My So-Called Secret Identity has launched! And we’ve got the man who put Cat Abi Daniels into business. Here are Five GEEKED Questions with Will Brooker:
1 – At what point did you move from critique of mainstream comics to constructing your own? What was the breaking point for you?
I was involved with small press fandom in the early 1990s, and wrote quite a few comic book stories then — it was a period of analogue technology, just prior to the internet, so my scripts were photocopied, stapled and sent out by snail mail to a small network of readers.
After I began my PhD into the cultural history of Batman, in 1996, I focused mainly on analysis rather than creation (though I have always felt that my creative writing and analytical writing exist on a spectrum, rather than as opposites — I think there is quite an overlap between the two).
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.
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.
2 – How did the illustrated characters come to life? Did you have an image of Cat in mind or did you ‘meet’ her for the first time through the artists’ and designer’s rendering? To what extent are these characters collaborative?
They are collaborative to the extent that it’s hard for me to picture what Cat looked like in my head now, before Sarah, Suze, Jen and the other artists depicted her.
Essentially, she was a bit like Claire Danes in My So-Called Life, Gillian Anderson in The X-Files and Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. I was quite specific about her style, appearance and build in the descriptions I sent the artists: Cat was always specified as averagely athletic (we see her playing street basketball in issue 2), small-busted, wide-hipped, fairly tall, slightly bohemian in her everyday outfits, though she’s used to dressing and acting differently to blend into different settings and situations. Overall I had the idea that she would simply look approachable, “nice”, not particularly glamorous or unusual. She makes the best of her looks, and she looks good — not all the time, obviously, none of us do, and in a later issue, when she’s immersed in research, she slouches about in a hoody with her hair scraped back, bags under her eyes and a few spots. She scrubs up well when she wants to, but she’s not a supermodel.
Another important point was that Cat was never, ever, meant to be drawn definitively by only one person. The project was always meant to be based around workshopping and a scrapbook, collaborative aesthetic — because I wanted to get the idea across that not only did Cat look different on different days (and in subsequent volumes of her story, she also tones up and then gains weight) but that she looks a little different depending on who draws her.
Just as we have the Tim Sale Batman, the Jim Lee Batman and the Dave McKean Batman, so we have the Jen Vaiano Cat, the Suze Shore Cat, the Clay Rodery Cat and the Sarah Zaidan Cat (and the Cats of several other artists, all of whom will be featured in the Lookbook).
Jen’s version is pretty, doe-eyed, slender and vaguely manga, because that is Jen’s style. To me, that’s a fashion-plate, fantasy version of Cat, rather than what she looks like every day.
Suze’s early portrait of Cat, in a green dress and pleated skirt, is also different from the way she draws Cat in the comic itself. To me, that is like Cat on a really good day — maybe it’s Cat having a professional photoshoot done. She looks really polished, but a little bit uncomfortable.
Generally, she looks recognisable to me no matter who draws her — Clay Rodery followed Suze’s lead, for instance, in giving her curvy hips, and she’s always got a kind of oval, open face. But I would genuinely say that the way she looks in the comic now is the end result of many artists working together, building on each others’ ideas over eighteen months.
Sarah followed Jen’s sketch; Suze took Jen and Sarah’s designs into account, and Clay redesigned Cat based on Suze’s artwork. Suze redrew her own more formal portraits of Cat for the actual comic book page, and of course Sarah coloured that line art. There is no one definitive Cat; she is a composite.
3 – Can you speak a little about the choice of a brown/ blue / turquoise palette for the whole of the first issue? It’s quite a departure from the more fierce/powerful combinations of red black and yellow on mainstream comics.
Again, to a significant extent the colour is also a product of discussion, workshopping and collaboration. The colouring was begun by Clay Rodery, who has a very cinematic style — other work commitments took him away from the project in late 2011, so the colours were taken over by Sarah Zaidan, whose approach tends to be much more based in collage and painting.
Sarah coloured the first two pages based on Clay’s existing work, but after that, she pretty much had free rein.
For my part, I was very specific in some of the page descriptions in terms of mood, tone and lighting, but overall I directed both Clay and Sarah to evoke the style of one particular artist, in a particular series of superhero comics: Tim Sale’s three mini-series Superman For All Seasons, Daredevil: Yellow and Spider-Man: Blue. Sale (working with writer Jeph Loeb) captured a gorgeous, slightly nostalgic sense of changing seasons and the way light transforms a city at different times of day — reminiscent in turn of Norman Rockwell. I also directed the artists specifically to the covers of paperback versions of The Catcher in the Rye.
I wanted MSCSI to have a sense of poignancy and nostalgia, a sense of memory somehow, of a precious time in the past. I wanted it to carry a feeling of Autumn colours, of curling your hands around a hot chocolate in a coffee shop; of scarves, gloves and mittens, of sunsets glancing off skyscrapers, fallen leaves, writing letters, the scent of libraries at dusk. I wanted it to feel a little bit like West Side Story: snatched moments of beauty in the urban American city.
This story also refers back to the 1960s — the characters all have a history and their relationship is bound up in that past — so the evocation of Rockwell, West Side Story and Catcher in the Rye seems to work on that level, too.
Beyond that, my direction was based — as was the case with much of MSCSI — on what I didn’t want it to look like. I didn’t want it to look glossy and gritty, like the New 52, with digital effects like lens flare and shiny armour. I wanted it to look like a book of illustrations, not storyboards for a Michael Bay blockbuster. I wanted it to look like a book.
4 – You’ve discussed Gotham as being very masculine; is Gloria your (feminist) answer to Gotham?
Actually, I don’t think Tim Burton’s Gotham is especially masculine. I think it is baroque and Gothic, very stylised, almost a playground. I think Nolan’s Gotham is more obviously masculine, in that it reminds us of crime and gangster movies of the 1970s — stripped down, no-nonsense, a certain kind of ‘realism’.
Gloria City is not strikingly like Gotham. It is explicitly modelled on New York, in its layout and districts — its Village and its various communities lie in the same place as Manhattan’s equivalents — but in style and culture, in some ways, it is more like Vancouver, or Austin. It’s got an amazing alternative music scene and a vibrant sense of creativity; great bars, art cinemas, a prestigious university. Posters and flyers up on the lampposts and walls; a lot of accomplished graffiti, small coffee shops and galleries.
But it is not a feminist city, at all! It’s as patriarchal (as kyriarchal, more accurately) as any Western metropolis. Cat is a feminist, certainly, but she lives, and struggles, and sometimes evidently suffers, within the structures of patriarchy. If it was a feminist city, Cat wouldn’t have learned to hide her intelligence, wouldn’t have been told by male teachers that she’s a cheat, wouldn’t have been treated by male professors as a secretary or receptionist.
The mayor of Gloria is a kind of self-made ‘superhero’ himself, Mayor John Mayer, codenamed The Major. We haven’t seen him yet, but he’s kind of a cross between Superman and Donald Trump. He officially runs things; the Urbanite unofficially runs things as the self-appointed policeman-enforcer, and Carnival effectively runs the underground markets of crime, drugs and pornography, which are pretty significant industries. So the city is run by three middle-aged men, even before we look at the people who run the police force, the universities, the press.
Gloria is an absolute patriarchy, for all its virtues and its little corners of culture and creativity. That’s what I mean about the art capturing moments of beauty when the setting sun catches the glass of a skyscraper at the right moment. The story is partly about how you can find identity, and meaning, and your own sense of beauty, in an environment that’s sometimes hostile and ugly. It’s what cultural theorist Michel de Certeau calls ‘tactics’ — the skill of the marginalised and disempowered to find their own forms of small resistance and pleasure in the structures of power. Most people don’t overthrow the system — they dig out their own meanings and culture within the system.
5 – The 90’s seem to have been fairly influential in the building of Cat’s world, is this indicative of the readership you hope to attract?
Actually I would rather it attracted a far younger readership than old people like me who were Cat’s age in the 1990s — though I am happy for older readers to enjoy it, of course.
The story is set in the 1990s for several reasons. Firstly, I feel it’s an original and interesting idea. I don’t think we’ve had a lot of popular stories that revisit that decade — the decade of My So-Called Life and The X-Files. It gives us some fascinating material to play with in terms of fashions, hairstyles, music and mood. The 1990s are now distant enough to evoke a vague sense of nostalgia, while still remaining within recent memory. I think that contributes to the alternate-universe atmosphere that I wanted to capture in MSCSI — a world that could have existed, or maybe nearly existed one sidestep away from ours. A world, and a recent past, that we half-remember and half-imagine. A world where people dress like characters from Friends, but some of them also have uncanny powers.
Secondly, the 1990s have a particular value and appeal to me, because that’s when I was most immersed in Vertigo comics — Shade, Hellblazer, Sandman, Black Orchid, Doom Patrol– and was most involved in music, clubbing and fashion myself, as well as comics fandom and comics production. So they are years I remember very fondly, and I wanted to make a comic that was a bit like a hypothetical, could-have-happened Vertigo title.
Thirdly, the story is set in the 1990s for plot reasons, which will become shell-shockingly clear at the end of Issue 3. It needs to be set in the 1990s because of what’s going to happen in the future of this world. And without offering huge spoilers, in volume 2, two characters from our own present-day travel back to Cat’s city, telling her what she has to do to prevent the future (or our past) from taking place.
Are you excited yet?!?! Then RUN over to My So-Called Secret Identity. We’re already there, down on our knees doing Wayne-and-Garth-bows: “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” Don’t forget, if you want to see more of Cat and her friends, you can donate to help Will, Suze and Sarah stay in business. Your donation also goes to support an incredible cause, so don’t be shy!
We hope you’ll GEEK out about MSCSI the way we have, and we hope you’ll keep an eye out for issue three of GEEKED–The Illustration Issue–where, if we’re lucky, we might just see our new favorite superhero doing a little moonlighting.
Will Brooker’s portrait and MSCSI illustrations by Suze Shore, colors by Sarah Zaidan; images courtesy of MSCSI.