Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nerd History: The Trials and Tribulations of Wonder Woman

The New 52 Wonder Woman trade finally dropped last month - it was highly anticipated for me for a number of reasons, the chief one being that Wonder Woman is probably my favorite DC Comics superhero. That's admittedly strange, because, frankly, being a male fan of Wonder Woman in 2012 feels...dirty. I know a lot of that is simply perception of the comics industry (that has more than its share of questionable treatment of female characters and fans) and an ever-changing social atmosphere, especially on the internet. With that said, a friend insisted I jump in on Greg Rucka's run on Wonder Woman from a few years back, and I ultimately fell in love with the comic, flaws and all.

There's a lot of reasons to enjoy Wonder Woman. There are also a lot of reasons not to love her, and, even as a fan, her story arcs and her characterization in general create very polarizing feelings for me. It's ultimately a combination of history and the disparity between writers who do her justice and writers who don't really get it, and you end up going along for the ride. And there's a lot there to consider.

A lot of people don't know the origins of Wonder Woman as a comic creation. She was created by William Moulton Marston in the 1940s. Marston was previously known for creating the polygraph (which was an obvious inspiration for Wonder Woman's "Lasso of Truth"), and he actually created Wonder Woman as a character to represent, in his mind, the more honest gender, and a more modern woman for the times. How this is achieved through a skimpy one piece, I'll never know, but hey. Marston was actually very much the feminist back in the 1930s, and held views that would quite possibly be considered extreme even today - among other things, Marston believed that women were outright superior to men, and wished for a matriarchy to rule the world.

So right away, Marston shows his hand in one significant regard - Wonder Woman is, more or less, his feminist ideal. She comes from an island full of women, ruled by women, and Wonder Woman leaves this island to become one of the strongest people in the "man's world" (even if she arguably only does it for her comics love interest, Steve Trevor). The other hand that Marston shows, however, is his love for bondage. In this pre-Fifty Shades of Grey-era, this is more than a little scandalous, yet fairly standard for the Wonder Woman comics of Marston's time. It's rare to find an early Wonder Woman issue that doesn't result in Wonder Woman either tying someone up or being tied up, and this is apparently a popular pastime among the Amazons according to Wonder Woman herself. Marston, perhaps thankfully, didn't introduce his love of polyamory or much else, but looking back, it's rather interesting to see how Marston's vision of Wonder Woman really did involve writing what he ultimately felt he knew.

I've tried reading some of the Marston-era Wonder Woman books. To be honest? They're kind of unreadable at this point. A lot of it is due to my general distaste of Golden Age-era writing, but even so, the Wonder Woman stories are incredibly formulaic and ultimately pandering in a way where few things that are written specifically to advance an agenda work. And Wonder Woman in particular is all sorts of messed up in that regard - she's stronger than most of the men in her universe, but has the ability to type really fast as one of her powers? As she got moved into the greater DC universe, Wonder Woman was even the Justice League's secretary for a time, which says plenty for the time and for figuring out what the heck to do with Wonder Woman.

The character was reinvented to lean more on classical mythology - Wonder Woman becomes a child born out of clay, and her powers became both more focused and more unlimited. You could argue that she may have been stronger than Superman up to that point, given her ability to understand all languages and being able to move the entire island of Themyscira using her strength and her lasso. I'm not ultimately too familiar Infinite Crisis-era...anything, so I'll kind of leave it at that, but what's telling about this basic understanding of Wonder Woman is how consistent the problem with writing Wonder Woman truly is - as Wonder Woman moved from being the perfect female embodiment of William Moulton Marston, she became a sort of everything for everyone, which is arguably just as boring.

The lead in to the post-Infinite Crisis Wonder Woman is where things get interesting for me, at least. Our basic backstory is the same - island of Amazons, made of clay, has significant powers. Wonder Woman has, understandibly, been nerfed a bit powers-wise, but she still has significant ability. The lasso remains, her classic armbands are still there, and her costume becomes the iconic piece most think of when they think of Wonder Woman. The George Perez arcs set up the character quite well in this sense, and we really get to know Wonder Woman in a more modern way. Greg Rucka picks it up at the height of Wonder Woman's in-comic popularity, and they're some of the best superhero comics I've read period. Wonder Woman is likable, she's interesting, and, most importantly, she has a purpose. Plus, she finally gets to differentiate herself - unlike Batman, she will kill. Unlike Superman, she shows significant vulnerability. Plus, with the mythology angle, there's an added bonus of her interacting both with her past (as the conceit is that she's ambassador to Themyscira) and balancing with her present.

Rucka, who's got a reputation for writing solid female characters, does a truly great job with the character. It's interesting to see Rucka work with a Wonder Woman who's truly strong and independent while working with artists who draw women in comics a certain way, and Wonder Woman unfortunately goes through some kind of skeevy moments over the time, but, like we've said, the industry has a bit of a ways to go. Regardless, Rucka stayed through the Infinite Crisis arc, and that's where things started to fall apart a bit.

You'll see on the right a woman completely in white. That's "Agent Diana Prince," and this begins the "Who Is Wonder Woman" arc following the year layoff for the Wonder Woman title. It's a really unfortunate arc where they try to fit Wonder Woman into the newest reboot, and we quickly come to the chief problem with Wonder Woman, and one that hasn't been solved in six years, and, with the exception of arcs by Rucka and Gail Simone, perhaps ever - writers simply do not know what to do with her. Jodi Picoult, who normally does literary-type fiction for adults, took a six issue arc effectively nowhere. A panicky Amazons Attack storyline regarding the Themyscirian Amazons...attacking the United States is probably best left unmentioned. Simone picked up around this time, and while it was a fairly well-written set of arcs, the 30 or so issues ultimately didn't go anywhere. The Blackest Night event hit, and DC decided to renumber Wonder Woman yet again in anticipation for her 600th issue. They brought on J. Michael Strazynski and, well...

Unless you were under a rock, you probably remember the (inter?)national news that Wonder Woman was getting a costume change. The change was presented as you see to the left, and I'll be honest - I actually kind of liked it. It's very modern, for sure, but it's also modest and obvious. It reminds me a bit of the Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor blog, in that Wonder Woman, even with all her power, was still essentially wearing a one-piece bathing suit to represent her nation as a woman of power. You don't need to necessarily be a rabid feminist to have some trouble balancing that out in your head. I understand tradition and such, but it wasn't really necessary. Either way, it built up buzz for a comic that had not been very buzzworthy for some time - Wonder Woman was "rebooted" a bit, the woman who is now Wonder Woman has no initial knowledge of her origins, and the world she lives in seems a lot different than the one we're used to. The 12 issue series quickly becomes a quest through mythology, as she travels all over the place, including Hades, in an attempt to essentially recover her identity. It's rather ham-fisted in a lot of ways - she almost earns back portions of what we know (her lasso, her tiara, etc) in a video game-style format, and the new Wonder Woman is more of a loose cannon in a lot of ways. I enjoyed seeing the fire and the anger (as opposed to the more measured, intense Wonder Woman of years past), even if the story was really, truly all over the place. I'm not a huge fan of Strazynski as a rule, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that his Wonder Woman arc left me wanting more, but the New 52 came along directly afterwards, so Wonder Woman essentially gets her second reboot in two years.

The writer, Brian Azzarello, positioned the new Wonder Woman title as a horror comic. The new Animal Man is a horror comic (and I've read Grant Morrison's first arc, and one could argue that the result is also some form of cosmic horror as well). Neonomicon is a horror comic. The New 52 Wonder Woman? Not really a horror comic as much as a darker, bloodier reboot of the classic Wonder Woman, with some added mystery and intrigue. You get the feeling, at least through the first arc, that Wonder Woman is not exactly welcome outside of Themyscira, and, for reasons yet unknown, her presence at home is mixed as well. Without giving too much away, there's a lot that is different in an attempt to give Wonder Woman some purpose and drive, but a lot that is the same, most significantly a heavy reliance on mythology in the modern world. I feel both positive and negative about it - positive because this is arguably the best effort we've seen in some time for Wonder Woman, but negative because it may be leading toward the classic "I have no idea where to go with this" mentality that we've seen so often with the character. It's ultimately too soon to say on this one, but given what we've seen over the years, it's a valid fear.

I think the most interesting part of the whole Wonder Woman saga at this point is that we're arguably in a social climate that is more ready than ever to accept and embrace a hero like Wonder Woman, and yet it seems difficult to get it to work. Joss Whedon famously couldn't get the movie off the ground, and if anyone could pull it off, it'd be Joss. Is it because the Moulton bondage vehicle has too much baggage attached to it? Is it because the comics industry and the writers therein are unable to do a modern take? Or is it more that few people care, and Wonder Woman has been delegated to a second tier curiosity as opposed to a top-line tentpole character as she has been positioned by DC for so long? To me, Wonder Woman's appeal is that she's sincere without being earnest, above it all without being aloof. When the stories deal with her struggling with humanity, it works because she has a genuine desire to make it work. When it comes to her battling the Amazons, or even her back-and-forths with Superman and Batman, it's less appealing. Why? Mainly because those are problems that she shouldn't need to face, that someone who is trying to balance normalcy with superherodom doesn't need. Batman's morality isn't something Wonder Woman should be able to relate to, or have to deal with. Superman is, in many ways, her equal, and there's a reason Superman is not the most interesting comic book character these days - the more Wonder Woman is like Superman, the less likable Wonder Woman truly is.

I couldn't tell you how to "fix" Wonder Woman, really, but I know I'm not ready to give up on her just yet. I'd like to think her best days are yet to come, and maybe the New 52 stuff will be it. Perhaps the pendulum swinging wildly between myth and reality needs to center itself somewhere in the middle, and Azzarello is at least trying to build a bridge in that direction. We'll see how that goes, but I'm looking forward to the ride along the way.

STEALTH EDIT: So one of the fun aspects of Moulton and Wonder Woman is one I completely forgot - Moulton was also the inventor of the modern lie detector, which was almost certainly an inspiration for Wonder Woman's (in?)famous "Lasso of Truth." Gizmodo did an excellent piece on this if you want to learn more.


  1. very interesting! I had no exposure to WW aside from the Justice League cartoon and a few comics here and there until the New 52, and so far I'm really into her story THERE. It's interesting to know the history a bit better.

    Tell me, were you mad when it turned out Diana's not made of clay and it was all a clever ruse? I thought it was brilliant! Like finding out your mom lied to you about santa or the stork :D

  2. I definitely recommend diving in on Perez's reboot. It feels a little old to start, but once you start getting to Rucka's run, it gets pretty great.