Monday, February 25, 2013

Meet the new feminist hero on the block: Cat Abigail Daniels of My So-Called Secret Identity

I have a new post up at Ms. Magazine's blog about the fabulous new comic book My So-Called Secret Identity. Here's a snippet of the original post, which you can read in its entirety here:
You may not know it yet, but there’s a new hero in town—specifically, in Gloria City, the Gotham-esque setting of the innovative online comic book My So-Called Secret Identity which just published its first issue last week. Rife with violence and bursting to the seams with a cadre of grandstanding superheroes, Gloria City is also home to Ph.D. student Cat Daniels, a cop’s daughter and ostensibly ordinary woman with a strong will and an abiding love of the city’s streets and secrets. She has a superpower, too, but not one that comes with a black latex bodysuit, d├ęcolletage cutout or star-spangled underwear: Cat is simply exceedingly smart.
Below, you can find the complete responses to my questions from the MSCSI creative team. I spoke with creator Dr. Will Brooker, artists Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan, and social media manager Riven Alyx Buckley.

1. Will, you mention in the Guardian that you "took everything [you] hated about superhero comics and flipped the script," but I'd like to turn that idea around. What do you find productive/valuable about superhero comics and how do you hope MSCSI and Cat's character, specifically, will reflect those aspects of the genre that you find compelling?
Will Brooker: One of the things I like about superhero comics is exactly that -- the close overlap between form and medium. Most American comics are about superheroes, and I still think that comics are the best medium for superheroes -- the one place they are guaranteed to look cool rather than ridiculous.
I like the fun, visual stuff like the costumes, the logos, the masks, the gimmicks -- The Flash's outfit, for instance, is impossible to improve on, and has been pretty much consistent since 1956.

On a more thematic level, I think what appeals to me about superhero comics is the core motif of secret identities and hidden lives -- disguise and the fear of discovery -- and the very closely-linked idea that we can be someone more vibrant, more colourful, more magical than we appear to be in our civilian clothes.

I also really like the model of alternate earths and parallel universes that structures so many superhero comics -- the idea that there are other worlds where we evolved slightly differently.

In a word, I think superhero comics are surprisingly queer, for a genre that seems dominated by gender and sexual stereotypes, and traditional roles. I think they are secretly a lot queerer than they seem on the surface.
2. Suze, Sarah and Riven, what excites you most about this project and/or why did you choose to become involved?
Suze Shore:First I should say that MSCSI has been my introduction to superhero comics. So when I first joined the team as a concept artist, I was impressed by the writing and ideas even without making the comparison to the stuff available in mainstream superhero stories. Now that I am more aware of what exists in the superhero genre - especially in way of female protagonists - I'm recognizing the extent to which MSCSI is challenging those norms. It's increasingly evident that Cat is something new; she's not perfect or bigger than life in someway, she's the kind of girl anyone could know and maybe already does know. It's that relateable quality to her, the cast and the project as a whole that has me especially excited to introduce MSCSI to others.
Sarah Zaidan: When Will told me in late 2011 that he was embarking on a project to “build a better Batgirl”, and that he’d like me to contribute with my artwork, I could not have been more excited. I’d been a fan of Batgirl ever since my discovery of her at age six, and had never truly been satisfied with her portrayal—she never seemed to be truly allowed to reach her full potential as a character and a superhero. Will was my Ph.D. supervisor, and through our many talks on our respective research, I knew we wanted the same things for the character and I trusted his vision for Batgirl completely.

However, when the story and characters began to take on a life of their own, that moment when Barbara Gordon underwent her metamorphosis into Catherine Abigail Daniels was truly the “Eureka!” moment for the project. This was an opportunity to break new ground with an original heroine, and to be part of a like-minded team with a charitable mission.
I was invested, inspired and enraptured.
Riven Alyx Buckley: As both a fan and an academic, the stories that I'm drawn to the most are the ones that explore intelligence, how people think and dream; I'm basically fascinated by how storytellers and artists present what goes on inside people's heads. When Will contacted me about helping him launch a comic in which the protagonist's main power is her intelligence, there was very little possibility I was going to say no. But what's occurred to me the deeper I get involved with the project, and the more I'm looking at Cat as a character, is how novel she is. Usually, an intelligent woman in ANY narrative is the sidekick, the overlooked Brain who delivers important plot points and never gets the guy she wants. She's very rarely the central figure. Think about Sherlock Holmes, and how many variations of that character we've seen over the years - Batman, House, every CSI lead character. Now think about how many female equivalents there are. I could think about it for a while, and come up with maybe one or two, but I can bet you that they aren't young attractive women with everything going for them.
Cat is a genius, AND she's an attractive, likeable woman. That's an extremely rare combination, and I wish that I'd had her as a role model growing up. Thankfully, I had Buffy, and Scully, but there's something about how Cat uses her intelligence that's unique, and important to me personally. She has the kind of brain I aspire to having, and I can't say that about any other comic book character - male or female.
3. Suze and Sarah, in what ways do you feel the comic's artwork reflects its feminist ambitions? What aspects of "mainstream" superhero comics are you trying to emulate and what aspects are you trying to subvert or revise?
Suze: I'd say the most predominant way the MSCSI art supports its ideals is the way the characters and their actions are presented to the reader. The first thing in my mind while drawing a page is the personality of the characters, and keeping their reactions and interactions realistic. The goal of each panel isn't to fit as many eye-candy poses in as possible (you won't find any broken spines or Escher girls here), but to tell the story of each member of the cast in a way that the reader can relate to that character and their experiences. That isn't to say that sexiness in comics is a bad thing, but rather I disagree with how it tends to be used; More often than not, sex-appeal seems to be shoehorned into a comic with total disregard to character personality and the situation, and it feels like the female characters are around more as good-looking accessories instead of people. I think one of the biggest revisions to mainstream comics we are undertaking is this consideration of a character and their situation when staging and posing. Our cast is full of strong, capable women who would not appreciate being constantly reduced to centerfolds. They're going to have sex-appeal when and where they want to, but not when they're brushing their teeth or trying to beat rush hour. I don't want the reader to forget that everyone in MSCSI is a human being, just like them.
Sarah: The comic’s artwork has the goal of storytelling in mind. It’s there to communicate characters’ actions, expressions, and thoughts. The artwork isn’t aimed at any sort of “male gaze” or even “female gaze” in mind; it’s trying to achieve what I think of as a “human gaze”. The art invites the reader to become a part of Gloria City, and of Cat’s thought process.
My cover illustration of Cat leads into the first page of Suze’s artwork, where Cat is getting dressed. I deliberately avoided portraying Cat as sexy for the sake of it, which is an aspect of mainstream superhero comics I am making a conscious effort to revise. My sketchbook is full of images where I was trying to get the pose just right; not emulating a pin-up, or cheesecake illustration, as well as conveying a sense of Cat’s personality and demeanor. I finally ended up putting on a side-fastening skirt in front of a mirror, and as luck would have it, that everyday act has a lot in common with the classic hands-on-hips superhero pose!
4. Will, MSCSI touts an "almost" entirely female creative team and yet it's notable that you (it's founder, let's say) are a man. What do you feel that you specifically bring to the table vis-a-vis representations of gender and/or women's roles in superhero comics? In what way do you think your own gender is (or is not) relevant to the creation of or continued work on the comic?
Will: In terms of my own personal approach to the writing, I don't think it matters or is relevant; I would want other people to be the judge of that, but so far, out of all the feedback we've received, nobody has said anything like "this seems to be written by a man with a misguided view of women."

My own view of gender is informed by transfeminism, and I genuinely feel gender is more of a spectrum than a binary. As such, while I certainly haven't had all the experiences that Cat has, and some of her experiences are based on what other people (including Sarah, for instance) have told me about being an intelligent woman within academia, she is also based on me to some extent (or me in the 1990s).

However, the world is bigger than my own little personal bubble, and we do not live a gender-fluid society any more than we live in a color-blind society. So on a broader level, it would be ridiculous to pretend that I haven't been dealt a very lucky hand in terms of cultural privilege, and that I have a pretty easy time within patriarchy compared to a lot of other people.

As such, the fundamental and sad truth is that what I bring to the table -- apart from my writing -- is the fact people react to me differently as a white, English, professional, educated man than they would if I had been born into or grown up in a different cultural group or context. On the whole, I think I get an easier ride than Suze or Sarah would, and I think the project is getting an easier ride because I'm fronting it, most of the time.

We have not, as far as I know, received any of the misogynistic responses that Anita Sarkeesian did, for instance, when she launched her Kickstarter about sexist tropes in video games.

So, given those factors, and the fact that I'm older and have managed to establish a profile within cultural studies and comics scholarship, I think I'm able to open certain doors for the project and maybe make it seem more acceptable and accessible to certain readers. It is a means to an end. If you live and work within patriarchy, I think you have to recognise its structures and try to strategise within them.
5. What do you hope readers will take away from MSCSI?
Suze: Our tag line, 'Smart is a superpower' sums it up pretty nicely! One of the ideas in MSCSI is that a person doesn't need to fly or lift a car to be 'super'. Even though Cat feels like she is at the mercy of others sometimes ("The problem's not me; The problem's other people."), she recognizes and utilizes the power within herself. We'll see her use intellectual strength and determination to fight her battles, and it's my hope that readers will come away with the idea that they can do the same.
Sarah: I hope readers come away from MSCSI believing that intelligence is something to be proud of and celebrated, and that Cat can become a role model for readers regardless of gender. I also hope that this project demonstrates how teamwork and collaboration can lead to truly amazing creations!
6. Can you give us any hints about Cat's future adventures? What's in store for the next issue?
Will: One of the most interesting things to me about Cat's future adventures is that not only do we see alternate-world versions of her, where she's a different size, gender and ethnicity, but that her body type and physique change dramatically. She tones up and gains muscle; she's injured and gains weight. I would also like to follow her adventures as she gets older. Cat would be about 42 in 2013. How often do we see an intelligent 42 year-old superheroine? I think she's such a strong character that we could follow her back and forth, visiting her past, present and future.

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