Since its inception, the superhero genre has explored the role of the outsider, the complex social standing of masked heroes at once adored and demonised. With My So-called Secret Identity, pop culture cognoscente Will Brooker takes this idea to its logical conclusion, exploring the role of women both in our own social strata and in mainstream comics themselves.
Having suffered sexual assault at the hands of former hero Carnival, Catharine Abigail Daniels (or Cat) is trying to find some normacy in a world of little sense. She goes about her day-to-day routine, each activity accomplished a little victory. Remember Alan Moore’s controversial Killing Joke, with its infamous shooting and sexual assault of Barbara Gordon? It took another 23 years for Babs to make sense of her trauma. Here we have Cat’s psyche picked apart and explored, as she moves through the extremes of emotion, from anger to feeling nothing at all, then finally an empowering return to form.
Early in the volume, Cat covers her scars with make-up, a kind of new mask trying to bury what she’d endured. Her abuse calls back to the Comedian’s behaviour in Moore’s Watchmen, in which he tried to rape Silk Spectre. The entire concept here is in dialogue with Moore’s apparent fascination with sexual abuse and degradation, and striving for a new paradigm.
There’s shades of Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl in Cat; her struggle with the nature of justice and vigilantism, and a young woman’s role in the modern world. Yet the character is informed as much by real world events as what’s on the page. The backlash fans expressed when a new creative team overhauled Babs’ costume – a similar story with Spider Woman – makes Cat’s discomfort in her earlier bare-all outfits more potent.
Though the story takes place in an alternative timeline, where defining historical events unfurled at different times or in another context, everything’s familiar. Some of the players riff on existing characters, from Poison Ivy and the Riddler to a great skewering of Batman. Underneath the homage is an indictment of the industry, especially the erasure of older women, where constant retconning and reboots leave Wonder Woman et al. perpetually nubile. Rather than being forced into the carer role, Golden Age hero Liberty Bell comes out of retirement when things go sour, and that’s a powerful statement.
The final chapter is the volume at its most experimental, playing with the structure and conventions of sequential art, and glimpsing a story between and behind the panels. It might be obvious to call it a deconstruction, but that’s exactly what’s taking place with Cat photographed as a real woman, while another panel sees her in colour, then line art disappearing into a pencil sketch on a white background. And then she takes control again, in a medium where female characters are sidelined and subservient to the whims of male artists.
The five chapters are told through a number of different artists, while the additional stories and guest art in the back matter show that comics are diverse and inclusive. Isn’t that what My So-called Secret Identity is fighting for all along?
MY SO-CALLED SECRET IDENTITY VOL. 2 / AUTHOR: WILL BROOKER / COVER ART: URSULA DORADA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW