It’s A Bird! It’s A Plane! It’s A Feminist Superhero!

Picture 8You may not know it yet, but there’s a new hero in town—specifically, in Gloria City, the Gotham-esque setting of the innovative online comic book My So-Called Secret Identity which just published its first issue last week. Rife with violence and bursting to the seams with a cadre of grandstanding superheroes, Gloria City is also home to Ph.D. student Cat Daniels, a cop’s daughter and ostensibly ordinary woman with a strong will and an abiding love of the city’s streets and secrets. She has a superpower, too, but not one that comes with a black latex bodysuit, décolletage cutout or star-spangled underwear: Cat is simply exceedingly smart.

My So-Called Secret Identity features a superhero we all can rally around, an antidote to the brawny chauvinists and busty sex symbols of mainstream comics. Created and written by Will Brooker, a Batman scholar and self-processed comic book aficionado who got sick and tired of all the comics “featuring women as pin-ups,” My So-Called Secret Identity boasts an otherwise almost all-female creative team, including graphic artists Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan.

“It’s increasingly evident that Cat is something new,” says Shore, who knew little about superhero comics when she was asked to participate in the project:

She’s not perfect or bigger than life in some way; she’s the kind of girl anyone could know and maybe already does know. It’s that relatable quality to her, the cast and the project as a whole that has me especially excited to introduce MSCSI to others.

For Zaidan, who’s “been a fan of Batgirl ever since my discovery of her at age six,” but has never been comfortable with the way she was represented, Cat Abigail Daniels is a revelation. While deeply invested, along with the entire MSCSI team, in remaining aware of the comic’s gendered critique, Zaidan also has hopes for its widespread appeal:

The comic’s artwork has the goal of storytelling in mind. It’s there to communicate characters’ actions, expressions, and thoughts. The artwork isn’t aimed at any sort of ‘male gaze’ or even ‘female gaze;’ it’s trying to achieve what I think of as a ‘human gaze.’ The art invites the reader to become a part of Gloria City, and of Cat’s thought process.

Everyone on the team agrees: Cat is a character we don’t see very often in popular media, which is what makes the project so exciting for those involved and, hopefully, for MSCSI’s growing base of readers. Explains MSCSI social media manager Riven Alyx Buckley,

Usually, an intelligent woman in any narrative is the sidekick, the overlooked Brain who delivers important plot points and never gets the guy she wants. She’s very rarely the central figure. Think about Sherlock Holmes and how many variations of that character we’ve seen over the years–Batman, House, every CSI lead character. Now think about how many female equivalents there are.

Cat comes across as an intelligent, self-possessed woman who’s aware of place in the word and isn’t afraid to be an actor in it. “The problem’s not me,” she asserts in Issue 1. “The problem’s other people.”  As such, she’s very much a reflection of her creators’ concerns.  “My own view of gender is informed by transfeminism, and I genuinely feel gender is more of a spectrum than a binary,” explains Brooker. However, he admits, “The world is bigger than my own little personal bubble, and we do not live in a gender-fluid society any more than we live in a color-blind society.”

But it’s not all critique. While Brooker enjoys taking “everything [he] hated about superhero comics and flipp[ing] the script,” he also finds inspiration in some of the genre’s well-established tropes:

I think what appeals to me about superhero comics is the core motif of secret identities and hidden lives–disguise and the fear of discovery–and the very closely-linked idea that we can be someone more vibrant, more colorful, more magical than we appear to be in our civilian clothes.

I also really like the model of alternate earths and parallel universes that structures so many superhero comics–the idea that there are other worlds where we evolved slightly differently.

In a word, I think superhero comics are surprisingly queer, for a genre that seems dominated by gender and sexual stereotypes and traditional roles. I think they are secretly a lot queerer than they seem on the surface.

Hoping to tap into the inherent “queerness” of the genre and its malleable social conventions, Brooker sees in Cat great potential for development and growth:

I think she’s such a strong character that we could follow her back and forth, visiting her past, present and future.

If Issue 1 is anything to go by, Cat certainly has a bright future ahead of her. And I, for one, am eager to see it through.

The comic runs on a donation-only basis, with all funds collected over its base operating costs donated to a women’s charity (for Issue 2, My So-Called Secret Identity is supporting A Way Out, which provides resources for at-risk women and young adults).

You can find a more complete interview with Brooker here. And read the comic here.

About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University and Contributing Editor, Scholar Writing Program for Ms.