Academic Secret Identities: Being She-Hulk or Batgirl
Elizabeth Coody is back with her second guest post for Comics Academe! Pitching and drafting this before the Goyer commentary made waves, Elizabeth’s looking at She-Hulk from the perspective that makes most sense to her. Find Elizabeth’s previous Comics Academe entry Christianity, Comics, and the Classroom here, and enjoy the applied fandom below!
Academic Secret Identities: Being She-Hulk or Batgirl
There are many things it is difficult to hide about our identities in the academy.
But, some things are easier to keep under wraps, like a love of comics. Unless your entire professional wardrobe is made of capes and awesome Wonder Woman sweaters (kudos to you if you can keep your job that way!) your colleagues may not know about your comics devotion. (Our WWAC local librarian recently wrote about outing her comics-love at work.)
In the academy, people have thought deeply about what your personal interests have to do with your professional life. Especially in my religious studies part of the academy, there is a lot of talk about whether it’s possible or preferable to keep your personal identity out of your scholarship or the classroom. We often frame the very hot discussion as whether we should be critics or caretakers of religion. Here, I’ll talk about just two casual models for professional and personal identity: She-Hulk and Batgirl. There are as many possibilities for models as there are academics. (I’ve been thinking about what an excellent leader Storm/Ororo Munroe is or how well Black Widow/Natasha Romanov takes charge, but these are tales for another day.)
There is no formula for being the right kind of academic, as there is no formula for being the perfect woman or man. Here’s a look at a few pros and cons for each model, whether you’re a gamma-powered lawyer or a gadget-loving super-sleuth, give these a little consideration.
She-Hulk has been thrown some nasty words in the press by Man of Steel writer David Goyer, who seems completely out of touch with the basics of her story. There have been some thoughtful reactions and some more to-the-point memes. Jennifer Walters enters the Marvel ‘verse as a high-powered criminal attorney in Los Angeles. Her cousin Bruce Banner, on the run from those seeking the Hulk, comes to visit for a place to crash and some counsel in The Savage She-Hulk #1 (1979). Dr. Banner happens to be there when mobsters shoot her (in retaliation for her being such an excellent lawyer), and the only way to save her turns out to be an emergency blood transfusion—from Bruce Banner! (It was the late 70s…people didn’t know about a lot of things that could have gone wrong.)
Luckily though, the only thing Jennifer caught was a case of the gammas. She learns that she has the power to become big and green (6’7” and 650 lbs), just like cousin Bruce. Only, Jennifer learns to control her change and keeps her mind even in “savage” form. The Jade Giantess continues to fight for justice, in and out of the court room, through several writers and artists, keeping up different careers and enjoying her superpowers to the full. I love her love-it-or-hate-it fourth-wall-demolishing run on John Byrne’s Sensational She-Hulk. She does cheesecake poses (as accused!), but always with a huge wink at the audience. She usually stays in her big green form because Shulkie knows who she is and isn’t afraid of people knowing it.
So, in my She-Hulk model, you’re Jennifer Walters even when you’re “big and green.” You tell people right away about your personal interest in comics and you keep these things out in the open, flaunting your big, green style.
The modern Batgirl, Barbara Gordon has been around since 1967 when she fought off an attack on Bruce Wayne in Detective Comics #359. In part, she chose to start fighting crime in the vigilante Bat tradition because her father, Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon, forbade her from joining the force. Her identity had to remain secret from the beginning by design. Over the years she’s had several revamps and revisions, including a run of the biracial Batgirl Cassandra Cain. She was (briefly) a prominent superhero of Asian descent. One Barbara Gordon incarnation that’s close to my library-working heart is her run as a librarian-by-day, Batgirl by night. Those information-gathering skills have served her well over the years. It’s no secret that she’s one of the smartest members of the Bat family. After she is paralyzed by the Joker in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), Barbara finds new uses for these talents as the information broker, Oracle. As one of a select group of wheel-chair-using superheroes, she has a unique place in the DC ‘verse. Still, she always closely guards the secret of her civilian identity.
Batgirl has found her voice lately with writer Gail Simone, who you should most certainly follow on twitter. She’s the thoughtful writer who coined the term “Women in Refrigerators,” a useful shorthand for the way women are often used to serve men’s stories. Her Batgirl has physically recovered from her paralysis, but continues to deal with the psychological ramifications of her recovery. She’s as guarded about her identity as ever.
In the Batgirl (and Oracle) model, you keep scholarly noses out of your personal life at all costs, because sometimes those costs are very high. That takes us to the first academic conundrum you might face when revealing your fanaticism:
Maybe The World is Not Ready:
It depends on your job, of course, but many academic people have to put up with a lot to be taken seriously in this dismal market. If you’re just starting out, it can take ages to build the sort of credibility that your job requires. Once you get to a certain level of education, you blend into a whole crowd of smart people; it takes real work to pull away from the pack and almost nothing to fall back. Talking about comics in a more traditional part of the humanities means taking a risk. What if people stop taking you seriously? What if you become the token comic book girl as a novelty that no one will hire? (I’m totally giving myself hives thinking about this.)
Writing under a pen name, keeping your comic-love private, and making your work all about your other interests means you don’t risk any of this. Barbara Gordon doesn’t have to justify the ears on Batgirl’s cowl because no one knows it’s her. She gets to just be Batgirl.
But, the World Might Be Ready:
What if instead of turning into you into a weirdo, sharing your love of comics actually helps to separate you from the herd? What if you take the risk and fall in love with your work all over again? Reading comics has taken what I do—reading and analyzing sacred religious texts with theory—and given it a whole new spin. Comics allow me to read in new and exciting ways with attention to visuals and the interplay of reader and text.
I mean, I get to talk about comics at the office. It’s not quite like being the Jade Giantess at the office but some days it’s pretty cool, especially when you get involved with groups of other people who do the same. I love my conversations with other religion and comics people; we have a group called Sacred and Sequential that’s just getting off the ground. Some of the professional relationships I’m building with people who love pop culture are becoming my favorite academic relationships. No surprise, people who love what you love are fun to hang out with.
What if you want to Enjoy Your Privacy?:
Of course, sometimes other people can be a bad thing. Having a special interest sometimes means you feel obligated to be the representative of all things comics in whatever situation. You might get gigs from this, but you might also feel like you spend all your time explaining the basics or justifying yourself. Let’s face it, that can be a drag. Instead, you could enjoy things in the privacy of your own lair and never have to explain yourself to anyone.
But, what if you just Want to Tell the World?:
Sure, you might end up with a cool secret keeper pal, but most of the time keeping secrets sucks. When people find out about the secret, they may feel a little betrayed or feel like they don’t really know you at all. Especially when it comes to being a comics fan; some may question why you ever kept it from them.
I hope this helps you think and talk about this, whichever side of it you or academics you know are on. The academy is a funny place and we’re constantly making it anew, even as we hold on to the way it has been for centuries. Whatever you hide or reveal, be great.