Visual Culture / Will Brooker

Why I Wrote ‘My So-Called Secret Identity’

You know what’s annoying? The unrealistic proportions and gender stereotyping of women in comics. That’s why Will Brooker has created a new superheroine who – hold on to your capes – is fully clothed.

My So Called Secret Identity

There was a time, in the 1990s, when superhero comics seemed to bleed into my everyday life; the characters were only a step sideways from my own universe, wearing the kinds of clothes I wore (but better, shinier, with transforming colour coats and science fiction boots) and quoting the bands whose albums played in my bedroom. I changed, sure, but the comics changed more.

By Autumn 2011, when DC launched its ‘New 52’ reboot, the fictional world and the real had drifted far apart. I walked into my local comic shop one weekday lunchtime and walked out without buying anything, because the DC Comics on display were the titles Laura Hudson discusses in this article, with plots and characterisation contorting shamelessly to show half-naked female bodies. Starfire and Selina Kyle were posed like lingerie models, in positions that literally seemed lifted from soft porn; Batman and Superman were now fully-armored in collar-to-toe outfits, but Supergirl’s new costume was little more than underwear.

Starfire and Selina Kyle

In Red Hood and the Outlawsand Catwoman, this is how DC Comics tells me a male hero looks like, and what a female hero looks like.

So I walked out without buying anything, and back to work, where I was leading a PhD induction session. In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences that year, most of the new doctoral students were women; women in their early to mid 20s. About the same age as Starfire and Selina Kyle, and a little older than Supergirl. Surprisingly, they weren’t wearing bikinis in Autumn or posing like the swimwear edition of Sports Illustrated. They were, as you might expect, nice, normal young women in jumpers and jeans, who happened to be very clever, very committed and very keen.

And I remembered the last time I’d seen a female PhD student in a superhero comic. It was around 1967.

The Million Dollar-Debut of Batgirl

She’s also a brown belt in judo.

In fact, this 1967 story, ‘The Million-Dollar Debut of Batgirl’, doesn’t just suggest that Barbara Gordon is studying for a PhD – it confirms she already has one, from Gotham State University. Despite her achievements, dressing up in a costume to surprise her dad and his friends at a policeman’s ball, and show the world she isn’t just a ‘plain Jane – a colorless female “brain”’ is the highlight of her life.

This didn’t strike me as familiar from my own PhD experience, or from the experience of any woman I’d ever known, and I wondered what it would take to bridge the gulf between the real and fictional worlds – between the women sitting around me in the first year of their doctoral study, and the women posing on the comic book racks just two minutes down the road.

That’s how My So-Called Secret Identity began.

It was an attempt to put someone who was more like a genuine PhD student – not a model, not an athlete, just incredibly intelligent and adept at making connections –  into the superhero genre, and see what happened. Recruiting a team of awesome artists – Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan on line art and colour, with character sketches and costume designs from Jen Vaiano, Clay Rodery, Hanie Mohd, Lea Hernandez and others – I set the story in the early 1990s, when my real life had seemed to overlap more closely with comics.

The result was Catherine Abigail Daniels, a young woman with a secret power.

My So-Called Secret Identity

It might be contended that to criticise a 1967 comic for its inadequate representation of a female PhD student is missing the point. Batman himself, during that period, was not exactly hard-hitting, gritty and accurate (unless you count ‘POW! THWOK!’) and the 1960s television show based on the comics was hardly a documentary.

Perhaps I was also being too harsh by judging a few titles from the New 52 line of Autumn 2011. My So-Called Secret Identity has been fifteen months in the making – it launched on Sunday 17 February – so perhaps DC’s reboot has found its feet since then.

Or maybe it’s unfair to judge comics that were designed to provide a stepping-on point for new readers and a younger market. Maybe Selina, Starfire and Supergirl look like they’re drawn to appeal to 12 year-old boys because they really are meant to appeal to 12 year-old boys. Maybe I’ve just outgrown them by 30 years.

So let’s look at a more recent title, a more mature title; a hardcover, featured in the New York Post and authored by J. Michael Straczynski, a veteran of TV series like Babylon 5. Superman: Earth One was pitched as a retelling of the Superman myth, located outside mainstream continuity, in a world much more like our own; a grittier, moodier world, free from the restrictions of the genre and able to shrug off stereotypes like Clark Kent’s 1970s suit and tie. Clark, notoriously, slouched through this story in a hoody. The book was successful enough to earn a sequel, the elegantly titled Superman: Earth One Volume Two, released as a hardcover in late 2012.

This is a prestige format, recent, high-profile book from DC. Realistic, mature, written by a distinguished industry showrunner, located outside mainstream continuity and free from the stereotypical conventions of the superhero genre. Remember that.

Here’s Lisa Lasalle, Clark’s roommate. She turns out to be a sex worker with a heart of gold.

Lisa LaSalle

And that’s why I still think we need My So-Called Secret Identity. ■

Hunting the Dark KnightMy So-Called Secret Identity is free at www.mysocalledsecretidentity.com, with donations funding future issues and supporting a women’s outreach charity. Find My So-Called Secret Identity on Facebook and Twitter.

Will Brooker is the author of Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-first Century Batman, Reader and Director of Research in Film and Television at Kingston University, London, and editor of Cinema Journal. Follow him on Twitter @willbrooker.

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