Friday, April 15, 2016

Wonder Woman: Earth One Volume One

Giant kangaroo mounts referred to as "kangas." The Purple Healing Ray. The robot plane. The Holliday Girls, and their zaftig leader with the "Woo woo!" catch-phrase. The exclamation "Suffering Sappho!" Bondage as symbol of love. Female superiority over men, and the submission of the latter to the former as the ideal societal construct.

These are among the components–some minor details, others pervasive elements–of William Moulton Marston's Wonder Woman that have sent just about every single person to try their hand at telling a Wonder Woman story in any media since creator Marston's death running and screaming from Wonder Woman's actual origin, the original half-decade or so of her adventures and the author's intent. And these are among the elements that writer Grant Morrison, along with artist Yanick Paquette, embraces in his telling of the Wonder Woman story, in the particular, peculiar format of DC Comics' Earth One line of sequentially published, original graphic novels.

The most remarkable aspect of Morrison's version of Wonder Woman is that the writer, unlike everyone else who has come before, doesn't attempt to reinvent this particular wheel, and he doesn't attempt to fix what was never broken. In essence, Morrison simply reshapes Marston and collaborator H.G. Peter's comics into a style and form more familiar and palpable to modern readers, the result being a fairly perfect packaging of Marston and Peter's Wonder Woman into a sort of ultimate re-mix. It's rather similar to what Morrison already did with Batman during a relatively long 2006-2013 run across a series of Batman titles, and with Superman in his 2005-launched All-Star Superman, although here he actually does less work than he did with either of the other two personalities of DC's so-called "trinity" of characters. With the World's Finest, he cherry-picked from their entire histories; here he sticks to Marston and Peter, with only a few minor tweaks and modifications consistent with the update in time period.

The book is structured in an unusually literary and complete fashion, not only for a comic book series, but when compared to the rest of the Earth One line (so far consisting of three volumes featuring Superman, two featuring Batman and one featuring the Teen Titans). After a 13-page sequence detailing the origins of Hippolyta and the Amazons' break with Man's World–in which she lost her girdle to Hercules*, stole it back, killed the hero and prayed to Aphrodite that they may "retire forever from Man's World"–the remainder of the book is set 3,000 years later in present.

Wonder Woman, dressed in a version of her familiar costume, exits a beautifully-designed "invisible" robot plane on Paradise Island and is bound in chains by Amazons and dragged before her mother for trial. The remainder of the book is told through the trial, with chronological flashbacks telling the origin of Wonder Woman, as she and other players in the drama are called forth to bear witness (the lasso of truth compelling them all to be perfectly honest).

That is not a format we see in superhero comic books, and is almost impossible to imagine in a superhero TV show or movie; I think that's notable because so much of the rest of the Earth One line seems to be written with at least one eye on multi-media adaptation. Writer Geoff Johns' Batman graphic novels read like comics adaptations of a few scripts from a Batman TV show that doesn't actually exist, for example. Morrison, who, unlike Johns has had little experience in writing for TV and/or film, just writes this like a graphic novel. And it's relatively late release all but guarantees that it will have little to no impact on future Wonder Woman movies, which have already cast their stars, something I'll return to in a bit.

In broad strokes, the story will be very familiar. Diana is the somewhat rebellious and adventurous only daughter of Queen Hippolyta, apparently a gift from the goddesses because, like all of the women in the all-female utopia of Paradise Island, Hippolyta can't exactly have a child the old-fashioned way.

One day she discovers United States pilot Steve Trevor, who has somehow crash-landed on the island, and she heals and cares for him, keeping him safe from her sisters (As in Renae de Liz's Legend of Wonder Woman, she does so in secret, keeping him in hiding). She wins a tournament, allowing her to take Steve back to his own world. She suffers an immediate and drastic form of culture shock, but makes fast friends with "Elizabeth" Candy and her sorority sisters from Holliday college (I find it amusing that, of all the stuff from Wonder Woman's Golden Age one might be leery to include, Morrison apparently drew the line at a character named Etta Candy; giant kangaroos? That's cool. But a joke name like Etta Candy? No way).

There is the expected tension between the isolationist Hippolyta and the Amazons and the expansive U.S. military, and between the way a society is supposed to work, "Man's" way or Marston's way.

Marston's Wonder Woman, despite what people have been reading into her since at least 1972, when Gloria Steinem stuck her on the cover of Ms., is not a feminist character, nor was hers originally a feminist story. If we consider "feminism" the ideal default it should be, and keep in mind that it is the belief that women and men are equal and should be treated as such**, then remember Marson wasn't really arguing that in his comics. He was, through Wonder Woman, arguing that women were better than men, at least in many of the most important ways (and please note that there was nothing misandric about Marston's point of view; he didn't think men inferior, he just didn't think they were as awesome as women, particularly his idealized Amazon women, were).

These are subtleties that are generally ignored, and they are ignored because they are pretty out-of-date, pretty particular to Marston and pretty much universally rejected in favor of the idea that men and women are equal, and neither should be master over the other. I don't want to get too deep into this particular rabbit hole, but Marston's brand of feminism, if we want to call it that, involved the loving submission of man to the loving dominance of a loving woman, which could conceivably be seen as a chilvalrous, noble act on the part of the man, who is very active in the act of surrender. Not to inject Christianity into things and further muddle it, but surrendering peacefully is actually a hell of a lot harder than fighting, something Morrison's Superman once alluded to in a throw-away JLA story in which he lectured some pro-active superheroes that not killing is infinitely harder than killing. At any rate, there are some confusing interpersonal politics involved here.

That was, essentially, the Amazon way, and perhaps it was a way that worked on Paradise Island, and could work in a Man's World that all came around to Marston's way of thinking. Wonder Woman herself was a lot more traditional in her views of relationships, being the only Amazon to fall in love with a man and then to pursue him for years, even decades in a weird love triangle reflective of the Clark/Superman/Lois one. Here she is also pro-Steve, and pro-engagement with Man's World. She wants to change it for the better, just as she wants to change aspects of her own, "Woman's World." She's a compromise character, a bridge between the two cultures--and the two modes of relationship between male and female.
The last page of the book, in which Wonder Woman begins her engagement in earnest. The words that precede those on the page above are "Hola! 'Man's World'!" That is her "final" costume, by the way, and her robot plane, Steve Trevor and "Beth" Candy in the background.
Wonder Woman is, at least here, a feminist character, a figure of equality, even if the culture Marston created for her (and so many aspects of his own psychological work and his own comic book work were of a feminism-plus line of thinking).

The other thing that Morrison and Paquette do that Marston and Peter did not, and could not, is make all the kinky undertones of the Golden Age Wonder Woman explicit. You need not read many of those stories to see exactly what it was that gave Frederic Wertham fits, or to refer to Wonder Woman as a veritable recruiting poster for lesbians. I think the tying up can be excused, and be read innocently–at least context-free and in the original texts themselves, until one learns more about Marston himself, anyway–but there's some really weird stuff in there. Like Amazon Christmas, "Diana's Day," a festival in which some of the girls dress up like deer, others dress up as hunters, and they "hunt" for the girls, tie them up, and then skin and eat them.
If you see something vaguely kinky in the above scene, you're not the first adult to do so.
Here that game occurs, at least in the corner of a splash page, but so too does all kind of libidinous behavior, with Amazons dancing topless (their backs turned to the reader, of course) and doing body shots off one another. If Marston and Peter implied kinky, pagan bacchanals and lesbian relationships, Morrison refers to them as such, and Paquette draws them.
Diana's Day = Amazon spring break.
Wonder Woman explicitly refers to Mala, a minor character in the original Wonder Woman stories, as "my lover," a step beyond all the slightly more equivocal reference between the women as "my love" and so on. Etta Beth Candy even uses the L-word when discussing Paradise Island (not the other L-word):

I'm...not sure if this is an improvement or not. There's certainly something to be said for the subtlety of the early 1940s Wonder Woman comics, which may have been borne out of conservatism and bias against homosexuals in general, but may also had a lot to do with the fact that they were comics for little kids. This isn't intended for little kids, and yet it's not a mature readers book, either (The book, unlike DC's serially-published comics, doesn't have any form of rating, but it the Earth One is generally considered to be meant for the YA and book-store reading audience; certainly the adult themes but lack of swearing, nudity and violence would seem to bear that out). Morrison's script is hardly crass or anything (Hercules calls Hippolyta a "bitch," but then, Hercules is a real dick), but I think there's something to be said for having to be slightly sly with such matters.

That, though, seems to be the biggest discernable difference from the original source material, the fact that Morrison can just come out and say words like "lover" and "lesbian" instead of implying them. Well, that and the art, which I've neglected to mention at this point, but is perhaps what makes this such a radical book since, as I've mentioned, Morrison's most radical act is in updating the original Wonder Woman comics rather than reimagining them.

Paquette, like Morrison, apparently paid very close attention to the work of Wonder Woman's creators, and it is evident in his work. One of the many things modern creators always seem to get wrong about Wonder Woman and her milieu is that they insist on grounding it in some sort of mythical, or at least ancient, style, as if the Amazons haven't changed or progressed in any way since they first came to their island, as if their society, culture and science remained perfectly stagnant. But what culture would? Certainly not one as progressive, forward-thinking and presumably more advanced than our own.
Paquette's version of an Amazonian firearm.
The original Paradise Island was as much Buck Rogers as it was sword-and-sandals, and that's evident here. Not only does Paquette draw Wonder Woman's doctor friend in an outfit similar to that of the one she wore in the original Wonder Woman comic, but these Amazons have firearms to play bullets-and-bracelets with a gun that looks so strange that it is apparently one they developed parallel to the firearms developed in Man's World), they have flying hover-bikes shaped vaguely like the shells their chief goddess was said to be born from, and then there's Hippolyta's TV-like magic mirror and the aforementioned robot plane/invisible jet, which is similarly redesigned to look like the sort of airship that might have been developed by a culture completely unfamiliar with Wilbur and Orville Wright.

I really can't overstate what an incredible job Paquete does in taking the craziest ideas present in some of the original comics–rideable kangaroo steeds, for example–and integrating them with a kind of sci-fi fantasy Ancient Greek + 3,000-years aesthetic. I have seen a lot of different versions of Paradise Island over the decades, and this is probably the best-looking one, with almost every single Amazon having her own look, costume and style. His Hippolyta, who here has black hair like her daughter, is probably the all-around coolest-looking Hippolyta I've ever seen, and I like the way that he and Morrison sneak in familiar characters in relatively minor, almost background roles, like Troia (wearing a new version of her old Wonder Girl costume) and Artemis.
Note Troia in the lower right-hand corner; she's in the background of the cover too, and part of a war party sent to Man's World to retrieve Diana.
Of the major divergences from the original story, there are two, the significance of which may strike different readers at different levels of importance.

The first is that Steve Trevor is no longer the blond-haired white guy of the 1940s, but is a black man–Idris Elba, from the looks of Paquette's drawings of him.
Idris Elba, right? Is it just me?
During my first reading, I thought nothing of it. Morrison, Paquette and company decided to "blind cast" a character, who doesn't have anything essential to his character that mandates he be a white guy...certainly not if the story is taking place in 2016 instead of 1941. It seemed like an easy and well-intentioned way to put a person of color into a story that is otherwise just a bunch of white folks; the only other black character with a speaking part is the Robert Kanigher and Don Heck-created Nubia, who is portrayed well in this but is, well, she's still named "Nubia."***

There is, in fact, one thing about a black–or, specifically, an African-American–Steve Trevor that does impact the overall Wonder Woman mega-story, although it took a second reading for the idea to really sink in.

During the trial, Steve is one of the witnesses called forth to testify, and he tells Hippolyta and the assembled Amazons that his "ancestors were enslaved and persecuted by men with too much power."

It's a simple line of dialogue in a panel or two, but it's suggestive in ways that complicate the themes beyond what I'm equipped to address here, and, I imagine, what Morrison intended. First, and less problematically, it occurred to me that with Steve now a black American man rather than a white American man, he shares something in common with women, as he himself points out. He is part of a group that was also hideously mistreated by white men. So Steve Trevor is no longer a representative and a member of those that have and would oppress the Amazons/women in the past, but now he is someone who has likewise been oppressed. Does that matter? Were Steve and Diana paired as representatives of the two world views, and their partnership and kinda sorta romance meant to serve as symbolic bridge between Man's World and Amazonia? Was Golden Age Steve Trevor the embodiment of Man's World, and Diana's ability to win him over emblematic of he eventual success of her mission?

But wait, it gets thornier. Remember that Earth One Steve explicitly mentions the fact that his ancestors were enslaved. How, exactly, does American slavery fit into this idea of bondage and submission? If the book, and Marston's philosophy in general, are pro-bondage and pro-submission, what becomes when we factor in such a repugnant, real-life example of the disastrous negatives of such relationship? (I won't go so far as to say that Marston or Peter were racist, but you need not read many pages of their Wonder Woman comics to see that their comics were racist, regardless of the intent of the creators. Non-white characters are all confined to wince-inducing racial stereotype in the Wonder Woman comics, not simply the Japanese that the characters were at war with, but everyone who wasn't a white American or Amazonian.)

Is Morrison attempting to compare and contrast "bad" enslavement (that which is forced upon the slave out of hatred or a complete lack of empathy) with "good" enslavement (that which is offered and accepted out of love)...? Is it the difference between man-to-man slave/master relationships and man-to-woman and woman-to-woman slave/master relationships? Is the difference simply between the slavery of Man's World and the slavery of the Amazons?

I don't know, and, like I said, I don't think Morrison even intended to go there–if so, I think a little more space would have been spared–but he took us there, even if only in a passing bit of dialogue.

The second big change, which is more significant to the Wonder Woman story, even if it raises fewer questions about its application to our world, is the exact origins of Wonder Woman–that is, how exactly she came to be. The traditional story, that of Marston, is that she was a sort of doll made of clay by Hippolyta, who was distraught that she could not have a daughter of her own, and that the goddesses brought that clay doll to life and imbued it with their blessings. The child then grew up to be Diana.

In rebooting the character's origins for The New 52, writer Brian Azzarello nixed that, and made Wonder Woman the product of a union between a man and woman. Sort of. In his origin, Hippolyta had her baby the old-fashioned way, and the seed was provided by the god Zeus, a well-known knocker-upper of women in myth. That made Diana a demi-god and part of the Olympic family, who dominated Azzarello's run on the title. It also greatly annoyed a lot of Wonder Woman fans for perhaps obvious reasons, but in the sins Azzarello committed against the honor of the Amazons, that was actually pretty minor compared to his explanation of where Amazons babies come from.

At the climax of the trial, Diana gets to question her mother, and asks her of what substance she is made. Hippolyta confesses the story about being a clay figurine brought to life by the goddesses was a lie, a fairy tale told to help keep Diana innocent. In fact, she was the child of Hippolyta and Hercules. She wasn't conceived either in rape or consensual passion though. Morrison has Hippolyta explain:
I took the egg from my womb. And the seed form the loins of the man-god Hercules. Blended in my alembics, seasoned with my fury.
You were my revenge on Hercules, Diana. That his line would yield no sons, only daughters bred to conquer and subdue Man's World. Of my anger you were born.
Your native Amazon vigor combined with the blood of Hercules makes you unbeatable. Yet also proud, rebellious, restless. His blood calls you to Man's World, and to battle.
What are we to make of this? You got me. In a sense, this feels less true-to-myth than her being fathered by noted philadering father of the gods Zeus, even if Hippolyta and Hercules were certainly better positioned within the history of Wonder Woman comics to have made a baby together. The "how" is a little confusing–I would have appreciated Hippolyta saying something about "and through Amazonian science and forbidden magic, I blended them in my alembics."

In essence, it sounds as if Diana was a test-tube baby of sorts (just like Morrison's Robin, Damian Wayne, whose mother Talia al Ghul stole seed from the unwitting Batman to create him****), although how exactly that would work with a Bronze Age man's seed and the sci-fi science of later Amazonia, I don't know.

It does make Wonder Woman fully human, rather than "less than human," as she refers to what she thought of herself due to her clay origins, although I'm not sure that's really that important (Superman's not human, and that's never really been a problem for the character). It also strips her of her unique status among the Amazons; no longer is she the only one born not of the union of man and woman, but she's as human as the rest of them. Ironically, Hippolyta speaks to that particular mingling of blood as what makes Wonder Woman unique, which seems to suggest that this Hercules really was a demi-god, and not just a man, as Hippolyta seems to imply throughout.

It works, but only so long as you don't pick at it, and is a rare example of Morrison trying to "fix" something that wasn't broken. That is the trap that all Wonder Woman creators seem to fall into. It may grasp at Morrison, but for the most part he and Paquette sail on it.

Together they've created the very best standalone graphic novel to feature Wonder Woman, and the one of the best Wonder Woman comics since Marston and Peter's first Wonder Woman comics.

*That's right, "Hercules," not Herakles; like Marston, Morrison doesn't seem to feel a need to prove how smart he is by distinguishing the Roman and Greek spellings. Just last week I was re-reading George Perez and company's "War of The Gods" storyline from 1991-1992, and it actually hinged on a conflict between the Greek and Roman versions of the same pantheon. Marston, meanwhile, had Wonder Woman created by Greek goddesses and battle the Roman war god Mars few issues later.

**Which means, in truth, no one should have be labeled or declare themselves "feminist;" it's everyone else who should be labeled "sexist," as you're either one or the other. It still boggles my mind that there are people, men and women, who resist or refuse to be called "feminist." Personally, I've long assumed–or maybe it's more like hoped–that this was because the people who claim not to be feminist are doing so out of pure ignorance and don't really know or understand what that word means.

***Of course, the decision of "casting" Steve as a black man rather than a white man here doesn't seem like the sort of thing that will have much impact in the pop culture in general, at least, not in the same way that Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch making the Ultimate Nick Fury black lead to Sam Jackson playing the character in all the Marvel movies...and the creation of a new black character with the name appearing in the "real" Marvel comics. In fact, this isn't even like having the New 52 Wally West be black, which I hear lead to his being black on The Flash TV show. Wonder Woman's movie is already in production, and its Steve Trevor is going to be played by white guy Chris Pine. Would that have been different had DC published this book just a few years earlier? I don't know, but possibly.

****Also like Robin Damian Wayne, Morrison's Earth One Wonder Woman wears regular old off-the-rack boots with laces.

1 comment:

Jer said...

Nice review. I expect given what I've read here I may have more problems with the changes that Morrison has made than you did, but I'm a curmudgeon.

I remain consistently surprised that nobody picks up on the fact that according to myth Hippolyta is the daughter of Ares and yet she eventually rejects war and founds an island paradise where there is no war. And in Marston's original vision she explicitly is a follower of Venus. There's a huge mine of story there about the daughter of War turning against him and embracing Love - and raising here daughter to be a champion for Love against the evils of War - and yet it flies right under the radar.

(As an aside - how much better would Azzarello's take have been had Diana been the daughter of Hippolyta and Hera instead of Zeus? There's a story nobody's ever told before.)