Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Wonder Woman's persona-cycles

In previous posts, we introduced the concept of the “persona cycle” – the process of a character rotating back and forth between the extremes of one dimension of his personality. Having numerous layers of persona-cycles gives long-running characters (such as DC supeheroes and villains) the ability to be portrayed in a wide variety of ways, used in many different types of stories, and experience character development without ever becoming unrecognizable or falling “out of character”. We have already applied the theory to Superman and Batman. But as they say, “what’s good for the goose”, so now let’s take a grey-eyed gander at Wonder Woman and the dimensions of her persona-cycles.

First person to make a schoolboy comment about a woman having “cycles tee hee”, gets a three-day suspension.


Wonder Woman’s origins are rooted in Greek mythology; unabashedly, irrevocably, and deeply. Sometimes writers embrace the Greek mythology wholeheartedly, with Olympians and their assistant as regular characters. Marston had Wonder Woman working against the machination of Ares in the 1940s, as did Perez in the 1980s. Sometimes genuine ancient myth is used as foundation for a broader mythos that is Wonder Woman’s alone, allowing for the creation of characters such as the Duke of Deception (1942 & 1975), Decay (1987), Devastation (1999).

But the draughts of myth are a heady brew! Maybe the Olympians can subsist on nothing but nectar and ambrosia, but we human readers often need more meat and potatoes in our literary diets. Fortunately, Wonder Woman can cycle toward the mundane just as easily as the mythic. Now, “mundane” in this context just means earthly, not boring or ordinary. Having a villain whose head is a domino strap you to an atomic missile and launch you from his battleship at New York City or fighting a giant Communist egg are in no way ordinary. But they are technically mundane, rather than mythic.

And, while Wonder Woman seldom finds herself beating up muggers in back alleys, her mythic origins are not so lofty that writers are afraid to get her hands dirty. Wonder Woman will run a dress shop, help department store worker get fair treatment, shoot at planes with an automatic rifle, save you from a lesbian sex slave ring, work at Taco Whiz, or take minutes at a JSA meeting. Wonder Woman is not about being too dignified to do anything but battle godlings, she’s about bringing dignity to everything you do. Particularly marching.

Superhero/secret agent

Similar, but distinct from the mythic/mundane cycle, is Wonder Woman’s Superhero/Secret Agent cycle. Sometimes, WW is yer standard superhero: fightin’ loonies in costumes, holding off alien invaders, hangin’ with the JLA. She has a rogues gallery, a super-vehicle, a kid sidekick, a love triangle with a coworker—lots of the regular DC superhero stuff. However, Wonder Woman is also just as involved in war, espionage, and international intrigue. While Batman and Superman were fighting Two-Face and Toyman in the 1940s, Wonder Woman was fighting Nazis. Bruce Wayne/Batman hangs with rich people and the crooks who rob them; Clark Kent/Superman combats societal threats like corrupt businessmen, mad scientists, and Jimmy Olsen; Diana Prince/Wonder Woman works at the Pentagon, or the UN, or the Themysciran Embassy, or the DEO, or the IADC.

It's pretty hard to picture Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, or Flash getting tied up in some kind of foreign war or international intrigue (except as a rare change of pace), but Wonder Woman is perfectly at home there. “The guys” focus on local threats or interplanetary/extradimensional ones; when you wanna go international, however, Wonder Woman’s your gal. Particularly if you need to torture prisoners or snap a terrorist’s neck.

I think that’s one of the reasons Wonder Woman has never had an effective fictionopolis of her own: she is not a stay-at-home person. It would seem wrong, almost silly, to have Wonder Woman “patrolling Wondrous City” in her invisible plane. That’s why the only location that makes sense for her is supervillain-free Washington DC, a “real word fictionopolis” if ever there was one, and an ideal springboard for sending Wonder Woman to wherever the writer thinks she’s needed.


Poor Wonder Woman! Her portrayal is often tied up in our modern ambiguity over “peace through strength”. Hers is a brand of muscular democracy about which our nation is ambivalent. But Wonder Woman wasn’t… and generally isn’t. She believes in peace and if you don’t, she’ll beat the crap out of you until you do. Batman and Superman worry about crossing the line; Wonder Woman worries about making you tow it.

Some writers like to emphasize her peaceful nature. Phil Jimenez wrote her like a Disney princess; birds alight on her finger and talk to her and when she walks into the room people automatically get fewer cavities. And she spins! AND

Peace-loving Wonder Woman is the prom princess/beauty pageant winner who’s actually nice to people. She’s the version that Geoff Johns had become a Star Sapphire/Violet Lantern, an Avatar of Love. But other writers (and readers) prefer Wonder Woman as Xena. Wonder Woman wears leather! Wonder Woman studies martial arts! Wonder Woman lives for battle, like a Klingon! Remember how Waid wrote her in “the Tower of Babel” story?

Many fans deem this conflict as inherent in the character, making cycling between the two modes inevitable. I believe that Marston, however, would laugh at both portrayals. He didn’t portray her in either of those ways, and saw no internal conflict in the character. He believed wholeheartedly in “freedom through bondage” and “love conquering war”, and that has confounded generations of writers whose thinking on the matter is not so enlightened. Or disturbed and freaky. Depending on how you look at it.


Is Wonder Woman a highly intelligent modern woman backed by the wisdom of the ancients or is she a wide-eye innocent to Man’s World? Marston’s Wonder Woman was initially trusting, but caught on very quickly when a huckster tried to cheat her out of her earnings. Jimenez’s Wonder Woman didn’t even know English and had never seen a gun when she assumed her title. Jodie Picault was excoriated when her Wonder Woman didn’t even know how to pump gas. But sometimes Wonder Woman is an accomplished scientist, pilot, and pragmatist, wiser in her realistic expectations of the world than either of those idealists, Batman and Superman. This Wonder Woman knows that when wars are fought, people have to die.

To some degree, the issue of innocence has to do with how recently she’s been rebooted. But it’s also a function of how much the writer wants to use to comment on modern society as on outsider rather than a product of it (like Bruce, Clark, Barry, and Hal).


Wonder Woman is pretty consistently a symbol of female empowerment (heck… the pre-eminent symbol of female empowerment, at least in comic books). But she can also be portrayed as, well… darned-near frilly. Golden Age Wonder Woman may have tossed tanks around, but she also mooned over Steve Trevor. She sure seemed girly when compared to the truly independent Etta Candy. I recall a time she refused to open her taped over eyes for fear of damaging her eye lashes. I find it difficult to imagine Etta Candy determine any course of action based on the condition of her eyelashes.

Arguably, Wonder Woman was at her most no-nonsense when she was “un-super” in the 1970s; that’s
when she was shooting AK-47s, breaking arms, and driving race cars. Yet, she was more stereotypically feminine than ever before. I mean, really… she ran a dress shop. Can you imagine the leather-clad Wonder Woman of today owning a dress shop in the Village? Just how "feminine” writers portray Wonder Woman, in fact, could be said to be less a cycle within the character herself than modern writers struggling with the idea of what “feminine” is supposed to mean.


Matt said...

man I love your literary analysis stuff so much. I like all comic literary analysis, but yours has actually changed the way I think about and look at comics, and this article is no different. It just takes the things I know in my gut and moves them to my brain, if that makes any sense.

On another totally unrelated note, what do you think of the new Green Arrow stuff? While I wouldn't necessarily argue that they're good comics, I think that increasing his Robin Hood points and giving him Merry Men is the best thing to happen to Green Arrow EVER, in terms of giving his stories a unique flavor. What do you think?

Jeff R. said...

One more cycle for Wonder Woman, but not as easy to come up with a two word descriptor for, is that she moves between being almost entirely separate from everything else going on in the DC universe to being in a central, leadership role as a founding JLA member and 'trinity' part. ("Exile/Leader", maybe, since her separations are often that extreme.)

Scipio said...

"It just takes the things I know in my gut and moves them to my brain, if that makes any sense."

I know exactly what you means; that's the feeling that Jane Jacob's work gives me.

And, thank you, Matt; I can imagine no higher compliment, and I'm glad you get something out of what I write.

Nathan Hall said...

I'm impressed that Wonder Woman's various cycles seem independent of her various depowerments/reincarnations/resurrections. If she came back different each time after a major event that would be one thing, but her cycles continue on in each new incarnation as the comic book era demands, without stopping or slowing down.

Bryan L said...

I was struck by the comment that Marston's ... uh, shall we say "unique?" worldview deeply permeates the character and makes it very difficult for other writers to effectively depict her. I hadn't really ever considered that before.

I've been following her fairly regularly since the Perez reboot and it's always seemed like writers emphasize one aspect of her to the detriment of others. Some of it has been good work, but even then, it's always seemed sort of disjointed or out-of-sync to me. Which is probably why so many writers have completely rebooted her so many times.

TotalToyz said...

First person to make a schoolboy comment about a woman having “cycles tee hee”, gets a three-day suspension.

I resent the implication that I would ever do such a thing. (I don't deny it, I just resent it.)

Diabolu Frank said...

Inarguable. This is as it is.

tad said...

Really nice piece, Scipio. I'd always thought of WW as a bit of a mess, character-wise, but you've forced me to re-think. Thanks to your very well-crafted overview I can see the larger picture now.

Scipio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scipio said...

Thanks, guys. I'm not sure it means she's any less of amess, character-wise, though.

It may just be a little clearer exactly what the mess IS. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I've always been of the opinion that once Dr. Marston (and his unique views) were gone, DC has never quite figured out what to replace those views with, so they just keep trying whatever pops in their heads.


Nathan Hall said...

I hope this doesn't make things messier. In fact, maybe we should just forget this WW commercial:

Gene Phillips said...

The only thing I'd add to your correct characterization of Marston's WW (vis-a-vis being worldly or innocent) is that the creator's WW is something of a hardass jock. She likes fighting and beating people, though not in an overly sadistic manner.

Has anyone after WMM given us that sort of Wonder Woman? Even the toughest ones known to me have a little of the "plaster saint" about them.

TotalToyz said...

I think Anonymous has it right. I could be mistaken, but I think for decades Wonder Woman has been a lot more valuable to DC and its corporate owners as a marketing image than as a comic-book property, and the comic has just been kept in circulation to keep the licensing going.

Anonymous said...

great post

Anonymous said...

Of course, the original recipe Wonder Woman included a "persona cycle" not listed here: Dominatrix/ Slave, since when she wasn't teaching her misguided foes the joys of "loving submission", she was generally getting tied up and spanked...


Jason Garner said...

Oh, Scipio! You make my comic addiction feel less like porn and more like high art. I'm so glad that you have returned to provide your unique perspective to the comic book world. One request - please do Aquaman soon!

Scipio said...

LOL, thanks, Jason. There is not reason that supposedly low-brow entertainment can't also be high art. I learned that singing barbershop.

And, yes, I guess Aquaman would be the next logical candidate, wouldn't he?

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