Review - My So-Called Secret Identity #1

Comics have navigated a strange and winding path since their inception almost a century ago. They've moved from Superman leaping tall buildings to Dr. Wertham led book burnings to Peter Parker being bitten by a spider. Throughout those eras, female characters have generally been treated as eye candy or plot objects in need of saving. That's not to say there aren't books that feature women wrecking shop, but by and large, there's still a gender gap when it comes to comics. My So-Called Secret Identity looks to shatter that barrier as a new webcomic devoted to showing a female superhero with awesome powers and little reliance on her looks and expected gender role.

The comic is written by Dr. Will Brooker, with art by Susan Shore and Dr. Sarah Zaidan.

Catherine Abigail Daniels is a cop's daughter and PhD candidate. She grew up, doing ok in sports, wants to remain pretty inconspicuous and also bears the burden of being the smartest person in Gloria City. That intelligence is both a gift and a curse. On the one hand, she remembers and knows everything. On the other hand though, growing up she was treated as a cheater, plagiarist and generally inferior individual, owing to her intelligence and gender. She roams the streets of Gloria City, something she's done for as long as she can remember. That roaming has given her an intimate knowledge of the city which, coupled with her sheer intelligence, make her something of a superhero of sorts.

My So-Called Secret Identity bills itself as a superhero comic that's not a typical superhero comic. The biggest difference advertised is Cat herself. She's not oversexed, playing a damsel in distress or simply included for appealing to men. She's meant to be very human and Dr. Brooker does a great job of showcasing how mundane a day in her life really is. She's got the city at her disposal and she kind of floats through it, so familiar with her surroundings that it's almost boring to her. It may be boring and that's something Cat's wanted for most of her life. That boredom is starting to take its tool, as she wants to parlay her intelligence ability into superhero status.

Making Cat a superhero is where My So-Called Secret Identity #1 loses something. For whatever reason, the book doesn't feel like a superhero comic; it feels like a book about a woman who's too smart, almost to the point where she's obnoxious. It's alluded to that she realized she was getting this way and has "dumbed down" social interactions so as to not overwhelm people. The problem is that the way the issue is written, it's unclear whether or not Dr. Brooker intended for it to come across as that intelligence arrogance as a nod to Cat's intelligence. It takes a superhero turn at the end of the issue and hopefully that turn dictates the direction of the title (if it is billing itself as a superhero comic).

Dr. Brooker knows a thing or two about superhero comics as well, considering his works Batman Unmasked and Hunting the Dark Knight. His work looked at Batman as a cultural icon, something that he's infused into My So-Called Secret Identity. Cat knows Gloria City much in the way that Batman/Bruce Wayne knows Gotham City and both characters are also too smart for their own good at times (Batman to the point of paranoia at points). Cat's decision to become a costumed superhero to effectively use her intelligence for good is the big difference when compared to Batman, but both characters still showcase a commitment to their cities and a desire to do good for whatever reason. It's likely that Dr. Brooker will continue to draw on Batman as inspiration for Cat, but likely with less of the gadgets and more sheer brilliance.

The art by Shore and Dr. Zaidan is very photographic; in fact, it feels very reminiscent of Bryan Lee O'Malley's work in Scott Pilgrim. All the panels are presented in such a way that they could easily be framed and displayed. As the main character, Cat is in just about every panel and is given top-billing. At the same time though, the artists make sure that the world around her feels vibrant and alive as if it's another character. This acts as a powerful ally for reinforcing Cat as someone capable of being exactly what Gloria City needs, even if she's been hiding her intelligence for most of her life.

There's a few pages that really stand out. One two-page spreads shows mind map, which presents a visual interpretation of Cat's thinking. The path her mind follows is something of a disjointed race that likely makes perfect sense to her as she works through it all. It's a great means of really connecting with the reader and presenting Cat's intelligence in something that's more easily digestible. There's another full-page panel that's the same scene over four vertical panels. While the scene fills the page, each panel showcases a different character at a different state in the setting, helping to present the variety of characters in Gloria City. The art as a whole is solid, but those two facets of it really stood out.

The entire package is pretty special as well. The website features the comic and a Lookbook by Lindsay Searles, which showcases some of the thoughts behind the design process. The creative teams are all women, looking to subvert the trend of men writing comics about women. In addition to Shore and Zaidan, other women such as Hanie Mohd, Paige Halsey Warren and Lea Hernandez contribute costume designs and character sketches. What's more is that Dr. Brooker takes no profit from the work. Instead, after paying the artists, the remainder of the donations go to A Way Out, an outreach charity for women and young people.

My So-Called Secret Identity #1 is the start of something powerful. It upends the notion prevalent in most creative works that female characters are included for a predetermined set of reasons. Instead, it gives the reader Cat, a woman who's incredibly smart and wants to use her powers for helping the love of her life in Gloria City. Disguising herself as a superhero will give her incredible flexibility in how she offers the city her gift and by the looks of the last panel she may not be alone in her quest. There's potential here for all involved to make something special, giving women a work to look up and forward to as one that effectively captures what it means to be a smart, independent woman with a desire to do more.

My So-Called Secret Identity #1 is available online now. The second issue is underway, but it needs some help from readers. This is definitely a property that bears keeping an eye on. And the fact that it's free really makes it a no-brainer that it should be read. If you like what you read, be sure to donate some money to help get the rest of the series finished.