I recently interviewed Dr. Will Brooker, creator of the comic My So-Called Secret Identity (MSCSI), for a feature writing assignment. The web comic was launched in print last month, and while I didn’t know of it before then, it made an instant fan out of me, as it did for many others. Dr. Brooker was fantastic as well; he was very accommodating and obviously one of the ‘cool’ professors.
Here’s the entire, unedited article – don’t forget to check out the comic if you’re unfamiliar with it!
His Not-So-Secret Identity
Will Brooker, creator of the comic My So-Called Secret Identity, is challenging the mainstream representation of females in comic books with his super-smart superheroine
Students crowd around a life-size cutout of a brawny costumed figure, taking selfies with it and posting tweets punctuated with the hashtag #MSCSI. That acronym stands for My So-Called Secret Identity, the title of the comic books being launched tonight.
To someone unfamiliar with the comics, it looks as if this man in armour – he’s called Urbanite – is the main character in this superhero tale. He isn’t; MSCSI creator Will Brooker says he simply felt Urbanite’s suit and helmet looked better in the soft, dramatic glow of a spotlight. The heroine in MSCSI is Catherine Abigail “Cat” Daniels, a young girl whose ‘superpower’ is her intellect, with which she easily outwits and outdoes Gloria City’s costumed crime-fighters, including Urbanite.
Brooker, 44, summarises MSCSI as “a comic book that has a wide range of female artists involved and tries to do something different in terms of the representation of women in the superhero genre”.
“Cat is a perfectly normal person except that she’s incredibly smart, but she has learned to play down and hide her intelligence,” says the professor of film and cultural studies at Kingston University. “The story is about her reaching a breaking point of frustration, accepting her ability, embracing her own identity and becoming a kind of superhero herself.”
Of course, the real hero of the hour is Brooker, who, in creating MSCSI, created a different breed of superhero that women can champion and identify with. After tweeting his outfit at MSCSI’s print launch – “McQ t-shirt, manly skirt” – he begins genially chatting to guests and signing their books with a silver pen. “Stay very smart,” reads one autograph.
To say that Brooker is a massive comic book fan is an understatement. In 1999 his decision to write his doctoral thesis on the history of Batman from a cultural perspective, later published as the monograph Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon, was ridiculed by the media, who sardonically gave him the nickname Dr. Batman. He authored the 2012 book Hunting the Dark Knight: Batman in 21st Century Popular Culture and his musings on all things comics-related have appeared in books, academic journals and blogs.
As a child Brooker created his own comics; in the 90s he wrote comic books for the British small press industry that existed before the Internet came along and provided a new home for independent comics. “It didn’t feel like a huge or unnatural step [to create MSCSI], though this is by far the most high-profile and successful comic I’ve ever been directly involved with,” he says.
Often described by reviewers as a ‘feminist comic’, MSCSI was Brooker’s response to “the overriding sexism and limited representation of women” that had long bothered him about the comic book industry. “Comics are a very diverse medium, and there are many different representations of women within that medium,” Brooker says. “But comics are dominated by the superhero genre and traditionally, the superhero genre is primarily targeted at teenage boys and young men, and written with that mentality. So the women tend to fit a certain physical type – which, simply put, is often like glamour models and soft pornography – and have limited roles in the narratives, as victims, helpers or decoration.
“It came to a head for me one day in October 2011, soon after the start of DC Comics’ reboot of all its titles, which seemed particularly full-on with its glossy, almost soft-porn images of characters like Catwoman, Supergirl and Starfire. I was suddenly struck by the huge gulf between these fictional women and the women I was actually teaching.”
It didn’t help that Brooker had an unpleasant experience when he dropped by a neighbourhood comic shop. “It felt like I was walking into a teenage boy’s bedroom while he sat around playing video games with his friends,” he says. “I was made to feel unwelcome and uncomfortable – as if [the guys in the shop] wanted me to leave and stop disturbing them. Any questions I asked were met with a slightly sneering response.
“I am male, I have been in comic shops for decades and have written books about Batman. If someone in my position felt uncomfortable in that setting, an 18-year-old woman just getting into comics would be even more put off. I couldn’t imagine that most of my female students would want to walk in and browse.”
Brooker decided that instead of continuing to criticise industry practices, he would do something concrete. “I chose to try to make something alternative, to show how it could be done differently,” he says. “You could say that the initial idea behind MSCSI was to depict women in the superhero genre who were more like the women I actually work with every day, and to try to create a superhero comic that those women might want to read.”
And so Cat Daniels was born, inspired by both fictional and real-life women. “Cat is very much inspired by Batgirl and the British comic book heroine Katie the Cat (the cousin of Billy the Cat from The Beano),” says Brooker. “She also incorporates aspects of women I know and their experiences – for instance, Kingston University students Babs McNeill and Claire Hayward. I was thinking about them when I developed the character.” Actress Claire Danes also influenced Brooker’s idea of Cat’s appearance and, to a certain extent, her character.
The first MSCSI comic, rendered by artists Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan, was published online in February 2013; tonight is the launch of the print version of Volume One, which contains five issues.
From the get-go, Brooker knew how Cat’s entire story would play out. That plan has gone through a few changes, the most substantial of which is that the comic will now be completed in two volumes instead of the trilogy that Brooker originally envisioned. “I realised that it could all be done in one more book of the same length, and that three would be too slow and spaced out in its pace. The next volume will be bigger, broader and bolder in scope,” he says.
Brooker, who has nearly completed the script for Volume Two, adds, “There are details which have changed. The ending has changed a little, for instance, and there are scenes that play out differently, but the structure and ideas in there are carried over from my earliest concepts.”
When MSCSI debuted, the comic book community enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of a smart superheroine who didn’t sport an impossibly small waist or cleavage that spilled out of a shiny spandex bodysuit. Of the many praises the comic has reaped, a few stand out in Brooker’s memory. “It was very gratifying that Mary Talbot, author of Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, said she wished there was a comic like MSCSI when she was a girl,” he says.
“Other than that, one of our first reviews was from Geeked magazine – they said it was so good they wanted to weep – and I’ve worked with them ever since, so that’s been a really productive, rewarding partnership,” Brooker adds. Geeked is a biannual magazine tackling comics, culture and gender from an urban feminist angle; it now promotes and sells MSCSI on its website.
It seems that MSCSI has also made a broader impact on the comic book industry, as Brooker rightly points out that creators, artists and editors are also comic book readers. “It could be total coincidence, but I think the new Batgirl reboot, which launched last autumn, is quite similar to MSCSI in its tone and style,” he says. “In that respect, I think there have been changes in the industry since we launched, and it’s possible that we could have had a small hand in that – or perhaps people are just thinking the same way we do and realising that there’s a market of girls who want something different to the traditional mainstream representation [of women in comics].”
For Brooker, the fan reaction to MSCSI and the conversations it continues to spark have made it a worthwhile project, even if he does not take profit from it. “It has cost me financially, but it has made money for other people,” he says. “It’s supported a lot of artists and in some cases raised their profiles. It’s enabled creators to be involved in a really nice-looking book that’s earned mainstream attention.” MSCSI has also helped raise money for A Way Out and The Feminist Library, beneficiaries that Brooker handpicked for their female-focused work.
By his design, the artists Brooker works with are mostly female. He pores through online portfolios and meets artists on Twitter, at conventions and through friends’ recommendations. He’d then contact them to describe MSCSI and commission a specific job, such as an issue cover. “I now have a lot of artists as friends whom I can contact and ask if they want to work on MSCSI again, and I’ve also been commissioning people whose art I’ve admired for decades,” he says.
At any given time, Brooker is juggling a handful of projects on top of his teaching job. In 2013 he became the first British editor of Cinema Journal, a position he will hold until the end of 2017. He has a few comic books in the works; two scripts are currently in development and he is working with a writing partner to pitch a third. But, of course, there’s still the second half of Cat’s story to look forward to, and Brooker still has big goals for MSCSI.
“What I’d like best is for MSCSI to become extremely popular and reach a huge global audience,” he says. “It’s global already, but our readership is not huge yet!”