Thursday, March 12, 2015

Will Brooker Interview: My So-Called Secret Identity and Batgirl

Will Brooker

Interviewer: Nicole D’Andria
Interviewee: Will Brooker

Me: Dr. Will Brooker has written numerous books including Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon and Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars. He is also a Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University and editor of Cinema Journal. The main project of Brooker’s that we will be talking about today is his comic My So-Called Secret Identity (MSCSI).

Can you tell readers who aren’t familiar with your series what My So-Called Secret Identity (MSCSI) is about?

Will Brooker: MSCSI began as a webcomic in February 2013 and is now two print volumes, following a successful £10k Kickstarter in Summer 2014.

It centers on and is told through the main character Catherine Abigail Daniels, who lives in a city called Gloria in the mid-1990s. Cat considers herself very normal and nothing special, especially compared to the city's resident costumed characters -- the Major, the Misper, Sekmet, Kyla Flyte and Urbanite. But as their posturing and staged battles start to cause more collateral damage, Cat snaps and admits to herself that she does have a power -- she's incredibly intelligent, with an ability to make links and join things up in her head. She joins the superhero 'theater', donning a home-made costume of her own, and interrupts it. But Urbanite, the city's self-styled law-enforcer, and his arch enemy the drug lord Feliciano Carnival, both resent having a young woman interfere in their routines, and Cat soon finds herself in deep, facing genuine danger and learning how to survive it.

MSCSI has a diverse range of creators and exhibits a variety of visual styles. Most of the artists involved are female. It is now sold by Geeked Magazine and all profits go to support their feminist collective. 

Me: How would you describe the main character, Cat? 

Brooker: Cat has learned to hide her abilities, to be self-effacing and modest. She's learned that people -- particularly boys and men -- don't like to be challenged by an intelligent woman. She's only just coming to terms with her own identity and skills. Apart from her intelligence, she's reasonably confident, not unfit, fairly good with people, happy enough with her appearance, likes cooking, music and basketball... she would see herself as really average.

Me: What inspired you to write My So-Called Secret Identity?

Brooker: I'd completed my last academic book on Batman, and started looking critically at Batgirl's history. I felt the character had a lot of potential that had rarely been realized. I wrote an article or two about this, and then decided to turn the criticism into positive practice by putting together a hypothetical pitch for a new way of doing Batgirl, with illustrations and sample script. That grew and adapted into My So-Called Secret Identity

Me: How do you feel about the new direction DC Comics has recently taken with Batgirl?

Brooker: With some reservations -- eg. I think issue 37, with Dagger Type, was a stumble in its tone and representation -- I am very fond of it and impressed by it. I've studied and annotated it in great detail and I think it really repays close attention. It's beautifully drawn and cleverly, endearingly written. From what dealings I've had with the creative team, I think they're genuine and enthusiastic.

Me: How do you think they could have fixed the Dagger Type story?

Brooker: I don't think it would have been too hard. Have Babs respond with less apparent shock at Dagger's unmasking, and not seem to be saying 'but you're a man' -- that ambiguous line could have been changed while still retaining the drama that someone's posing as a glitter version of her, and trying to kill her.

Have Alysia in the story as a commentary on and counterpoint to Dagger, maybe offering her own point of view and explaining that he seems to be a fame-hungry, pretentious artist who's been set up to fail; or perhaps showing some feelings of solidarity and connection with him. Dagger's relationship with sex and gender identity was never made clear in the story. Was he just a pawn who would dress up in any costume to get closer to Kanye and the success he hungered for, or did he have some deeper feelings about wanting to be Batgirl, or just wanting to be a girl?

Panels from Batgirl #37 (Art by Babs Tarr)

And we could have had Babs responding with more sympathy and compassion toward Dagger, given her understanding of trans identity through her close friendship with Alysia. I think she could have been nicer and more supportive towards him at the moment of his coming-out gig. Instead, she was the first one to laugh. (OK, he did try to kill her, but we know Babs is a pretty generous person... she even forgave one of the Joker's goons from The Killing Joke).

And I don't think he had to be drawn in quite such a caricatured, grotesque way. He passed as Batgirl for more than half the book, and then when he was revealed, he suddenly looked ridiculous. He could have made a convincing Batgirl lookalike. There's no reason the audience should have found it unbelievable that this was Batgirl.

So I think it could have been handled more sensitively, with a few tweaks, and without changing the overall narrative arc. If I was the creative team I would probably have tried to bring him in again (or at least a mention of him) in issues 39 and 40, to rectify that a little. I would also want to make changes to this chapter before it's published in the trade paperback, but I don't know if that's editorially possible.

Having said that, I think their intentions were good, their apologies were genuine and none of us is perfect.

Me: Do you feel that they were inspired by you in any way? Looking through Batgirl it looks similar in some ways to MSCSI. I also know when you went to Rollins College to speak at the event entitled “Build a Better Batgirl” a member of the audience mentioned Batgirl taking your direction and the audience agreed with them.

Brooker: It's impossible for me to say whether anyone was inspired or influenced, but I thought this take on Batgirl seemed similar to MSCSI from the early solicits and costume designs last Summer 2014.

I put together a few slides suggesting some specific similarities, for the end of a recent talk, to suggest that perhaps mainstream superhero comics were starting to change in the direction MSCSI was trying to demonstrate. 

The whole idea of Barbara in a hip neighborhood, sharing a house, making her own costume and discovering herself, is very MSCSI, and some of the scenes and images seem to have a lot in common (as the slides show.)

On the other hand, the last slide is of a man in a huge manga head-mask, from Batgirl 36, compared with a new character from MSCSI volume 2. I designed that character before Issue 36 was published, but there's no way anyone at DC could have seen MSCSI's manga-superhero Surprising Delight, any more than I'd seen their image of the Robot Pony shopkeeper.

So I think sometimes there are genuine synchronicities and coincidences.

Me: Brooker showed me the original pitch he wrote back in 2011 which later became MSCSI. I asked him several questions about his proposal.

What was this proposal originally for?

Batgirl Pitch Cover by Karin Idering

Brooker: It features a proposed story about Batgirl and Oracle -- Oracle as a computer system and Batgirl's digital assistant. That seems to be exactly what the creative team [for Batgirl] is now doing with their title.

Me: Why did you want to keep Batman’s identity a secret and turn Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson into “characters played by actors – parts established by Batman as a decoy for his true identity” and be “known to the media as a celebrity gay couple”?

Brooker: I wanted to do something original with the Batman secret identity dynamic and the idea of having "Bruce Wayne" played by an actor seemed both an interesting and plausible twist. Having a decoy civilian identity is much more effective than trying to keep it entirely secret. If people think they know who you are, they're more likely to stop looking. 

Having the decoy civilians as a gay couple (or apparently gay) was a riff on the decades-old interpretations of Bruce and Dick as a romantic couple, but in this case their relationship is of course open, positive and publicly-embraced. I imagined them a little like George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell in Batman Forever

Batman himself, in this version, has a genuinely secret identity. Nobody, even Robin, sees him without the mask (or hears him without the built-in voice modifier) and knows who he is. Nobody knows his ethnicity. He could even, possibly, be female. I think this deeper enigma is an interesting variation on the Batman mythos, and makes the character a mystery even to the reader. 

Me: In your character design for Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, why did you decide to make her African-American in origin? 

Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Character Design by Jen Vaiano)

Brooker: One reason is that a very significant incarnation of Catwoman was Black - Eartha Kitt in the 1960s. So it was a tribute to her and her contribution to Bat-history. But also I wanted to introduce more diversity and broader representation, and having a woman of color in this important role seemed a worthwhile move. It inevitably changes some aspects of her identity and her experiences, in an interesting way. 

Me: You also brought up that Batman “adopts what he sees as African American style and fashions – hip-hop playing inside his cowl, his Batmobile a flashy, customised vehicle, and black slang expressions scrolling across his chest.”  Why did you want the character to be interested in this particular style?

Brooker: This was an idea that never went further than that stage of the pitch. It was based on the idea that this Batman plays with roles and decoy identities, and doesn't really have an authentic sense of self. So it was a sense of him as a cultural poser, always fronting and faking, adopting and appropriating other cultures - much as he uses a gay relationship as a decoy civilian identity. He is overblown and ludicrous, kind of pathetic. Basically a dick.
Me: Why did you decide to include Black Orchid as a character?

Black Orchid (Character Design by Jen Vaiano)

Brooker: I think Black Orchid is a key to the development of what became Vertigo in the 90s. Gaiman and McKean's miniseries was very important in establishing that more alternative, independent sphere of second-string DC heroes whose stories were told in a more experimental style. I basically wanted a house shared by minor 1990s metahumans, all finding their way and their identity, and Batgirl as part of that milieu rather than the usual mainstream Batman mythos. The 2015 Batgirl reboot does something similar by having Babs share a house with Black Canary. 

Me: Can you talk about some of the characters you created for the pitch such as Enrique, Rak and Kit?

Enrique Garcia/Robin (Character Design by Jen Vaiano)

Brooker: Enrique was developed as a new Robin - Dick Grayson is an actor who serves as decoy so Enrique/Robin can live his own genuinely secret life. Rak is Shade the Changing Man, who shares a house with Babs and whose abilities are, originally, also hidden. And Kit is the first name I gave to Kid Eternity, who I thought would be a perfect best friend and possible on-off romantic partner for Shade. They're a similar age (or look it) with similar abilities and experiences. I liked the idea of a bohemian house like the one in Sandman: A Game of You, but with metahumans who are trying for the most part to live civilian lives like normal twenty-somethings. 

Me: Can you explain how MSCSI is based off of your pitch?  What elements do the two share?

Brooker: Really when I moved the pitch away from the DCU and into its own world I lost the familiarity of playing with existing characters but gained a lot of freedom. The characters evolved in their own way and I think became quite distinct from the original ideas in terms of their background, context and interactions. I see MSCSI as working with archetypes - Urbanite is part Batman, part Darth Vader, part RoboCop - sometimes as a tribute, sometimes as a parody. So the pitch was a starting point which grew and reached out along its own path, and evolved into something new but with clear overlaps and similarities. 

Me: You mentioned the profits of MSCSI going to Geeked Magazine and their feminist collective. Can you explain more about this magazine and their collective?

Brooker: Geeked is at -- it's run by Sofia Hericson and Samantha Langsdale, who reached out to us soon after the first digital publication of MSCSI.  They clearly had the same aims and ideals as us, and we have been working together increasingly as partners.

Geeked published the first two issues of MSCSI, eighteen months ago, and Sofia designed the recent print edition of Volume 1. They also sell the comic online and in person -- they were at our recent launch at the Feminist Library in London.

Essentially they are a small, intersectional, inclusive feminist group that foregrounds and gives a platform to interesting art and writing, and we at MSCSI are very happy to support them by letting them keep all the profit from selling the books. It will go into their future publications and help them to grow.

Me: How do you feel about the current depiction of women in comic books?

In mainstream comic books, I feel it's gradually improving -- a little, at least. There are more sensible and stylish costumes (Batgirl, Spider-Gwen) and less skintight spandex. There's more of an outcry about blatantly sexist covers (Manara on Spider-Woman), and more demand for women to take central roles in the superhero genre (eg. Wonder Woman and Black Widow, in movie adaptations). There are more women of color and queer women characters such as Ms Marvel and Batwoman, more traditionally male characters shifting to female (Thor) and there are certainly a few more prominent female creators getting deserved attention (such as Babs Tarr and Becky Cloonan). I think things are getting better right now, though whether that's a superficial and temporary development remains to be seen. I think women and girls constitute a significant readership and market, and it would be really good business sense to recognise that and appeal to them. 

Me: You also wrote the book “Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon.”  Why did you choose to analyze Batman?

Brooker: I wouldn't do it now -- I have had enough of the character now and am determined not to write about Batman again until 2025 or so -- but I used to be fascinated by him. He was my favourite superhero as a child, partly because of all the various depictions of him that co-existed -- I experienced the 1960s TV show reruns alongside the grittier Adams and O'Neil comic books -- and partly because I recognised even then that he had no powers, apart from his determination, drive and intelligence. I think those are the same traits that now make Batgirl fascinating to me, although with her there's the added aspect that she is always so marginalised and gets a rough deal both in the fictional universe and in publishing and institutional terms.

Batman was a rich subject for study because of the ways in which he had adapted and remained popular and relevant from 1939 onwards, and been interpreted in so many diverse ways. He has served me well as a topic for research and to an extent I've built a career on it, but I need a break from Batman now.

Me: Thank you for your time and thoughts Will! For anyone interested in checking out MSCSI, you can read the first four chapters and view behind-the-scenes content from the series at

Related Articles:

No comments:

Post a Comment