One fiercely intelligent young woman, one city in which superheroes and villains are the norm, and one comic in which diversity is as natural as the real world, with one kickass female hero to cheer for. And now, in print!
When Will Brooker, Suze Shore, and Sarah Zaidan first launched My So-Called Secret Identity (MSCSI) back in the summer, it was met with great critical acclaim, from Lea Hernandez to Julian Darius to Geek Syndicate to myself. Brooker, Batman scholar and academic author, is on writing duties, alongside professional artists Shore and Zaidan, who also has a PhD in the comics field.
I interviewed Will about the ideas behind MSCSI and how the comic had come to be right here on The Beat, but basically the comics follow the adventures of Cat, a twenty-something Irish-American woman living in Gloria City, a place full of celebrity superheroes. Cat is a normal person, just a student, and a cop’s daughter. Except… Cat is also the smartest person in town.
There are definite shades of Batgirl here, of Barbara Gordon, but without the usual constraints of the superhero genre. There are no daft costumes of spandex, yet there are believable costumed heroes in armour. There are outrageous villains but they are using terrorist tactics that are all too familiar to the real world. Cat is super smart, but in a way that readers can keep up with while stretching their own brains (shades of Morrison’s Batman perhaps). There are friends around her, but they’re not just there to provide emotional triggers for our lead (and they are super cute and loveable in their own different ways).
It’s a subversion of Gotham City perhaps, but it has much more to say than simply prodding at the domino-masked super-genre; instead this is a celebration of the best that superhero comics can be, while also taking the gender essentialist hyper-masculine approach and the hyper-feminine opposite and telling them to fuck the fuck off.
And while I can easily point out how diverse this comic is – with many women characters, gay characters, dealing with bigotry, and not having everyone white(!) – it very much feels accidental rather than a… how should I say this, “PC GONE MAD!!” as the bottom half of the internet would say. This is not a comic just for women or for feminists, it is a comic that can appeal to everyone, for those who look for comics with LGBT characters, with feminist themes, with characters of colour, or just for great adventure or superhero comics. This is diversity as a reflection of reality. As Howard Hardiman recently said:
“I just think that the whole idea of diversity is a little bit odd because what I really see it as is just being real.”
Which is exactly what MSCSI has managed to achieve. And those not yet represented will quite possibly turn up in later issues, as we are only three issues in so far – all three of which are FREE to read thanks to their dedicated donating fanbase.
One initial fear I did have proved to be fortunately unfounded – that Cat’s PhD student status would be somewhat alienating to those from less privileged or academic backgrounds. Cat is a young woman, certainly a student, but that isn’t really a major focus of the book. I do of course say this as a PhD student myself, but having got there by way of bursaries and funding from a working class background, I stick out like a sore thumb… maybe Cat does too. When she says, in issue 1, “The problem’s not me, the problem’s other people,” I’d imagine almost every reader can relate.
Since the first issue too, more extras have been added to the website, including: Sound & Vision, with exclusive videos and Gloria City bands; Community with Cat’s favourite websites; the Lookbooks from Issues 1 and 2 which feature art from Jen Vaiano, Clay Rodery, and Carl Hoare; and interviews linked from the Reviews page.
The majority of pages are drawn by Suze Shore who has a very dynamic yet pretty style – her clean lines and Zaidan’s soft colours bring a depth of realism to the slightly cartoonified characters, with crowd scenes and busy panels standing out particularly well. The consistency is fantastic, even allowing for the confidence that grows each issue. The facial expressions are spot on, and the positioning of dialogue and captions is very clever – keeping the eye busy without anything feeling out of place.
With a large cast of characters and a lot of interaction between them, it can be a shock when the artist pulls right back for a wide splash page of the city; a real jolt to the system which is used effectively to portray large and shocking events.
Panel positioning ranges from the traditional grid to playful floating scenes and cut away action – I don’t think it would be apparent to many that this is Brooker’s first time writing a comic, though given I’ve heard others refer to him as ‘Dr Batman’ his skill is perhaps no great surprise! Interspersed throughout the comics are lovely pages by Zaidan, primarily on pages that convey a lot of information, often investigations that Cat is working on to pinpoint connections.
There is at times a little repetition between what is being stated and what is being portrayed, but as the comics continue there are some real moments of great pacing and where the art really shows what it can do with respect to storytelling. In short, you can see the improvements visibly from each issue to the next, and considering how much I loved the first issue, that is pretty good going.
I spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and researching issues surrounding the representation of women in comics, and the difficulties encountered by women who want to work in superhero comics. It’s a fascinating subject but one that is all too likely to result in frustration and gloominess – it’s not a happy place! To see a group of people actually doing something positive with this issue, using it as a creative spark to generate a piece of work that reaches beyond those problems and puts the story and art first while appealing to a genuinely wide audience is nothing short of wonderful.
Really, it just makes me smile to read, excited to see updates, and thrilled to see it appearing in print, in a book shop, and hopefully getting into even more hands. That the team have done so through the power of their own enthusiasm, backed with donations by a happy audience is terrific, and I hope that other readers – like myself – are suitably inspired.
Issues 1 and 2 of MSCSI are now available in print, in Geeked Magazine #5 which can be ordered online here, or bought in the Charing Cross Road branch of Foyles in London.
Issues 1-3 can be read for free on the MSCSI website. As much as I love reading it there I do greatly prefer print so I’ve ordered my copy today.
Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.