in different ways throughout the book; as a release, as a job, as something to do for fun, and as an intimate act between lovers. In this way The Pervert explores the nature of sex for sex workers, and the complexity that exists in that liminal space.
I’ve gone on about how desperate and difficult The Pervert can be, but the story is also one of hope and human connection. There is good with the bad, but the book is unflinching. The Pervert is, at its core, a story of personal identity. Tellingly, the protagonist of the book only shares her name with a john and with readers in the final pages of the book. That major detail, hidden until almost the end, is a fitting encapsulation for what Perez and Boydell achieve; a complicated human story where identity isn’t easy, but human connection makes it livable. Sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, The Pervert humanizes sex work and sex workers, and portrays a life experience that is complicated, real, and hard.
A digital advance review copy was provided by the publisher for this review through their distributor, Diamond Comic Distributors.
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