Sunday, October 19, 2014

You know who would like Wonder Woman's new origin story? Wertham.

Diana has two mommies?!
I've been working my way through Tim Hanley's Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine (Chicago Review Press; 2014), and I'm currently on a chapter dealing with the way Wonder Woman was portrayed in the Silver Age, after her creator William Moulton Marston had passed away and Robert Kanigher took over writing her adventures.

In this section of the book, Hanley spends some time discussing Fredric Wertham's crusade against comics, the detrimental effects it had on the comic book industry (and, perhaps more importantly, the comic book medium) and how DC's post-congressional hearings superhero comics line conformed to the Comics Code Authority.

Wonder Woman, like Superman and Batman and Robin, were among the few superheroes specifically singled out by Wertham in his influential-at-the-time (and now much-ridiculed) Seduction of the Innocent, in which Wertham referred to Wonder Woman as the "lesbian counterpart" to Batman's barely-coded homosexual ideal. While Wertham's objection to the character as a sort of insidious recruiting poster for lesbianism—Wertham, like too many people of his day, thought homosexuality was in and of itself an unnatural and unhealthy thing—it turns out another thing he objected to was her origin story.

Her original origin story was told in 1941's All Star Comics #8, and repeated and refined elsewhere, as in the H.G. Peter-drawn panel from Wonder Woman #1 at the top of this post. It was this version, the only one the then still-young character had, that Wertham objected to. It went like this: Centuries ago, after their encounter with all-male hero Hercules during his famous twelve labors, Queen Hippolyte and her Amazons were led by the goddess Aphrodite to a hidden island, where they would be free of the violent, fallen world of men...and free to build their own advanced society and science. There, Athena taught Hippolyte the art of sculpting, and she made a little girl out of clay. Her patron goddess Aphrodite brought the little statue to life, and she was named after another Greek goddess Diana. The magically born girl would of course grow up to be the princess of the Amazons and, ultimately, Wonder Woman.

Writes Hanley:
Furthermore, Wertham decried the fact that "Wonder Woman is not the natural daughter of a natural mother, nor was she born like Athena from the head of Zeus." In 1954, the Golden Age Wonder Woman origin story still stood, and she was made of clay and brought to life by the gods. Her lack of a "natural" mother or father placed her further outside the maternal, familial norms than her fellow female heroes and made her the archetype of Wertham's narrow-minded deduction.
Wertham would therefor probably prefer the current origin story. While it has been revised before, including by Kanigher himself (although, somewhat amusingly, Hanley points out that Kanighter has no memory of altering Marston's original origin story, despite doing so rather drastically), the current version concocted by Brian Azzarello as part of 2011's "New 52" reboot gives Wonder Woman a much more "natural" origin.

In Azzarello's version, which is apparently going to be the one used in Wonder Woman's feature film debut, Wonder Woman was conceived of a sexual union between her mother Hipplyte and her father Zeus, king of the Olympian gods.
You just don't see the point of conception in too many superhero origin stories, do you?
The whole molded-from-clay thing was, in this new version, a pretty story her mother sold her to keep the truth about her demi-god status and familial relationship with the petty, bickering, often-at-war-with-one-another Olympians from her.

I suppose it would be petty and reactionary to blanketly state, "If Wertham would have liked it, then it's probably a bad idea" as some sort of rule for comic book-making, even when it came to Wonder Woman, the character he seemed to have the most trouble with for the least substantiated reasoning. But I'd be quite okay with comic book-makers having a poster on their office walls saying something like, "If Wertham would have liked it, let's give it a little more thought, just to be safe, shall we?"

Granted, much of Azzarello's soon-to-conclude run on the book has hinged on Wonder Woman being an Olympian, but his change in origin never sat well with me (the other bits of Wonder Woman's back-story he changed, like those concerning the Amazons kidnapping, mating with and then murdering sailors and then selling their male offspring for weapons sat worse still). That is, for the most part, because of how radical a change it was from Marston's conception of the character, which, unlike so many other superheroes, seems to get more and more diluted and generic the more writers work on her over the decades, rather than more and more complex and compelling. (For example, it's hard to find a Batman story that isn't at least as interesting as his first, Golden Age adventures, whereas it's damn near impossible to find a Wonder Woman comic as compelling as those Marston and Peter first crafted).


Jer said...

My objection to her new origin is that Azzarello basically turned her into She-Hercules. Which is boring - the Pygmalion origin of Wonder Woman is more interesting. And if you want to make it more of a "Olympian family feud" - Hippolyta of myth was already a demigod (she was the daughter of Ares), so why not play up that aspect? The daughter of the God of War decides to reject her father's ways and follow Aphrodite's path instead? There's a recipe for conflict right there. (And if you want to update her origin and make her the daughter of a god, why not make her the daughter of Hippolyta and Aphrodite instead of Zeus? Making her the daughter of Aphrodite and the granddaughter of Ares sets up a conflict that could actually be kind of interesting. Instead we get another iteration of Hercules.)

I can't blame Azzarello too much though - he's just continuing to chart the path that Perez and Wein started with the 80s Wonder Woman reboot where they decided that the Amazons were all the reborn souls of rape and assault victims. And where Athena became the goddess of choice instead of Aphrodite. (I will blame him for pushing down the path of the Amazons becoming rapist slavers though - that's just so wrong that I don't know what is going on with it.)

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

I mostly have enjoyed Azzarello's run, but I still thought it was a misstep. If they really wanted to make her a demigod they could have kept the clay idea, but maybe have some subplot where Hippolyta couldn't bring it to life herself and needed the help of Zeus' magic.

What's weird is that I usually really like Wonder Woman stories that delve into her roots in Greek mythology, but hate Superman stories that are all about Krypton and his being Kryptonian.