I used to think that I’d done a variety of jobs over the years, but this week’s Portrait might have me beat. Jadzia Axelrod is an author and illustrator. She has been a circus performer, puppeteer, graphic designer, sculptor, costume designer, podcaster and quite a few other things that she said she’s lost track of but will no doubt remember when the situation calls for it. I took some time to speak to the very personable and (self-described) loquacious Axelrod.
I love your name, Jadzia, is there a story behind it?
Well, it’s not the name my mother gave me. My original name started with a “J,” and I wanted to keep that “J” sound, but I wanted something fresh. I didn’t just want to add a “Y” to the end of my old name. There was a character from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” named Jadzia, and I jokingly suggested I should make that my name. The first time I used it, my heart kind of skipped a beat, and I thought maybe this isn’t a joke. Then when my daughter started using it. She would say, Jad-ZEE-a, and my heart pounded, and I thought, “OK, this is it!”
Yes, and eventually, it will be legal. One of the many quarantine issues we’re dealing with is that my court date to get my new name finalized was scheduled for the end of March, so that didn’t happen.
Bummer! Where are you from?
I’m from the South. I was raised in Tennessee around the Appalachian Mountains. Then when I was about 10, we moved to North Carolina, and I lived there until my early 20s before moving up North.
I don’t know much about Atlanta or the Appalachians.
I enjoy having a Southern heritage, especially when it comes to food. I’ve lived here for a ridiculous amount of time, but I can still make a mean biscuit. I do consider how being raised in the South may have affected my coming out, though back in the ’80s, things were tough for people coming out no matter where you were. I see so many kids fearlessly coming out now, and I’m jealous! But I’m also in awe and so happy that though we have a long way to go, we have made a lot of progress. Now I see more queer and trans kids than ever. It makes my heart happy.
Tell me about the fam?
I have an older sister and younger brother. My sister still lives in North Carolina in the family house, and my brother lives in Nashville, so we’re a little spread out.
And the folks?
[Laughing] Well, my mother and father met when he was her teacher in college! To be fair, he was a young teacher. Later, he became a contractor and an activist for coal miners. He even edited a book called “Growing Up Country.” It acknowledged and gave a voice to a lot of people who were marginalized. He was a bit of a crusader. My mother was a preschool teacher and eventually opened up a daycare in our house.
What kind of stuff were you into as a kid?
I was into a lot of the same things that I’m into now, which is hilarious! I write comic books for a living. It’s something that I’ve been doing since I was a child. So it’s a career path that I trained my entire life for.
What was the subject matter of your first comic?
Oh wow, I was probably around 7, and it was about a raccoon who wore a baseball cap and got into various hijinks with other animals who were all in high school together. To a 7-year-old, high school was cool, so I set the story there. In middle school, I wrote a lot of superhero comics — variations on the X-men and Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which were the rage. In my later teenage years, I got studious about it and was doing more earnest narrative comics. [Laughing] I wrote a lot of very serious works about nothing! “The mundanity of life, man!” What did I know? But I actually won a Congressional Art competition with them! It was an obsession as a child, and I’m still going strong with it. It’s pretty neat, I played with DC comic figures when I was a kid, and now I’m an adult writing for DC and creating my own superheroes!
That is cool. What was your coming out story?
[Laughing] Which one? Well, I originally came out in college to my parents as gay. I’d written a play and then invited them to come to see it as my way of coming out, which I do not recommend by the way. They were like, “Wait. What?”
How did they handle it?
They did fine. I think they suspected anyway. I mean, they never really kept track of me. I was a big nerd, so they didn’t have to worry about me, but at the same time, I think they did notice that I would occasionally disappear and that it just happened to coincide with Pride Day or the Queer Film Festival. They weren’t dumb, so I think they put it together. I was about 18 then. It wasn’t until just a few years ago, when I was 36, that I came out as trans. So a nice span of time in-between. Coming out as trans was just as indirect, no play this time, but I still didn’t start the conversation. I used to have a history of posting my outfits online. I still do, but at the time when I started exploring my gender identity, I had to decide if I wanted to post any of the pictures of me in women’s clothing. It was a very difficult decision, but I ultimately decided to go for it. My mother follows my Instagram, so she sent me a message, “Hey, saw your picture. Is there something you want to talk about?” So she started the conversation. The only person I directly came out to was my wife. With everyone else, it’s been very indirect. So to conclude, if you have to choose between writing a play and Instagram for coming out, I recommend Insta.
What problems or discrimination have you faced, if any, with either coming out?
It’s interesting, transitioning from male to female, yes, I faced some discrimination, but I don’t know if it was because I’m trans or if it was because I’m a woman. One thing I noticed early on after transitioning is that I completely lost any sense of personal space. There was a bubble of about 3 feet of space that people gave me before that I took for granted, and it was absolutely gone after. After I transitioned, people would act like I wasn’t there; it was fascinating and crazy. But yeah, in terms of overt incidents, I had a kid at the farmer’s market throw rocks at me. I’ve been yelled at in the street, so it’s happened, and it’s going to happen again, I’m sure.
So sorry to hear it. Switching gears, I want to know what circus stuff you were involved with?
I started a freak show with some friends when I was in college. I was the ringleader, and I would juggle odd objects from the audience. Or I’d have someone pick a card, have them memorize it, and put it back in the deck. I’d pull out a card and staple it to my forehead and ask if it was their card. When they’d say no, I’d say “That’s right, because this is a circus, not a magic show!” I did that, and I also opened for some punk shows and juggled for the Lulu Tech show, stuff like that.
You have some amazing costumes on your website, did you teach yourself to sew?
My mother taught me a lot. She used to sew and made our Halloween costumes every year.
What was your favorite?
My dragon suit, for sure. It was so cool. When I grew out of that thing, I was distraught!
Mine was Cousin It from “The Addams Family.”
Yes! We have a little thing for them too. We made sure to get our Addams Family costume picture for our first Halloween with our daughter. We wanted to do it while she’s young in case she refuses when she’s older!
How are you coping with the quarantine?
We’re doing OK. On one hand, Wednesday loves it because both Mamas are home. We like to say, “Two mamas, no waiting.” On the other hand, we can’t go to places she loves like the library. At this point, she’s read every book of hers in the house several times!
Is her name really Wednesday?
No, that’s just her online name. We would have made it her real name, but it seemed like too big a name for a small child. But she was born on a Wednesday, so it could have worked.
How did you meet your wife, writer and photographer J.R. Blackwell?
We met in college at Guilford College. We were in a co-ed dorm, and she was in the room next door. We didn’t date during college, but we both identified as queer, and we were best friends. We did a lot of things together, and she was a contortionist in the freak show. After college, she needed a roommate — she’s from this area — so I moved up here. We got married, I transitioned, and we had a kid!
How did you get involved with Philly Family Pride, and what does it mean to you?
I got involved three years ago, and I’ve been on the board for two. It’s a great organization. It’s hard being a parent and can be even harder being a queer parent. It’s great to be around other parents and families so that the kids get to see that having two moms or two dads or whatever you have is normal. It’s a place where they don’t have to explain their family to anyone. As a parent, it’s nice to talk to other parents who have had similar experiences. It’s a wonderful group to be a part of. On a side note, there’s nothing more feminizing than holding a baby! I’ve never been misgendered when holding Wednesday.
What are some of the specific challenges LGBTQ parents face?
Some people still don’t know or acknowledge that queer people have kids. Oftentimes, with my wife and me, one of us is assumed to be the nanny. It’s also hard to find representations of families like ours in the larger media, especially finding media that’s not about a “queer family,” but just about a family who happens to be queer. Part of my mission as a writer is to create stories where people can see themselves, but I can only write so fast, and publishing moves very slowly.
What comics do you have out there right now?
Oh, there are a lot. You can see them on my website. There’s “The Battle of Blood and Ink,” which I wrote, which has been around for a while. There’s “Frankenstein’s Support Group For Misunderstood Monsters,” which I drew and wrote and coming out soon from DC Comics: “Galaxy: The Prettiest Star.” It’s about a teenage alien girl who is a space princess. She’s a refugee hiding out on Earth, and she is disguised as a human boy. The story takes place when that disguise becomes too difficult to keep up as she falls for the new girl in town. Jess Taylor, who is an amazing artist, is doing the illustration.
So cool! So, random questions, something that you lost and were relieved to find?
There was a time when I really didn’t like myself. Not when I was a child, but from adolescence into young adulthood. I just thought it was part of the human condition, as a lot of people seemed unhappy, but as it turned out for me, it was just a function of gender dysphoria. So post-transition, I re-found the ability to like myself as I did as a child. It’s been amazing.
Coffee or tea?
Coffeeeee!!! I used to work in a coffee shop with a guy who roasted his own beans. He taught me a lot about quality coffee. I’m not a snob; I’ll drink just about any coffee, but I appreciate the good stuff.
If you were on the cover of a magazine, which one would it be?
Oooh, that’s good. The Comic’s Journal. The Wizard magazine was the comics magazine of my youth, but The Comic’s Journal is more highbrow. Wait, no, how about Publisher’s Weekly? No! Bon Appetit magazine. I love to cook, so if I could be in the cover on Bon Appetit, that would be amazing!
Who would you contact at a seance?
I’d really like to bring my father back. I lost him when I was young, and it would be nice to talk to him again, especially since he died before I transitioned.
Where can people find you?
Some of my work can be found or requested at bookstores or comic book stores. I think Barnes and Noble has some of my work, and you can even go to the main building of the Philadelphia Library and find some of my work there if it’s not checked out! But the best place to go is my website where I have links and blogs and podcasts and a variety of work, like “Comrade Cockroach” about a D-list supervillain, and more.
If you had to describe last month as a traffic sign, what would it be?
“Slow down, dangerous curves ahead.”