April Daniels. Dreadnought. New York: Diversion Books, 2017.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 color-changing costumes with built-in USB ports
It’s been a summer of superheroes for me. I’ve been keeping up with the new America comics every month, as well as catching up on some of America Chavez’s previous iterations in Young Avengers, The Ultimates, A-Force, and her very first appearance in Vengeance. I’ve also been catching up on all the Ms. Marvels, but more on all of those in a future post.
First, let’s talk Dreadnought. There have been a couple of great firsts in the superhero sphere in recent years – the first lesbian Latina super, the first Muslim American super, and now the first transgender super.
New Port City is home to a super team called the Legion Pacifica, and their MVP is Dreadnought. “Mightier than a battleship, faster than a jet, and so on,” Dreadnought is America’s first and most famous metahuman, and he is not supposed to be lying in a crumpled heap in an alley after a supervillain attack.  But that’s exactly how Danny Tozer finds him. And that’s when something completely surreal happens.
In his dying moments, Dreadnought passes the mantle onto Danny (apparently being “Dreadnought” is like being “the Dread Pirate Roberts”), and part of taking the mantle means that Danny’s body gets to transform into what she’s always wanted. But the awesome thing about this story is that it doesn’t make this The Moment Everything Was Perfect From Now On. Danny still has to fight for her happily ever after. She still has to deal with terrible people like her father, her former best friend David, and some of the members of Legion Pacifica who aren’t ok with the new Dreadnought being a transgender woman.
Basically, Danny may have gotten an opportunity that no one outside of a fantasy book ever gets, but she still has to deal with real life obstacles, and neither her superpowers, nor her new body, make those obstacles any easier to overcome. Which is not at all to say that I enjoyed reading the terrible way Danny was treated at home, or the snarky comments Graywytch kept making. Some parts were pretty hard to read, actually.
So, Dreadnought is no Queer Utopia. On the other hand, does it fall into the equally problematic category of Queer Tragedy™? The story does pile a series of more-than-microaggressions onto Danny, plot points that lead to a semi-climax that centers on her queer identity. And one of those plot points is a pretty horrible father who bullies Danny with classic derogatory language and hatred of anything that’s not hetero-manly. I might have called him a straw homophobe at first glance, but there are people who are just that cruel and abusive.
But notice how I said the agressions only lead to a semi-climax. The major climax has nothing to do with Danny being transgender, but rather her identity as the new Dreadnought. In other words, I think the story balances well between showing real-life problems that do happen to some members of the LGBTQIA community and focusing on plot points that have nothing to do with a person’s queer identity.
Oh, and the other great thing is that the story doesn’t suggest that Danny’s fantasy transformation makes her more “real” as a woman than she was before, or that there’s such a thing as the “right” female body, or even that Danny is no longer transgender now that her body more closely matches her identity.
A few nitpicks
One thing that lowered my rating was the way the metahuman community is separated into categories of “whitecapes” and “blackcapes,” the former of course being the good guys and the latter being the villains. I’ve said before how I really don’t like that dichotomy of whiteness = good vs. blackness = evil. That kind of ideology can and has been used against people for centuries. It’s just become so easy to use these black and white categories in our language, but there must be some other way to label good and bad. Any fun ideas? Leave them in the comments!
There were also some moments that required some pretty big suspension of disbelief – like how quickly Danny’s school administration adjusted to her transformation. They knew her only as a boy before, and all it took was her mother vouching for her identity for them to agree that the new girl was actually Danny Tozer. I guess the whole superheroes-and-magic-exist thing made the admins much less easily surprised by unusual events?
And then there was the moment where Danny privately wondered whether a person who became disabled could continue superheroing, and her view was never challenged.
The sequel, Sovereign, just came out at the end of July, and I’m totally going for it. Other than that problematic whitecapes vs. blackcapes business, Daniels has done some very nice worldbuilding in Dreadnought that I’d like to explore a bit more. What’s going to happen with the Legion now? How is Danny going to fit in with them, and how is she going to handle her new fame as the official Dreadnought #4? What is Nemesis and how is it going to affect Earth? Are Danny and Sarah going to become an item? (wait, is that just me hoping that? 😉 ) On that last note, though, I will say Dreadnought is another of those refreshing new YAs that don’t tack on an unnecessary romance for their teen female protagonists.
Let the Summer of Superheroes continue!
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