On My So-Called Secret Identity

My So-Called Secret Identity: not just principled, smart and promising, but repeatedly downright enjoyable.

Every story contains any number of manifestos. The less a comic’s creators focus on a precise expression of their own beliefs, the more possibilities there are for unintended and perhaps even entirely unwelcome interpretations. To attempt to fix a text’s meaning is of course a sisyphean business, and too dogmatic an attempt can reduce a yarn to a lecture. Yet the alternative to the effort can be seen in literally dozens upon dozens of the super-books which are published every month. With a lack of attention that’s fannishly careless when it’s not simply ignorant or blokeish-minded, title after title has ended up siding with the reactionary myths of frontier justice, elite superiority and little-tempered misogyny. To witness some of the most outspoken social progressives amongst today’s superhero creators peddling profoundly illiberal product is to despair about the future of the sub-genre. With so little arising to challenge it beyond the achievements of a relatively small cadre of writers and artists, the myth that the superhero tale is by its very nature a profoundly conservative form can seem ever-more convincing.

Writer Will Brooker and artists Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan’s My So-Called Secret Identity is a web-comic designed to challenge the chauvinism of the vast majority of cape’n'chest-insignia tales. Inspired in part by Brooker’s regret that the costumed crimefighter comic typically represents little of his female student’s lives, it’s a charming and compelling experience which smartly tends to avoid shrill, dogmatic declarations of purpose. Instead, My So-Called Secret Identity expresses the manifesto which drives it through the eschewing of the typical superhero book’s dependency upon machismo and objectivisation. Focusing on the 20-something Cat Daniels and her remarkable perspicacity, it tells of how everyday life for the so-called “little people” of Gloria City is occasionally shattered by its population of costumed super-people. As a winning point-of-view character coping with the wonders and terrors of a huge comicbook metropolis, Cat stands in the tradition of Star City’s Jack Knight, from Starman, and New York’s similarly-named Kat Farrell, from Deadline. Just as their jobs as antique dealer and newspaper reporter lent them the freedom to pursue their own agendas, so Cat’s status as a PHD candidate allows her to apply her intellectual gifts and academic skills to the investigation of a series of terrorist atrocities.

It would be doing Brooker’s script a serious ill-service to characterise it solely in terms of its polemical content and sharp premise. His work is at its beguiling best when using Cat as a narrator to flesh out her relationship with Gloria City, which succeeds in both establishing her as a sympathetic protagonist and it as a fascinating stage-set. A touch less assured are the scenes where the focus is on dialogue rather than monologue, for so strong is Cat’s character and appeal that other roles often seem considerably less individual and enticing. This is particularly true in the four flashback panels which establish how Cat’s exceptional, early-blossoming intellect was constantly belittled by male teachers and lecturers. It’s the one scene where politics overwhelms storytelling, and in presenting the men as entirely unsympathetic stereotypes, the undeniable truth of the observation fails to be conveyed in a convincing fictional form. Yet Brooker’s work is typically brightly structured and touching, and it would be hard to suppress a suspicion that his gifts really do extend beyond the academic, non-fiction fields that he’s so far occupied.

The panel-to-panel storytelling in the book is by Suze Shore, whose work is lively, empathetic and discerning. Though this is art which stands quite outside of the canonic line of succession from Shuster through Kirby to Adams and beyond, it rarely lacks for movement or fascination. With a style which at various times suggests the likes of Eddie Campbell, Kate Beaton, elements of Shojo manga and Jamie McKelvie, Shore entirely sidesteps the uber-masculine in favour of the winning specifics of emotion and setting. It’s an approach which works as well for the strangely lonely night-time set-piece of a flying superhero at the tale’s end as it does for Cat’s time spent quietly researching ill-deeds in a library. Only in a few of the scenes where Cat’s talking to others rather than herself does Shore’s work lose something of its winning combination of enthusiasm and feeling. Though Cat herself is always a distinct and refreshingly unobjectivised woman, there’s can be little of variety in the individuals she encounters, of whom not a single one appears to be anything other than Caucasian and mainstream. With no little irony, the problem of individuality is especially pressing where male characters are concerned. As a stutter of a problem, it compounds Brooker’s tendency to shine more when Cat is monologuing the reader’s way through events, Yet elsewhere, as in the opening splash page showing Cat wandering through Gloria City, Shore’s work is so marked by wit and personality that it’s hard not to laugh out loud with delight.

Cleverly interwoven into My So-Called Secret Identity are several pages from Sarah Zaidan, whose  lively digital pages suggest a smart-minded fusion of exceptional skill, found objects and unconventional materials. Her exuberant, double-sided representation of Cat’s desk -  all maps, scraps of notes and newspaper articles – is a joy, and as such, is well in keeping with the spirit of the project as a whole. For this is a tale which expresses both a love of the possibilities of the superhero as well as a respect for the storytelling fundamentals of comics themselves. Similarly, there’s an exhilarating expression of deeply-held convictions on display here, and yet they sit perfectly well with the very best traditions of the sub-genre as entertainment.  As such, this isn’t a feminist critique of the super-book itself. Instead, it’s a determined counter to the way in which superhero comics have tended to be dominated by a misogynist approach. Not a lecture but an adventure then, and not an alternative so much as the real-deal. It should reward all but the most irredeemably blokeish of readers. To suggest, as many generously have, that it’s a comic for women who’d more often than not be alienated by the sub-genre would undoubtedly be true. Yet there’s an awful lot of blokes who’ve been worn through by the same unrelenting bigotry-posing-as-cheesecake too.

To suggest that My So-Called Secret Identity is worth reading because of its ideological convictions would be to patronise its creators while seriously diminishing their achievement. Yes, there are moments where the storytelling wobbles a touch, but this is an undeniably intriguing and enjoyable superhero comic. If the point ever did need establishing again, then this proves once more that there needs be nothing of the ultra-conservative about the heirs of Princess Diana and Kal-El. Unashamed of the sub-genre even as it despairs of how poorly it’s so often been used, My So-Called Secret Identity reads like the glimpse of a far more decent-hearted and interesting future.

. If you haven’t already, you should.

Reposted from TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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