Kleefeld On Webcomics #99: Will Brooker Interview, Part Two

By Sean Kleefeld

Will Brooker is the preeminent expert on Batman. He gained some notoriety in the late 1990s as the first person to write a doctoral thesis on the character, and he’s since written hundreds of articles and a few books on the Dark Knight. Now, though, Brooker is turning his attention to My So-Called Secret Identity, an original creation that’s launching as a webcomic on February 18 with preview artwork on his MSCSI Facebook page. Here’s Part Two of our interview with Brooker (click here for Part One).

MTVG: Your work over the past two decades has largely focused on analysis and critique of existing pop culture. But your current project is a webcomic called My So-Called Secret Identity. What prompted the switch from sideline observer to active participant?

Brooker: I don’t think I was a sideline observer, exactly. My sense of how culture works — how everything works — is based around a matrix, a dynamic network. My last book, Hunting the Dark Knight, is obviously not equivalent to Scott Snyder’s monthly Batman comic, but I think it participates in the same broad conversation. During the promotion of that book, I wrote articles for The Guardian and Independent newspapers, for Newsweek and the Times Higher Education, and for popular websites like http://www.io9.com/. Last time I looked, about 35,000 people had read my latest Batman article on io9. Hunting the Dark Knight itself was selling 50 copies a day during July and August 2012. That’s not blockbuster by any means, of course, but I think in a way, my contributions have entered the public, popular sphere.

However, you’re right: there is a difference between criticising other people’s work, and making your own. I guess the switch, or sidestep, — because I don’t see it as a changing of sides, more of a shift or small movement — came from my frustration with what I was seeing, and had seen for years, in mainstream comics, and my frustration with myself for wheeling out the same critiques but never actually trying to do it differently.

I’d been writing a series of articles for the blog Mindless Ones, which had started to focus on my annoyance with the character of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, and the way she’d been treated over the years. She’d just been brought back in the New 52 and been miraculously given the power to walk again, after having had her spine damaged in The Killing Joke some 25 years earlier.

I’d never really studied Batgirl, and now I tried to give the character a chance, but (as that linked article explains), it was hard to really root for her in terms of the way she was written and drawn. I started wondering how I’d do it differently, and decided that if I was ever given the chance, I’d pitch it as Barbara Gordon in the Vertigo imprint of the 1990s.

I was going to simply write some pages of script, commission some artwork and post it up on Mindless Ones as a hypothetical pitch, a story that could have (should have) happened but was never produced.

But then the story started to get bigger, and I realised, as I recruited more and more artists, that this could really be ’a thing’. Within a month I’d recognised that it couldn’t actually be about Batgirl anymore, for obvious copyright reasons. So I scrapped the specifically Batgirl stuff, kept the basic template of PhD student in a 1990s American city full of larger-than-life costumed characters, and built it up in a different way.

The story and the world includes echoes of the Batman universe, but only in as much as Midnighter is a kind of Batman, or Rorschach, Nite Owl and Ozymandias are all Batman, or that Batman is actually The Shadow crossed with Dracula and Zorro. It’s a reworking and retelling of superhero mythology — but I think all superhero comics are reworkings and retellings of an existing popular mythology.

MTVG: Before we get too deep into it, we should probably stop a moment and have you explain the basic premise of the comic. What is MSCSI?

Brooker: My So-Called Secret Identity is the overarching title for a series of stories about Catherine Abigail Daniels and her world. Cat lives in Gloria City, a metropolis much like New York, in the mid-1990s. She’s an Irish-American cop’s daughter who went into academia rather than the law when her father was killed on duty: she immersed herself in study as a kind of escape and therapy, wanting to distance herself from the police and her late dad’s buddies.

She’s currently immersed in a PhD within the disciplines of literature and philosophy. She’s averagely athletic — she plays street basketball — she’s happy enough with her looks, but no model. She gets on pretty well with people, but she’s watchful and wary. And she’s learned to hide her own intelligence.

Years of experience — guys getting turned off because she’s cleverer than them, tutors accusing her of cheating — have trained Cat to play down her own secret ability, her special power. Her special power is that she is, as she puts it in episode 1, ’really goddamn smart’.

Apart from that — and she hides that part of herself — Cat considers herself average. There are other people way more remarkable than her. Her city is populated by a small group of larger-than-life costumed characters — The Urbanite, Sekhmet, Doll’s Eyes, Carnival — not exactly superheroes, more celebrities and power brokers like Britney Spears, Donald Trump, Beyonce or Stallone. They don’t actually ’fight crime’ — their conflicts and abilities are mostly staged, publicity stunts designed to sell spin-off fragrances, TV shows and albums. It’s a constant pantomime of villainy and heroism, although all too often, it gets real and little people — normal people — get hurt in the crossfire.

That’s the set-up. In episode 1, Cat meets a guy called Enrique. He intrigues her, because he’s kind of on the margins, keeping an eye on things, the way she does. She flirts with him a little, and then he gives her the slip — and she realises he’s part of that larger costumed community. He’s the latest Misper, the sidekick of armored, macho vigilante The Urbanite (a combination of Batman, Judge Dredd, Darth Vader and RoboCop).

So by episode 2, Cat’s getting in above her head, and is threatened by the Urbanite himself, who warns her to stay out of the big boys’ league. Something snaps in her then, and she realises that costumes and masks could actually help her, too. People don’t like Catherine Abigail Daniels to be super smart, but they’ll cheer for someone in a makeshift costume, wearing a tinted visor with a logo sprayed on her chest. So she starts to create her own secret identity, her own larger-than-life persona, which is going to allow her to really be herself and stand tall, proud of her own abilities.

MTVG: Since part of the impetus for MSCSI is to highlight how females can or should be portrayed, and you’ve been very keen to get a lot of women to help develop this project, I have to ask: why you? No disrespect, certainly, but it’s a comic about women and largely by women, and I’m pretty sure you’re deficient one X chromosome compared to about all other aspects of the story. So why does it make sense for you, as a man, to be writing this? Doesn’t that invite criticism of pandering or condescension?

Brooker: It may invite that criticism, you’re right. I would ask people to read at least the first episode and then criticise, rather than criticise the underlying concept.

On a really fundamental level, I don’t think gender is tied to chromosomes — do we really examine someone’s chromosomes before treating them as a man or woman? — and I think a lot of my friends in the trans* community would agree with me. I don’t think it requires a biologically female body to write good stories about women.

But we can’t just wish away gender roles and power structures, and I am aware that this might look like a man leading a team of women, on some misguided and patronising crusade to give women ’what they want’. I’m aware of that. The reason I have chosen to front the project is because I do have a decent public profile and existing reputation, and a lot of cultural privilege. It is probably easier for me to get this project seen by more people than it is for Susan Shore and Sarah Zaidan, the primary artists. It would be unrealistic not to recognise that, and so I am consciously using the whole ’Dr. Batman’ brand to promote this story. It’s not ideal to have me appearing as the front-man, but I think it’s a means to a worthwhile end.

MTVG: I would just like the record to show that it was Will who first brought in the “Dr. Batman” reference!

How much of that is a double-edged sword, though? You’ve certainly got some name recognition, but as that brand is so tied to Batman specifically, it seems that there’s some danger of people dismissing it as fan fiction. “What if Batgirl were a Vertigo book” or what-have-you. While MSCSI might have some roots in fanfic, it’s aspires to a lot more than that from what I’ve seen. Is that another case where you’re asking people to read it before passing judgement?

Brooker: No, I’m not ashamed or afraid of the term fanfic — I think it depends how broadly we define that category. To my mind, there is nothing at all wrong with ’what if Batgirl were a Vertigo book’, apart from the fact that I feel we should respect copyright. Watchmen is ’what if the Charlton characters existed in a realistic 20th century America.’ Dark Knight Returns is ’what if Batman retired for 10 years, then came back to a darker city.’ Sandman is ’what if someone tried to imprison Death, but caught Dream instead’.

’What if’ is the basis of many great stories.

MSCSI is perhaps better compared to what Warren Ellis did in The Authority with his Midnighter and Apollo (Batman and Superman), or what Pat Mills did in Marshall Law (The Private Eye and the Public Spirit, parodies again of Batman and Superman), or what Ellis did with figures like Doc Savage (= Doc Brass) and Johnny Storm (= William Leather), or indeed with what Moore has done with ‘Jimmy’ Bond and Emma Night (= Emma Peel and M from James Bond) in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

I’m not saying ‘MSCSI should be compared to Watchmen’, or any of these highly-respected and groundbreaking comic books, in anything except a shared approach and relationship to genre conventions, existing characters and source materials. That is, they are all a kind of fan-fiction, engaging with a matrix of existing texts in order to comment on and explore them; but they are also all the same kind of valuable literary experiment.

MTVG: Your financial approach to this is a little unusual, from what I’ve seen so far. You’re putting it online for free like a webcomic, but then asking for donations with a rewards structure like Kickstarter. I understand you wanted to avoid the license fees associated with “conventional” crowd-funding models, but why follow that structure as opposed to one more similar to “traditional” webcomics? That is, having a shop for people to buy t-shirts and print copies and such?

Brooker: We are developing a shop, but I can’t imagine that would raise money as effectively and swiftly as crowd-funding. We need to pay the artists a basic wage for their time and skills, so we have to raise a certain, modest amount just to make it possible for Suze and Sarah to draw and colour issue 2. Anything above that amount (and a small cut to Lindsay Searles, who runs the website) will be going to appropriate women’s charities — we are currently working with http://www.awayout.co.uk/ but if we raise more money in future, I’d like to expand that and reach out to different foundations.

I don’t want or need any money from this project. It has actually lost me money, as I’ve paid for all the art, website design, costume and character sketches so far. What can I say. I’m not trying to be build a business empire. I want to get a story out there, start some discussion, change a few minds and maybe get more young women thinking that superhero comics can be for them, too. I don’t really identify with Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, any more than I do with Donald Trump. I connect more with Barbara Gordon as Oracle – an information broker, at the centre of networks, putting people in touch with each other and facilitating communication.

MTVG: And speaking of what the book aspires to, how would you define success for this? I mean, ideally, other comic creators would see this and think, “Oh, maybe I can portray female characters better” but I’m not sure if that’s really quantifiable. So realistically speaking, what would you like the end result of this to be?

Brooker: For me, success would involve us raising the funding to start work on the next issue very quickly, and producing the next issue within a couple of months — and then keeping up that rhythm until we’ve completed the first, five-episode story arc.

I then have two other 5-episode story arcs fully planned out, in a Cat Trilogy. I’d like to be able to complete those three volumes.

If we raise awareness along the way, and raise money for various good causes that relate to the project’s intentions, that’s also a big success.

On a simple level, I’d really like to know that, for instance, an eight year old girl started reading our comic and then went off to write and draw her own adventures of Cat (or Connie, Dahlia or Kyla… or perhaps Dahlia’s little daughter, Daisy).

MTVG: As I understand it, you’re essentially creating one issue at a time, as you receive the funding for it. Given the development time you put into the first issue, doesn’t that imply a particularly long delay between installments where you have greater potential for losing readers?

Brooker: We have over 700 subscribers to our Facebook page, built up over just a few days, and all we’re currently showcasing on there is a few pages of art. If all those people paid the minimum donation of $5, we would have funded issues 2 and 3 right now, and have $900 to give to charity.

Our model is that we start production on an issue once we’ve raised half the total. You’re right, there will be a delay, but I anticipate we will only be looking at a couple of months for production if we get a healthy level and rate of donations. The site itself has taken 4 months to design and build, and that kind of framework is now in place.

People have waited much longer than that for the next episode of Planetary, so I hope they can bear with us.

Related Posts:
Kleefeld On Webcomics #98: Interview With Batman Expert Will Brooker On His New Project
Kleefeld On Webcomics #96: ’Comic Book Think Tank’ Interview, Part One

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