The MSCSI Matrix: Impact and Influence

It began with Batman. It was summer, 2012, just after the release of the last Christopher Nolan movie, and I’d just published a book, Hunting the Dark Knight. After immersing myself in Batman research for so long, I was exhausted of him, or the modern version of him: tired of his rigidity, his repression, his bad-ass brand of masculinity. My focus shifted to Batgirl, who had always seemed to me a promising character whose potential was never fully realised in any official stories. The more I explored her background, the more I felt she’d been wasted, treated as a token character, a sidekick, or at worst, as a victim whose sexual assault was just a plot device in the ongoing conflict between Batman and Joker. But Batgirl – Barbara Gordon – was introduced with her first appearance as a PhD student.

That thought stayed with me. One day, that Autumn semester, I ran an induction session for new PhD students at Kingston University. As is often the case in Humanities, they were all women – young women, diverse, enthusiastic and extremely intelligent. During lunch break, I walked to the nearest comic shop. The covers were glossy. The costumes on the covers were glossy. The women on the covers contorted in poses lifted from soft pornography. I walked out, feeling comics weren’t for me right now, and thinking, if they weren’t for me – a guy in his forties, the author of books on Batman – how would a young woman feel, walking into that shop?

Batgirl was a PhD student. She should be like the women in the room at university, not like the figures on the covers of those comics. I started to develop a pitch for an imaginary project, a comic that could have existed in an alternative universe. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, my favourite comics were the Vertigo line, published by DC, written by people like Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Peter Milligan and Neil Gaiman: Sandman, Black Orchid, Shade The Changing Man, Doom Patrol. They weren’t blockbuster stories about Superman and Batman. They were more like indie rock songs, with quirky superpowered misfits who were just making their way through life. The covers, often by Dave McKean, were collages of paintings and found objects. My pitch for an imaginary comic was based around a simple premise: what if Batgirl had been a Vertigo title, from the early 1990s? What if she was an incredibly clever doctoral student, hanging out with other superheroes (Black Orchid, Shade, Kid Eternity) in a shared house, in a hip neighbourhood, and making her own costume from things you could find in local stores?

I commissioned artwork, based on my concepts. I was going to maybe write a few pages of script, mock up some covers, post a portfolio online: an example of what could have been, to prompt people to think, and start discussion. But the artwork was so good, and the ideas just kept on building, until I realised this could be more than just a concept. It could be a comic.

At that point, I made a considered decision, and rewrote all the characters, settings and details. It was no longer a Batgirl story, though of course, inevitably, it was an analogue, like all the Batman analogues already out there (and the Batman analogue in this story became Urbanite, an armoured dudebro oblivious to how ridiculous he looked and sounded). Gotham became Gloria City, and with that series of superficial changes, the whole world began to grow on its own, into its own unique setting with a unique cast. By the time I’d written five episodes, Daisy, Kit, Kay and Enrique were no longer Black Orchid, Shade, Kid Eternity and Dick Grayson. They were my characters; or our characters, because I was now working so closely with the artists, including Jen Vaiano, Clay Rodery, Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan – my own former PhD student from Kingston – that I couldn’t distinguish who had created which detail.

My So-Called Secret Identity issue 1 launched on a dedicated website, beautifully designed by Lindsay Searles to look nothing like a superhero comic, and more like a magazine, complete with a ‘Lookbook’ of sketches and costumes. The reaction shocked us all. The reviews welcomed the first issue as if it was something everyone had been waiting for, without even knowing it. We requested financial pledges towards producing the next issue – the artists needed to be paid for their work – and we were fully-funded overnight. We sent a percentage of the money directly to A Way Out charity, setting a precedent we’ve followed ever since.

We had an immediate fanbase, with thousands of followers on Facebook. We had a community of supporters. We produced a second issue, a third and a fourth. For the fifth, we aimed at an ambition we’d had in mind, as a distant dream, from the start: getting the comic in print as a complete graphic novel, so the artists could hold it in their hands. We turned to Kickstarter, launching the campaign at the British Library Comics Unmasked event, on stage with Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison. Morrison, one of my heroes for decades, told me he’d read and enjoyed my Batman book: he felt I’d understood what he was trying to do.

In Summer 2014, while we were finishing the first volume, DC launched a reboot of Batgirl. She was a student, she lived in a hip neighbourhood, with quirky friends, and she made her own costume out of items she found in local stores. She even sprayed her logo with yellow paint through a stencil – like Cat did. Some of the artists on MSCSI were indignant that their ideas had been lifted. Was it possible that someone at DC had seen MSCSI and asked the new Batgirl team to do something along these lines? I couldn’t rule it out, but I also felt I couldn’t complain: if you produce an analogue of DC’s Batgirl, there’s a kind of justice in DC producing an MSCSI analogue in return. Or the process could have been less direct: MSCSI could have been one of the factors shaping the official reboot, just as many ideas had shaped MSCSI. My academic work discusses cultural icons as part of a matrix, a network of ideas and influences. We were part of the Batgirl matrix, and maybe Batgirl was now part of the MSCSI matrix, just as Morrison, one of my long-term inspirations, had now absorbed some of my ideas.

In Spring 2015, after three launches of MSCSI in print form – at Kingston University, at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Montreal, and at a fund-raising salon to support The Feminist Library in London – we geared up for a second Kickstarter, to support a second volume. I’d had ideas for a follow-up, for some time, and if anything, the launch of DC’s new Batgirl confirmed that MSCSI needed to go further. Volume 2 moved beyond a meta-commentary on the Batman mythos – Urbanite barely featured, and Enrique, his teen assistant, was absent for the entire story – to a broader critique of superhero conventions. It gently parodied the buddy-buddy partnerships of Green Arrow and Green Lantern from 1970s stories, and the gruffly affectionate dynamic between Rorschach and Nite Owl in Watchmen. It engaged in a new way with the classic comic-book concept of parallel worlds, and revisited the DC concept of a ‘Crisis’ – a cosmic emergency that brings all the heroes together – by making them all women, and placing them in a setting a lot like an academic conference. Above all, it exposed the contradictions of comic book ‘continuity’ – the timelines that don’t add up, and the details that don’t make sense – bringing them down around Cat like a house of cards.

And then, in Spring 2017, MSCSI was finished, some four years after its first launch. The print copies were sent out internationally to Kickstarter backers, the two volumes were made available online, and the remaining books are sold through Rape Crisis, for their profit.

Comics have changed since MSCSI issue 1 first appeared, and the superhero genre has evolved. It remains hard to identify exactly what influence our comic had, on the industry and on the broader culture.

In scholarship these days, we are asked to assess the ‘impact’ of our work. What impact did MSCSI have? In a direct sense, it raised finances and support for charities like Rape Crisis, and other organisations: for instance, £500 from our first Kickstarter bought a collection of graphic novels by women for the Glasgow Women’s Library. It offered opportunities for artists early in their careers to be published alongside iconic names from the industry, famous for Wonder Woman and Watchmen. Some of the artists who joined us for the first volume, like Rachael Smith, are now far more established, four years on.

It also invited new writers to tell stories about characters with similar experiences to their own: J. A. Micheline writing Connie Carmichael, and trans author Dee Emm Elms exploring Kit Farben’s history and identity. In 2015, Angel Kumar wrote to me through our Facebook fan-group, to ask if I’d considered including a British Asian character in Volume 2. I had been considering it – as an analogue to John Constantine, Hellblazer – and I asked if she would like to write the story. She took the opportunity, with enthusiasm. Now, Angel is always credited, in print and online, as creator of Radhika Shere, just as Bob Kane and Bill Finger are with Batman. Mainstream comic companies are currently working harder to increase diversity at all levels of production – Ta-Nahesi Coates on Black Panther, for instance, and queer Latina author Gabby Rivera writing queer Latina character America Chavez. Can we count that as part of MSCSI’s broader impact? Maybe we were just part of a shared moment, a shift towards greater inclusion: but surely we did help to change comics culture, in a small way, as the MSCSI matrix intersected with the mainstream.

And as ever, it all circles back to Batman. In 2015, the Batman comic by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo introduced an armoured Dark Knight who looked a lot like Urbanite. Probably coincidence, but how do we distinguish coincidence from influence, however indirect? The absurdly macho and deluded Caped Crusader of 2017’s Lego Batman Movie also echoes Urbanite, and seems to engage with the ‘Batman matrix’ I talked about in my 2012 book. There’s no way of knowing whether the movie producers read my research as part of the preparation for their own affectionately satirical meta-commentary on the character; but it’s surely not impossible.

Above all, though, we made an impact in ways that are hard to measure, and that would frustrate university research frameworks. One of the writers thanked me because her dad, seriously ill, had been able to see her work in print. A reader posted a photo of himself and his daughter holding MSCSI: they were reading it together, and he valued the ‘good messages’ it offered her. People have sent pictures of MSCSI in their homes, in their hands; films and photos of MSCSI with baby girls, with toddlers, with teenagers and young people, with scholars, with seniors. It reached so many people, around the world – I know, because I posted every copy myself – and it meant something to them. And now it’s all online, in full, it can reach more people, and mean more.

MSCSI was never about making money, once the artists were paid and the charity donations were complete. It was about making meaning. It was about prompting discussion and circulating ideas. And we did it. We changed things. It’s hard to tell exactly how and to what extent, but I feel sure we played some part in a broader process: a process that made superheroes a little better, and showed the industry and its readers how things can be done differently.

Cat’s story is over for now: but on another level, it’s never over. Once a story is out in the world, it belongs to its readers. So if you like it, please share it. Tweet it. Review it. Recommend it. It’s all online, available for free, the way it was always intended to be. That was the plan. And we achieved what we planned.

Now, it’s in your hands.

Will Brooker
March 2017