The Making of a Transgender Superhero

The Making of a Transgender Superhero

Superpowers can help teens do some incredible things: Miles Morales gained the ability to scale buildings and shoot webs, America Chavez gained the power to kick holes in reality and fly, and Danny Tozer gained superhuman strength and the gender she always wanted. In Dreadnought, April Daniels’ young adult superhero novel, a trans teen receives the powers of a dying hero and becomes Dreadnought. Along with the powers, Danny’s body is transformed from male to female—just like she always dreamed! Saving the world and fighting transphobia are just all in a day’s work for this teen. Here, Daniels shares the inspiration behind her heroine.

On the last day of my 30-day temp contract, I decided to write a book. Specifically, I decided to write a young adult book about a transgender superhero. I thought it would be really cool if there was a novel like that out there for young trans girls to find, something about someone who had the same anxieties and dysphoria they did, but who wasn’t a tragic side character. I’m not sure where the idea to make her a superhero came from, except maybe the fact that there’s hardly any way to put a bigger exclamation point on someone being heroic, narratively speaking, than to literally give them a cape and send them out to punch evil-doers.

With this established, I had to pick out a good name. I’ve seen a lot of indie superheroes—that is, superheroes that aren’t published by the Big Two (DC and Marvel)—that seem to flounder under the weight of a poorly chosen name. So it was clear to me that a solid superhero name would be key to getting the whole project off the ground. I started jotting down words as they came to mind. Fury, no. Carapace, maybe. Fireant, meh. Nothing really jumped out at me and I was running dry. Everything seemed too hardcore, too esoteric, or not forceful enough.

Then I remembered that the British have always given their ships powerful, dignified names. I found a list of British warships online and started reading. Lo and behold, right there at the top the first name my eyes landed on was HMS Dreadnought. I had my name.

Once I’d settled on that, the rest fell into place easily. What are her powers? I decided on a variation of the classic flying brick—Dreadnought flies, is super tough, and punches things really hard. More than that, I decided, the book would be upfront about her being world class in this regard. Making protagonists who are more physically powerful than almost anyone else in their world is a tricky, dangerous business. But I knew it was important to do it so that the most vital piece of subtext would come across loud and clear: Transitioning can make you stronger.

With the power set decided, I needed an origin story. I didn’t want to set up long and complicated circumstances that justified her empowerment, so I had Danny (Dreadnought’s teen alterego) get her powers in the first chapter through a twist of fate. This way, she spends the rest of the book dealing with the fallout. The important part of the book was never going to be explaining the mechanics of her abilities, so the faster we were past that point, the better. Inheriting her powers from a dying hero made that possible.

Making Danny very strong was an act of confrontation with a cultural script that presumes trans women are either weirdo creeps or helpless victims. Danny is neither. She’s a sweet, plucky optimist who can juggle dumpsters and beat up tanks. This is a trans woman who is powerful, without caveat. She’s not an idiot, but her ability to wreck bad guys doesn’t eternally rely on some clever or inventive use of an otherwise middling power set. For the most part, punching works for her, and wherever she goes, bad guys must be wary. This is a book about a trans girl who learns that she has nothing to fear from the world, who knows who she is and what she’s capable of.

April Daniels graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in literature, and then promptly lost her job during the 2008 stock crash and recession. After she recovered from homelessness, she completed her first manuscript by scribbling a few sentences at a time between calls while working in the customer support department for a well-known video game console. She has a number of hobbies, most of which are boring and predictable. As nostalgia for the 1990s comes into its full bloom, she has become ever more convinced that she was born two or three years too late and missed all the good stuff the first time around. Early in her writing practice, April set her narrative defaults to “lots of lesbians” and never looked back. Visit her online at www.aprildaniels.com.

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