I don’t want to say that My So-Called Secret Identity is reinventing the concept of strong female characters in comics. After all, surely similar characters have appeared in comics before this (Agatha from Girl Genius comes to mind). But, what it does do is to remind us of what a strong female character can be, and how she doesn’t have to be the same one we always see. There are all different ways of being strong.
Catherine Abigail Daniels lives in a world of superheroes. Her town, Gloria City, is protected by several of them, most notably Urbanite and Misper (who seem to be a very thinly veiled Batman and Robin). But, Catherine herself doesn’t go around wearing skimpy outfits and beating up bad guys. She’s not super strong or invulnerable, nor is she flashy, glamorous, and larger-than-life, like superheroes tend to be. Far from it. She’s an ordinary grad student, who just wants to live an ordinary life and forget all about her somewhat inconvenient superpower. What’s her power? In her own words, she’s “really, really goddamn smart.” Like, Adrian Veidt in Watchmen smart.
The problem is that no one wants to accept a young, reasonably attractive girl as their intellectual superior. In high school, she was accused of cheating, because her papers were too good. Now, as a doctoral candidate, she gets written off and treated like a secretary, rather than someone with an opinion that might be worth listening to. And so, her power often ends up being more of a burden than an asset.
It also doesn’t help that Catherine tends to be socially awkward. Not “adorably clumsy romantic comedy lead” awkward. And, not “Superman pretending to be hopelessly dorky Clark Kent, so no one guesses his secret” awkward. Genuinely awkward, and genuinely frustrated by her awkwardness.
And so, downgraded by others and frustrated by herself, Catherine’s defense mechanism is to try to blend in, rather than to stand out—a thing that happens all too often to women in similar positions in our own society. But, this is not to say that Catherine’s character is weak. Not at all. She’s strong and independent, and when push comes to shove, she takes on the role she wants for herself, not the role to which society has relegated her. She’s not afraid to make the first move with a guy she likes, nor is she afraid to gather evidence and information to investigate a case that most would probably say she has no business worrying about. In her own words, “I don’t really get scared. I just get curious.”
The feminist undertones in this comic are done subtly, but they’re definitely there. Catherine’s abilities are astounding, but society has told her over and over that she can’t use them, can’t be the exceptional one. She never explicitly says, “No one takes my intellect seriously, because I’m a woman,” but the implication is that that, along with her youth, is a definite factor. And, it can be an unfortunate hallmark of our own society as well. In a world where female CEOs and politicians are often judged in the media based on their looks instead of their policies and regular women with important things to say have to fight every step of the way just to make themselves heard, it’s easy to understand Catherine’s plight.
The first issue of My So-Called Secret Identity is mainly about establishing Catherine’s character. The second delves a little bit more into the world in which she lives, as well as her arc in accepting—even embracing—her power and the responsibilities that come with it. In addition to being good social commentary and a great example of what female characters in comics can be, My So-Called Secret Identity is also just a really fun read, for men and women alike. The characters are compelling, and the story (written by Will Brooker) is interesting and exciting. It provides some terrific twists on the typical superhero lore we’ve come to know and expect. The artwork by Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan is great, too, and is particularly commendable for not falling into the trap that so many comics do of giving their female characters bodies and costumes that defy the laws of physics. Both issues each also feature an intricate “mind map” by Zaidan, which provides us with a glimpse into Catherine’s thought process and how various details and events fit together as part of the whole.
The tagline of My So-Called Secret Identity is “Smart is a superpower.” And, it serves as not just a description of the comic itself, but as an important message to anyone who might be reading it. Being intelligent is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not something you should hide, downplay, or try to deny. And, whether you’re a man or a woman, you shouldn’t ever let anyone make you feel less-than, just because you’re smarter than they think you should be. Being smart is an amazing gift, and you can use it to be something incredible. Even if you’re not the flashy, glamorous hero type, smart is a goddamn superpower.
The first two issues of My So-Called Secret Identity can be read for free online here. Issue #3 is set to premiere in October.