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Dr Charlene McGowan

Dr Charlene McGowan is a character featured in the supporting cast of Immortal Hulk. McGowan is a research scientist who was employed at Caltech and was terminated when alcohol and drugs began to affect job performance. After this turn of events McGowan found herself working for the Kingpin in a drug lab where she extracted blood from a captive teenaged mutant boy named Glow Boy in order to make the street drug MGH (mutant growth hormone) for humans. McGowan rationalized her involvement by trying to make the situation easier for Glow Boy and by paying on the growing of medical and legal bills accrued for her own transitioning after being fired. Using Kingpin’s lab was also a convenience to making her own hormone replacement therapy. When asked about future projects, McGowan immediately proposed synthesizing HRT because it was cheap and easy and most importantly for her she felt it was the least compromising way to help people. This small detail is itself a commentary on one of the obstacles faced by those transgender people wanting hormone replacement as part of their transition.

A brief tangent concerning Glow Boy. Ewing’s script mentions the boy was thrown out by his family when his mutant ability started to manifest at age 14 and then becoming part of a mutant community living on the fringes before being used by Kingpin. It would be speculation to say that Glow Boy was queer but this simple backstory is reminiscent of so many homeless teens who are rejected by their families for being LGBTQA.

A raid on the lab by Daredevil shattered the stability she’d begun to feel in her life and she was arrested and subsequently came to the attention of General Reginald Fortean, the head of US Hulk Operations and its Shadow Base division whose sole purpose is to vivisect Hulk and or other gamma mutates in order to weaponize their bodies. Fortean offered her the “opportunity” to work at Shadow Base rather than going to prison. The general used this same recruitment tactic before with Dr Jeffrey Clive whom he put in charge of Shadow Base. Clive had no reservations in dissecting and experimenting on Hulk after he was defeated by Iron Man using the Helios Laser in Immortal Hulk #7.

Clive authorized further inhuman experimentation on others in “projects” in which Dr McGowan monitored. The most prominent case involved college football quarterback Del Fry whose father developed a gamma radiation based serum to enhance a person’s body and prevent injury; in effect a super soldier type serum for athletes and presumably wealthy financial status. McGowan became Shadow Base’s head of research following the grim death of Dr Clive which is fueled by his own irrational compulsions. Tragically, Rick Jones (who played a key role in the Hulk’s origin) is transformed into a gamma monster. Jones spared McGowan’s life only after she convinced him that she’d secretly worked to relieve Del Fry of his intense pain.

In a further twist of events, a power mad General Fortean is removed from the picture which creates a vacuum that’s filled by McGowan who assumes control of Shadow Base and Hulk himself who takes over the very same agency tasked with eliminating him. They form a partnership and McGowan begins to atone for her past actions by rescuing Hulk and finding and helping other people affected by gamma radiation.

Series writer Al Ewing develops a working relationship/ friendship of sorts between McGowan and Doc Samson, a longtime supporting character who first appeared in 1971. Her character experiences some troubling doubt about her memory of the night Daredevil busted Kingpin’s lab. She opens up about being trans with Samson and talks with him about the process of realizing the story she’d been told to her about her by others (her family, friends, society, and government) didn’t match with the truth that was unfolding within her as she began to understand and accept being transgender. Everyone in the LGBTQA community can probably relate to having this sort of internal conversation though I believe there are added layers to it for transgender people. This process of critical self examination is resurfacing with her subconscious trying to clue her into a very big problem being created by the monster Xemnu.

Also of note are some panels from a scene in issue #26 that hint at McGowan being sexually or romantically attracted to Samson. In two sequential panels her gaze is focused on Samson’s butt. On the following page the first three panels focus on McGowan suggestively holding a large cable and plugging it into a containment chamber while Samson looks at her. Gay League contributor Mike McDermott has suggested to me that if Ewing were to have plans to write them into a non platonic relationship it would be the first such relationship between a cis straight  superhero and a trans person in a Marvel comic. This scene doesn’t conclusively indicate McGowan’s sexual orientation as straight. Her character may be bisexual or pansexual.

Ewing lays some groundwork in advance of telling readers McGowan’s gender identity. For example, in issue #22 Ewing writes a scene between Joe Fixit, the alias for the Grey Hulk created by former Hulk writer Peter David, and newspaper reporter Jackie McGee. Fixit tells McGee he’s read some of her opinion pieces, specifically one about trans rights and how he understands trans people just wanting to be themselves. Several months later in the double sized 25th issue Ewing explores an alien society through former lovers Par%1 and Farys, using the genderless pronoun “hir” to refer to both of them. Ewing all but shouts it out for readers in issue #31. A flashback scene in Kingpin’s drug lab fills in much of the character’s backstory. Ewing mentions that McGowan has been making her own hormone replacement therapy while working for Kingpin and a detail in his script calls for her to be drawn holding a mug decorated with a star surrounded by concentric circles all of which is colored in alternating light blue, pink, and white which is the same palette for the transgender flag. Also, Ewing’s script calls for McGowan to mention that she’s always used “Glow Boy” when talking to or about the young mutant held captive by Kingpin and never asked the name he was given at birth. This alludes to the practice of using a transgender person’s chosen name and never their “dead name.”

McGowan is the creation of writer Al Ewing and artist Lee Garbett. It should be noted that Ewing consulted writer/artist/game developer Crystal Frasier about trans issues and experiences. Frasier’s long running web comic Venus Envy featured a trans woman as its protagonist.

She first appears in Immortal Hulk #6. After planting some clues and foreshadowing, Ewing officially confirms McGowan’s identity as a trans woman during a conversation with Doc Samson in Immortal Hulk #32.

Rachel Scott is the artist of the first image (Immortal Hulk #42) and Joe Bennett is the artist of the image.

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