Last year Will Brooker, along with his creative collaborators Sarah Zaidan and Susan Shore, published volume one of My So-Called Secret Identity through a successful Kickstarter campaign. Now they are doing it again.
My So-Called Secret Identity Volume Two takes place in the aftermath of Catherine Abigail Daniels’ — or Cat’s — encounter with the villain Carnival. Cat has gone from being a Do-It-Yourself amateur superhero that invited herself into “the theater” — the dynamic between heroes and villains of vast social means and damages done towards innocent bystanders — to becoming a celebrity and power in her own right.
But what does this ultimately mean for Gloria City, her rivals, her peers, the people who admire her, and Cat herself?
Then, to complicate matters further, the theater changes: or at least enters another Act. Most of the important top-tier male superheroes such as the Urbanite and the Major go off-world: leaving the majority of female superheroes and lower-tier heroes to their own devices in Gloria City. Carnival, Gloria City’s Joker analogue, is now in custody and at their mercy. Perhaps at any other time, Carnival would have “Joker immunity”: that no matter what atrocity he commits or incident he finds himself caught in, he will always survive and be captured only to escape yet again.
Yet now the superhero women of Gloria City are wondering the same thing: after everything he has done, should they kill Carnival? And Cat, one of his former victims and his recent jailer, ponders this and more. She came into the superhero scene to dismantle “the theater” from the inside, or not play by its rules altogether and save lives. Will she help make new rules, break old ones, or become a part of the system of violence, retribution, and collateral damage that she once wanted to destroy?
Smart is a superpower, but will it still be enough?
My So-Called Secret Identity Volume Two will explore these thoughts and themes and more. My only regret is that Will Brooker says that this will be the end of Cat’s story. As a fan, I feel there are many more stories that can still be told in this influential series. And they can be.
Among other goodies, such as pin-ups, sketches, exclusive T-shirts, and even personalized water-colours if the Kickstarter Campaign’s stretch goal of 12,000 pounds is exceeded, you’ll not only be paying artists for their work but also the inclusion of three extra short stories that will expand on the backgrounds of key characters.
My So-Called Secret Identity is important: in the way it looks at power dynamics, the superhero mythos, the mentality of practical DIY costumes branching into cosplay, and how it treats female superheroes. With accolades from comics artists such as Mary Talbot, Pat Mills, Trina Robbins and others, I hope you will consider backing this Kickstarter Campaign.
This week, on The Flash, Barry Allen becomes “Fast Enough.”
In fact, The Flash itself is fast enough. This entire season of seeing Barry try to exonerate his father from prison while finding his mother’s killer and fighting crime managed to be as fast as its namesake and is, relatively, paced well. And “Fast Enough” also demonstrates another element of the show in streaks and spades.
Imagine this scenario. Something bad happened in your past and you have the power to change it. You can go back in time and prevent a decision or an event that caused misery in your life. However, you also know that if you do this, you will potentially change if not outright lose all of the relationships and achievements that you’ve gained despite — or because — of that one bad day.
Imagine you have that power right your grasp. What do you do?
The Flash plays off this scenario and Barry Allen’s inner conflict with the gravitas and the humanity that it deserves. He can’t not do this, to save his mother and prevent his father’s incarceration but he knows about the risks. Granted, potentially destroying all of existence when you can just leave things alone is a little quibble that I had with the premise of this episode but the characterizations were just nothing short of brilliant.
And brilliant and twisted is exactly what Eobard Thawne truly is: with one seemingly minor exception. Watching Reverse-Flash interact with the rest of the characters with back-handed compliments, taunts, and just an outright warped sense of humour — knowing that he is still wearing a murdered man’s face as a parody of the “kindly mentor” he was before — is both disturbing and gratifying to see.
Of course, it is never as simple as all that. And, when Barry goes back in time his future self basically convinces him not to save his mother. Instead, he takes that chance to show her the man he becomes and properly say goodbye. Barry takes what his imprisoned father said about the “natural order of things” to heart and thinking about his friends and loved ones he doesn’t want to negate their timeline. It does make a lot of sense. It’s an altruistic path as opposed to the completely egotistical and selfish goals of Eobard Thawne.
But there is nothing natural about what has happened in Barry’s life if you really think about it. Eobard Thawne went back in time — into a timeline he wasn’t even born into yet — and not only changed Barry’s future and manipulated much of his life, but he also killed the real Harrison Wells and Tess Morgan and created S.T.A.R. Labs prematurely for his own benefit. One possibility that I considered was that in the likely event that Barry didn’t save his mother, he would potentially save the real Wells and Morgan instead: perhaps defeating Eobard in the past while he was weak and powerless. But not only would Barry have had to know where to be then, although he did know where the car “accident” that took Wells and Morgan happened, there would also be the potential for paradox.
Oh yes: paradox. About that …
Barry wasn’t going to let Eobard get away. I mean, this is another main difference between the two. Whereas Barry is mindful of his actions, Eobard doesn’t seem to care about the consequences of his own: or seem to think that he should be held accountable for them. And either way, whether Barry changed time or not, Eobard’s decisions would cost him something, and so Barry took away what Eobard wanted as well: his chance to go home.
Of course, Barry wasn’t really thinking about the long term consequences of preventing Eobard from leaving though, granted, I can’t imagine Eobard doing any good in his own time or society. And then Eobard’s fate seems all wrapped up in a nice yellow bow.
Mind you, it might have been more convenient if the Arrow, and Firestorm stuck around in the particle accelerator chamber instead of Cisco and Joe since, you know, they actually managed to defeat Reverse-Flash along with Barry the first time around … unless that had all been staged by him as well.
As Eobard reveals his full malice, Eddie Thawne, who was Eobard’s ancestor, kills himself to save Barry: and make the Reverse-Flash cease to exist.
I have to admit: if The Flash were a darker show or Barry and friends had any less morality, killing Eddie would have been a pretty effective way of defeating Eobard. It’s kind of hard to exist when your ancestor destroys themselves before you are even born. And it does make me wonder just why Eobard allowed Eddie to found at all instead of hiding him somewhere away from S.T.A.R. Labs. But it was pretty poignant to see Eddie Thawne commit that selfless act … even if, in a comic book universe, death might not always be permanent: especially when you consider where his body was going.
All that said, there is that other matter of the vortex of what seems to be temporal paradox triggered by the attempt at time travel and the subsequent ancestor-suicide of Eddie Thawne wiping out his time-meddling descendant and tying time itself into knots and a hole in the fabric of reality. But hey, look on the bright side: time-travel might have actually taught Barry something that might help out the situation by next season. And besides, Eobard already mentioned Time Master Rip Hunter who will be a star in the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow.
Though if the Man of Steel to made a cameo at the finale, this might have been a pretty good time.
But all in all, the season finale of The Flash lives up to and even exceeds the speed and pace of the show. It could have ended with “Rogue Air” and its epic structure, but it didn’t. Instead, after Eobard dies revealing his real face, just how will Barry “carry on without him?” Is it likely we have really seen the end of Reverse-Flash? How will Barry stop this blackhole on Earth? And will this all lead up to some Time Master intervention, multiverse exploration (did you see the Hermes helmet of the first comics Flash come through that portal, so awesome), and Legends of Tomorrow?
Tell us what you think. I, for one, look forward to seeing if The Flash remains fast enough.
In honour of International Women’s Day, I want to talk about a film. Even though it was only available through a temporary backers-only link, I was able to view the video and say something about it. It’s a small film, a mini-documentary about Jackie Ormes: the first African-American female cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Torchy Brown and the panel series Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger.
This mini-doc was made by Respect Films, the same film-makers that created the documentary She Makes Comics which focuses on women in the comics industry and fandom. The Jackie Ormes Bonus Documentary itself was the result of the She Makes Comics Kickstarter reaching beyond its initial goals. It was originally going to be included in She Makes Comics itself, in a bonus or extras section, but Respect Films decided to release it on Vimeo.
The Jackie Ormes mini-doc was meant to be a part of the greater narrative of She Makes Comics: or, at the very least, it was gleaned from the primary material that the film-makers gained from their interviews. I admit that I really looked forward to watching this video and learning something new: not just about Jackie Ormes and her work, but also the time period and culture that she lived and worked in, and how it influenced her art.
It is shorter than I expected it to be, but it has some very fascinating elements. While Jackie Ormes’ work is talked about, what we get is a basic outline of what she did and the idea that she covered aspects of Black culture through her work during the late 1930s all the way until she retired in 1956. What I find particularly fascinating is that not only was Jackie Ormes a female voice in a male-dominated industry, but she was a woman of colour that spoke about Black culture in a pre-Civil Rights time span. For instance, Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger is a panel series in which the older and younger sister duo talk and argue about everything under the sign: including race and politics.
At the same time, you can see that Ormes plays in, and utilizes, the romantic genre of comics through the character of Torchy in Torchy Brown: dealing with her desire for love and a depicted love of fashion but, at the same time, portraying her strength, self-respect, and need for personal independence. Ormes manages to create characters that are not traditional or racial stereotypes while not shrugging away from the realities around her.
I just wish we could have seen more in that mini-doc, but I think the most striking thing — for me — was the discussion about an extremely personal and sad event in Jackie Ormes’ life: on how she used her art to, in part, channel that grief into something informative and eternal. It is this element and the entire mini-doc that fits into the spirit behind She Makes Comics narrative: a brief but poignant outline of a story told on behalf of someone gifted and departed by her living compatriots. At the same time, this documentary stands on its own: along with the work and life of Jackie Ormes herself.
The Canadian painter and illustrator A. Shay Hahn, is now a comics creator with the imminent release of three new and original self-published comics works. And before his Sweet Action exhibit, commission, and presentation event at The Society of the Seven Crowns Tattoo we at GEEKPR0N have been given the opportunity to talk with him about his art, his process, and his upcoming works.
GEEKPR0N: In a piece by TJ Dawe on the Blog Beams and Struts, you outline your artistic method and philosophy at length with regards to painting. You discuss how you create your illustrations as a diarist, with emphasis on abstraction, storytelling, and an attempt to avoid identity in your figures. Does this creative process — your own unique visual and artistic language — translate in any way into your comics art and, if so, how might it do so
A. SHAY HAHN: My process for painting and my process for comics don’t intersect. In comics you need to define the characters in appearance and attitude with a forward moving story, whereas painting allows a lot more freedom. In painting the viewer is allowed to a degree to define what the painting is about: they add some of their own biography to the piece. In my comics, or in most comics, the viewer is guided by the images through the story. It’s narrative driven as opposed to interpreted. I want to hook the reader for a wild ride in my comics.
GP:In your interview on the Fragmentalist with regards to your work in the Cameron, you talk about how artists should make themselves — and their works — a part of the venue in which they are presenting their part. How do you see yourself applying this philosophy to your Sweet Action presentation at Seven Crowns Tattoos? How do you think your comics art aesthetic will complement the establishment in comparison and contrast to your work in the Cameron?
ASH: Good question, I think artists should be available while their work is being displayed so I will be at Seven Crowns Tattoo, hopefully once a week to sit in the gallery and I’ll be drawing comics while I’m there. If people have questions about who did the work there will be one day a week where I can answer their questions in person. I love the idea of showing the comic based work at Seven Crowns. Tattoos, like comics can be bold and colourful – like the work of Jack Kirby or darker and more moody. I want the show to really have a feel of fun and energy and see how that affects the space. It should put people in a good mood.
GP:You are going to be presenting your three self-published new comics works at Sweet Action. However, this is not the first time you have been involved with the comics medium. According to your profile on Monkey Brain Comics, you were the artist for Issue #7 of Amazing Forest written by Erick Freitas and Ulises Farinas. Can you tell us more about your time there and while you were inspired to create art by your childhood with comic books, was this particular collaboration the transition point to you creating your own comics work?
ASH: I was actually asked to do the story “Nonbelievers” for Amazing Forest just as I was finishing the final art on my third comic. They needed an eight page story done and asked me to do it. I’d been recommended by another comic artist on twitter and I read the pages and knew that I’d be able to fit it into my schedule. It was my first professional comics gig and I’m grateful that I was asked to do it. I was sent a script and just went hardcore over five days, drew the whole thing inked it, lettered it and sent it back finished. It was a whirlwind and they were really happy with the results. I’ve wanted to do my own comics for years, I just had to be able to book off the time to do it. I only did a few other commissioned paintings during the time so I wasn’t making any real money while I drew the comics. It was a huge learning curve and I came out the other side with a product that I think people are going to really enjoy.
GP:What are your favourite drawings or sketches for your Sweet Action show at Seven Crowns Tattoo so far?
ASH: That’s a tough one, each piece has a little something about it that I like, whether it’s a facial expression or a pose, maybe I did some nice colouring with the Copic markers on a certain piece. I like things that are funny, hard core comic guy poses are cool but if I can do something like MODOK wearing a beer can hat or getting to draw a character like Wez from The Road Warrior those one’s stand out for me.
GP:Can you tell us more about your three comics works: The Homeless G-Men, Crypto Zombic, and Battle Rally?
ASH: As a whole I wanted them to be fun. I wanted people who don’t consider themselves hard core comic fans to enjoy them: that there isn’t an intimidation factor, that they were more like great B-movie VHS films than serious investigations into what it means to be a hero or plots that were too esoteric to follow. Here’s a breakdown of what each comic is about:
THE HOMELESS G-MEN is about a team of cops hunted by the very city they swore to protect race to clear their name: a “good time noir” for fans of Eric Powell’s The Goon and Will Eisner’s The Spirit.
CRYPTO-ZOMBIC is about the only surviving scientist of an experiment gone horribly wrong as he returns to the Island of Isla Sopresa: populated with zombies, monsters that were thought to be the stuff of legend and a whole bunch of psychopaths. It’s a tale of mad science and ghastly creatures. If you loved the game Altered Beast or any 80’s action film, CZ is the book for you.
Finally get ready for BATTLE RALLY! In the near future teams of racers risk life and limb for glory and product endorsements, will the members of “Team Juicy Blast” win the gold or tear themselves apart before they even place? Battle Rally combines vehicle combat and giant robot battles in explosive action for fans of Voltron, The Shogun Warriors and Death Race.
Did you know that comic books can have internships? I can imagine that many of us can only dream of having a job that revolves around helping others create comics. Today we at GEEKPR0N have with us Angel, an intern for Will Brooker’s My So-Called Secret identity series, contributor, cosplayer, and geek to ask more about the comic, her role in its process, and just what it entails to be a comics intern.
GEEKPR0N: So Angel, can you tell us more about your background and interests?
Angel: I’ll start with the obvious: I am a comic book junkie.
That’s probably my mum’s fault; she brought me up on a slightly unconventional diet of Star Wars, superheroes, and Scalextric cars (while also imbuing me with an appreciation for fluffy toys and musicals), all still interests.
At the moment I’m studying International Relations at university, with the hope that I will eventually work for an international NGO. The plan (a very loose plan) is to emulate the superheroes about whom I read, and help to eradicate injustice throughout the world. Baby steps though…
GP: How did you become an intern for MSCSI?
A: You might learn a bit about me when MSCSI Volume 2 comes out, via Radhika Shere. When I found My So-Called Secret Identity I was immediately attracted to the setting and the characters. However, the issue that I have with pretty much every form of media, whether it be books, films, TV, etc, is that I am either able to relate to a character’s background and personality, or to their physical appearance, never both. Obviously I don’t want to look at a comic book and see a world populated entirely by me, because as my sister would tell you, that would be horrific. Despite this, It would be great to see just one female character of Indian descent whose life and traits aren’t stereotypical. I’m very lucky to have been raised to believe that I can be whoever I want to be, regardless of what other people automatically assume. That said, there are other young, brown-skinned, female comic book fans out there who don’t see themselves reflected in their favourite shows or books.
Positive representation is hugely important, everyone needs someone to relate to and for inspiration. Anyway (rant over!), I badgered the MSCSI team to design a non-stereotypical Indian woman. To my immense surprise, Dr. Will Brooker replied and gave me the unbelievably cool opportunity of creating such a character. I took the whole thing really seriously, wrote out pages of backstory, and worked with Dr. Brooker to perfect her appearance. And so Radhika Shere was born.
After that, I guess Dr. Brooker thought I was sufficiently invested so as to want to be more involved in MSCSI, and he offered me a role interning as Kickstarter manager.
GP: Can you tell us about what it is like to be an intern for a comics project? And what have been some of your most notable experiences in that role?
A: My role includes helping to run the Kickstarter and social media pages, sending out all the digital rewards, and making lots of lists – of backers, of the rewards, of sponsors and their messages. AND IT IS AWESOME. Even the email chains discussing funding and page counts were enjoyable because the MSCSI team is so inclusive and encouraging, despite the fact that they’re all professionals and I was initially just a super eager fan… The best part has to be that I get to glimpse sneak peeks of the story and art before other fans. Reading Radhika Shere’s first scene made me giddy with excitement.
GP: What are some aspects of MSCSI that stand out for you the most?
A: My So-Called Secret Identity is such a powerful comic book because it’s so relatable. Cat stands for every woman who has ever been looked down on in a professional situation because of her sex, every child accused of cheating because their work is unexpectedly above average, every individual who has ever personally wanted to improve a society that they see as inherently corrupt. The beauty of it is that there isn’t just one feminist icon in MSCSI. Cat may be the protagonist but Dahlia, Connie, Kyla and Miss Sparkle are all strong and flawed in their different ways. No tired tropes here!
GP: What would you — as a reader — like to see in future issues of MSCSI?
A: I would like to see more backstory, more about the Major and the Illinois Serum, and more about Doll’s Eyes. The antagonists’ actions drive so much of the happenings in Gloria, and it would be interesting to know the bigger stories behind the glimpses we got in Volume 1. Like all MSCSI fans, I would also like to know what’s going to happen. I’m rooting for Good to triumph, but with villains like Carnival chaos is a pretty appealing prospect too…
GP: At one point you cosplayed MSCSI’s Miss Sparkle in her tiger aesthetic. Do you cosplay regularly, and was there a reason you chose to make yourself up as this particular character?
A: I’d never used face paint before, but my friends had some left over after our Halloween party, and it was Body Confidence week at my home university (I’m on an exchange in Paris at the moment). So I decided to try to paint my whole body to show how I feel when I’m at my most confident – fierce! In the end I looked like Miss Sparkle, so I sent a photo to Dr. Brooker as Cat’s the only character that we know to have been cosplayed so far.
Although I love dressing up, and I’m planning to go to a Comic Con next year with some friends, where I’ll definitely cosplay, I haven’t actually done it before. Unless fancy dress parties, school plays and World Book Days count, in which case I have been many different characters, most notably Esmeralda from the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Zazu from the Lion King.
GP: Who are your favourite MSCSI characters and why?
A: Radhika Shere! Cat’s brilliant, I can even relate to the little things she does, feeling proud of her not just for joining the superhero game, but also for things like telling Enrique that she didn’t agree with his homophobic comment. In addition, the way she’s portrayed, not as a super-slim, busty crime fighter, but as a normal, intelligent student, makes me über-happy. She’s someone who eats doughnuts, finds it difficult to walk up 44 flights of stairs even in an emergency, and mixes up her words at important moments. What’s not to love?!
Moreover, it would be so easy for her character to lapse into a pity party about not living with her family and having to do things alone, but she doesn’t throw tantrums or give up.
She also doesn’t aggressively assert her independence at the cost of all her relationships. Don’t get me wrong, Cat’s flawed – for one thing she repeatedly ignores Dahlia’s advice. However, she does, admirably, accept help from her friends. For me, that’s what the last page of Issue 5 is about, how even though Cat, Enrique, Dahlia, Kit and Kay are strong separately, in a team they’re unstoppable.
And too so seems to be the creative team behind My So-Called Secret Identity: with Volume One launching sometime in Spring of 2015. And we too, at GEEKPR0N, also look forward to the beginnings of Volume Two.
She Makes Comics is a documentary directed by Marisa Stotter, and produced by Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert of Respect! Films. It is also executive produced by Sequart’s Julian Darius and Mike Phillips and comics librarian Karen Green of Columbia University.
It’s hard to review a documentary. I think it’s even more difficult review a documentary that you like. In the interests of full disclosure, I backed the She Makes Comics Kickstarter. I even wrote about it twice here on GEEKPR0N and promoted it before I knew what film I was going to see. I was utterly fascinated with the concept of a documentary that focuses on not only the past, but the present history of women in comics: as creators, publishers, and fans.
Unlike other documentaries I’ve seen, the interviewers aren’t present. There is no presence of a single interlocutor or a primary voice. In fact, there are several voices that create the narrative of She Makes Comics: both in terms of the film’s structure and the history of women in comics. What I found fascinating was how each figure interviewed not only seemed to bring a particular topic or issue, but they interlapped with each other, and sometimes talked about one another in each cut, and even attempted to give a voice to the women in the comics industry who had long since passed. While the first and middle part of the film focused particularly on creators and historians and women who are, and were, in the industry, this gradually gives way to a multitude of newer and more contemporary presences in comics.
Also She Makes Comics was edited extremely well. Sequences with interviewed figured were accompanied by cuts of these creators interacting with their fans, of cosplayers at conventions, of segments of historical filming and popular cultural scenes, and even dramatic re-enactments. I do feel that the section about a woman feeling uncomfortable in a comics store, while definitely a valid experience, was overwrought and could have been portrayed much more realistically: though the discussion about it made up for that somewhat jarring, almost kitsch portrayal.
There were different section in this documentary, though the segues to each were so smooth and organic that it takes more than one viewing to identify where the topic begins to shift. Roughly speaking, She Makes Comics starts with the history of women on comics, the formation of Comic Cons and women trying to find a place in them, a powerful section on X-Men and its inspiration on female creators and fans, women in comics publishing positions, difficulties dealing with the insular chauvinism and misogynist mentality of “all-boys clubs” shops, the advent of groups supporting women in comics, some insights into the creative processes of the female artists that make comics, the treatment of female characters in comics in relation to their male counterparts, the importance of discussion of sexism and an emphasis on diversity in the comics medium, the importance of Internet communities, the acceptance of the graphic novel in mainstream culture but women still not being taken seriously in that field, the cultural difficulties of women pitching comics ideas in the industry, the creation of female comics spaces, a section focusing on harassment, and a final segment ending off with a focus on female-led or created comics and geekdom.
As you can see, this covers a lot of territory though by no means is it exhaustive: and these places definitely interlap. There were many things of note, but here are some of the few that stood out for me. The earlier history portion of the film particularly focuses on Jackie Ormes: the first female African-American cartoonist who will actually be getting her own mini-documentary by the creators of She Makes Comics due to them meeting their Kickstarter goals.
There was mention of the fact that there were more women creating comics when men went off to war and how female readership began to decrease after the Comics Code was enforced and superhero comics were supported over other genres. It was interesting to learn about the Marvel and EC comics artist Marie Severin in addition to Ormes, though I would have liked a little more information on Miss Fury creator Tarpe Mills.
The discussion of Comic Cons and cosplay is really timely, however, based on the recent flak the latter has been getting from some industry artist. Wendy Pini hits home the fact that, as a cosplaying pioneer — specifically of Red Sonja — she managed to create the persona for herself necessary to make her art, get into the industry, and essentially become completely independent with Elfquest.
She is an interesting parallel to Gail Simone who got into comics through her critical work in Women in Refrigerators: analysing how dead or traumatized female characters were used to advance male plots and eventually making nuanced female heroes herself. Both creators got into the industry in different ways through geek culture and their insights and I just thought it was truly awesome to have that reminder that fandom and criticism can lead to creation.
Some male figures in comics were also interviewed such as Chris Claremont, Paul Levitz, and Richard Pini: but the focus was on them in relation to their female influences, employees, and creative partners. Certainly, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson, both editors of Claremont’s X-Men run, influenced his work considerably: a series many of us have related to as marginalized geeks and nerds in our time. And Nocenti’s anecdote about initially thinking she was tapped to help write porn was rather hilarious. Karen Berger was also interviewed and her comment about liking “psychological stories and weird shit” as inspiration for what she helped to promote and publish in her Vertigo imprint made me smile as well.
Even though queer creators in comics were mentioned in the same place as online spaces, I feel there wasn’t as much focus on them. In addition, there were a few creators I was hoping to see such as Alison Bechdel and Aline Kominsky-Crumb that didn’t make it into the film: though the former was mentioned. Carla Speed-McNeil and Hope Larson made brief appearances, which was nice to see.
But there were two things She Makes Comics truly did for me. The first is that it introduced me to all-female fan groups like the Carol Corps, organizations that support women reading and making comics such as the Friends of Lulu, and even spaces like the Brave New World Comics Geek Boutique that challenge the very form of what a comics store is. And I want to read Marjorie Liu, G. Willow Wilson, Gail Simone, and Kelly Sue DeConnick. They are not talked enough nearly enough in mainstream comics geekdom, even now, and while I was curious about them before, I’m definitely inspired to look at Birds of Prey, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Pretty Deadly, and others now.
I feel as though, even and especially if, you are a comics aficionado you will learn a lot from She Makes Comics. And if you are completely new, this is even better for you: for while it doesn’t give you everything, it is an excellent starting point into some works with different perspectives and interesting stories. I would definitely like to think that She Makes Comics hits home the fact that not only have women contributed to comics and geekdom, but they still do and they will.
Wendy Pini at one point shared an anecdote about a young woman who, despite her skill, didn’t have the confidence to acknowledge her art work as good: and even had difficulty presenting it to her without urging. Janelle Asselin, former editor at DC, mentions that she had very few women give her pitches. I hope that this documentary — and other works and groups and people of similar spirit — help to change this climate and culture, and make something as multifaceted as the film I had the privilege to finally see.
It’s been a few months since My So-Called Secret Identity‘s Kickstarter got funded and while the shipping of the physical Volume One has been delayed, backers have already received their digital copy. Now having my own copy and finally getting to read Issue #5 that resolves the story arc’s cliffhanger, I am going to review My So-Called Secret Identity.
My So-Called Secret Identity, a comic written by Will Brooker and drawn by Sarah Zaidan and Susan Shore, is a story that requires some attention to detail. It utilizes the aesthetics and tropes of the superhero genre and even possesses some characters that, on the surface, appear to be DC comics analogues.
The comic’s storyline takes place in Gloria City, perhaps an alternate version of New York City, where the Major and the seemingly super-powered Fleet fight to maintain order and security, while the black-garbed Urbanite and his side-kick Misper combat the twisted designs of Carnival. Meanwhile the feline Sekhmet steals items and Doll’s Eyes preys upon the hapless citizens of Gloria: leaving her signature flora calling cards.
But, as the protagonist Cat Abigail Daniels observes, it is all a front: all part of “the theater.”
The Major, who is also the Mayor of Gloria City — seemingly a combination of Superman and Captain America — maintains his power by fighting against the chaos of villainy with empty political slogans and promises. Urbanite is more extreme in some ways. As a parody of Batman’s vigilante justice, he terrorizes both citizens and criminals alike with contradictory rhetoric and ham-fisted violence: never understanding or never wanting to understand that he is just a tool in maintaining the political status quo set in Gloria between the Major and Carnival: the latter of whom seeming to be a wannabe worn-down Joker game show host. Kyla Flyte is a stereotypical blonde, beautiful, and sparkling superhero who seems to spend more time preening, conducting family business, and signing photographs than doing anything to help anyone.
And what’s truly awful is that in the midst of all the combat these heroes, villains, and anti-heroes it’s innocent civilians and properties that truly get caught in the crossfire. In the world that Will Brooker sets up for us, it seems as though both super-heroism and villainy are past times that belong to the rich and popular while very few ever care about the lives of those who they ruin in their play.
Of course, even this layer of “the theater” is not what it seems. Certainly it would be all too easy for Brooker to follow the examples of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Garth Ennis’ The Boys: in showing us how superheroes would realistically not work.
Through Cat, a young literature and philosophy student who is tired of watching her city suffer, we see the fulfilment and promise of a different perspective. This is a woman who values her friendships, who calls people on their bullshit but who is perfectly capable of seeing the good and forgiving the bad. She isn’t particularly athletic, or rich, or possess any superhuman capabilities. But as Brooker and his team like to state:
Smart is a superpower.
It isn’t so much that Cat even has an eidetic memory. She actually does have to use memory aids to help her piece together names, events, backgrounds, and places in order to attempt to solve a crime. Even though it’s derived from the profiling that her policeman father might have passed on, along with the art of scrap-booking, Cat creates mnemonic devices known as MindMaps: collages that help her process information and reflect how her mind makes connections. Did I also mention that Cat is an excellent multitasker and can solve some problems as she is processing others?
Cat has also faced discrimination because she is a young woman and she is, in her own words, “Goddamned smart.” She has been mistaken for being a secretary, an academic cheater, and “just a young girl.” Just a girl. It’s at this point that she decides to enter “the theater” and definitely shake some things up.
Book One of My So-Called Secret Identity is divided into five parts. The first part, or issue, sets the scene of present-day Gloria City and Cat attempting to navigate through it. We get introduced to her friends and some of the main heroes. In Issue #2 “Love Lives!” Cat examines the “open secrets” of secret identities, gets a costume made for her by her friends Kit and Kat, encounters the brutality and cluelessness of Urbanite and infiltrates the latter’s mansion while in Issue #3 “Nine Lives!” Cat tries to talk to Sekhmet and by Issue #4 she, unfortunately, encounters the “Big Bad” Carnival. Finally, in Issue #5 “Second Life!” Cat deals with the aftermath of her decisions and sees a multitude of possibilities.
There were so many ways that Brooker could have taken this story: so many tropes into which it might have accidentally fallen. The setting keeps you on your toes. It makes you read and observe closely. If you are good enough, you can actually find “Easter eggs” and predict some revelations in the story. Also, if you are a veteran comics reader you might recognize not only the obvious heroes and villains, but also some of the influences behind Cat and her friends. The fact is, like Alan Moore and what he did with his Charlton Comics analogues in Watchmen, Brooker has some DC analogues as well: and like Moore’s, his become their own people while — unlike Moore — they deal with issues in an entirely different way.
For instance, just as Cat was a Barbara Gordon analogue she confronts her own casual mistreatment as a woman in a patriarchal society over-focusing on class by entering into “the theater” on her terms: to actually create change as opposed to feeding into the system. Her entrance into “the theater” is a dangerous one: and not just because of the very real threat of physical harm. Certainly, the hearkening back to Gail Simone’s Women In Refrigerators trope — of the death and crippling of female characters as targeted loved ones triggering the plot in general — is all too present: and it is more of a danger that Brooker himself, as the writer of this series, luckily manages to avoid on at least two counts. He does mention it being a very real possibility in the comics universe of Gloria City.
Also, it’s usually unfortunate to be a side-kick in this world as well.
But there are two other factors to consider as well. First, the trope of gaslighting. On at least one occasion Urbanite threatens to “silence” Cat and Enrique even warns her that Urbanite would put her in Bedlam, that world’s Arkham Asylum, just to be rid of her. Not only does Brooker deal with the concept of women’s freedom being curtailed by the symbol of an authoritarian regime, but in putting Cat in a mental institution he is labelling her behaviour — her need as a woman and as human being to help others — as “crazy” and it has the potential to make her question herself. Certainly, much to my disappointment with regards to good villainy and relief on Cat’s behalf, it is a good thing that Carnival didn’t see the uses of gaslighting: as that may be Cat’s few potential weaknesses.
Hopefully we will not see a villain named Gaslight in the near-future: though hopefully Cat should have a good support base at this point to deal with that and keep her from going at this alone.
Of course, there is the other problem: of perpetuating the system. Cat is attempting to play in the same “theater” as all those other heroes. Certainly her falling into the Refrigerator could be part of maintaining this flawed system of control and death, but celebrity status — the bane of all the heroes and villains involved — could be the subversive force that might undermine Cat’s own resolve in a different way. Just look at Kyla Flyte for instance, or even Connie Carmichael — Sekhmet — to a somewhat lesser extent. In a way this is also Brooker’s challenge as well as Cat’s: to make sure she doesn’t become merely a symbol, a rebellious force co-opted into another old guard, or a seemingly “exoticized” element that only props up the system.
However, at the moment Cat seems to bring something else into all of this: namely the Do It Yourself indie attitudes, with some influence of geek cosplaying love, of creating your own costumes and trading favours — interacting through a gift economy associated by some scholars with female fandom — with friends to support herself. Perhaps this will catch on in later Books and, certainly, even Issue #5 mentions that there are already lower income heroes. Maybe this will be an impetus for change.
This same subversive mentality is used to examine other issues in My So-Called Secret Identity as well. For instance, we see that even Cat cannot speak for all experiences: and she is honest about this. Her look at the racism that Connie Carmichael has to deal with as a person of colour in addition to being a woman potentially in contention with other women — that motivated her in a large to become Sekhmet — is very intersectional and it shows that even though she might be aware of it, she even knows it is outside of her personal experience.
There is also the fact that The Major and Urbanite, as well as Carnival are two sides of the same coin. The Major and Urbanite police the citizens of Gloria City into accepting their patriarchal rule, even if they do have good intentions. Urbanite himself violates Cat’s personal space, rough-handles her and threatens her even while downplaying her concerns and actions: making her vulnerable to the violent misogyny of Carnival. And somehow, it’s even worse that someone like Urbanite believes — or wants to believe — that he is doing the right thing. You have here an authoritative system that punishes but also perpetuates with violence. When what happens to Cat seems to become public, this might force the citizens of Gloria to truly look at this issue and I wonder if this will indeed play a role in the next Book.
My So-Called Secret Identity attempts to place homosexuality as part of a norm in this world — through perhaps Kit and Kay’s relationship — and even seems to have an alternate version of Cat who is transgender. Dahlia Forrester, who is actually a superhero in hiding named Ultra Violet and an analogue of Black Orchid, even tells Cat that she tried to “pass” and it only perpetuated the system. I like that there is a Black Orchid analogue: as Neil Gaiman’s iteration of her deconstructed superhero expectations of violence in a very clever and meaningful way.
And Will Brooker manages to combine all of these elements with the premise of a world that had superheroes since 1945: not unlike the superhero comics history timeline of our world. I do wonder, though, if it might not have happened as early as 1938.
Quips aside, I do think that some sequences were fast-forwarded a little too quickly. I would have liked to see the evolution of Cat’s relationship with her friends and perhaps more about the world. Certainly, I would have liked to see an actual conversation between Connie and Cat take place during Issue # 5: because obviously they came to some kind of agreement after Cat’s horrific experience. But this one criticism is minor considering how all five issues of Book One fit incredibly well together.
I especially like how Will Brooker presented the alternate timelines in Issue #5, how he so casually introduces real superpower into the world without being as blatant as making a Superman or a Doctor Manhattan (the Deleted Scene included in the Book, however, would have revealed this aspect earlier on through more than just talk and it’s just as well it got excised), and how, despite the fact that I strongly suspect Carnival did more to Cat than leave that scar on her face, he didn’t give into the spectacle of violence or turn her into another Oracle while, at the same time, Brooker narrowly escapes making Cat a Mary Sue for which little bad can occur: exposing her to the realities of her world and its physical and emotional consequences. He lets her play out the role she sought and, upon risk of making light of went through which is not my intention, Cat wears her scar and her newer costume well.
There are some questions I’m left with however. Is Cat’s father still alive at the end or was it just part of a mess of truths and hallucinations? What happened between them seven years ago? How did Enrique initially join Urbanite? And is there importance to the Wallace Twins newspaper clipping in this entire story?
I really want to find out what happens next and, perhaps if I further train my superpower, I might be able to get more details from the comics issues that I have. Be on the look out for My So-Called Secret Identity, my friends. It is clever, poignant, it has some subtle social commentary intermixed with a fascinating plot, and it’s like looking at old friends in an entirely new way. Some of them might be a little more uncomfortable to be around, or more pitiable, in other cases a whole lot more bad-ass.
And some, in another persona, another guise, may well finally get to be themselves.
All things considered, it’s an appropriate time of year to talk about snow. While some people think that snow is beautiful and almost a permanent fixture in cold places like Canada, it’s actually incredibly transitory: much like Toronto and, in particular, Queen Street West.
I found Benjamin Rivers’ graphic novel Snow at Bento Miso two years after I moved away from Toronto: which is funny in some ways because Rivers created it in 2008 when I first moved onto York University Campus and, technically, to Toronto. But I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t, for instance, know that in February 2008 that Queen and Bathurst (which was referenced by Rivers) and that — among other stores — there had been another Suspect Video that no longer exists. But even before that I’d explored Toronto in a limited way and knew about the Silver Snail in that location.
But I didn’t know impermanent it was until I moved to Toronto and then truly explored it — especially Spadina and Queen — only to have to move. So it was fitting that I read Benjamin Rivers’ book and found out about Ryan Couldrey’s close film adaptation of it when I came back to Toronto on my own: to see if I could find some place in it again. Snow as a graphic novel truly hit me hard in that sense of nostalgia and Toronto’s ever-hidden, ever-fleeting spirit and this film managed to capture exactly the same idea.
On the surface, Snow‘s narrative focuses on Dana: a young woman who lives on Queen Street West and works at a small book store called Abberline’s. She is quiet and she likes to have her comfort and the homegrown quality of Toronto’s neighbourhood, stores, and clubs. But she begins to notice the gentrification of the street — the rise in rent and the influx of people from upper-classes — and the many closed and empty stores. Her sense of equilibrium and habit is being impinged upon. And she also notices that the bubble of self-involvement, which she herself has possessed — that covers all of denizens of her locale is growing.
Dana’s bubble ends up getting stretched to its limits as she actually actively begins to question why all of this is happening. And then it gets strained past its safe limits as she encounters a darker place. Couldrey manages to maintain the tone and pacing of Rivers’ comics narrative. There is no spectacle here, or supernatural happenings. The menace is subtle and very real and in the midst of Dana trying to make sense of a senseless situation: from human violence to slow and civil death, her own quiet determination and personal goals come to the fore.
I like how Couldrey managed to cast Snow’s other characters as well: from Dana’s friend Julia to her co-worker Chen and her boss and “city dad” Abberline himself. You get a major sense that in the backdrop of this changing city that these people all genuinely care about each other. Couldrey maintains the black and white aesthetic of Snow from the graphic novel onto the film. It has a sense of age and funkiness that captures parts of Toronto well. I really liked how, in one scene where Dana and Julia were talking — with Julia separated from Dana in Dana’s kitchen — how Couldrey managed to capture the cosiness of some Torontonian apartments against the transitory gritty nature of the outside city as well as, in this particular case, simulate a comics panel.
And it is all realistic: just like the graphic novel there is no romance, no major action, or anything. There is just tragedy, fear, friendship, life, and moving on. It also goes without saying that if Toronto itself is a character, and in particular Queen Street West then from my experience Couldrey managed to capture that spirit well.
It’s interesting to note that in edition to being a comics creator, Benjamin Rivers is also a video game developer and isn’t that just like the nature of snow? To spread from one place to another when the climate is just right: in this case from comics, to games, and to film? And Couldrey and his team shot this film without any grants or loans: just on their own budget. It’s just something that Queen Street West itself might have appreciated in its more bohemian and independently artistic days.
Toronto is an interesting city. It’s a place that is old and still developing, that has layers of different interactions, and landmarks that get erased under a literal and figurative blank canvass of snow. That said, even the thickest level of snow leaves footprints: just this film ends on perhaps a little bit of hope. Amy Lavender Harris in her book Imagining Toronto once said that Toronto suffers from a form of amnesia: from a loss of memory. Yet perhaps, at least one small part of Queen Street West knows itself. At least one small part can remember, and dream beyond winter.
But don’t just take my word on any of this. You can watch the entire film online for free and if you are interested, you can buy the entire VOD package — which includes the video, the graphic novel, the soundtrack, scripts, and video game at the Snow website.
On June 15, just a few days ago as of this article, the Kickstarter campaign for Will Brooker’s comics series My So-Called Identity was successfully funded at 10,306 pounds: well over its original goal of 8,500. Just a day after GeekPr0n’s exclusive interview with Dr. Brooker, it was announced that Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and the artist Babs Tarr would be re-innovating Batgirl: revising her as a young college student living among peers her own age and creating a more pragmatic and customized costume. It is only fitting that the origins for Will Brooker’s own work, and its protagonist Cat, were based off of a similar re-imagining and hypothetical pitch for Batgirl: complete with an element of fashion and a focus on intelligent female superheroes in comics.
In such a relatively short period of time, we are seeing examples of a potentially great development in the comics industry: and we have ourselves — as fans — to thank for it. Heidi MacDonald says as much in her article The secret of comics history that people on the internet don’t want you to know! She explains that while a majority of female comics readers existed before in the 1950s and 60s, this changed in the 70s and particularly 80s as male fans — who primarily focused on the superhero genre — took over direct distribution of comics from the newspaper stands.
Yet slowly, over time, through the demands of a vocal fan readership this trend may be changing. It’s true that there are fans that think it is all “a gimmick”: particularly with regards to Batgirl and Thor. After all, the comics industry generally makes decisions to make more money for itself. Yet it is considerable that not even a few months ago, the main contention discussed between Paul Dini and Kevin Smith on Smodcast was that the comics industry focused solely on perpetuating a “boys market” in order to make toys and continue their “sure thing” of a profit: at the price of female characters and more diverse story lines.
So, clearly, there is an audience and a demand for characters that can be related to by female fans: one picked up on, to some extent, by DC and Marvel. Perhaps now is a changing spirit of the times. And while this is a trend that might well be reversed — certainly there has been a female Thor beforehand, and Barbara Gordon has undergone a few revisions in her own time — I would like to remain cautiously optimistic. We are, by no means, at the stage where women in superhero comics are fully represented as three-dimensional characters but, perhaps, these recent developments can function as symbols — as the stepping stones — in telling sophisticated stories and introducing differing perspectives through familiar forms and faces.
After all, it’s only smart… and smart is a superpower!
(Ed’s Note: This is part 1 of our interview with Will Brooker. To read part 2, click here.)
GEEKPR0N: In addition to being a Batman, Star Wars, and popular culture scholar, Dr. Will Brooker, along with his artistic collaborators Suze Shore and Dr. Sarah Zaidan, is the creator of the ongoing comics series My So-Called Secret Identity. I’ve had the opportunity to cover his work for GEEKPR0N, but after an offer to let me ask him some “difficult questions,” I found it too much an opportunity to resist. So here we are now: talking about the story of a woman, a city, and an entire comics world.
My So-Called Secret Identityfeatures Cat, a young university student whose only power as you put it is that she is, “really, really goddamned smart.” She also exists in a really fascinating place known as Gloria City: where celebrity “superheroes, villains, and anti-heroes” seem to battle for prestige, money, and maintaining appearances. It’s, as you and Cat herself put it, become a “theater” for them: a play with a lot of collateral damage for its citizens. What and/or who was the inspiration behind the character of Cat? And how did you come up with the concept of Gloria City?
Will Brooker: I think there were various inspirations for Cat, which I’d have to think back and tease out now, as it’s two and a half years since the project’s inception.
The underlying premise, at one point, was ‘what if there had been a Vertigo title about Batgirl in the 1990s’, so in that respect, Cat is very much inspired by Barbara Gordon and the women of comics like Shade, Sandman and Doom Patrol.
In real life terms, I’d just started teaching a student called Babs, who — because it’s not a common name in my experience — made me start thinking what Babs Gordon might be like in real life, as an undergraduate; and I’d also just met a red-haired PhD student, Claire, which was no doubt also a factor. Again, one of the main ideas behind MSCSI was that Barbara Gordon had always been a PhD student, but her life never really seemed to resemble the lives of the students I knew.
So I wanted to try to bring the two ideas closer together, combining the concept of Batgirl with the largely female students I work with and am friends with.
Jennie Gyllblad recently painted us a lovely portrait of Batgirl with Cat, which demonstrates just how different they are and how they diverged: Barbara Gordon is really athletic and armored, and Cat is just averagely fit if that, wearing clothes she’s bought from regular stores. Although Batgirl was the original inspiration, Cat came to resemble much more a character from the Beano comic story ‘Billy the Cat and Katie’, who was the inspiration for Tammy (of ‘Tiger Tom and Tammy) in Grant Morrison’s series Zenith Phase III.
In terms of the name Gloria City, I was looking for something a bit like the city called Vanity in the short-lived comic book Aztek (Morrison again!) I liked the idea of Cat thinking of it as a friend or big sister, and the place having a woman’s name, like the city of Charlotte (and arguably, Sydney).
There is actually some Christian iconography in the Gloria University logo, and I like that the name captures a sense of joy, promise and becoming, even though clearly it’s a city with problems. As such, it is, like most comic book cities, somewhere between Metropolis and Gotham, which are themselves of course versions of New York City.
The map of Gloria is loosely based on NYC. The various districts are pretty much where you would find them in NYC — the bohemian Village, the theaters, the largely African American community, and so on. If you follow Cat’s routes in the comic, you can tell that she’s walking through areas which very much approximate Manhattan in their relation to each other.
In terms of the look, I think a lot of the detail, such as the hanging baskets and the streetlights, came from Suze. As she’s Canadian, it may well have a particular cultural angle to it. I think I suggested to Suze that it should be a bit like Vancouver in its atmosphere, with a music and cultural scene like Austin, TX. But as with a lot of things in MSCSI, it’s hard to be sure exactly who decided what.
GP: I definitely get the feeling that Cat thinks of herself as part of Gloria City as opposed to being above it, or her if you’d like to personify Gloria with a gender. I am really fascinated with your creation of Cat’s mind maps and how they fit into her sense of relation to Gloria. It’s kind of like an intersection of geography, her educational background, mnemonic devices (memory prompts and aids), and her own innate sense of exploration and a need for understanding. Is this partially what motivated you to create Cat’s mind maps? You mentioned in your interview with Julian Darius that Sarah Zaidan drew them, but was there anything in particular that inspired either of you to make these?
WB: Sarah created the MindMaps visually, from my directions in the script. All the details are there in the script, and a fair amount of information and suggestion about how the MindMap should look, and how the different elements should relate.
Again, a few different ideas prompted the MindMaps. I wanted to do something like Alias, where most of the story is told in a particular comic book narrative style, but there are sections where we dip out of the story into pastiche flashbacks, scrapbooks and magazine extracts, in an entirely different visual mode. (In a way,Watchmen did this with its endpapers, back in 1986).
MSCSI was always informed by the idea of scrapbooks. Ironically, it’s Jim Gordon, not Babs, who is working on a scrapbook when Joker arrives in The Killing Joke, but I felt that scrapbooking was more of a conventionally-female art form — Pinterest is the digital version — and part of the aim behind MSCSI was to foreground and celebrate alternative (again, conventionally-female) forms of art, craft and labour.
The scrapbook aesthetic works with our idea of collaboration and community, involving different, diverse versions of the cast members and a collective approach to their appearance and costumes. It embraces various art styles and encourages an approach to art as a process and work in progress, rather than just a finished page. It fits with our sense of workshopping.
Cat’s MindMaps are very much like an essay plan, I think, although they include everything in her life rather than just her academic work. They are meant to show how she makes sense of things and connects things. I imagine it’s a specifically arts and humanities way of reading the world: one reviewer compared it to Michel de Certeau’s notion of walking in the city. Her understanding of herself and her environment is visual and tactile, as well as just linguistic: it involves fabric, colours, scraps of paper, scrawled links.
One of the key ideas here was that while Batgirl is very, very clever, I didn’t think we often saw that in stories about her. How do you show thought processes, in comics? You can have someone piece a mystery together, but that requires a certain kind of detective plot, and Cat wasn’t going to be in that situation from the start: she’s just living a fairly normal life. So the MindMaps give us access to the way she thinks, even before she starts trying to investigate the enigmas surrounding Urbanite and Misper.
GP: That is very fascinating. I mean, in most detective comics — whether they are based on the Dark Knight or earlier and alternative stories — you have the characters telling other characters or, really, the reader the analytic and synthetic process by which they came to their deduction. It makes sense in that police forces are depicting as utilizing maps, newspaper clippings and notes on bulletin boards in order to link clues together and come to some kind of conclusion about a crime. And as for the comics medium itself, you can attempt to show processes through a thought-bubble or even some captioned flashbacks. But these maps really are the closest thing in comics to how a human mind really works: as we all think in a mixture of sounds, images, words and other senses.
The maps remind me of the concept ofpsycho-geography: of places being linked with past events and emotions. Speaking of Alan Moore’s work, he has drawn on this concept through Sir William Gull’s twisted personal paradigm inFrom Hell, while I also know that Grant Morrison and Daniel Vallely used the model in a flat-out collage aesthetic inBible John: A Forensic Meditation. When I say that now, I realize that these comics also deal with crime, but from very masculine perspectives — from a killer and potential investigators — and with regards to violence and murder against women. But you use the MindMap andthe multimedia (I am thinking of Watchmen) of the scrapbook differently with regards to Cat and even her relation to the time and place of Gloria City.
WB: It’s true that the MSCSI MindMaps are actually strikingly similar to the bulletin boards of images and links we see in crime drama — The Wire, for instance, or more recently True Detective andFargo— where a main character is trying to connect the dots of a murder or a conspiracy. I didn’t explicitly think of that, but it’s probably the most obvious visual echo. I’d have to check the script to see exactly what I specified and what Sarah added to the concept.
The MindMaps do recall Bible John and From Hell in a way. I didn’t have them explicitly in mind, but I’ve read and enjoyed them both. I was asked last year to write MSCSI as a script treatment for a movie, by an agency that ultimately didn’t take the project on, and in adapting the MindMaps for a new medium, I came up with an idea that’s again quite similar to the pentagram across the city in From Hell, and also the Riddler’s use of the city in Batman: Zero Year.
In fact, a lot of Zero Year reminds me strongly of MSCSI now — the dispersed power of the Red Hood gang, the grim joke about demolishing buildings as ‘dominoes’ — which I think demonstrates how these ideas just float around in the creative consciousness, recurring in different forms and different texts. It’s obviously a complete coincidence that aspects of Zero Year recall MSCSI, but it probably says something about the links between MSCSI and From Hell too — that echoes aren’t always deliberate.
It would be interesting to consider whether the MindMaps are any different from the other texts because of their female perspective. On a really superficial level, I doubt Batman would have swatches of material in his head, as he plans his outfit while also trying to remember where terrorist attacks took place. But someone like Tony Stark, who seems to take more genuine pleasure in his wardrobe and social life, might do.
The videos produced by Rebecca for our Kickstarter and Sound & Vision page probably come closest to showing what the MindMaps would ‘really’ look like, as they’re animated and include sound and music.
GP: I had no idea that you were asked to write a film treatment for MSCSI, but that said I can see through the videos that Rebecca created some of the MindMap material unfolding and animated. I do hope that, eventually, MSCSI and Cat get their chance to go from “the theater” to the theatre screen.
I’d like to focus a little bit on the theatre metaphor for MSCSI. There was a black and white scene in Issue #4 depicting a children’s show. This happened thirty years before the events of MSCSI. When a reader really looks at those MindMaps, they can get a hint of not only what will happen, but how things possibly relate to each other. And Carnival is mentioned in reference to this show. Did the theatre truly originate from that show? Do all the heroes, villains, and anti-heroes relate to Gloria City only through the metaphor of the theatre (aside from Carnival who, at best, thinks of it all as some kind of interactive game)?
WB: The theatre, as in the whole superhero culture of MSCSI, began in either 1945 or 1954. Nobody in Gloria City can easily remember exactly when it was — they just have those key historical dates in their head, from school or magazines, or it’s just something ‘everyone knows’, but when they try to pin it down they’re not quite sure where they heard it.
Anyway, there were some significant events that again, ‘everyone knows’ in the same way that we know JFK died and people landed on the moon, and after that, there were costumed figures who seemed to do things better, stronger, faster than normal folk, and it all progressed from there.
This is all my exploration of comic book continuity, and the fact that characters in comics have to deal with history being rewritten, rebooted and revised at regular intervals. We’ve already seen instances of this, where Dahlia can remember details about the Fleet and the female Misper that Cat’s forgotten. (Because Dahlia’s a little older and has a different sense of history). There’s further suggestion of the past in the newspaper page that recurs through Issue 3. I want to spell this out a lot more explicitly in Volume 2.
Carnival and Cat are, I’d say, the only ones who really recognise and admit that this whole superhero dynamic is a kind of theater or game. Carnival embraces and plays with the idea. Cat has really only just realised it, and to her that makes everything even more unethical and sickening — that other people are being damaged in a power-play between half a dozen larger-than-life figures.
Kyla, Connie and Miss Sparkle would accept that it’s all business, a staged conflict to sell product. Urbanite would stubbornly resist that idea. He needs to believe it’s a never-ending war on crime, and that it’s all entirely legitimate — that he is genuinely locked into battle with people like Carnival. Even if he might believe the truth deep down, he’d be reluctant to admit it even to himself, and would never say so out loud.
The ‘It’s Your Lucky Day’ show was Carnival’s TV series, back in more innocent times, when he was a cartoonish, avuncular persona. If we saw Urbanite guest star on that TV show, he’d be a figure like Adam West’s Batman (this would, of course, be another person in the Urbanite costume, as it all took place a generation ago). It would be pretty good to revisit that idea, in fact, and see what Urbanite was like in the 1960s.
GP: An Adam West-like Urbanite would be entertaining, to put it mildly. The theatre of Gloria City and its characters can say other things about our world behind the comics culture as well. Cat herself represents something new or at least seen less often in superhero comics. After seeing Cat working with her friends Kit and Kay on her costume and reading the Extras section of MSCSI’s website, it just reminds me of the fact that many comics fans become involved in the industry in some way themselves: either becoming a part of the structure or making their own fandoms. Not only can you become a creator, you can also be like or be your own hero. Could you interpret Cat as an in-universe representation of that idea? As that counterpoint to the corporate capes and crusaders: that line between a Do-It-Yourself movement of cosplaying fans and more independent and relatable heroes?
WB: I didn’t really have that interpretation at the front of my mind, but it definitely fits. It could be seen as exploring the kind of career path from fan to creator; a path many people have taken, within comics, novels and TV. Of course, a creator can still be (and should be) a fan, and still be critical. And in a way, Cat is engaging in a form of fan practice, or perhaps anti-fan practice: her logo is adapted directly from a commercially-bought Urbanite stencil kit. So she’s subverting official materials and making her own brand, and costume, from available materials. It’s exactly what fan scholars call ‘transformative works.’
One of the questions raised there is whether, by moving further ‘inside’ the structures, you lose some edge, distance and critical perspective. That is certainly an angle that could be applied to Cat’s position in Volume 2, which begins some months later, when her role as a kind of ‘hero’ is more established. She’s gained a certain degree of celebrity and respect from other costumed figures, and is on the level where she can actually talk to Kyla Flyte.
So if you apply that interpretation, MSCSI offers a commentary on the compromise and negotiation between becoming more popular and successful, and ‘selling out’.
GP: That has definitely been a question on my mind as I’ve been following the series so far: as to how far Cat will play in the theatre and if she will change the system, or become a part of it. I can definitely see her bringing some kind of unique innovation to the theatre, and Gloria City: perhaps starting a trend in empowering its citizens — particularly its female citizens — through fandom and example and showing them that ordinary people can be heroes because, in MSCSI’s promotional words, “Smart is a superpower.”
In your interview with Nick Ford, you mentioned that your agreements with your collaborators and sponsorships for MSCSI are based off of something called “gift economy”: which you said was something prevalent in female fan communities and is a model with less emphasis on contracts and business deals and more about hand-shake agreements, networking, and exposure. Are there any examples of female fan community “gift economy” that influenced your MSCSI collaboration and, tying it back to fandom and culture, could this concept play some part in Cat’s own potential influence on Gloria City society?
WB: The question of how Cat will function within and change the nature of Gloria’s costumed community will be a key issue in Volume 2. She becomes a more prominent media figure and a role model to an extent, and feels she has new responsibilities.
However, the whole community will change during Volume 2 anyway, as one of the underlying plot points is that all the big hitters, who are male, have been lured away on another ‘mission’, so the people left in the city who qualify as ‘superheroes’ are second-stringers and predominantly female, of various generations from 18 to retirement age.
So because of that change, Cat finds she has an even more decisive role, as the newest and most prominent young female ‘costume’ on the scene.
I’ve just written a short chapter for a new book about crowdfunding, which says a little more about my debt to the notion of gift economies. Here’s an extract.
My approach was informed by what I knew about fan communities; specifically female fan communities, and even more specifically, the communities discussed by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse in their book Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. They explained the process of ‘gift economy’, where one fan does something for another – writes a story, creates an avatar – in a system of informal, friendly trade, without any fixed arrangement or desire for financial reward. The items exchanged, gestures of time and skill, ‘have no value outside their fannish context […] Gifting is the goal. Money is presented less as a payment than as a token of enjoyment.’
Every week brings new examples of that in practice. I have a friendly agreement with the ethical underwear company Who Made Your Pants? that we will cross-promote and support each other, during this period at least. I’ve literally been sending gifts to a few MSCSI fans across the world, not for any kind of expected return — but nevertheless, it feels indirectly like a kind of thanks for their positive reviews and their continued support. There have been very, very few contracts between me and the artists, even those I’ve never met and have only dealt with once. I don’t have any form of written agreement with Sequart or Geeked; it is just about a mutually respectful admiration and a shared set of ideas.
Again, I think we could see some of this in Volume 2 of MSCSI, where I envisage Cat as — initially at least — being a little like Man-Of-Bats, the Native American Batman of Grant Morrison’s comic, who works on a very local level. The introduction of Radhika Shere, our analogue of John Constantine, and her relationship with Cat, will play into this idea — people doing each other favours within the community and knowing it’ll be repaid somehow.
As in Volume 1, though, we start off on a nice, easy-going local level, with people just hanging out and enjoying every day dynamics, but comic book drama kicks in and Cat is caught up in another larger-scale dilemma before long.
GP: I see. “Gift economy” kind of reminds me of the concept of bartering: of trading items and goods instead money. There is definitely a major element of networking and promotion involved in this model with regards to your fans and supporters — and I can see those favours coming in real handy between Cat and other heroes that were left behind in Gloria City. I’m definitely interested in seeing how you subvert the “lower-tier hero” and “all-star superheroines” trope story arcs for the next volume.