My So-Called Secret Identity — A Superhero Comic That Breaks the So-Called Norms

Look around the world of superheroes today, and it is clear the winds of change are blowing. Although it is true that many of the people donning spandex, capes, and cowls who take to the skies and streets in defense of truth and justice are largely still white, heterosexual men, there are an increasing number of signs that there is a new norm slowly taking hold. While titles such as Batman and Spider-Man continue to be big draws for DC and Marvel, Creators, such as Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick have steadily built large, vocal, and highly enthusiastic fan bases of their own behind characters like Batgirl and Captain Marvel – both who used to be considered nothing more than supporting cast members only a few short years ago.

In February 2013, Will Brooker – often known as “Dr. Batman” – made the shift from academic writing, having published extensively about the Dark Knight from a literary perspective, and began publishing his creator-owned, online comic My So-Called Secret Identity.

Forrest C. Helvie: Earlier this year, we first talked about what drove you to bring together the artistic team to join you in creating My So-Called Secret Identity (available here). Since that time, you have published two complete issues and are now hard at work on the third. With the better part of a year at the helm, what has been the overall response to this series so far? What elements of the story have readers responded to the most – both positively and negatively?

Will Brooker: Overall, I can only say the response has been very positive. We’ve had a lot of coverage in the mainstream press (The Guardian, Times Higher, Ms Magazine, and Femina) and fanzines like Geeked, as well as some very generous and enthusiastic feedback from comics journalists like Colin Smith, Julian Darius, Sean Kleefeld and Laura Sneddon, and interviews in academic journals such as Participations and Transformative Works and Cultures. The reaction was much broader and more supportive than any of us had ever anticipated, and everyone involved was on a major high for the first month or so after our initial release — coupled with the fact that we raised enough money through our donation page to fund issues 2, 3 and 4 in a very short period.

I think what people have responded to most is simply Cat as a character — that she is ‘normal’ in every way apart from her intelligence. The single page that gets the most airplay is the one I described in the script as the ‘hero shot’, where she looks up at us from her library book and says ‘I’m really, really, goddamn smart.’ That’s the panel and the line that’s repeated most in reviews, and which came to epitomize the whole first issue.

My sense is that it came as a pleasant surprise to many readers to have an otherwise-average young woman affirming her intelligence in such an unashamed, unapologetic way. We make no qualifications about the fact that Cat is incredibly smart: smarter than any other character in the comic, male or female. She ranges from bad to pretty good in everything else — she gets out of breath running up stairs, she’s happy with her sense of style, she’s in reasonable shape, she’s OK at cooking, she often says the wrong thing in social situations — but she is really, really good at putting things together and making connections between them.

There’s also the fact that she is deliberately never drawn in provocative or sexualized poses, and that her outfits are the kind of thing someone might actually wear, and that most of her supporting cast is also female. That this came as a breath of fresh air to so many readers reflects on the superhero genre as it currently stands, I think — Cat and her story shouldn’t be anything particularly new, surprising or distinctive, but in the current climate, they’re fairly unusual.

Negative comments were relatively few, but I’ve seen some reviewers complaining that Cat comes across as over-confident and full of herself, that nothing much happens in the first issue, and that it doesn’t have much to do with superheroes. Those last two points are valid, I think, but issue one was meant to be a quieter introduction and the ‘superhero’ stuff comes into play from the end of issue two. I don’t agree that Cat is over-confident, and I think that says more about some people’s expectations of women’s behavior.

Helvie: As a scholar and critic of the superhero genre, this is familiar territory; however, this is also your first foray as a comics writer. In what ways has writing MSCSI been informed by your academic background? Additionally, how has it made writing this comic a challenge? [Note: I don't want to ask a leading question, per se, but it seems much of academic writing is centered on critical analysis and informing the reader whereas a story is about creating an experience for the reader out of which messages may be inferred. How did you handle this tension?]

Brooker: It is not actually my first foray as a comics writer, though I wouldn’t expect anyone to know or remember my previous works — I was involved in the small press comics industry of the early to mid-1990s, so I have written comics before.

MSCSI was very much informed by my research into Batman — I’d just published Hunting the Dark Knight when I began developing the idea for this comic and in many ways, it was born from my frustrations with the mainstream superhero genre. There is certainly a theoretical framework behind MSCSI, though I hope it’s far enough beneath, and buried below the story, that it doesn’t come across as preachy or didactic. In a way it’s very much about the limits placed on female characters in the superhero genre. However, just as my academic work is from a fan perspective, MSCSI also comes from a place of love and affection, as well as criticism. Urbanite, the story’s RoboCop/Dredd/Batman-style law-enforcer, is ridiculous but I also find him strangely endearing. He carries the hyper-masculine clichés of the tough loner fighting a ‘war on crime’ to an absurd degree, but those clichés are fun and familiar, and part of me really enjoys using them. You could say that Enrique — Urbanite’s sidekick, the Misper — best embodies that love-hate relationship with mainstream comics. He’s very much torn between Cat and Urbanite, not sure which side he’s on. He’s literally constantly moving from one to the other, always restless, and often looks seriously pained as his loyalties are tested.

On one level, Cat’s approach to the world is really a form of cultural studies. Within the episodes I’ve written, it involves reading the signifiers and clues of her city as she walks around it — leading her to escape a bomb blast in the first few pages — analyzing a newspaper ad placed by the series arch-villain, and trying to investigate the hidden, repressed history of the female superheroes who have come before her. So her critical approach is the one I’m used to and work within, rather than a scientific or even a social-scientific one.

I haven’t found it as much of a leap from academic writing to this creative writing as you might think. Hunting the Dark Knight is also not intended as a lecture so much as a ‘journey’ for the reader, leading them along a progression until everything joins up and they in turn join me in (I hope) a shared understanding at the end. It’s meant more as a guided tour than a teaching session — and in fact, that’s how I try to approach my actual teaching sessions, as a trip together towards greater understanding rather than a process of one person imparting information to another.

There are some scenes in MSCSI that perhaps come close to ‘teaching moments’, but they are relatively few, and in context, I think they’re important. Cat’s pronouncement in issue 1 that she’s been judged, criticized and encouraged to hide her intelligence all her life is a point I think we had to make. In issue 2, she directly challenges Enrique for a homophobic comment, and issue 3 involves a key scene between Dahlia and Cat that addresses the way superheroines tend to be killed off, injured, abused, or written out of continuity. In a way, MSCSI is ‘political’. It does have things it wants to say about prejudice and power structures.

Helvie: First, you alluded to a sort of hidden, theoretical framework informing the general direction of this story and the characters involved. As I was rereading the first two issues (available here), I couldn’t help but feel like you were underscoring the performative nature of identity – something even the name of this series suggests. You mentioned challenging preconceived notions of superheroic identities in Cat Daniels as the protagonist, but what else can you tell us about the nature of identity and superheroes, as it seems to be playing out here?

Brooker: One key point about My So-Called Secret Identity is that, as far as we’ve seen, nobody has any powers. The ‘superheroes’ are more like pop stars, politicians, movie actors or reality show celebrities than the superheroes we’re used to in other stories — even someone like Tony Stark, who’s an unashamedly branded product, is also recognizably both a ‘hero’ and ‘super’ through his wealth, his advanced technology, and arguably perhaps both his charisma and his courage.

Batman is clearly a brand in his own universe, with a range of symbols, sidekicks and accessories, from Bat-ropes to Batmobiles, but we understand he’s also an exceptional human being (‘super’) and, to an extent at least, dedicated to defeating criminals and supporting victims of crime (a ‘hero’).

Urbanite in MSCSI, by contrast, is not really by any stretch heroic, and is on the boundaries of ‘super’. We don’t yet know who is inside the suit, so he (or she) could be well-built and tall, or a relatively puny individual operating an armored costume. Like Ripley inside the power-loader of Aliens, or indeed the Jaegers in Pacific Rim, the mechanical exterior doesn’t necessarily tell us everything about the human being inside.

In that respect, Urbanite has more in common with the Wizard of Oz than with Batman. He’s got a big voice, which we know is artificially modified and amplified, and a shiny black military carapace, but if you actually look at what he’s capable of doing, it could all be explained quite easily through pulleys, platforms, lighting effects and dry ice.

So the idea is that superheroes in this story are mostly about performance, masquerade and theatre, and by extension, I’m asking whether that isn’t at least partly true for all superheroes.

Cat, on the other hand, doesn’t have any kind of fancy costume or effects – she just has intelligence, integrity and curiosity – and she’s the closest thing MSCSI gets to a hero. Enrique ‘Misper’ Garcia, Urbanite’s current sidekick, is currently torn between Urbanite’s brand of showy, perhaps empty heroism, and Cat’s simpler, stripped-down approach.

Cat does, however, feel she has to play the hero game and wear some kind of costume and mask, to be taken remotely seriously rather than dismissed. I guess the lesson there is that you can’t (often) change the system, single-handedly and suddenly, on your own. I believe that entering into the system and disrupting it from inside is a valid political approach, and that’s what Cat is currently doing.

Whether you can change things more substantially, without compromise, through collective action, is something I will be exploring further in volume 2 of MSCSI.

Helvie: You also mentioned that each issue ”involves reading the signifiers and clues of her city as she walks around it — leading her to escape a bomb blast in the first few pages — analyzing a newspaper ad placed by the series arch-villain, and trying to investigate the hidden, repressed history of the female superheroes who have come before her.” It seems that you and your artistic collaborators embedded a few subtle of these subtle codes – or “Easter eggs” – in some of the different panels. Was this done as a sort of wink-and-nod to the reader, or is there something else going on for readers to be on the lookout for?

Brooker: On one level, there are Easter Eggs in the art (and the text, because the two overlap, especially in Issue 3) that we’ve placed for a very pragmatic reason — as shout-outs and tributes to the generous readers who donated. One of the funding rewards was to have your name embedded in the comic book, so some of the brands and headlines are buried messages of thanks and recognition to those fans.

Other smaller details are there as part of the world and the broader story. Posters naming specific superheroes or bands (sometimes they’re both at once) might be just cultural context, or might be the first mention of someone we’re going to encounter later. News stories and headlines echo some of the events we’ve seen, or fill in what’s been going on at the same time.

Some are relatively decorative, and some carry a lot of weight. At least one of those background images in the first two issues is a big clue to a main character’s secret identity, for instance. We’ve also seen advertisements for Kyla Flyte and her rival Miss Sparkle, and the newspaper in Issue 3 includes both a story about Gloria’s most powerful costumed character, The Mayor, and some background information vital to the way things developed in this alternate 20th century history.

The Issue 1 Mindmap, in particular, contains multiple hints about characters we’ll encounter in future, or who form part of the broader cultural backdrop. Some of them are mentioned again in the Issue 3 newspaper page.

Helvie: I understand Issue #3 was recently released. What’s the long-term picture for Cat? What are your long-term hopes for this series?

Brooker: Issues 1 and 2 are coming out in print in partnership with Geeked magazine, and we’re planning a launch event that may mark the first ever meeting between me and artist Suze Shore. [Note: Issue #3 is now available online here]

The plan is to publish issues 3 and 4 in print when they’re complete, and then a collected edition of issues 1-5, which constitutes the first volume or story arc. Volumes 2 and 3 are currently at various stages of development. I’ve plotted and structured, and written some dialogue and layouts, for Volume 2 (another 5 issues). For Volume 3, I have a general idea and a detailed sense of certain scenes, but inevitably, it’s sketchier.

I’d be very happy to continue until we finish those three volumes of Cat’s life, and then either explore other characters such as Dahlia, Connie and Kyla, or invite other people to write stories within the MSCSI world, or maybe, if it feels right, wrap it up there.

Helvie: Finally, something I think many fans have heard uttered by persons in decision-making positions is (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the industry will support a greater diversity in comic book superheroes when fans support the books with their dollars. How does My So Called Secret Identity appeal to the typical fan of the comic book superhero genre? Although there is no price tag attached to your comic, what do you think would convince these readers to check your comic out?

Brooker: MSCSI is not primarily for the typical fan of the comic book superhero genre. If those people read it, great, but I would suggest they already have the entire typical mainstream superhero genre to enjoy. MSCSI is more for people who find themselves alienated or disappointed by the current mainstream superhero genre, and particularly by its representation of women.

There is a great deal here that I think superhero fans — like me, for instance — can enjoy. There are costumes; there are clichés, familiar tropes and iconography. There’s action, there are secret identities, and there are heroes and villains. I don’t think we are destroying the pleasures of the superhero comic here. I do think we’re moving the familiar pieces around a little and varying, sometimes subverting the conventions, from a position inside the genre.

But if someone would rather read the New 52, they’re welcome to do so. This is more for people who don’t currently enjoy the New 52. If we have to carry on in our alternative way with very little profit, (all of which goes to the artists) and a small but dedicated fan base, so be it — our fan base donated $4500 in a month to support this project. I would rather do that than be more popular, more mainstream, more commercially successful and lose what I believe makes MSCSI distinctive.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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Also by Forrest Helvie:

How to Analyze & Review Comics: A Handbook on Comics Criticism

editor, introduction

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


1 Comment

  1. Nick Ford says:

    All three issues were great and I am excited for more!

    God knows something should be done about the way women are treated in circles like comic books and kudos to Brooker for stepping up.

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