FORREST HELVIE (FH): Dr. Brooker, thank you for taking the time to talk about your latest project, My So-Called Secret Identity. Much of the buzz through social media and the blogosphere seems to center on how this new series will continue to provide readers with a reading experience different from what they might otherwise encounter within mainstream (Marvel and DC) superhero comics.
You are perhaps best known for your scholarly work on Batman particularly Batman Unmasked (2001), Hunting the Dark Knight (2012), and most recently as an editor for the Cinema Journal—a field increasingly interested in comic books and superheroes. What initially got you interested in writing about comics?
WILL BROOKER (WB): I discovered Batman in the mid-1970s, in two forms that are often considered very different: re-runs of the campy TV show, and the monthly Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams comic books.
Of course, at the time I had no idea that the O’Neil/Adams series had been intended as a dark and gritty re-launch, designed to make Batman serious again and elevate him from the playful pantomime of the Adam West show.
I simply interpreted them all as exciting adventures of the Batman, whether he was a shadowy figure dodging bullets on the comic-book page, or an on-screen costumed hero beating up Cesar Romero to a Neal Hefti jazz theme.
I think what grabbed me about him when I was a kid is what continues to appeal to me now, some forty years later. Batman is just a normal person who never gives up. He doesn’t have special powers, he goes up against incredible odds, he walks with gods like Superman and Wonder Woman, and puts himself in danger every night — even on a normal patrol, he’s deliberately going out against armed thugs, without a gun of his own — and he just keeps on coming. He will not give in.
When I began my PhD in 1996, though, I had to narrow down my focus to Batman, and while I still read comics from a range of companies, I largely focus on the superhero genre and for the most part, centre around DC. Unfortunately you have to specialise to develop an expertise, and there are sacrifices to be made.
FH: Many comic fans espoused aspirations as kids to grow up and create comics. Was this the case for you? What else has motivated you to move from writing about comics & comics criticism to creating and writing comics now?
WB: Like a lot of kids, I drew and wrote comics when I was young. Unlike a lot of kids, I was still writing them (fairly well) and drawing them (not very well) in my 20s – I think most people probably stop that kind of thing by the time they get to college.
I have never seen creative writing and analytical writing as directly opposed; rather, I see them as occupying positions on a spectrum between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. My academic work involves some inventions and occasional improvements on the truth. My short stories and scripts are often built around a framework of fact, and sometimes also involve scholarly concepts. I think you can certainly teach and explore complex ideas through stories. For instance, my chapter in the academic book On The Verge of Tears (edited by David Lavery) is called ‘Gin Talking’, and it’s effectively a short story – but it’s based on things that genuinely happened, and it uses a semi-fictional situation to examine the way that the experience of watching films is very different on a long-distance flight.
So to me, it isn’t crossing a boundary line to write comic scripts. My last scholarly monograph, Hunting the Dark Knight, was structured like a multi-part story, or a very long speech – I don’t want to sound too grand here, and I’m not a musician, but I thought of it a little like a symphony. Ideas would be introduced in one form early on, then motifs would repeat and build with others, until the final chapter brought them all together. The chapters of Hunting the Dark Knight could not be read in another order – there is a sense of a ‘movement’, stepping up and shifting gears, until we reach the climax and conclusion.
It is a step along a spectrum, rather than a border crossing. My So-Called Secret Identity is also, on one level, a work of commentary and criticism about superheroes, continuity and history. Hunting the Dark Knight is also, on one level, a work of entertainment.
FH: It seems like much of your prior experience with comics—first as a reader and then as a critic—built a foundation that eventually prepared you to make the move to creating comic stories of your own. Can you discuss the “origin story” for My So-Called Secret Identity?
WB: The very first spark that prompted MSCSI was directly after I’d finished writing my second book on Batman, around July 2011. I visited the DeviantArt page of Jennifer Vaiano and was really taken by her steampunk sketches of Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. I dropped her a note asking if she could draw me a steampunk Batgirl.
A couple of weeks passed, and I was in Buffalo on vacation in August when Jen’s artwork hit my inbox. It was the first time in almost 20 years that an artist had drawn something on my commission, from my suggestion, and I found it really thrilling to see her bring my idea to life so beautifully.
In my academic work, on Batman and other cultural icons, I tend to examine everything as taking place in a ‘matrix’ – I don’t mean that we are all in a science fiction simulation, but that things don’t happen independently or in a simple relationship with just one other cause or influence. Everything happens, in my opinion, through a complex dialogue between different media, different voices, different interpretations.
So having Jen draw me a piece of artwork was one of the first pieces in the bigger picture that came together as MSCSI, but there were other factors — some of which I’m aware of, some of which are probably unconscious.
At around the same time, I was writing a series of critical articles about DC’s New 52, and particularly about Batgirl’s retconned history, for the blog Mindless Ones. The first one appeared in June and the last one in November. I was also commissioned to write a chapter on Batgirl for a book, a rebooted version of Roland Barthes’ cultural studies classic Mythologies.
So I’d just spent about two years researching and writing a book on Batman, then turned my attention to Batgirl for the first time, just when I was feeling really on-point and in command of the intersections between the Batman mythos and critical theory — and to put it simply, my impression was that her character seemed never to have lived up to its potential. I felt that Barbara Gordon had been treated very badly by editorial decisions and continuity, and that she’d very rarely been convincing or even allowed to be very interesting while in costume.
Then one day, from that mixture of different ideas buzzing around my head, it all came together in a kind of origin story.
In October 2011, I visited the comic shop near my home institution, Kingston University.
I walked in and half a dozen young lads, including the owner, were sitting around playing video games. They stared at me as if I’d walked into their front room, and kept staring while I looked at the comics. I left within a couple of minutes and never went back.
This was soon after the release of the New 52, so the comics actually on display were titles like Red Hood and the Outlaws, with the notorious Starfire-in-swimsuit scenes, Catwoman #1 and the rebooted Batgirl.
So not only was I in this dingy shop that felt like a teenage boy’s bedroom, but most of the comics on the racks offered glossy, cheesecake pin-ups of women. It didn’t seem a winning combination. It made me feel disappointed about what had become the norm in superhero comics, and frustrated that they couldn’t be different.
Later that day, I led an induction session for the year’s new intake of PhD students. I looked around at the 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?
That thought sparked the development of My So-Called Secret Identity. Over the next fifteen months, I recruited a host of artists to design characters and costumes, including Ottawa illustrator Susan Shore, Kingston PhD student Sarah Zaidan, and online fan favourites Hanie Mohd, Paige Halsey Warren, Sandra Salsbury and Lea Hernandez. Almost all the creative team were female, and they were all enthusiastic about representing women in a different, more realistic and relatable way.
FH: Would you say this experience provided you with the impetus, the breaking point, to move forward with this project?
WB: So yes, there was a breaking point — when I went straight from a comic shop full of teenage boys and cheesecake pictures of superheroines, to a room full of young women who looked and acted nothing like those superhero characters, and would probably never set foot in that comic shop, for good reason.
But the ideas were processing for a few months before that.
FH: You explain on your Facebook page that Cat Daniels—the protagonist—is gifted with eidetic memory and possesses the greatest mind in Gloria City, a place full of celebrity superheroes. How will she set herself apart from not only the superheroes inhabiting her world but the rest of the superhero genre? In what ways will she conform to and push again the traditional conventions of the superhero genre?
WB: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Cat has an eidetic memory, in the technical and medical sense. We’ve said she ‘remembers everything she reads’ and ‘knows how everything connects’. In the comic, she confesses ‘I’m really, really goddamn smart. Whatever I see gets stored away. Whatever I read is processed, filed, saved for later.’
One promotional slogan we’re using for MSCSI is ‘Smart is a Superpower’. She’s very, very intelligent, but to my mind it’s not so much, or not just about memory. It’s not just about having a mental archive of stored facts – it’s about what she does with what she knows.
It’s the way she can find the links between things, recognise the dynamic and the relationships between the people and places in her world, and realise how they relate to history, theory, politics, institutions and power.
Just remembering stuff is impressive, but that isn’t really Cat’s skill. She links things up. She makes connections nobody else has seen, and interprets what those connections mean.
She is not a quiz show mastermind with a vast command of trivial knowledge, or a novelty brain who can remember pi to a hundred decimal places – she’s a genius.
I think that’s already fairly unusual within superhero comics. Yes, we see scientists in the genre, like Tony Stark and Reed Richards, and detectives like Batman, but Cat has a different kind of approach. She isn’t a scientist or a criminologist. She’s studying philosophy and literature. She reads the world like a novel.
FH: That’s a good point! Most scientists we encounter are driven to use their intelligence as a tool–a means aid them in reaching a certain end point. You mention Reed Richards & Tony Stark, but I’m also thinking of Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne whose intelligence is primarily used for creating gadgets to aid them in their fight against crime, or to give them the mental edge to overcome the mind games of their rogues galleries. In fact, one of the only superheroes whom I can remember had a “humanities-based” superpower was Doug Ramsey–Cypher–from the original New Mutants–and he was always a second-string character who was eventually killed off.
WB: Now we are told that Barbara ‘Batgirl’ Gordon is studying for, or already has, a PhD, but I can’t say I have ever seen that come across very strongly in any Batgirl stories. As Oracle, she acts as a kind of central intelligence for the Bat-family, but my feeling is that Oracle’s abilities tend more towards science, computers and communication. She is an information broker, not a literature scholar. And unlike Cat, of course, Oracle tends to be physically restricted. Cat is someone whose sense of the world is very much bound up with her solo walking around the city, her navigation of different zones and communities, her street observations. So I think we are doing something quite different here.
Cat is distinct from the other costumed characters in her own world because only she really sees how everything connects – heroes and villains, past and present, secret identities and superhero personae – but also because she has absolutely no skills and powers apart from her intelligence.
And I really mean that, in a very different way from ‘Batman has no powers’. Batman has no powers compared to Superman, and that helps to make him a fascinating character, but Batman is a billionaire, one of the best martial artists in the world, an Olympic-level athlete and armed with state-of-the-art-plus technology.
Catherine Abigail Daniels is athletic enough to run up a couple flights of stairs without getting red in the face. She hasn’t been in a physical fight since elementary school. She lives in a single room in the Village with a bunch of other people. She cooks a big pot of pasta sauce at the start of the week and freezes it for later. She doesn’t even own a mobile phone.
However, the story in this first volume is about how she decides to play the costume game, join the stupid pantomime and engage with the larger-than-life characters on their own level, because nobody takes her seriously as Catherine Abigail Daniels. It’s a story of joining them and beating them. So, despite everything I’ve said about her differences from other crimefighting heroes, she still has a costume, a kind of mask, a brand name and gadgets, sort of. They’re just the kind of costume, mask, brand name and gadgets you or I could put together in an evening.
FH: What can you tell us about the stories readers can expect to see initially in this series? What sort of characters can we expect to meet?
WB: We exclusively follow Cat through the story. I don’t think there is a page of script that we don’t experience from her point of view. It is her voice that guides us and introduces us to the world.
In this first episode, Cat moves into a shared house with a professional single mother, Dahlia Forrester, and two fashion students called Kit and Kay. My concept was that it would all feel a little bit like an early episode of Friends – a mixed bunch of slightly quirky, fairly good looking people, hanging out comfortably and getting to know each other. Kay, Kit, Dahlia and her daughter Daisy are the main supporting cast, and they remain important not just in this story arc, but in future volumes. It’s safe to say that they all have secrets, which will emerge at various points as the tale unfolds.
On a more public level, Gloria City is populated by costumed figures, including Kyla Flyte and Miss Sparkle – both pop star superheroines, like Beyonce and Britney – Mayor John Mayer, codenamed The Major, who’s kind of like Donald Trump in a Superman suit, and the Urbanite, a self-appointed armoured enforcer who patrols the city like RoboCop or Judge Dredd. Urbanite has a sidekick – or a series of sidekicks, nobody can quite remember – all of whom are called The Misper – and his main rivals are Sekhmet, who used to work in musical theater but has now turned to independent vigilantism, and Carnival, who genuinely is a sinister, unpleasant figure, and who essentially runs the city’s drug, prostitution and crime networks through a gang of teenagers dressed as old men, called the Abuelitos.
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO …