'Feminist' superhero comic looks promising, but not very superhero-y

Comics scholar Will Brooker (he's a top expert on Batman) has taken a step over to the other side and started writing a superhero comic that veers pretty far from Gotham City. As he tells Alison Flood in an interview at The Guardian, his new comic My So-Called Secret Identity takes a "feminist approach from the ground up, in terms of story, character, artwork and production."

That's a nice idea but not much of a selling point. How about this: It's a good story. The lead character is interesting, and the first issue draws you into her world, and then brings in a dramatic twist to hold your interest. Brooker's writing is witty, and the art, by Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan, is attractive and easy to "read" visually, something that is not always the case with superhero comics.

Lord knows, as a reader who rolls her eyes at most superheroines (and superheroes for that matter), I like the idea of what Brooker is doing, but Comics With Agendas seldom turn out well. Good comics are all about good stories, and good stories seldom fit neatly into ideological niches. This has the makings of a good story, and I would hate for the "feminist" selling point to be a turn-off for potential readers. I'd prefer see this comic presented as something new, rather than a pushback at a tired genre.

Admittedly, My So-Called Secret Identity uses many of the storytelling conventions of superhero comics—the paneling and the way the character is narrating the story from inside her head, for instance. There's even a grim edge to Cat's point of view, as she opines that in her city, if you're not a celebrity or a superhero, you're "little people." But then on the next page she's thinking about the scent of warm muffins and her favorite bookstore. I'll go out on a limb here (I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong) and say that no one in Gotham City thinks about muffins.

I don't think I'd call this comic "feminist," exactly. I'd call it "smart." It's looking, from this first issue, like the story is going to be about Cat solving a puzzle, which means the reader can solve it along with her. That's awesome if, like me, you like this kind of comic. I can't follow fighting or chase scenes at all, but I love piecing things together from a couple of clues. That's not really a gendered thing, though — just a different type of story.

The other big difference between this comic and superhero comics in general is the one Brooker talks about in the beginning: costume and body type. When we first meet her, Cat is completely covered up, in long sleeves, a long skirt and a plaid vest. Apparently she will eventually get a costume, but she doesn't fit the typical superheroine body type, and it's hard to imagine her assuming the brokeback pose. I want to say that's a common-sense issue, or even a matter of taste, rather than a feminist issue, but I suspect that feelings about this fall strongly along gender lines.

I get that Brooker is trying to keep all the good parts of superhero comics and ditch the sexist parts. The question is, will he end up with a non-sexist superhero story or just a good story about heroes and villains that falls completely outside the genre? Is "non-sexist superhero story" a contradiction in terms?

Mostly, I liked this comic, but I do have one kvetch: The pages are vertical—very vertical, as many are split into long vertical panels — which makes it really irritating to read this comic in a browser because you can't see a whole page at once. My computer has a 15-inch screen, and I can only see about half the page at a time in my browser window. With a comics page that is split into horizontal tiers, that isn't much of a problem, but the layout of this comic really requires you to see the whole page at once. My solution was to switch over to my iPad and read it there, where I could view each page in vertical format, although it's a bit on the small side. But it seems to me that if you are going to present a comic digital first, especially something new that may require a bit of selling to the reader, it is important that the comic work well with the medium.

That said, it's a great comic and well worth a look, scrolling and all.

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