“You hunted me down,” begins Vivek Shraya on the first page of her graphic novel Death Threat (Arsenal Pulp Press). A hate email explodes into her inbox one morning and Vivek’s initial reaction is “Haha wow.” It’s not the reaction that the email’s author expected, or hoped for. He is an internet troll, a particularly nasty type of provocateur that preys on public figures, often those from marginalized groups.
This troll goes after Vivek on the basis of her gender identity, bombarding her with hateful, transphobic messages. As the volume of emails increases, Vivek’s amusement gradually turns to fear and discomfort. At the advice of her friends, she stands up for herself, telling the troll to stop harassing her in a brief email. She initially doesn’t intend on responding but realizes that her only legal avenue to stopping the hate mail is to have, in writing, proof that she informed the troll she doesn’t want to hear from him.
Vivek’s inability to stop the hate mail from rolling in, and the indifference of law enforcement to her strife, is a reflection on the real world lack of protections for trans and nonbinary people. Although Vivek is Canadian, and the book takes place in Canada, it incorporates imagery from the Trump administration, which has taken a firm anti-trans policy stance, rolling back Title IX protections related to gender identity and enacting a ban on trans members of the armed forces.
One of the trolls depicted in Death Threat resembles Donald Trump, and another gleefully smiles underneath a “Make Vivek a Man Again” hat. Vivek’s phone blows up with “Have you reported this to the police?” messages—naïve to cops’ ambivalence towards marginalized groups at best, victim-blaming at worst.
Death Threat takes a meta turn in its third act, depicting Vivek adapting her experience into the very same graphic novel in the readers’ hands. It’s a poignant way of expressing how artists such as Vivek can turn trauma into art. She had previously written a short memoir called I’m Afraid of Men in which she talks about coming to understand her gender identity and being torn between masculine and feminine expectations.
Much of our socially constructed conception of gender itself is informed by performance; a girl playing with dolls is performing her gender in the eyes of society, as is a boy playing with action figures. In her career, Vivek is no stranger to performance, a cult Canadian pop icon known for her album “Part-Time Woman.”
This graphic novel is about performing one’s identity, not performing hate. It’s about performing truth in the pages of a graphic novel, gorgeously illustrated by artist Ness Lee. If Death Threat was inspired by a letter of hate, the final product that Vivek Shraya and Ness Lee have assembled is a love letter to members of the queer community touched by intolerance.
Death Threat is now available for purchase.
About the Authors
Vivek Shraya is an artist whose body of work crosses the boundaries of music, literature, visual art, theatre, and film. Her best-selling new book, I’m Afraid of Men, was heralded by Vanity Fair as “cultural rocket fuel,” and her album with Queer Songbook Orchestra, Part‑Time Woman, was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize. She is one half of the music duo Too Attached and the founder of the publishing imprint VS. Books.
Ness Lee is an illustrator and artist based in Toronto, Canada. Her illustrations have been chosen for award publications such as American Illustration 35 and Society of Illustrators 47, and she has exhibited her works at galleries in Toronto, New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Tokyo. She continues to explore her practice using a wide range of mediums such as ceramics, drawing, painting, mixed media and sculpture.