Is DC Comics’ Batgirl hiding a secret academic identity?

Scholar Will Brooker says comic-book giant’s new-look superheroine seems to share traits with his own series

May 7, 2015

Source: Will Brooker, Sarah Zaidan, Susan Shore

Cat in the spat: the heroine of My So-Called Secret Identity is a PhD student

An academic has challenged DC Comics to say whether its rebooted Batgirl series was influenced in any way by his own series of comics.

Will Brooker, professor of performance and screen studies at Kingston University, researches superheroes in popular culture and has published a number of books on the subject, including Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman (2012).

His “academic training and study of popular culture”, he said, “have enabled me to recognise patterns…In my books, I was speculating based on previous patterns and said ‘This is what I imagine will happen next’”, for example to the Batman franchise.

Many of his predictions, he said, have been fulfilled.

He also sees parallels with his own comic book series, My So-Called Secret Identity. This “research-by-practice project”, Professor Brooker explained, “arose out of my long-term research, which started with my PhD in 1996”.

Conceived in 2011 and launched online in 2013, the series was intended as a more female-friendly style of superhero comic, with PhD student Cat as its heroine.

The series was initially funded by fan donations, and it provides paid work for two cartoonists, Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan. Professor Brooker said that some of the proceeds from its sale are given to charity.

Although the goal was to “make people think a little and suggest another way of doing things”, he said, the series has subsequently proved very popular. A print edition of the five-issue first volume was published in February.

Like many other people, Professor Brooker has noticed and welcomed some “outstanding examples” of more female-friendly comics from the mainstream industry, although he said he wondered “how long the trend will last, how deep it goes. Are these just publicity-seeking changes, like making Thor a woman or changing the outfits of a few prominent superheroines, because they get mainstream news coverage?

“It’s good that these are out there, but I don’t think they are necessarily representative – most superhero comics are still exactly as they were, men writing for a teenage boy mentality,” Professor Brooker said.

On the matter of DC Comics’ fresh take on the Batgirl character, who was recreated as a Brooklyn hipster in October 2014, Professor Brooker has more specific questions.

He said he had been asked at recent public talks “whether I feel DC Comics’ new direction has been influenced by concepts and specific images from My So-Called Secret Identity”. As a result, he decided to “put together some materials and a response”.

Professor Brooker said that in his view there were “significant similarities…parallels between images, concepts, costumes and characters”, and that he “would find it quite far-fetched if no one involved in Batgirl had seen my comics”. Yet he acknowledged that the parallels could be the result of “absolute coincidence”.

Nevertheless, Professor Brooker has asked DC Comics if My So-Called Secret Identity had influenced the new Batgirl. If it had, it would be “an interesting case of research impact, putting that kind of academic study into practice”.

He said that if his comics “had some kind of significant effect in changing the mainstream comics industry, it would be good for the university and for me as an academic if that was in some way recognised and acknowledged. It’s a case of research-by-practice possibly having a genuine cultural effect.”

If only for impact case studies in future research assessments, Professor Brooker is keen to hear what DC Comics has to say.

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