Will Brooker on My So-Called Secret Identity

Will Brooker is Reader in Film and Television Studies at Kingston University, London, and editor of Cinema Journal. He is also author, editor or co-editor of nine books, including Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, Alice’s Adventures, The Blade Runner Experience, the BFI Film Classics on Star Wars, and Hunting the Dark Knight.

DARIUS: My So-Called Secret Identity is an intriguing project, and I’m inspired by how it addresses the depiction of women in comics. How did this come about? What’s the timeline?

BROOKER: A number of real-world factors converged to spark My So-Called Secret Identity. Here’s the basic story.

In October 2011, I visited the comic shop near my home institution, Kingston University.

I walked in and half a dozen young lads, including the owner, were sitting around playing video games. They stared at me as if I’d walked into their front room, and kept staring while I looked at the comics. I left within a couple of minutes and never went back. If someone like me feels uncomfortable walking into a comic shop, it’s no wonder most teenage girls and adult women wouldn’t set foot inside one.

This was soon after the release of the New 52, so the comics actually on display were titles like Red Hood and the Outlaws, with the notorious Starfire-in-swimsuit scenes, Catwoman #1 and the rebooted Batgirl. I bought about half of the New 52 when it first launched, and then that number dwindled each month to twenty, a dozen, half a dozen. I’m now only buying Snyder’s Batman on a regular basis.

The New 52 had some very strong titles and some creative highlights. But it didn’t really speak to me on the whole. Maybe I’m not the target demographic — I’m not exactly the young readership that DC wanted to attract to its stepping-on point. And I’m a great admirer of Gail Simone’s work, but to my mind, the editorial decision to bring back Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, restoring her ability not just to walk but to jump around rooftops, and compressing her history as both Batgirl and Oracle to just a few years, was unfortunate. I think Simone has done wonderful things with Barbara Gordon as Oracle and the predominantly-female cast of Birds of Prey, but the new Batgirl didn’t sit right with me. Again, this isn’t a criticism of the author, but of the editorial decision behind it.

So not only was I in this dingy shop that felt like a teenage boy’s bedroom, but most of the comics on the racks offered glossy, cheesecake pin-ups of women. It just didn’t seem a winning combination, somehow. It made me feel disappointed about what had become the norm in superhero comics, and frustrated that they couldn’t be different.

Later that day, I led an induction session for the year’s new intake of Ph.D. students. I looked around at the room full of young women – so smart, determined, keen and committed – and remembered that in the original comic, Batgirl was meant to be a Ph.D. student. Why do we never see women like this in comics – women who are normal, likeable and just really, really clever?

That thought sparked the development of My So-Called Secret Identity. Over the next fifteen months, I recruited a host of artists to design characters and costumes, including Ottawa illustrator Susan Shore, Kingston Ph.D. student Sarah Zaidan, and online fan favourites Hanie Mohd, Paige Halsey Warren, Sandra Salsbury and Lea Hernandez. Almost all the creative team were female, and they were all enthusiastic about representing women in a different, more realistic and relatable way.

, which had started to focus on my annoyance with the character of Barbara Gordon / Batgirl, and the way she’d been treated over the years. She’d just been brought back in the New 52 and been miraculously given the power to walk again, after having had her spine damaged in The Killing Joke some 25 years earlier.

I’d never really studied Batgirl, and now I tried to give the character a chance, but (as that linked article explains), it was hard to really root for her in terms of the way she was written and drawn. I started wondering how I’d do it differently, and decided that if I was ever given the chance, I’d pitch it as Barbara Gordon in the Vertigo imprint of the 1990s.

I was going to simply write some pages of script, commission some artwork and post it up on Mindless Ones as a hypothetical pitch, a story that could have (should have) happened but was never produced.

But then the story started to get bigger, and I realised, as I recruited more and more artists, that this could really be ‘a thing’. Within a month I’d recognised that it couldn’t actually be about Batgirl anymore, for obvious copyright reasons. So I scrapped the specifically Batgirl stuff, kept the basic template of Ph.D student in a 1990s American city full of larger-than-life costumed characters, and built it up in a different way.

The story and the world includes echoes of the Batman universe, but only in as much as Midnighter is a kind of Batman, or Rorschach, Nite Owl, and Ozymandias are all Batman, or that Batman is actually the Shadow crossed with Dracula and Zorro. It’s a reworking and retelling of superhero mythology — but I think all superhero comics are reworkings and retellings of an existing popular mythology.

DARIUS: I’m struck by what you said about Ph.D. students and how your observations of the incoming class differed from what you saw going on with Batgirl.

You and I both have run the gauntlet to get our doctoral degrees, and I’m struck by how academia (and learning in general) seems so rarely portrayed in a positive light, when it appears in American fiction. I remember a European professor of mine, who came to the U.S. for his Ph.D., saying that he was shocked after he arrived at how American TV ran down exactly what he was there to do! So this is nice to see in itself, beyond the gender issues involved.

Of course, the Ph.D. student alter ego is definitely affirming to women, as opposed to the strippers and the like that too often occupy American comics. It also reflects the reality that American women get more college degrees today than their male counterparts (this isn’t yet true for graduate degrees, although that’s shifting too). This has broad social implications, which we’ve barely begun to confront. But it also makes the marginalization of women in American comics seem all the more strange, even backward.

It seems that you initially chose the Ph.D. student alter ego as a redemption of Batgirl. But as the project evolved beyond that, did this aspect become something greater?

BROOKER: It was a lightning-bolt moment when I actually led a Ph.D. induction just after I’d been studying the earliest Batgirl stories for a Mindless Ones article.

This frame and caption in this Barbara Gordon origin episode actually spell it out: “I made my Ph.D at Gotham State University! I graduated summa cum laude!”

So in her first appearance, Barbara isn’t just a Ph.D. student — she actually has a doctorate already. But dressing up for a masked ball and showing the world that she isn’t just a “plain Jane… a colorless female brain” is “the highlight of [her] life”.

You and I, and doubtless many of your readers, have worked hard for a Ph.D. I can’t imagine you going out to a costume party with your father and his work pals, and declaring that it’s the highlight of your life, more significant than being awarded a doctorate. I can’t imagine any of the female Ph.D. students I know, or have known, ever saying such a thing.

So it struck me, in that classroom surrounded by actual young women studying for their doctorates, that their kind of intelligence, drive and commitment had so rarely been depicted in superhero comics.

The spark for that idea was “what if we actually wrote Barbara Gordon like a Ph.D. student for once,” but it quickly became more than just an experiment, an exercise in “what if” within an existing mythos. Once I realised it was a story in its own right, I started from scratch and allowed the characters to grow their own way, independently of any previous framework. Cat’s story and supporting cast do comment on superhero conventions — particularly on the Batman mythos — but it isn’t just a Batgirl adventure with the names filed off.

Unlike Barbara Gordon as Batgirl — I specify as Batgirl, because I think Oracle has been handled better and written in more interesting ways — Cat has been hiding her intelligence. She realises that adopting a secret identity is a way of embracing, accepting and demonstrating her incredible intellectual smarts — for her, wearing a mask and costume is a means to finally fulfilling her potential, to “coming out” as clever, to being herself, rather than a way of showing the world she’s a glamorous chick rather than a “female brain.”

I also wanted to use the fact that Cat is a Ph.D. student (in literature and philosophy) to draw out and incorporate some of my own ideas about the dynamics between hero and villain, sidekick and femme fatale, vigilante and police, in the mainstream superhero mythos.

Every so often, we as readers are allowed to dive into Cat’s head, in a double-page spread that I and the artists have termed the “mind-map” sequence. It’s created entirely by Sarah Zaidan, in a photo-montage, and looks quite different from the rest of the comic book.

In these interior scenes, we see how Cat processes the world, makes connections, interprets links, and joins up all the information she holds in her head. That matrix, or map, involves the relationships between key players in the city, but also includes echoes of her theoretical reading. As such, there’s actually an overlap with Hunting the Dark Knight. Cat is an academic, and she understands the way Urbanite interacts with Carnival, basically, because she’s read Derrida. It’s not hammered home like that, in such a heavy-handed way, but the ideas are there, hidden in the mind-map. A studious reader could potentially follow up the links and read the books and articles that Cat uses to interpret the world; or they could just ignore them and enjoy the story anyway.

DARIUS: I like how, through Batgirl, this has a Batman connection, given that we’ve both written books about Batman. Is this a project that might appeal to Batman fans? Did your understanding of Batman history inform the work in any way?

BROOKER: I think the work is very much informed by my understanding not just of Batman history specifically, but of the way superheroes and their mythic continuity work in general.

To give one example, there’s a deliberate confusion in Cat’s mind, and in the public memory, about how many sidekicks Urbanite has had, and whether any of them have been female. It’s implied that somehow everyone forgets exactly what’s happened, as if the world might have been rebooted now and then.

When Cat does her homework on Connie Carmichael, the former musical theater performer now styling herself as Sekhmet, we find that there are various, contradictory and conflicting reports of what Sekhmet’s original costume looked like. Maybe someone else was once Sekhmet. Maybe Cat is sure she remembers a certain outfit, but the celebrity magazines and popular histories are telling her it never happened.

So there’s an engagement with the idea of what it would be like to live in a comic book universe where continuity keeps changing, and you’re never quite certain what you remember.

I’ve tried to integrate this into the central plot and characterisation, so when Cat decides she’s the person to finally take down Carnival, the real final boss of this story, it’s because she’s studied how his relationship with Urbanite works, how they shape each other, and realises that she has to reach back into their shared history  in order to beat him.

I am, as is fairly well known by now, a fan of Batman. The story is written out of love for the stupid and glorious conventions of superhero comics, but also out of frustration with their limitations. Batman fans will, I hope, find a lot to like in My So-Called Secret Identity, but the story also recognises that there’s a lot to laugh at in the idea of a rich hobbyist who decides it’s his job to protect the city.

DARIUS: A lot of creators have done design or concept work on the series, such as character and costume designs. How did you choose them?

BROOKER: This really takes us back to the prehistory of the project, in Summer 2011. I followed a link on Reddit.com to the DeviantArt site of Jennifer Vaiano, who had posted up some steampunk versions of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. I asked her if she’d do me a steampunk Batgirl, and one morning — while I was staying in Buffalo on vacation — a gorgeous piece of original art unscrolled into my inbox. That was the first time I’d commissioned someone to draw a design from my brief — at least, since my small-press comic days of the early 1990s — and it was a new thrill for me.

I asked Jen to draw me some more sketches, this time as paid commissions, to establish what a female city vigilante might look like if she didn’t have a skintight costume, but just put together an outfit from the kind of thing we can all buy in stores and find in our wardrobes — a polo-neck, cargo pants, boots and a belt.

October 2011 sketch of Cat, by Jennifer Vaiano.

By now it was October-November 2011, and I was actively developing the project that would become MSCSI — though at the time, it was still planned as just a set of script extracts, sketches, drafts, and scrapbook entries, an archive of a comic that never existed but could have done in an alternate universe. I wasn’t planning to produce it as a fully-blown story: it was going to be a blog entry, an exercise in exploring a hypothetical title.

Still hanging out on Reddit, I found a cartoon by Suze Shore, a Canadian illustrator, pointing out the ludicrously skimpy nature of Poison Ivy’s outfit in the Arkham Asylum videogame. I approached her to draw me some more sketches and coloured portraits.

Suze Shore on Poison Ivy's Arkham Asylum costume.

Working with Suze, I realised that the idea really had potential, and her enthusiasm for the project spurred me on. I enlisted my former Ph.D. student, Sarah Zaidan, and then simply approached artists whose work I came across online.

Hanie Mohd was becoming well-known for her portraits of superheroines in knitwear and sweaters; I found Paige Halsey Warren through her awesome Busty Girl Comics, and Sandra Salsbury through her role as Reddit’s house illustrator. Clay Rodery was also suggested to me by a contact on Reddit’s Batman forum. I found Rachael Smith, who contributed some lovely, quirky cartoon interpretations of Cat, on Twitter; Twitter also led me to contact Lea Hernandez. Karin Idering and Carl Hoare were friends, or friends of friends, on Facebook.

In each case, I was looking for people who were interested in representing women within the superhero genre in a different — I would say better, more realistic, more relatable — way. They all seemed to get it.

DARIUS: Was employing an all-female set of artists something you intended from the start? How important was that to you?

BROOKER: “Employing” carries the wrong connotations for me. I did pay most of the artists for individual commissions, but that’s just professional practice — Sarah contributed her work for free, but most artists can’t be expected to do that.

The way the project is working longer-term, Sarah and Suze take payment from the donations for each issue. They are creative partners, not my employees.

But yes, the financial logistics aside, it was important for me to have a predominantly-female creative team. Clay Rodery contributed some really great designs and portraits, and Carl Hoare drew the first ever preliminary sketch of Urbanite; Paul Harrison advised me on martial arts methods and stances, and conversations with my friend Juan Ramos were invaluable in developing the character and background of Enrique, the Misper.

Apart from that, everyone involved is, as far as I know, a woman. That includes all the other artists but also some of the people who consulted, advised on, discussed and (in fanfic terms) beta-read my scripts: and that list includes Anita Sarkeesian, Karen Healey, Carlen Lavigne, Kate Roddy and Suzanne Scott.

I’m not suggesting by any means that only women can draw decent female characters, any more than it’s the case that only women can write decent female characters.

However, in a year when Gail Simone was fired from Batgirl and Karen Berger retired from Vertigo, it seemed a worthwhile exercise, to me, to try to reverse the normal gender ratios in the superhero comics industry and aim for approximately an 80:20 split between female and male.

I think our current society is very clearly structured around imbalances of power, so whenever I get the chance, I feel it’s OK for me to try to tip the balance a little bit the other way. I’m only able to change things in a very small respect, but I’m lucky enough to have a bit of power, a public profile, a platform and comparatively, quite a lot of cultural privilege, so I think it’s fair enough for me to exercise that in ways that I feel are right.

DARIUS: How did things evolve, once you had your primary artists?

BROOKER: I’ve been working with Suze Shore since we met on Reddit in Autumn 2011. Sarah Zaidan was my PhD student — her doctorate is on masculinity and comics — and I’ve worked with her on research projects since she graduated.

Many aspects of MSCSI evolved during 2012, and weren’t planned out from the start. Suze took on the primary line-work because Sarah had other work commitments at a particular point during Spring and Summer. The colour was originally going to be completed by Clay Rodery, but in turn, he had too many other demands on his time during Fall 2012, so those duties passed to Sarah — who was already slated for the covers and the interior ‘mind-map’ montage, where we see inside Cat’s head.

I think it worked out perfectly, with Suze’s clean, clear layouts and character designs combining beautifully with the depth and subtlety of Sarah’s colour and lighting. I wanted the comic to have a slightly nostalgic, watercolor feel, reminiscent to an extent of Tim Sale’s work in Daredevil: Yellow, Superman for All Seasons, and Spider-Man: Blue. Those are, on the whole, really nice, quiet, small stories — written by Jeph Loeb, of course — about people, coffee shops, dating, emotional tensions and life decisions. I specifically asked both Suze and Sarah to check out those books and try to evoke that feeling of changing seasons in the city; to make Gloria look like somewhere you’d want to hang out, kicking fall leaves, curling your hands around a hot chocolate, playing pick-up basketball as the sun sets.

But it was, in part, a happy accident.

DARIUS: There’s been a lot of talk about how super-heroines don’t sell and why this is — and whether the super-hero formulas involved appeal primarily to males. How are you addressing the cliches of the genre, in My So-Called Secret Identity?

BROOKER: On one level, MSCSI is a critique of stereotypes and cliche. On another level, it’s a celebration of superheroes. The fact is, for my sins I love superheroes. There is something about the genre I have adored since I first encountered it in the early 1970s. I like costumes, cool helmets, boots, belts, logos, bright colours, parallel worlds, secret identities. I love superheroes and their stories. So we are not criticising the genre as a whole — I hope we are embracing the great stuff about it, tossing out some of the less-great stuff, and subverting some of the key conventions.

So there are costumes, but Cat’s costume is something you could put together yourself. There are larger-than-life characters, but rather than crimefighters, they’re more like business-people and pop stars: more like Beyoncé and Trump than Catwoman and Superman. There are powers, but we never quite know how much of it is dry ice, hydraulics and stage lighting. There are conflicts, but a lot of them are just publicity stunts, as if Kim Kardashian scheduled a bank robbery and Britney Spears zoomed in to break it up, with cameras rolling on them both. There are superhero logos and insignias, but they’re partly just designed to promote perfumes, exercise DVDs and soft drinks.

There’s a guy who thinks he’s the city’s self-appointed vigilante guardian, but he’s also kind of a dick. There’s a sidekick, but he’s becoming discontented and wants out. There’s a villain, but he’s like nothing I’ve seen in superhero comics before — because to my mind, the dangerous people in society aren’t kids in costumes, but the older white guys behind the scenes who really hold the power.

So there are a few deliberate moments where we engage with a cliche and do it differently. But those moments are all in service to the story and characters, not just clever throwaway jokes or remarks.

In terms of the representation of women in MSCSI, I don’t think we are doing anything that’s very radical in the broader fields of television, theater, drama, cinema and the novel… or even unusual in comics, more generally, outside the superhero genre.

We are just telling a story about a normal, relatable young woman who’s pretty average except that she’s incredibly clever, and has learned to hide her intelligence, until now. If this kind of writing and drawing of women is unusual in mainstream superhero comics, then that’s because the genre has become, in my opinion, narrow and limited.

DARIUS: I completely agree with that. And I think you’re part of the solution.

Digital technologies are often seen as a way of reaching and even creating niche markets. Do you see the web comic format you’re using as a way of addressing the perception that super-heroine comics have a limited audience? Or is that a purely financial decision (about which, by the way, I don’t think there should be any shame, given how expensive color printing is).

BROOKER: Sarah and Suze would both, I think, like to see MSCSI become a print comic one day. As artists, I think they feel their work would be more finished, and more satisfying, on the printed page. I don’t have quite the same impulse, which is perhaps surprising because I buy all my comics in print form; I am pretty old-school and still have boxes full of monthly titles.

Again, the web-based format was in part just a means to an end. It was the quickest, most affordable and most effective way of getting the story out to a wide audience. I was funding this myself, so cost and speed were factors.

However, I do think there are advantages which, again, have emerged through happy accident. We began working with Lindsay Searles, an absolutely stellar web designer and a friend of Suze’s, and once again, I was lucky enough to have her understand what we were after right away.

I worked with Lindsay on designing the MSCSI website based on fashion and beauty blogs, rather than web comics or print comics. I wanted it to immediately look nothing like (to pick an obvious example) Red Hood and the Outlaws, or the cover of Catwoman #1 from the New 52 (which I know you have analysed for its sexual connotations).

DARIUS: Basing the website on fashion and beauty blogs is a really smart move.

BROOKER: I always wanted this project to have a sense of workshopping and collaboration, of process and interpretation — different versions of the same character, partly in keeping with my own views about cultural myth, and partly because I think it helps to undermine any sense that Cat always has a specific set of proportions. She is a slightly different shape, height and build depending on who draws her — and we are pushing that further in the comic itself, as she gets more athletic in Volume 2, and puts on weight in Volume 3 (we also glimpse alternate-universe versions of her, who are quite different again, in terms of size, ethnicity and even gender).

So we wanted to feature a scrapbook of sketches and designs, showing the work that had gone into the finished product. Just recently we had the idea of renaming it a “lookbook,” like a fashion blog.

Essentially, I want MSCSI to look different from mainstream superhero comics, because I think many girls and women don’t read mainstream superhero comics for good reasons, and I wanted everything, from the site design onwards, to signal that we are doing something different.

On a practical level, I think comic shops are often unwelcoming places, and we can reach a lot more people — people who wouldn’t ordinarily pick up a superhero title — by circulating a link online rather than stocking our product in stores.

DARIUS: You mentioned plans for more stories (which sound quite clever, by the way). How long do you foresee the series as running? Do you have some long-term plans, or are you playing it by ear?

BROOKER: So far, I have three volumes planned out. Each volume is five episodes. Each episode is an issue of 22 pages.

Volume 1 has been completely scripted, but only the first issue of that has been drawn and coloured. So the priority is to get those five issues of Volume 1 out to the public, first.

However, I’ve also plotted and written substantial dialogue for Volume 2, and laid out all the key narrative beats for Volume 3. So I know what is going to happen to Cat over the course of this trilogy.

Obviously I don’t want to give too much away, but in Volume 2, we take advantage of the fact that this story is set in the mid 1990s, and meet two characters from “the future” — actually 2012 — who have come back to warn Cat she has to make a serious, life-or-death decision right now, in order to save tens of thousands of lives in 2001.

In Volume 3, Cat has suffered a severe injury and has gone up several dress sizes, after becoming much more athletic and muscular during the second story arc. In this five-part narrative, we discover who the real final boss is — and this is a kind of enemy I’ve never seen in superhero comics before, though it’s a radically revised version of an classic villain — and Cat takes a step towards a more cosmic perspective.

In the meantime, we’re learning more about Cat’s housemates Kay Nevermore and Kit Farben, who has his own secrets; Dahlia’s daughter Daisy is growing up fast, for reasons we’ll find out at the end of Volume 1, and Cat meets a new love interest.

After that, I think we might aim for one-shots about Dahlia, Kit, Kay, Connie, and the Misper, to fill in background about the supporting cast and expand the narrative universe. I’d actually like to return to Cat to tell some stories about her when she’s in her thirties or forties. She’s mid-20s when we meet her, but then, it’s the mid-1990s, so in 2013 she’d actually be around 43. One of my aims with this project is to have some interesting, decent, intelligent and strong female characters who are actually a bit older than the norm. Another aim is to have central female characters who are a bit larger than the norm. As we follow Cat’s life, we can see her go through all kinds of complex stages — getting older, putting on and losing weight, learning, regretting, reflecting, mentoring, remembering.

Ultimately, the aim might be to have her as a figure like John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom — who totally sounds like a Silver Age superhero character himself — who gets older, has kids, maybe marries, divorces, makes good decisions, makes mistakes, and eventually retires.

DARIUS: You mentioned that super-hero comics don’t appeal to females “for good reasons.” I tend to agree that this is more the fault of super-hero comics as they currently are than of girls “just not getting it” or something, which is how a lot of super-hero fans seem to see it. Could you elaborate a bit on what keep girls away from super-hero comics?

BROOKER: I can’t speak for all girls of course, but I imagine what is keeping many of them away is exactly what keeps me away, but multiplied. It is so tedious — it’s actually depressing — to see women characters in poses lifted from soft pornography and glamour pin-ups, constantly dressed in ridiculous, uncomfortable costumes. The New 52’s Supergirl wears something the size of a purse as underwear. This is in the context of the New 52 Batman and Superman being redesigned in full body armour, with costumes reaching up to their necks and down to their ankles. I picked up a copy of Finch’s The Dark Knight, and there’s a woman in it running round, literally, in a Playboy Bunny outfit. I’m not just turned off from buying comics built around this kind of tired, implausible stereotype, I’d actually be embarrassed to be seen looking at them. And I am a superhero comics fan; I’ve read comics all my life. If I was a ten-year-old girl, even if I felt comfortable walking into a comic shop, I don’t know what I would find in the mainstream titles that I could possibly connect with and want to take down from the shelf, let alone take home and read.

I’m not a ten-year-old girl, so I could be wrong. But that’s just my view of things.

DARIUS: On the one hand, it’s been very gratifying to me to at least see more mainstream discussion of this issue, beginning with the 2011 DC relaunch, whereas such voices seemed more marginalized in years past. On the other hand, there’s been quite a backlash against this, at least in some quarters, and comics don’t seem to have changed much as a result.

Personally, part of what frustrates me so much about this backlash is that the concerns over female depictions have been raised, to my mind, in such a thoughtful, reasonable way. Partly, this is just a recognition of the reality of American comics culture. But partly, I think this is also a reflection of how gender discussions have changed in America. It’s become more mainstream and accepted as a legitimate concern, yet at the same time some of the more extreme rhetoric that accompanied this discussion, in the 1980s and 1990s, has subsided. There’s no way to say this without generalizing, but what’s sometimes called “gender feminism” seems has given way to a post-Obama reasonableness, for lack of a better term. Yet to me at least, the backlash from super-hero fans often feels angry and defensive, like it’s still 1990. As if raising these concerns at all, even in the most reasonable way, is somehow tantamount to praising Lorena Bobbit cutting off her husband’s penis.

So we have this odd situation, in which we’re having these discussions at last, but in which super-hero comics fans can sometimes come off as surprisingly retrograde. There’s a “leave my bended-back cleavage shots alone!” vibe that can take on a “don’t come confiscate my guns!” feel, as if anyone’s ever talked about censorship. It’s really anti-intellectual, because it suggests even talking about representations of women can’t be tolerated, because it might somehow lead to censorship or something.

Don’t many of our beloved super-heroes represent tolerance, compassion, and justice? Or at least listening to concerns about the same?

Am I alone in this perception? Obviously, you’re doing something about this, in creating a comic that might act as an alternative. But how do you read the current super-hero comics culture, on this issue?

BROOKER: It is what it is, and it does what it does. It’s essentially been doing what it does since the late 1930s, and I don’t think gender representations in the superhero genre have changed an awful lot since Batman declared “Quiet or Papa spank!”

I think it’s a shame, because I do love superhero comics, and when I come across a stupid outfit like Supergirl’s, or open All-Star Batman and Robin and find myself staring at Vicki Vale in her panties, or realise that Catwoman, supposedly a brilliant acrobat and professional thief, keeps falling out of her costume and failing to zip herself up, I literally want to put the book down.

My position is that I’ve argued against this sort of nonsense, and mocked it and criticised it in my own way as a comics scholar or journalist in a series of articles, both on blogs and in academic books, and you generally feel that you’re wasting your breath. A lot of people will agree with you, but you’re essentially preaching to the choir: superhero comics are not going to change because I write an article.

Superhero comics are not going to change much because I write a comic, either, but in a small, real way, they are going to change, because our comic joins the broader discourse and culture of superheroes, and so it becomes a small voice saying something different. Even if MSCSI represents 0.01% of the total superhero comics published in 2013, it still changes the nature of what superheroes mean, a tiny bit. It suggests that things can be done differently.

DARIUS: Am I right that a certain percentage of the profits from this project go to a woman’s charity? Could you talk about that?

BROOKER: I’m not trying to make any money out of this project, personally. But I thought it would be good to have some positive, real-world effect from MSCSI, however small. So I’ve added an amount to the total we raise for each issue, and that will support our monthly donations to a relevant charity — or charities, if we become more successful, because I’ll just increase that share and pass more of it on.

For the first issue, we are in partnership with http://www.awayout.co.uk/, which reaches out to vulnerable women, young people and families in the North of England, and helps them break out of homelessness, abuse, drug addiction, and prostitution.

I have other foundations and organisations in mind for future issues that I’d like to work with. But again, ideally, if we reach a decent-sized audience and raise the money effectively, we could start donating to more than one group.

DARIUS: Where can people go to check out My So-Called Secret Identity?

BROOKER: People should visit www.mysocalledsecretidentity.com, from Monday 18 February. They should also check out our Facebook group, www.facebook.com/MySoCalledSecretIdentity, for behind-the-scenes sketches, sneak peeks and discussion and follow @cat_abi_daniels on Twitter.

Meanwhile, someone has established a twitter handle @UrbaniteRLS, and is posting as the Urbanite, promoting his fitness regime and boasting of his crime-fighting abilities.

DARIUS: Thank you so much. And for such a fascinating project as My So-Called Secret Identity. It’s very easy to support, and I encourage others to check it out!

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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Also by Julian Darius:

This Lightning, This Madness: Understanding Alan Moore\'s Miracleman, Book One


Judging Dredd: Examining the World of Judge Dredd


Somewhere Beyond the Heavens: Exploring Battlestar Galactica


The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe



A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


Classics on Infinite Earths: The Justice League and DC Crossover Canon


executive producer

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics



executive producer

When Manga Came to America: Super-Hero Revisionism in Mai, the Psychic Girl


a short documentary on Chris Claremont's historic run and its influence

executive producer

Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews


Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization


Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan


The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby\'s 2001: A Space Odyssey


The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil


Everything and a Mini-Series for the Kitchen Sink: Understanding Infinite Crisis


Revisionism, Radical Experimentation, and Dystopia in Keith Giffen\'s Legion of Super-Heroes


And the Universe so Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing Joke


a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

executive producer

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide


Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


a documentary on the life and work of celebrated comics writer Grant Morrison

executive producer

Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes


Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen


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  1. Great interview! I just read the issue yesterday and fell deeply in love. Cannot be more excited for future episodes/volumes. Anyone seeing this needs to go and read this comic NOW.

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