Sunday, July 31, 2011

Has DC been getting Wonder Woman wrong for 15 years now?

While reading through Marc DiPaolo’s War, Politics and Superheroes for the first time (review here, if you missed it), I took a lot of notes of things I found interesting, and worth more thinking about, talking about and writing about somewhere down the line.

One such torn yellow piece of paper had the words “Superman never had his own Dark Knight Returns” scribbled on it, and tucked between two pages talking about how the Superman of the ‘80s and ‘90s was more compelling as a guest-star in other heroes’ narratives than his own.

Another says “Last 20 Years of WW comics as rebuke” and was holding a page in the chapter entitled “Wonder Woman as World War II Veteran, Feminist Icon, and Sex Symbol.”

As you may have noticed, I’m somewhat fascinated by Wonder Woman, particularly because of how amazing her original Golden Age comics were and the staggering gulf in quality between them and so much of what has followed—that, and the fact that she’s proven such a perennially difficult character for DC to seemingly be able to “get”, and then sell that particular take to the public for embracing. (Wonder Woman, is, of course, not alone in this “never quite getting over like Superman or Batman” status quo, but she’s sort of unique in that she’s never gone away either. She’s always nominated, but never wins. She’s always in the wedding, but never the bride. She goes to the play-offs every year, but never gets to the final round. Note to self: Decide on a better metaphor later, and then use that).

In his book, DiPaolo devotes an awful lot space to Wonder Woman, for obvious reasons—she was conceived of as one of the most, if not the most, political superheroes of them all. Even Captain America, who was little more than a masked avenger version of Uncle Sam, isn’t as political as Wonder Woman; he simply functions as a bit of propaganda, or a symbol straight out of a political cartoon, while Wonder Woman was constantly arguing for progressive, liberal politics at odds with the status quo (In the hopes of cutting off any ignorant comments, please note I’m using “liberal” and “conservative” literally here; the former meaning “increasing liberty” and the latter meaning “conservation of the status quo, or restoring a previous one,” not as the codeword epithets they’ve become).

That’s not a controversial reading at all, is it? It’s right there in her origin—Wonder Woman was supposed to leave Paradise Island to stop war and teach the sick, fallen outside world a better way to live.

Regardless, in his discussion of Wonder Woman, DiPaolo walks us through her conception, her original adventures and how she has evolved over the years. I was particularly interested in reading the section in which he discusses DC’s portrayal of her from, say, the post-Perez years through Infinite Crisis, and the fact that he singled out Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come as the most powerful and influential portrayal of the character, one that would go on to influence her potrayal in the comics and, through them, the Justice League animated series for years to come.

What’s so strange about this is that Kingdom Come is intentionally set pretty far out of DC continuity—that is, it uses DC characters and the DCU setting, but its own versions versions of them, not the “real” one—and was a purposefully dark, apocalyptic story set in a dystopian future. While ultimately an optimistic story with a happy ending, it depicts many of the superheroes like Wonder Woman making choices the real versions never would, leading to them ending up as more extreme versions of themselves and bringing their fictional world to the precipice of dramatic tragedy.

DiPaolo on our current Wonder Woman:
in many ways, the Wonder Woman of the modern era featured in the Justice League cartoon is a top-to-bottom reinvention of Diana crafted by Alex Ross and Mark Waid for Kingdom Come (1996). That miniseries featured a bitter Wonder Woman of the future who has failed in her mission to bring peace to “man’s world” and been exiled from Paradise Island. Stripped of her idealism and air of wise, “experienced innocence,” this Wonder Woman is a tragic, Xena-like figure who attempts to bring peace to planet Earth by effectively trying to coax Superman into conquering the planet for her…Eventually, the paternalistic Batman and Superman try to get Diana to stand down and see reason, hoping to help her rediscover her inner idealist and become the “real” Wonder Woman once again.
DiPaolo notes that Ross’ visual portrayal of the character made her likable despite the obviously wonky morality she developed in the series, and helped popularize her enough to put her back in the center of the DC Universe (Did Ross and Waid invent the concept of those three as the “Trinity” of the DCU? Aside from Alan Moore’s “For The Man Who has Everything,” I’m having difficulty thinking of a pre-Kingdome Come story involving them as a trio).

Regarding her high-profile in the DCU of the late-nineties and early-zero zeroes, DiPaolo uses the examples of Darwyn Cooke’s New Fronteir (another, “imaginary” story featuring a different version of the character, but one in which she again is markedly brutal) and the Greg Rucka-written, but DC Comics editorial-conceived-and-approved of The OMAC Project, in which the “real” Wonder Woman breaks the villainous Maxwell Lord’s neck in order to stop him from mind-controlling Superman into killing her, Batman and others.

DiPaolo again:
Unlike earlier incarnations of the character, who would never consider killing, the new Wonder Woman is presented as too pragmatic and too ruthless to spare the life of an opponent she sees as both deadly dangerous and irredeemable. On the one hand, her position is presented as far more reasonable than Superman’s and Batman’s, who argue the position that used to be taken by Diana herself that it is always wrong to kill an enemy, even if that enemy is Adolf Hilter or The Joker. On the other hand, in both storylines, Diana is presented as being too violent and too ruthless to be truly heroic, and her honor and purity are somewhat stained by the blood on her hands.”
Now, The OMAC Project is only one story, but it is, in fact, the main Wonder Woman story of the 21st century, and its events drove much of the more prominent stories featuring the character over the past few years—it was part of why the Trinity broke up and disbanded the Justice League in Infinite Crisis and why the Amazons attacked in Amazons Attack; it drove the Wonder Woman monthly for a while and lead to its (ill-starred, as it turned out) relaunch and, as recently as Blackest Night: Wonder Woman and Justice League: Generation Lost the, killing of Max Lord was an important plot element.

But the general tone of Wonder Woman’s comics and appearances, her portrayal, even the way DC editors and creators tend to talk about her in interviews all do seem to have been greatly influenced by the warrior version of Wonder Woman from Kingdom Come—Wonder Woman as fighter, Wonder Woman as ultimate bad-ass, Wonder Woman as conflicted soldier waging constant war in the name of peace.

It’s easy to pick out stories from this period that directly reflect this version of Wonder Woman, which I guess I never really traced back to Kingdom Come (which was one of the very first comics featuring the character I ever read). Think Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia, with its suggestive cover, or JLA: A League of One, where she takes down the whole JLA. Even in Grant Morrison’s JLA run, Wonder Woman is defined by her dramatic battle actions and mighty heroic deeds rather than her dialogue or interactions with people (Morrison wrote the JLA characters as remote and inhuman, but his Wonder Woman was even more remote than the other characters, something he's attributed to not really getting her the way he does Batman and Superman).

This is the Wonder Woman we’ve been seeing for the past 15 years or so. After citing his examples, DiPaolo writes:
...these stories seem to rebuke Wonder Woman harshly even as they work to restore her to a position of prominence in the comic book world. The modern-day Diana is strong and admirable, but she is also frightening and reckless in a way that she arguably would not be if more women writers and artists were assigned to craft her adventrues. While the latest version of Wonder Woman gets to play an interesting role as an agent of chaos in the DC universe, she is arguable the epitome of the “Feminazi” that Rush Limbaugh made famous in the 1990s when he compared abortion rights activists to perpetrators of the Holocaust. These days, Wonder Woman is a ruthless, sexless woman with blood on her hands who has more in common with her archenemies the Nazis then she would ever be willing to admit.
I should now pause to note that DiPaolo does indeed take some time to dilineate the virtues of Rucka, Phil Jimenez and even Gail Simone and Jodi Picoult’s work on the character, and what they did to try to make her a more sympathetic, complicated and real character. But surveying the majority of Wonder Woman comics over the past 15 years, particularly the ones which have been most popular, most prominent within the publisher’s output and in which she is a co-star or character instead of the lead, the militaristic, pragmatic-to-the-point-of-ruthless Wonder Woman certainly seems to be the dominant one.

It’s amazing to compare this Wonder Woman to the one in the 1940s, who used to convert her worst villains into her staunchest allies by showing them respect and compassion. And not garroting them with her lasso of truth or snapping their necks.

I’m excited to see what Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang come up with in the new Wonder Woman #1; I’m hoping they’re able to restore some of the sense of fun and wonder to her, and to make her a more likeable and heroic figure than she’s been of late.

“The male writers who have penned her stories of late love to imply that Diana would be a lot nicer, and a lot happier,” DiPaolo writes, “if she’d just have sex with Batman or Superman, put some more clothes on when she goes out in public, and shut up with the annoying politics already.”

I don’t have a whole lot of hope that we’ll see Wonder Woman asking Tea Party supporters why they talk about socialism like it was a bad thing or marching in pride parades, but if they can keep her out of pants, out of battles to the death and out of lip-locks with Superman and Batman, that would probably be a pretty good start.


David Charles Bitterbaum said...

Having Wonder Woman "hook-up" with Batman or Superman would just be pure fan-service and a cheap plot device even if it would get some press and sell some comics. I enjoyed this article but you didn't really discuss the interesting origins of Wonder Woman and the man who created her, Dr. Marston. His ideas behind Wonder Woman were intriguing to say the least.

David Charles Bitterbaum said...

I did love the article though.

Michael Buntag said...

I remember that at the time "Kingdom Come" came out, it was being described as a repudiation of "grim and gritty" superheroes. That might have been the intent, but Alex Ross and Mark Waid refashioned the stalwarts of the JLA into figures isolated from humanity to varying degrees. And then they turned Captain Marvel into a mind-controlled puppet. If I recall correctly, some people were even declaring the book's interpretation of WW and Cap the best written version in quite some time.

Nicholas Ahlhelm said...

I firmly believe Kurt Busiek is the man I would like to see try to make Wonder Woman notable for the 21st century. His Winged Victory in Astro City pretty much delineates how I believe a Wonder Woman would act in the 21st century despite having a vastly different origin tale.

Aki Alaraatikka said...

I didn`t know that Morrison wrote JLA heroes as remote persons. Could you tell me what you mean by this?

SallyP said...

I am...hesitantly...optimistic about the new team for Wonder Woman. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Tony said...

People worry all the time about not "getting" Wonder Woman, but ... nobody gets Batman, either. There are dozens of different takes on Batman, from Finger to Miller.

I think people get tripped up trying to write the definitive Wonder Woman. It's just too much pressure to put on one character, or one story.

Patrick Adair said...

I think the best portrayal of Wonder Woman in recent years was the issue with her and Power Girl in the relaunch of The Brave and the Bold - written by Mark Waid. The contrast with Power Girl - a female character even more associated with sexualization and violence, PG's perspective on Wonder Woman as too perfect, and WW's reaction to that, were all fantastic.

Unknown said...

This has been a fascinating critique, by the way. You've managed to outline a trend here that I have to admit, I hadn't even consciously realized was taking place.

Ultimately, though, I think the modern portrayal of Wonder Woman has been a step up from what came after Marsden passed away.

There are definitely some female archetypes being projected into the modern wonder woman that she is, in some way, railing against with her recent portrayals: The Mother, The Virgin come immediately to mind (although, somewhat ironic to be the portrayed with the same character). Wonder Woman is the mother of the oppressed and protector of the weak, but also a violent, chaotic figure who attempts to bring peace through excelling at the art of war (the older, more negative meaning of the term 'amazon').

She's developed into a complicated character, full of contradictions and can no longer be easily summed up in a sentence the same way Batman and Superman generally can be.

But isn't Azzarello known for his grim and gritty portrayals of characters? I'm not terribly familiar with his work outside of his Joker and Batman stuff, but...

Easy Atoms said...

Wow. This article pretty much summed up my thoughts on Wonder Woman.

Eyz said...

Great read.

Though I'd add I never had much problem with John Byrne's own portrayal of Diana. He took the time to carefully re-build her mythos, still based on what Perez did earlier while omitting or replacing in better context other, err.., things that DC did to the character over the years (Artemis,...) and was able to bring her back as the ultimate badass-warrior-princess character. He even made her into a goddess to try to make her more relevant and important than, say, Superman. (though the later writers were quick to throw all this out of the window..)

Marc DiPaolo said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful responses to my book. I am glad that you found some of my ideas interesting and that they inspired you to do some meditating of your own.

The new WW comic is, of course, not what I was looking for, but it seems to be a well-written version of the warrior Wonder Woman, at least. The New 52 Action Comics and Catwoman titles present characters closer in line to what I hope WW will one day become again. Maybe Grant Morrison will do a Golden Age WW sometime in the future in the same vein as his "new" Golden Age Superman.

Andrew Kilian said...

Excellent analysis. I saw a clip from the now defunct David Kelly attempt and she was definitely the heartless violence monger and showed nothing of the enlightened compassionate 70's Lynda Carter. The closest take to what I think Diana is was the Messner-Loebs run with Mike Deodato (forgiving the street outfit). She was a real person who tried to understand people and yet still fought monsters and villains. Not always beating them with her fist, but sometimes guile.