Bebe and Annie don’t run in the same circles at their high school. Bebe is the high-achieving, popular captain of the cheerleading squad; Annie is an anti-social lesbian who needs more extracurriculars for her college education.
Encouraged by her mother to join the cheerleading team, Annie feels a romance blossom with Bebe. This is the premise of “Cheer Up! Love and Pompoms,” a graphic novel out Aug. 10 from Portland publisher Oni Press written by Seattle-based author, artist and game developer Crystal Frasier. Val Wise illustrated the book; the letterer, who draws the graphic novel’s text, is Oscar O. Jupiter.
The story is more than a simple romance; it touches on the complexities of friendships, team dynamics and tokenization. Bebe is a transgender girl and the first trans captain of the cheer team; while her parents are overprotective, her friends don’t always realize that what they think of as support is more self-serving than considerate or cooperative. Through it all, Annie and Bebe navigate their sweet feelings for each other and help each other grow more into themselves.
The Seattle Times spoke with Frasier over Zoom about the inspiration for this story, legislation targeting the right of trans kids to participate in sports, and centering trans and queer joy in storytelling. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired the creation of this book?
It’s sort of the opposite of an inspired project. I was on the escalator at the Washington State Convention Center for a convention, and was just randomly thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a story about queer cheerleaders and they kissed, and one of them was trans? Because we don’t get many queer cheerleading stories. We had “But I’m a Cheerleader,” and I think there was a queer cheerleading subplot in “Glee.” And trans girls never get happy stories; that’s just something that’s stuck in my head. A couple of weeks later when Oni asked me for some pitches, I was like, “Oh, here are the ideas I’ve been developing for months and months. Then here’s this random idea I had on the escalator one day,” and they’re like, “We want the escalator one.”
What is your own background with sports or team settings, and how did you approach writing the team aspect of the book?
I don’t actually have a lot of experience with team sports. I had asthma growing up, and in high school, when I started coming out, I was very goth. So sports were just not really on my radar. A lot of my friends were on the cheerleading squad and it was nothing like the stereotypes you saw on TV or in movies. I enjoy collaboration, I like working with other people, so I enjoy sports narratives as team-building, as community-building. Sports are a good metaphor for any kind of community-building or facing a challenge as a group.
Right now there is an onslaught of legislation that’s targeting the rights of trans kids to participate in sports. What are your thoughts about the importance and the limitations of telling stories like “Cheer Up!”?
We started writing it before this tidal wave of legislation happened. The writing was finished in 2019, when the only people talking about trans women in team sports were a couple of weirdos in England. So it’s kind of been weird to see this become an issue just as the book we wrote about this also comes out. The book was never meant to be a huge political statement. It was more meant to be something nice and kind, because that’s really lacking for a lot of trans narratives. We don’t get fluffy bubble gum stories very often that are just designed to make us feel good. So many of them focus on pain instead. So the fact that this is a story about small victories and human growth revolving around sports, just as the question of trans women in sports is becoming a thing … I hope it helps some people empathize, but I don’t think ignorance is really the keystone for why a lot of these people are arguing against trans inclusion. I think it’s mostly a smokescreen to stoke fear about a minority that poses no real threat that can’t fight back. This book is mostly aimed at trans kids who feel left out and need that friendship. Val and I specifically set the goal of writing the book we needed when we were kids.
How do you specifically center trans and queer joy in your work, and what feels most joyful for you about it?
It depends on the project. I like to see trans characters owning themselves and not letting themselves be defined by the cisgender people in their lives. But sometimes it’s just small joys like telling sweet kind little stories about two kids falling in love for an audience that never gets to see that kind of story about themselves. For “Cheer Up!” specifically, there’s a lot of my own little triumphs with Bebe, specifically learning to stand up for herself, learning that she doesn’t have to make everybody in her life happy and learning to stand up to her father who isn’t really supportive — he isn’t really negative, but is still a source of stress in her life and something that she just sort of ignored and let slide up until the end of the book. The hope was to show how friendship helps us grow as people, because Annie learns to be a little more kind from Bebe, and Bebe learns to be more assertive from Annie. It’s kind of simplistic, but still an important lesson.
What is something that you love unconditionally about this book?
I’m going to go with Annie’s unbridled joy about the terrible bands that she loves. Originally we’d come up with a list of six or seven fake bands that she was a fan of, and we were going to design stickers to put on her laptop and slap posters in a room and that sort of thing, and we just ran out of time. There were too many things going on to sit down and design stickers on top of everything else. But I’ve known so many people in my life who acknowledged the bands they like are terrible or have their flaws, but they are still so in love with them. I feel that way about Guitar Wolf.
Is there anything else you want to talk about or any new projects you’re working on?
Well, we’re currently working on a follow-up to “Cheer Up!,” so it’ll be the same characters. I’m working with Marvel Comics on a series called “Gamma Flight,” which is a spinoff of their “Immortal Hulk” line. Those are my big projects at the moment. I’d also say if you’ve got money to give to trans charities, now is definitely a time for that. Groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project are fighting this tidal wave of anti-trans legislation, groups like Mermaids are working hard to provide resources for trans kids. So anybody who can spare a little bit to help out, it would be appreciated, especially right now.