Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Entry 60: My So-Called Secret Identity

Today’s comic is what would happen if Strong Female Protagonist and Batman had a baby. It’s not halfway between the two, nor is it a mixture of qualities from each, exactly. Rather, it possesses resemblances to both works, while achieving something entirely different and unique on its own terms. Brace yourself for the unflinching look at a troubled and flamboyant world that is My So-Called Secret Identity.

I find it impossible not to compare My So-Called Secret Identity to Strong Female Protagonist as I read it, because so much of the impact, so many of the messages, are similar. Primarily, both take a serious look at the sociopolitical implications of comic-book-type superheroics. While Strong Female Protagonist focuses on no one inspiration in particular, My So-Called Secret Identity very clearly consistently pays homage and alludes to Batman.

Please note that My So-Called Secret Identity must be read in order from the beginning. I won’t get into specific plot revelations, but this is the type of story wherein even minor details could constitute noticeable spoilers, so, you know, caveat lector.

My So-Called Secret Identity takes place in Gloria, a city dominated by heroes and villains, playing out political struggles over their urban stage. Being part of the drama isn’t about superpowers… in laws-of-physics terms, this comic is very grounded. All it takes to be a costumed player is the intelligence, personality, and/or strength to jump in and force the other players to take you seriously.

The problems in Gloria seem perfectly real, the type of thing any one of us might read about browsing the morning’s news links. The difference is that when a terrorist network attacks subway stations in Gloria, the mayor threatens retribution not in a suit and tie surrounded by aging city council members, but in costume and accompanied by a sidekick.

Those in power have embraced this melodrama, using it to push their agendas and maintain their own status. In Gloria, capes and theatrics are treated with utmost gravity.

In context, none of the superheroics seem the least bit incongruous or silly. My So-Called Secret Identity takes its tone from the dark, gritty type of superhero comics, the ones wherein running around in capes and punching criminals is not fun, but deadly. The characters wholeheartedly embrace this aesthetic, the reality that wearing strange clothes and acting larger than life isn’t just a way to be noticed, but it’s the only way to be taken seriously.

This trend persists, and is accepted, because the participants buy into it so strongly. The heroes and the villains make themselves grand and impossible to ignore, but they pursue their work with such dedication that there’s no room for mockery. Perhaps an outsider could ridicule these theatrics, but those in charge have turned the city into something of a closed set. Any commentary from someone not involved with the performance isn’t given any attention, and breaking into the show is a prohibitively difficult task.

In addition to the serious consideration of superheroes and their sociopolitical implications, My So-Called Secret Identity has another similarity to Strong Female Protagonist in its feminist perspective. Both comics focus on a woman who struggles to contribute to her world despite her differences with the general superhero community. Each has her unique viewpoint; Cat, the protagonist in My So-Called Secret Identity, has mental, rather than physical strengths, and she’s trying to join in with the theatrics rather than separate herself from them.

Cat is intellectually gifted, making connections that elude others and sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong just because that’s the only way to satisfy her perpetual curiosity. Her disadvantages are that she’s young, she’s inexperienced, and, crucially, she’s female.

The theater that Cat is studying, investigating, and, ultimately, participating in, is dangerous. Especially so for women, not necessarily because women are likely to be physically weak or smaller than the others involved, but because women aren’t taken as seriously as men. A few female heroes have managed to make names for themselves, but they’re in the minority. More have disappeared, or never managed to make an impression in the first place.

Newcomers are treated with dismissal, at best, and contempt at worst. The people who’ve been running this play for decades don’t take kindly to those who’d like to take to the stage themselves. Cat has an uphill battle to fight if she’s going to earn recognition, or get any sort of results. Her gender will make that all the more challenging. But adversity makes for significant conflict, and conflict is what makes stories thrive. Whatever success Cat achieves will be all the more satisfying, from an audience perspective, for the added challenge she had in reaching it.

This whole comic is full of details that fit together like a puzzle, elements that make sense only in the context of all the others. If you enjoy piecing together clues until you’ve uncovered every secret a story has to offer, then My So-Called Secret Identity is for you. There’s a wealth of information here, giving the reader insight into a full and complex world, even if we only ever get to experience a small portion of it. Even Cat’s insights can only go so far, can only reveal so much. So mount your own investigation, start reading the story, and see what’s available to be discovered.

My So-Called Secret Identity is written by Will Brooker and drawn by Suze Shore, with certain pages created by Sarah Zaidan. The easiest way to get to the comic from the homepage is by hovering over the word “comic” and clicking “archive,” then clicking on an issue and page from there. (I recommend starting at the cover or the first page of Issue One, for obvious reasons.)

At present the first four issues are available to read online. For now, the fifth issue is only available in a printed collection of Volume One, making My So-Called Secret Identity a strange hybrid of web and print distribution. The authors claim that more is coming, though whether the next volume will be put on the website or restricted to the printed page I cannot say.

Whatever the comic’s future may hold, I strongly recommend you check out My So-Called Secret Identity and give it a try. It’s a refreshing take on superheroics and definitely rewards the time a reader would put into it.

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