Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | Sex, violence, and Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman #2, by Cliff Chiang

It would be easy, and probably utterly predictable, for me to launch into an all-out rant about the origins of the New-52 Wonder Woman. In fact, because I found Kelly Thompson’s arguments fairly persuasive, that may still happen. However, I am more inclined to agree with Ragnell that the latest round of Amazonian revelations doesn’t quite square with what we’ve already been told, not just in Wonder Woman but in Justice League too. Therefore, there’s a chance that Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang are trying (with the best of intentions, naturally) to be provocative, ginning up interest in the book before the real story comes out.

Make no mistake, I understand completely Kelly’s argument that this version of Wonder Woman undercuts DC’s most venerable feminist institution. Even if the account in WW #7 is squarely contradicted, the insinuation is still pretty harmful. Either way, this is not the “old” Wonder Woman. Accordingly, this may simply be a new Wonder Woman, as different in origin as Hal Jordan was from Alan Scott; and her history may be the brutally-simple solution to the decades-old issue of “what to do with Wonder Woman.”

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Of course, “what to do with Wonder Woman” might just as well be “what to do with William Moulton Marston,” the psychologist with an unusual home life and a drive to save the world who created the Amazing Amazon over seventy years ago. Marston intended Wonder Woman (who debuted in All Star Comics #8 (Winter 1941)) to be a paragon of femininity, teaching both genders how to live in peace and harmony. Accordingly, Marston equipped her with emblems of bondage — a magic lasso* and bracelets meant to recall manacles — which were, in turn, repurposed as part of Diana’s armory.

To be sure, this is a fairly elementary insight. We might see similar symbolism in Catwoman’s whip, inasmuch as it goes to her roots as a femme fatale or even a female revenge fantasy. (I don’t want to dwell unnecessarily on the last part, because I think Catwoman has always transcended that particular image.) The difference, even beyond Catwoman’s longstanding supervillain status, is that Catwoman has had more of an aggressive posture, whereas historically Wonder Woman hasn’t used any of the typical offensive weapons. The Amazon-warrior part of her background has always been present, but I would argue that only since the 1980s (and especially the 1986 revamp) has it been emphasized regularly.

That shift in emphasis signifies a drift from Marston’s original conception and, to put it bluntly, its more sexually-charged underpinnings. Although Marston’s ideas about “loving submission” were fundamental to Wonder Woman’s social-justice calling, over the years subsequent creative teams have found ways to de-sexify that aspect of her adventures. Generally this means Diana is still incredibly compassionate, empathetic, etc.; but with an amazing capacity for violence — carefully considered, judiciously administered violence — when the limits of those positive emotions are reached.

Naturally, critical to Wonder Woman’s mission is her native Amazonian culture. From Marston through Gail Simone (and even underlying the apocalyptic events of 2010-11’s “Odyssey”), the Amazons were set apart by the Greek goddesses as examples for the rest of humanity, with Diana their eventual ambassador. They weren’t perfect, but for the most part they didn’t stop trying. Most importantly, their constant positive presence in Wonder Woman’s life set her apart from her fellow superheroes. Make them just memories and you have Krypton (not always an ethical model, I know), the Green Martians, or the Waynes; take away the support and they’re Atlantis or the Guardians.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Wonder Woman #7….

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Consequently, if you turn them into bloodthirsty misandrists — on par with, if not worse than, the Hercules-led marauders who assaulted the original Amazons — you undercut pretty thoroughly Diana’s traditional mission, to say nothing of her credibility. Wonder Woman #7 reveals that three times a century, the Amazons take to the seas expressly to rape whatever men they can find, killing them afterwards and casting aside any resultant male babies. Rush Limbaugh could not have dreamed up a more perfect “feminazi” image.

Kelly points out that although the Greek myths may give this some support, the new version of the Amazons is diametrically opposed to Marston’s (and by extension DC’s) portrayal. Yes, there was Amazons Attack, the Bana-Mighdall, and the Purple Healing Ray jerry-rigged into a Purple Death Ray, but those were exceptions which proved the rule. Although the Amazons are peaceful, they’re not naïve; because their naïveté allowed Hercules’ men to overpower them and (indirectly) send them into exile. Now, though, the Amazons have apparently gone so far the other way that they’re actively reducing the male population, however gradually. Never mind the superficialities of Catwoman and her whip, the Amazons have become a female-revenge fantasy on a much larger scale.

Let’s be clear: the story isn’t over, and these supposed changes could themselves be waved away. Certainly a more brutal group of Amazons fits Azzarello’s horror-oriented approach, where Wonder Woman is one of the few things standing between humans and the gods’ oft-unpleasant whims. Indeed, if you look at it that way, the Amazons may well be doing just what their gods want.

Regardless, it’s all at odds with Marston, and it’s part of that continuing trend. Greg Rucka had Diana kill Medousa on live television, which of course foreshadowed her snapping Max Lord’s neck (also broadcast worldwide, by Brother Eye); but I’m reminded more of Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti’s 2009 “Rise of the Olympian” storyline.  “ROTO” was probably the bleakest part of Simone’s too-short tenure, putting Diana through an emotional and physical wringer along the lines of “Knightfall” or “Doomsday.” It included an effective scene of Diana single-handedly destroying the Gotham headquarters of the Secret Society of Super-Villains, accompanied by mad-as-hell-and-not-taking-it internal narration. I liked the scene in the context of the story, and thought it was well-executed; and I liked “ROTO” overall — but Diana’s display of raw power, fueled by naked emotion, was just the kind of thing Marston didn’t want to see in his creation. While Wonder Woman’s “bracelets of submission” deflected bullets and reminded her of the Amazons’ defeat, originally they also kept her from losing control and just going on a rampage. Marston set up Wonder Woman as the champion of Aphrodite’s love over Ares’ violence, so letting such violence come unreasonably to the fore would have been anathema. As it happens, “ROTO” ends with Diana killing Ares himself, but Simone is careful afterward to show Diana mending relationships (with Etta Candy and Donna Troy, among others) damaged in the battles with the Genocide monster. Love and compassion still drive Diana, even if her warrior side is more prevalent.

The overall effect isn’t quite switching-out sexuality for violence (although I’m not sure there was much of either in the Silver or Bronze Age WW). It’s more like a gradual encroachment of violence (expressed in her “warrior persona”), mostly at the expense of sex, into the feature’s general makeup. The societal issues haven’t really been pushed to the background until now — and they may well return — but the fact that they’re not part of the current storyline is a little disturbing given its emphasis on fightin’ and killin’.

This is not to say that Wonder Woman absolutely needs a healthy dose of sexuality to offset all the blood, because goodness knows that can be taken to the nth degree as well. Cliff Chiang deserves all the praise he’s gotten for his not-hypersexualized depiction of Diana, and I’d add more recent WW artists like Lopresti, Terry Dodson, Bernard Chang, and Nicola Scott to that list. There’s no getting around the delicate balancing any writer or artist must perform to “do right” by Wonder Woman, and her sexuality is a significant part of it. Marston and Peter didn’t make it easy on their successors, and Azzarello and Chiang have been fairly successful so far.

However, if the events of Wonder Woman #7 aren’t mitigated, the New-52 version will represent a significant break from how the character has traditionally been handled. In part it’s comparable to the science-vs.-magic differences between the Silver Age and Golden Age Green Lanterns — and that gets me back to sex-vs.-violence, which again isn’t quite the case — but it goes deeper than that. Instead of Wonder Woman bringing together the worlds of women and men, she’d merely be “one of the good ones.” How demeaning for her as a character, let alone a cultural institution.

And the thing is, for the most part I have enjoyed the new direction. It’s got action, the aforementioned great art, and a clever set of perspectives on the Greek pantheon.  Their Wonder Woman may well pull off that balancing act.  They just can’t let this slight to the Amazons stand.

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* [While the lasso was a slightly later addition, first appearing in June 1942's Sensation Comics #6, it was still a reminder of the Amazons’ enslavement, being made of the girdle which Hercules sought to steal.]

** [On the subject of sex-vs.-violence in today’s superhero comics, I commend to you highly plok’s latest post at A Trout In The Milk.]

CREATOR CREDITS

William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman and (probably with H.G. Peter) Etta Candy. Bill Finger and Martin Nodell created Green Lantern (Alan Scott), and John Broome and Gil Kane created Green Lantern Hal Jordan. Finger and Bob Kane created Catwoman. Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky created T.O. Morrow. Greg Rucka and Drew Johnson created Medousa. Jack Kirby created Brother Eye, and Rucka and Jesus Saiz adapted it for The OMAC Project. Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire created Max Lord. Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti created Genocide. Bob Kanigher and Bruno Premani created Donna “Wonder Girl” Troy, and Marv Wolfman and George Pérez developed her into Troia.

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Comments

16 Comments

Blog and/or complain all you want, but Wonder Woman is finally relevant again and has a storyline that is well regarded in all but the most extreme groups of readers.

RegularSyzedMike

March 29, 2012 at 4:06 pm

While I didn’t end up following this title (stopped after 3 issues because it just wasn’t my thing) I think it’s foolish to jump on the sometimes hyper-sensitive comics feminism bandwagon just yet. These guys aren’t the same guys who have been ham-fisted and exploiting of women. Over all they’ve been somewhat thoughtful in their approach. I see no reason why this would suddenly change at issue #7.

Let’s give them a chance to finish the story before we crucify them on the same cross reserved for guys who draw women with boobs and ass on the same side of their bodies.

Being a longtime reader of mostly robot-based comics (Transformers) and military comics (G.I. Joe) and giant monster comics (Godzilla), I would like to deliver this message to all those comic fans who buy cape comics for the pictures:
YOU WANT A RISE, START A SUBSCRIPTION TO PLAYBOY, LOSERS. KEEP YOUR CHEESECAKE OUT OF MY COMICS. I’d rather have angel food cake, thank you very much.

This entire subject is very interesting, without a doubt. I’m not ready quite yet to classify this as yet another step in DC’s string of female portrayal failures, but it does have that possibility.

Also, happy to see Bilbo Baggins made it out. That dude was in his 100s when he left for the Grey Havens.

I have to say I’m loving the new Wonder Woman more than I ever could’ve imagined. That said, I still wish we could’ve seen what Simone and Scott could’ve done if they’d had the total carte blanche with the character that these fellows have had.

Let me pose a hypothetical that sums up my feelings regarding the “New 52″ Wonder Woman:

Let’s say they make a new Friday the 13th. They give it a massive budget and hire the best writers and director money can buy. Oscar caliber guys like the Coen brothers or Martin Scorsese. And they create a movie pitch-perfect in technical terms. Effects, music, direction…everything is top notch, top of the line.

BUT…Jason Voorhees is portrayed as a cackling loon who constantly talks in a high-pitched voice, waxing philosophical about the meaning of life. They reveal that he doesn’t haunt Crystal Lake because of his mother–rather, because of his still-living father, who turns out to be a sorcerer with magic powers. And he attacks his victims with a M-16 assault rifle, rather than his trademark machete.
Essentially, everything about Jason–save his hockey mask–is different (or, some might say, wrong).

Now me…despite the high-class talent and execution…I’m calling bulls**t because it’s a Jason Voorhees movie and Jason Voorhees has been utterly botched in just about every conceivable way.
The movie may be solid on a technical level, but all I’m thinking is, “Why even bother calling this Friday the 13th then?”

I realize Azzarello and Chiang are–apparently–producing a comic that is, by and large, getting golden reviews across the board and has been a top 20 seller. As such, I’m sure on a technical level, it’s a quality book.
But it’s not Wonder Woman. They’ve changed pretty much EVERYTHING about her. They changed her origin, her backstory, her driving motivation, and her general disposition. Yeah, it may be a dark-haired woman in an American flag bathing suit, but it’s not Wonder Woman.

A such, I cannot even look at this book without wanting to put my fist through a wall.
Everything Azzarello has done–and I’ll include Geoff Johns and his God-awful version of the character seen in Justice League–is, without a doubt in my mind, a complete and utter betrayal of everything the character is supposed to be and represent.

I also find the changes made to the character, in and of themselves, cheapen pretty much everything I personally found interesting, appealing, and unique about the character.

As applies to Amazons specifically…yes, in the original myths and most stories based on those myths, the Amazons were a savage tribe of man-hating barbarians. I actually found it an interesting twist on the old myths that in Wonder Woman, the Amazons were NOT that way–rather, supposed to be more peace-oriented, disciplined warriors, akin to Shaolin monks or Jedi knights.
Now that’s out the window. Because, I guess, a society of women apparently can’t NOT hate men and desire war and death upon them. It’s too far-fetched to imagine otherwise.

But maybe I’m wrong and this is all leading to some grand twist that will make everything okay. I can’t imagine what…though from where I’m standing, nothing less than revealing this entire run is some horrific nightmare reality created by Dr. Psycho, Circe, or Biff Tannen stealing the DeLorean again, will salvage this crap.

I’ll keep an eye on the spoilers…because I sure as hell am not wasting my money on this book. Nor will in the foreseeable future as long as this bulls**t remains canon & status-quo.

And one final thing: I note a lot of people saying they never cared or liked Wonder Woman until this run on the title.
Guess what kids, you STILL don’t care or like Wonder Woman. Because this isn’t her. This is Wonder Woman about as much as Batman in All-Star Batman & Robin was Batman.

Hoo boy. I wasn’t expecting much of the New 52 Wonder Woman, since I heard Azzarello was writing her (good writer, to be sure, just not of this kind of series) but I wasn’t expecting them to go all Amazons-are-man-haters again, not after the Amazons Attack fiasco. Sometimes Dc comes across like those bullheaded Hollywood producers, who insist on doing certain movies in their particular way regardless of how much it makes them fail.

Now, I’m not saying Diana has to stay the same forever, I was there when they rebooted her in the 80s and while I didn’t like everything -especially the new amazons- I was still willing to accept the changes, as long as the series itself was enjoyable, which it was.

But at the *very* least, she needs to be a hero, and as pointed above, the Amazons were (re) invented by Marston to be the source of her heroic drive. With them shown a abusers, Diana does indeed come across as tragic or clueless instead of heroic.

Is this just a bait-and-switch, with a reveal of the truth later? Possibly, but given DCs recent record, I would not bet on it.

Thanks for the plug, Tom! And I’m glad you liked it. I actually have two ideal versions of WW in my head: one is a WW whose relationship with her villains is all about her subtextually saying to them “look, it’s okay to be kinky, you’re healthy, you’re fine, you don’t have to hate yourself” and them spitting back “screw you Diana, I LIKE being messed-up and self-loathing and closeted, why the hell do you think I invented the alter ego who wears the cheetah costume anyway, you damned goody two-shoes!” If WW came to my town with that magic lasso I’d RUN LIKE HELL, and that’s what I think her ever-nebulous “mission to Man’s World” really ought to be — a mission of honesty, and if you’re not honest with yourself she’s gonna make you get honest with yourself, if she could’ve just slipped that lasso around Hitler he would’ve said “All right, all RIGHT, it’s all about my weird hygiene issues, NAZIS STAND DOWN…!”

Sorry, that’s a bit flip.

But like you, I feel a qualm when I see WW taking a sword to somebody, and although I’m not reading DC comics anymore I have a strong sense of agreement with Colin Smith (http://toobusythinkingboutcomics.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/on-wonder-woman-7.html) on the issues of what WW is for in her basic design, whether or not WMM is here to shepherd her along. Well, aren’t superheroes supposed to be mythology for the modern age? So my second ideal WW would be one written and drawn by Mike Mignola, a “Hellboy-ized” WW if you will…I’ve got a lot of love for various WW runs of the modern age, but that one’s like a dream still waiting to be realized.

Also, how good would a Mignola Captain America be? Same material, really…

Also, Etta Candy should be fat. Because fat’s sexy too, y’know?

I may have been slightly under the influence when I wrote this.

Also also, I don’t know what “the most extreme groups of readers” means, it sounds like code for something nasty. Is it really so wrong not to prefer a sharper reinvention of WW to the many reinventions before that have been a bit more gentle in tone? Personally I like Morrison’s WW, which I guess is as much as to say that I like a WW who owes something to all of her previous reinventions…

…But maybe at that I’ve said too much.

I felt that Azzarello was simply trying to make Diana unique. By returning her to the mythological milieu he ran into a hurdle that an entire society of Amazons makes her feel redundant. Especially when said Amazons are older, wiser and generally more in touch with their Greek roots.

Turning Hippolyta into stone and transforming Amazons into snakes in #4 was a much direct statement of intention than that of their revised origin in #7. In his and Chiang’s run, she is supposed to be the unique heroic character in a pantheon of Gods that is culturally very human and flawed. Having her base be a still existing Utopian society somewhat undercuts the drama of the concept, as envisioned by the New 52 creators.

At this point if I were the writer, I would just throw up my hands and leave the book. Then everyone can go back to having the WW they remember, but never bought and read.

Chaos McKenzie

March 30, 2012 at 8:34 am

I never realized it before, as I am a big fan of Wonder Woman and have read many of her pre-Crisis stories, but this piece made me realize that I really am a fan of the Perez WW on, and have no real grasp of her earlier characterization outside of the interested life story of her creator. I have always preferred brash and bold warrior women characters… the bitchy Power Girl of old is still my favorite of all time. I was a huge fan of Rucka’s WW, Simone’s as well, to me her best moments were when she showed unparalleled warrior strength… something that immediately comes to mind is that scene in Heaven’s Ladder when she forces the Khund space vessel to crash… Anyhow, I’ve been really into Azzarello’s take as I find it is very refreshing and new, but after reading this piece I agree that there is something key to her iconic status that is missing – BUT maybe that’s the point – Maybe this is a story reconnecting her to a purpose, redefining her mission in man’s world.

Contrariwise, all the revelations of the issue are easily explained within the context of pre-DCnU…. The sirens at sea maybe the Bana, and not the paradise island amazons… the gods could all be messing with her… I guess both are easy white washes, but I can’t see someone who wrote such brilliant women like Meghan and Dizzy, making these changes, presenting these revelations, without have some major end goal in sight.

George Bush (not that one)

March 30, 2012 at 9:17 am

so every one in the world is butthurt now? great.

Terrific article – thank you!

“Instead of Wonder Woman bringing together the worlds of women and men, she’d merely be “one of the good ones.” How demeaning for her as a character, let alone a cultural institution.”

I only hope DC and the creators on the book take notice. WONDER WOMAN is well written and illustrated, there’s no denying that. And I applaud anyone trying to make the Princess of the Amazons relative to the masses who don’t care about her, but there have been some severe missteps. Issue seven is proof of that.

@Vanja Diana was always from a race of Amazons, yet she was always unique – she was born from clay, blessed by the goddesses, chose to leave the island … the Amazons don’t need to be monsterfied to make her look unique/good by comparison.

Anyway, fascinating piece as ever, Tom. Something I’ve been meaning to ask you … why have you taken to crediting the creators of characters mentioned in the column? And why go so far as to mention that Wolfman and Perez developed Donna Troy into Troia, when five-minute wonder Troia’s not actually mentioned? Do you really consider Troia different from Donna?

Walsh’s argument is alarmingly similar to the one those who would dismiss the Nolan/Ledger Joker would make, and while a common response to that is that there have been many interpretation of The Joker, and the movie version is actually very close to a few, I think readers should be a little more open to varied interpretations of Wonder Woman in the comics. The character has been a failure in many ways that every writer in recent memory has thought it necessary to fix, one way or another. Doubtless, there are writers in the future who will take this approach, and a lot of the groundwork laid here, while you may not agree with all of it, is likely to be a valuable contribution to the characters history in some form due to its popularity and high quality. It will likely influence a future incarnation that you *do* appreciate.

I think overall they’re doing a pretty decent job, although it could be better. I think some of the reveals don’t work because the haven’t provided enough background for the character (her reaction to the revelation of vicious Amazons doesn’t really work when we haven’t been shown how she formerly perceived them in any real detail) and there hasn’t been any proper articulation of what motivates her heroism. She’s just there, fighting and dealing with drama. She’s also the least characterized out of the entire cast appearing in her book. I think there’s A LOT to like about this title at the moment, but it isn’t perfect. It isn’t the unforgivable betrayal some are making out it is either. It’s just a promising new take.

This article made me consider something I hadn’t before though, which is that it’s problematic to present a world without men as either utopian (as it was) or dystopian (as it is). The former is making a fairly contentious assertion and the latter is inversely offensive. Perhaps the best interpretation would be to present it as a truly complex society that differs from ours less significantly.

I guess it’s more anti-utopian than dystopian, but whatever. I’m tired.

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