Sunday, 24 February 2013

Not the only good thing: Clouds reviews My So-Called Secret Identity

A lot of great things are happening in the world of comics lately.

A lot of dismal things are happening as well. Ask a feminist (or, often enough, female) comic fan what they think of DC’s redesigns of characters like Starfire or Harley Quinn in the New 52 franchise reboot and they will probably shake their head sadly and roll their eyes skywards. So far, we’ve seen artists conform disappointingly to a tired set of cliches - I could point to Catwoman having sex with Batman on a rooftop, for example, as a low point, as well as recent portraits of Power Girl.

But even the sphere of comics - populated though it is by white nerdy men, a group notoriously insistent in both its sexism and its denial of its own privilege - isn’t immune to a spirit of inclusion, and with that in mind we have a gay Green Lantern and a mixed-race Spiderman. We have a flowering of queer characters across the genre. We have a series of one of Marvel’s most popular titles, X-Men, devoted entirely to a female task force. The often regressive artistic style is, slowly but surely, starting to change, with no small thanks to the endless source of parody found online.

And in the midst of all this, we have a new title spearheaded by Dr. Will Brooker, a leading academic in the study of comics who has set out to create a woman whose superpower is her intelligence. The resulting comic, entitled My So-Called Secret Identity, stars Catherine Abigail Daniels, an Irish-American PhD scholar in the fictional city of Gloria. Its first issue appeared online this week, and is currently free to view.

It’s certainly started well. In addition to a believable and engaging main character, Brooker and his team have given us some intriguing side characters, a fistful of ‘90s nostalgia (the title’s resemblance to popular TV series My So-Called Life doesn’t seem to be an accident), and some sharp observations on the status of women in academia: at one point, Cat walks into a meeting where she represents the student body only to be told that the meeting already has a secretary.

Almost as prominent a character is the city of Gloria herself. As befits a connoisseur of the Batman comics, Gloria has as much of a presence and personality as Gotham City in the DC Universe, to the point of being run by superheroes. It’s early in the story to analyse this bit much more, but I am really looking forward to seeing where it takes us next.

The only thing I query about the narrative is the rather hasty introduction of a love interest, which I found oddly reminiscent of the playground practice of grabbing a boy’s hand and declaring “you’re my boyfriend now”. And, yes, Cat is white, slim, cis, abled, and ostensibly straight. We’ll come back to that in a moment. On the other hand, the writing team seem in firm agreement that Cat shouldn’t be a sex object, and so far they are doing a sterling job of sticking to the brief.

So, if I liked it, why is this article so long? Well, readers, that is mostly to do with what Dr. Brooker had to say to the press on the day of the comic’s release. Talking to Alison Flood in The Guardian, he made the following statements:

“I walked in[to a comic shop] and I just felt so unwelcome. All the comics on the shelves were featuring women as pin-ups – women with their boobs out, or their clothes falling off … If someone like me feels uncomfortable walking into a comic shop, it's no wonder most teenage girls and adult women wouldn't set foot inside one...” 


“I looked around at the [class] room full of young women – so smart, determined, keen and committed – and remembered that in the original comic, Batgirl was meant to be a PhD student. Why do we never see women like this in comics – women who are normal, likeable and just really, really clever?" 

I want to say to Dr. Brooker (and to Ms. Flood, who seems to have been happy to take him at his word), that whilst we appreciate the sentiment, you never see “women who are normal, likeable and just really, really clever” in comic books because you’re not looking hard enough. Because you’re quite possibly only reading a limited selection of titles.

Gail Simone, who is an activist as well as a writer, has written fan-favourite runs of (amongst others) Batgirl, Wonder Woman, and my personal favourite, Birds of Prey. She also founded Women in Refrigerators, coining the term used for violence and violations against women in comics added for no reason other than to enhance a male character’s story. All of Simone’s women are intelligent, believable, well-realised; no small number are also queer, people of colour, disabled - things that Brooker’s hero, for all her excellent qualities, manifestly is not. 

Simone is only one of a growing body of women creators across sequential art. I’ve singled her out here because of her ties to DC Comics: Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl are all DC titles that frequently guest star Brooker’s beloved Batman. And, yes, because I’m a massive fanboi. Full disclosure and all that.

I am delighted that Brooker has noticed the problems inherent in comics’ relationship with gender, and that he has chosen to do something about it. But in making these statements, I feel he’s acting like that guy who identifies as a feminist and participates in feminist discussions, but mansplains over women when they’re contributing their lived experience. What he’s doing is great, but it’s not unique. Judging by the article, he’s either chosen not to talk about the excellent existing body of work by female creators in favour of promoting his own series, or he’s not searched hard enough in his own back yard to find it there.

I want to say that whilst comic shops very frequently are populated by the assorted cast of Kevin Smith’s films, many of us still go in there and even more of us - gasp! - shop online. There’s a big old Internet out there, and a lot of people are more than happy to give us non-male-identified types our fix.

I want to say that we are thankfully moving out of a period where women have no voice in the world of comic books, but it seems that we have a way to go before anyone’s prepared to hear them when they talk.

What are your favourite inclusive comics?

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