Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Wonder Woman Wednesdays: First Appearances vs. Last Appearances

I don’t know if I’m the first person in the entire history of the Internet to point this out or not, but Wonder Woman’s original Golden Age adventures were really, really, really, really weird.

I recently checked out Wonder Woman Archives Vol. 1 from my local library because, well, I can’t afford to buy $50 comic books (Let’s make with the Wonder Woman Chronicles, DC!), and while I went in expecting lots of Nazi-fighting, Steve Trevor-saving, kanga-riding, Etta Candy “Woo Woo!”-ing and images of girls getting spanked and tied up on almost every page, I still wasn’t ready for how deeply weird and oddly powerful the dozen or so stories in the volume were.

Tell me if this sounds anything like the superheroine we’ve come to know in the last 60 years.

On a mysterious island full of magical realism-like inventions dwell a race of women who dress in Buck Rogers ballerina outfits and engage in martial sports. There lives a beautiful young princess who has never left its shores. When a handsome stranger crashes there, she uses her scientific prowess to invent a means to cure him and nurses him back to health. At the command of her goddesses, she dons the colors of the United States to follow him back to his own home and battle against the evil represented by the Axis powers.

She gets a job entertaining people in a theater with feats of super-speed and super-strength until she’s amassed a small fortune. She uses it to buy the name of Diana Prince, a woman who looks just like her. The young maiden then becomes a nurse and secretary, serving under the love of her life, and routinely saving him from Nazi and Japanese saboteurs and spies, with the help of a small army of sorority girls, whom she contacts through a “mental radio” given to their leader, Etta Candy (daughter of Hard Candy, sister of Mint Candy). When not fighting female slave-owning Nazi operative The Baroness and Nazi cross-dressing scientist Dr. Poison, Diana functions as a freelance detective, investigating international milk companies and the working conditions at department stores.

Reading these stories, one gets the completely unfiltered picture of what the character of Wonder Woman was like at inception. Just as Captain Marvel, Plastic Man, Superman and Batman seemed like completely different characters in their first few adventures than their current incarnations, the Wonder Woman of these first issues is in a lot of ways completely unrecognizable from the one who’s been running around the DC Universe for the last, oh, 40 years or so. (In some of the above cases, the characters would be refined and improved over the decades, but at the cost of something—no Batman story, for example, has been able to match the primitive, occasionally hysterical creepiness of his first few adventures).

Over the past ten years or so, DC has really pushed the concept of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman as a “Trinity” of heroes, the pillars of their fictional universe, each equally important. While they’ve gotten some good stories out of the idea of the “Trinity,” the concept's always been a bit forced.

Clearly Wonder Woman lacks the popularity of the other two heroes, never being able to support more than one monthly title, while the two men in capes have had as many as five monthly series running simultaneously, and the graphic novel lists at dccomics.com do a pretty good job of illustrating how few original graphic novels and trade collections Wonder Woman has in relation to the World’s Finest (Without actually doing the math, it seems that The Flash and Green Lantern greatly eclipse Wonder Woman in the popularity department, at least based on the number of trade pages devoted to their adventures).

And within the context of the fictional shared-setting of their books, the DC Universe, Wonder Woman’s status quo is constantly being shifted as she experiences relaunches and new directions, changing cities, jobs, love interests and supporting casts on a fairly regular basis. When Crisis on Infinite Earths recreated the DCU as a brand new universe through a complicated cosmic event, Batman and Superman were given new origin stories (Batman: Year One and Man of Steel), but they were set in the past, as it was assumed that there couldn’t really be a DC Universe without them in it. Wonder Woman similarly had a rebooted origin, but rather than being set in the past, her story simply restarted in the early ‘80s. In other words, in DC’s fictional timeline, as of the late ‘90s, Superman and Batman were said to have been active for about ten years, whereas Wonder Woman was a newcomer, only active for about half that time.

Infinite Crisis changed that, so that she appeared for the very first time back when Superman and Batman did, but this only served to make things more confusing, as it solved the problem of giving her equal standing with the World’s Finest within the ficitonal history, but it did so by unsolving the problems of her origin.

Regardless, post-(First)Crisis Wonder Woman was not only a superhero struggling against mythological villains like Circe and Ares, but a political and social ambassador of the Amazon nation of Themyscira. The ambassador aspect was given greater and greater emphasis right up until Infinite Crisis, with writers Phil Jimenez and Greg Rucka focusing on her work with the United Nations, social causes and charities and political machinations.

Golden Age Wonder Woman, at least in these first Wonder Woman stories? She was more of a fairy tale heroine living out her life in a work of concentrated war propaganda (and I know the P-word has taken on negative connotations over the years, but I mean that in a good way).

How this Wonder Woman became our Wonder Woman is hard to figure, particularly if we ignore everything in between and just look at, say, her first few adventures and her last few.

The Golden Age Wonder Woman certainly came across as a younger woman, if not a girl. She was continually referred to as a “maiden,” she had a schoolgirl crush on the first man she ever met, she lived with her mother right up until she moved out for the first time (only to go fight Nazis, not go to college) and her best friends were a bunch of co-eds whose hobbies included man-hunting, dancing and hazing rushes with paddles.

The modern Wonder Woman seems older and more mature, I think in large part simply because of her roles as an ambassador, long-time superhero and mother figure to Wonder Girls Donna Troy and Cassie Sandsmark, just as the married Superman and boy-raising Batman seem fatherly (DC reps will often say their “Trinity” is all in their late 20’s, which always causes me a bit of cognitive dissonance…that would mean Batman started his career at 19, and that Dick Grayson is now as old as him).

The early Wonder Woman also had a very distinct mission—to defend freedom and democracy (The Allies) from the armies of evil (The Axis). It made sense of her star-spangled costume, her reason for being in the U.S., her continued association with Steve Trevor and it automatically generated enemies for her. Rereading these original Wonder Woman stories, it’s pretty remarkable how big a role World War II played. It's actually hard to imagine Wonder Woman without World War II, which might be why DC has traditionally had more difficulty finding a direction for her than theu have the other points of the Trinity (It’s worth noting that Batman and Superman have kept the same home bases, supporting casts and antagonists for pretty much their entire fictional careers).

With World War II over it wasn’t too difficult to make Communists the new Nazis, and Wondy’s adventures with Steve Trevor against the enemies of freedom continued relatively unabated. But despite the fact that America’s leaders have never had a problem finding new enemies to fill in for the vanquished Axis, this obviously wouldn’t work for Wonder Woman, particularly as her readership matured and grayed over the years, and post-Vietnam, post-Watergate Americans were less likely to embrace the U.S. government’s enemies as unequivocally evil in the same way that kids in the early ‘40s could eagerly cheer for a superhero sticking it to Hitler.

Wonder Woman could easily have continued fighting Communists through Vietnam and right up until the fall of the Soviet Union. And today, she could conceivably be fighting the global war on terror, but it’s actually hard to imagine DC publishing stories like that. Ironically, in a lot of ways DC’s readers have become more politically savvy and aware over the last 60 years, but the stories have become less overtly political (Today, Wonder Woman is more likely to take up arms against fictional Qurac than Iraq, for example).

So when Allen Heinberg tried to capture some of this Golden Age magic with his soft reboot of Wonder Woman, he had her working for the fictional Department of Metahuman Affairs instead of, say, the CIA or U.S. Army. But this tied her so thoroughly to the made-up world of the DCU that it sort of defeats the purpose of referencing her Golden Age association with the United States at all (Particularly without doing away with the baggage of 20 years worth of being a member of the royal family of a sovereign nation—in these Golden Age stories, Paradise Island wasn’t played as it’s own country so much as an otherworldly fantasy land, but Post-Crisis it's more like an all-female Cuba with Greek architecture and sense of fashion).

Interaction with the rest of the DCU has caused an awful lot of problems for Wonder Woman in general, as each reboot required other reboots across the universe. When Wonder Woman was reintroduced as a latecomer to the DCU, for example, there was already a Wonder Girl active before Wonder Woman, which began a whole slew of retcons and reboots for Donna Troy/Wonder Girl/Troia, and John Byrne would later send Wonder Woman’s mother back in time to World War II, making her a Wonder Woman before Wonder Woman, and thus retroactively making Wonder Woman a legacy character (Again, Superman and Batman never had these sorts of problems).

In addition to working for DOMA tracking superhumans, Wonder Woman’s current status quo has her partnered with old DC character Nemesis (from John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad run), working under Sarge Steel (Suicide Squad, Titans), using credentials created for her by Batman and a disguise suggested by Superman. Rather than standing on her own, the current Wonder Woman is, at best, a spider scurrying along the webs of DCU continuity. Batman and Superman are, of course, members of the Justice League and prone to guest-stars from other books at any time, but for the most part their adventures can be enjoyed all alone, without any real familiarity with the workings of the DCU.

So it was certainly refreshing to read Wonder Woman stories where all the information you needed was right there in the story itself. Rather than wondering how these stories fit in with the last Wonder Woman story I read, I could simply enjoy the flat, two-dimensional art of H.G. Peter and his quirky vintage sci-fi-meets-mythology designs and William Moulton Marston’s almost stream-of-consciousness storytelling, including the amazing feats of blocking bullets with bracelets, the pre-feminist feminism, the humor of Wondy’s sidekick Etta and her cartoonish sorority sisters and family members.

The other remarkable differences between yesterday’s Wonder Woman and today’s were in the powers and the cheesecake factor. The original Wonder Woman was super-strong and super-fast, but didn’t seem to be completely invulnerable (she did block bullets with her bracelets) and she couldn’t fly, which meant she had to resort to riding horses, running and swimming super-fast and flying her robot plane. I don’t know why exactly, but I found this a lot more intersting. I guess because I've grown so used to her just being a sort of female Superman, so it was neat to not see her flying around Superman-style, but distinguishing herself from him (even if, in this case, that distinguishing factor turns out to be relative weakness).

And it goes without saying it was refreshing to see her not exploding out of her costume. In her first few stories, Wonder Woman is wearing a billowing skirt, but it quickly turns into a pair of shorts. Not a pair of panties, and not a g-string, but a pair of shorts.

Her top didn’t lift and separate, it wasn’t a corset or boob armor or just something to cover her nipples because a completely topless superheroine would be silly. It looked like something a ballerina might wear.

Likewise, her bracelets were actual bracelets, not forearm-long pieces of armor.

Taken together and read on this side of the manga revolution, it was downright surprising to see that Wonder Woman was actually something of a magical girl-style heroine decades before “magical girl” would even become a comics genre.

Reading Wonder Woman at any point form the last 30 years or so, it’s quite clear that she’s designed to sexually titillate male readers more than, you know, just look kinda cool. It’s not just the likes of notoriously-bad-at-female-anatomy Michael Turner, the unfortunate choice for JLoA cover artist, or the notoriously smexed-up JLoA interior artist Ed Benes. It’s everyone who draws Wonder Woman these day, because that barely-there costume has become inherent to the character design. Check it out:

John Byrne, J.G. Jones, Adam Hughes, Brian Bolland…these are great artists who all understand how to render human anatomy and how clothing falls across a human body in the real world. And these are all nice images, but what strikes you first about them, that it must be cool to have Wonder Woman powers? That Wonder Woman looks like a fun character to read about? Or that you can almost see her breasts?

Certainly a certain amount of sexiness is expected in any superhero comic book, chronicling the lives of perfect specimens of the human physique as they do, and even when Wonder Woman’s interiors were at their strongest visually (under the pencils of Perez and Jimenez), she was half-naked (Hell, in the Archives, Peters’ Wonder Woman is often shown in cheesecake-y costume-changing scenes, and on her first appearance in Man’s World passersby remark on how little clothing she’s wearing). Over the years though, it seems like we’ve seen fewer and fewer images like these,

accentuating the joy or menace of Wonder Woman’s superpowers, and more and more images simply reveling in the skimpiness of the costume.

Which is why I think Tintin Pantoja’s Wonder Woman pitch caused such a stir when it made the rounds in the blogsophere a few months back—it looked like the Wonder Woman a lot of people wanted to read, rather than the Wonder Woman they had to read about. While it’s hard to judge a couple of pages of art posted on the Internet, it did seem like Pantoja had managed to capture some elements of the original Wonder Woman story, including the princess/magical girl themes and the fact that the character seemed more or less like a real person, not a scantily clad statue come to life.

So yeah, Golden Age Wonder Woman’s adventures are totally insane, what with their never-acknowledged yet hard-to-miss perverse sexual undertones and symbolism (Suffering Sappho indeed), bizarre fantasy technology and bastardized mythology mash-ups, pulled-out-thin-air plot points and all-around aura of silliness, but those aren’t the only reasons they seem so weird to readers today.


Anonymous said...

"...a race of women who dress in Buck Rogers ballerina outfits and engage in marital sports."
Marital sports..? Maybe DC should get Moore and Gebbie to reboot the series.

Caleb said...

While a Moore/Gebbie Wonder Woman story would eclipse sliced bread on the Greatest Thing scale, I actually meant "martial."

However, it is an all female society, and Princess Diana swears by Sappho (literally), so who knows what goes on off-panel.

Thanks for pointing that out though...self-editing sucks.