Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wonder Woman versus the Indigenous Genre

Okay, ordinarily I try to avoid being rude on here. And, yes, ordinarily I fail.

However, today I think I will have to be intentionally rude, or at least unkind, to my fellow comic book readers who seem utterly mystified by a recent statement that Wonder Woman is going to be, in essence, a horror comic.

Brian Azzarello said in a recent interview:
"People need to relax, she's not wearing pants. But it's not going to be a superhero book. I can guarantee you that, it's not a superhero book. It's a horror book."

First, we are not talking about pants here, so, um, keep your pants on.

What we are talking about is something we've noted earlier: DC is using the opportunity provided by the new 52 to expand the genres and tones in what they offer beyond "just superheroes".

"More than superheroes" was a successful formula for DC in the past. Marvel did it to some degree, but by the time Marvel came along "superheroics"--comic book's indigenous genre--had more or less taken over the comic book medium. DC used to publish romance comics, war comics, horror comics, humor comics, funny animal comics, science fiction comics, mystery comics, adventure comics, crime comics, cowboy comics, fantasy comics.

But those genres faded as the superheroes grew in literary power. For most of the genres, readers could get their fix in other mediums... but superheroes reigned supreme in their publishing ghetto. During that transition, during the evanescence of the other non-superheroic genres from mainstream comics, something odd, yet perfectly logical happened:

everyone became a superhero.

Sci-fi hero Adam Strange started palling around with the Justice League and saving them from Kanjar Ro.

Oh, yeah, that's right; Dinah wears a WIG.

Sgt Rock did crossovers with Batman.

Wait, does that say, "1001 Ways to Defeat Green Arrow"?
Oh my gods, it's like shooting fish in a barrel...

Jonah Hex went to the sci fi future.

If this had been the Silver Age he would have been protecting Superman,
who'd lost his powers under that red sun.

The Blackhawks put on those ridiculous costumes ("Howdy, y'all ... I'm the Listener!").

So, is the Golden Centurion armed with a yellow wrist parasol or a lemon jello cube? Because either one is funny. And a serious threat to Hal Jordan.

Patsy Walker became Hellcat.

Yeah, Buzz, Patsy Walker just came in to Ye Soda Shoppe;
and she's coming to KICK YOUR ASS.

Really, every time I say or read that sentence it amuses me; Patsy Walker became Hellcat; it's more ridiculous than, say, putting Pureheart the Powerful into the JLI.

And classic horror character Swamp Thing started working with (and against) superheroes (which actually turned about to be a dromedarian back-breaker, leading to the creation of the Vertigo line of characters who, while still in the DCU, were "walled off" from its superheroic antics). Pity; I was hoping one day to see Swamp Thing in camouflage spandex, swinging around Gotham City on self-grown jungle vines, helping Batman bring Poison Ivy under control, like "Swamp Thing, the Sprout Wonder".

Yes, everyone became superheroic and those who didn't were seen only during huge universe-threatening crossovers, usually surrounded by scads of superheroes, with nothing more important to do than to remind readers, "Hey, DC used to write stories about me!"

Cinnamon says to Zatanna, "Don't go sliding up to strangers!"
Cinnamon thinks, "Jeez, can't I just shoot this saloon-whore and be done with it?"

And, now, that era is over. The success of non-superheroic graphic novels and indie comics have convinced DC that comic books are once again a medium where a variety of genres might flourish and recombine into new forms. As discussed in our look-ahead toward the New 52, there's clearly a lot of genre-mashing going on.

In fact, DC is pressing boldly forward...
back into the Golden Age, where a wide variety of genres were often found within one title. One issue of Pep Comics might contain the patriotic superhero the Shield, the detective in cape adventures of the Odious Hangman, the fantastical Danny in Wonderland, the sleuthing of Bentley of Scotland Yard, the supernatural horror of Madam Satan, and the military adventures of Midshipman Lee Sampson or Sgt. Boyle.

It wasn't just that there were anthology titles during the Golden Ages. The "superhero" genre had not yet coalesced out of other genres; while there were plenty of costumed adventurers (super or not), their tones varied widely and they were modeled after different genres. Batman was clearly a "detective comic" (duh)... at least, when he wasn't fighting vampires. Superman was more sci-fi, Wonder Woman was a war comic that quickly turned to fantasy, and Aquaman (as I've said before) was kind of an underwater Western starring Sheriff Curry. The superhero genre-- if there really is such a thing -- was born out of rampant mashing up of other genres.

The superhero genre threw itself together--well, kind of like Swamp Thing, by using scrips and scraps from whatever genres the seed of an idea happened to ground itself in. The rise of the Dynastic Centerpiece model in the Silver Age was part of the evolution of the genre toward some kind of unity. Crossovers and character interaction across titles were also part of that evolution.

But, unlike Marvel, DC's characters were not originally designed with that in mind. They weren't designed to interact with one another and it created cognitive dissonance when characters with different tones and from essentially different genres were 'forced' to work together. There are many examples of this problem throughout the decades. I won't enumerate them (this is a post, not a book), but we'll let one example stand for them all: Captain Marvel.
"How do you fit the Marvel Family into the DCU?" is one of the Great Conceptual Challenges of all comics (apparently), akin to Fermat's Final Conjecture or one of the Hilbert Problems. Why, it's like putting Pureheart the Powerful into the JLI.

Now, interestingly, DC is actively embracing that dissonance not as a problem but as a
solution. Rather than forcing every character into a "superhero genre", why not let the "superhero" concept expand again to encompasses any genre or combination of genres that it can? Why try to make Wonder Woman fit a pre-existing "superhero model"? It certainly never fit her very well; why squeeze into constraining literary pants that don't fit and limit plot movement? Wonder Woman doesn't fight Dick Tracy -style gangsters while patrolling a 1930s-style city; she never did. Wonder Woman's roots are Graeco-Roman mythology; she's a Greek hero. And what did Greek heroes do...?

They fought monsters. You know... like in a horror movie.

Which I why I am having very little patience right now with dullards sitting around scratching their heads about "Wonder Woman as a horror comic". Especially since you know every damned one of them used to watch "Buffy"...


George S. said...

Thanks for another insightful post, Scipio.

SallyP said...

Seriously? People are odd. Frankly, the thought of Wonder Woman in a horror book sounds delicious.

Anonymous said...

Works for me. I'd be even happier if she fought monsters while dressed in Greek-flavored armor, though, so I'm perhaps in the extreme minority.

Bryan L said...

Wait, the Blackhawks really wore those costumes? I thought that was something Waid made up for JLA: Year One. What were they thinking?

Harley said...

Blackhawks as Superheros- yeah, I lived through that as a reader back in the day. Best story of the series was when they ditched the costumes to help rescue a little girl.

Geez I'm old...

JimmytheJiver said...

I will give her new comic a try as a horror comic. Hope there is more to it than immersion into Greek mythology and doing it bad like her last major reboot over 20 years ago. I'm hopeful it will be a new tone.

Personally I'd prefer it if Wonder Woman was a war comic laced with fantasy and super-science. Too bad nobody has the guts to write her that way anymore. Except a certain writer (who doesn't understand her) I can think of who would do it in a meta textual author tract way.

Siskoid said...

Great post, Scip. You are a guru to us all.

CobraMisfit said...

Considering the jacket-wielding Wonder Woman, I'd say it already crossed into the horror comic. Maybe the reboot will have her battling Hydras and demi-gods, but if she's sporting fringed chaps and a bowler hat, I'm out.

Scipio said...


Cobra, ever seen what she wore during her "mod" phase when she owned a dress shop? A bowler would have been much more sensible!

In fact, that's what her partner, Ching, DID wear.

Scipio said...

Thank you, Siskoid; praise from a high place, indeed!

Redforce said...

I am actually looking forward to this comic if it's really good.
I HOPE DC doesn't listen to those guys- Fanboys ruin EVERYTHING. Keep your filthy mitts off the new comix, nerds! Go read Lady Death or something.

Scipio said...

LOL, maybe DC should publish a separate line of "Fanboy Comics" under its own imprint, with nothing unexpected and nothing but fan-service.

Redforce said...

Yeah, and they would STILL kvetch endlessly about Wonder Woman wearing / not wearing pants.

Dwayne "the canoe guy" said...

You forgot about how well having Jonah Hex in a horror mag worked out.

Scipio said...

Dwayne, Jonah Hex CAME from a horror mag: Weird Western. It has always been a "horror" series: the 'horror' is from other people, not 'monsters'

B.G. Christensen said...

I haven't been overly wowed by Azaarello stuff I've read in the past, but I'm really curious to see his take on Wonder Woman (it helps that the are will be beautiful). You makes some great points about the question of genre, Scipio. One of the things I love about the "superhero genre," such as it is, is that it naturally incorporates so many other genres--mystery, SF, fantasy, adventure, and yes, horror.

B.G. Christensen said...

Excuse me, the art will be beautiful. Though I'm sure Azzarello (now spelled correctly) also uses the "to be" verb beautifully.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I thought this blog was inactive! Glad to rediscover it! And.. great post! I miss the multiple Earths, because you could still segregate the Marvel Family, for instance!