Saturday, September 01, 2007

Least Likely to Change: Wonder Woman

Ah, Wonder Woman.

Like our previous subjects, Superman and Plastic Man, her externals have changed little, if you allow for changes in hairstyle. Her costume is a little different (Is it an eagle? Is it a W? Is it their lovechild?), but then again, it always was. Like many heroes in the Golden Age, her costume was in flux and would sometimes vary in its particulars.

At some point, however, her breasts became large; I think she had work done. Pre-Crisis, Wonder Woman was never portrayed as busty, and she works much better as a character if she isn't. I suppose it's a legacy of the '90s. But in essence, she's still highly recognizable as the same character she was in the Golden Age.

And yet (again like Superman and Plastic Man), she has somehow turned into the opposite of what she was supposed to be.

The Golden Age Wonder Woman was funny. Wait, let me correct myself; she had a sense of humor. Whether it was funny or not, is a matter of taste. Like most Golden Agers, she made fun of people as she beat them up. In fact, she was wickedly sarcastic, more so, I think, than contemporary male heroes. Every time she ripped a vault door off its hinges or bent a gun barrel, she would invariably make some snarky crack like, "Oh, I'm sorry, I had no idea these were so flimsy ... in Man's World." Maybe that's why they originally chose Joss Whedon to direct the movie.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more serious well-known comic book hero nowadays than Wonder Woman, with all the warmaking, and the mother-conflict, and the neck-snapping, and the monthly Dr. Phil episodes with Circe. Oh, sure, there have been attempts to show she has a sense of humor like a normal person, but generally these seemed forced as if the author simply feels obliged to show that WW is a well-rounded well-adjusted person, and therefore must have a sense of humor. Phil Jimenez actually told us once that she had a great sense of humor and that she told a knee-slapper of a joke.
Naturally, he never showed us this; he simply told us, making it meaningless. You really just can't write, "Hey, so and so is a hilarious person. I'm not going to show you any evidence of that, you'll never see them being funny, but you should just take my word for it." I find it amazing that when comic book artists (whom one would expect to be focused on showing rather than telling). are allowed to write they usually TELL you things rather than SHOW them to you. It's comic book irony, I suppose. Or perhaps simply more evidence that artists are generally bad writers.
As lamentable as the lack of a sense of fun or humor is in most modern characters, it's particularly painful for Wonder Woman. Batman can get away without being fun, because his job is to look freaky, scare people, and beat up muggers. Wonder Woman? For pity's sake, she's wearing a tiara, a majorette's costume, and a lasso. She darned well better be fun, because if not, she's ridiculous. And to have a nearly humorless character as DC's symbol of feminism? Not the best move.

As previously shown (and told) on this blog, Golden Age Wonder Woman was all about the whole zany bondage/submission thing that her creator, William Marston, was focused on. Really focused on. Fixated, really. Nightly, I'll be bound.

Modern Wonder Woman is not about that. That's good; no arguments with that change. But it is a change, and an enormous difference between the Modern and Golden Age versions.

But the major difference between the Golden Age Wonder Woman and the modern one lies elsewhere. In the Golden Age, in a time of war, Wonder Woman was about peace. In the Modern Age, in a time of peace, Wonder Woman is about war.

Sure, WW walloped "Nazis and Nips" during WWII; she came to Man's World specifically because of the war, and that was her job. But she was an emissary of peace, and an apostle of a better way. She represented, literally and figuratively, the Power of Love & Wisdom versus the Power of Aggression, Athena & Aphrodiate versus Mars. That's why Marston's freaky bondage stuff makes a certain kind of (really twisted) sense. The female powers of Love and Wisdom were to halt and incapacitate the male tendencies toward War and Aggression.

Granted, what Wonder Woman offered was often what we would call Tough Love. But that was what Marston believed in and the times called for. But the ability to, the goal to, the need to overcome the enemy not simply with force but with your ideas was central to Golden Age Wonder Woman. The Amazons had "Reformation Island", and an entire place devoted to reforming people Wonder Woman caught. Wonder Woman's wicked foe, Paula Von Gunther? Reformed by the tough love on Reformation Island; they even gave her an extreme makeover so she would no longer look evilly Garboesque. Reforming aggressive men, reforming passive women, reforming warmaking societies, always done by showing people a better way where the sexes are treated with equal respect and Passion is yoked by Wisdom and Love; these were the recurring themes of Golden Age Wonder Woman.

In the Golden Age, the Amazons (and their emissary to Man's World) brought Americans promise of peace and the hope of a better way of doing things. In the Modern Age, they bring Americans Amazons Attack and good guys fighting good guys, like in a Marvel comic. They are no longer positive examples, but negative ones. They are dupes, who allow themselves to be misled by an addled and irrational leader under the sway of evil influences into a war on foreign soil, for no apparent gain and with little apparent provocation. Amazons, go home; Americans can provide that example themselves, thank you very much.

Perhaps Gail Simone will be able to change all this, since she, at least, knows how to write women as people and heroes as heroes. But for the moment, Wonder Woman is nearly the opposite of what she originally was in the Golden Age.

P.S. Were the 1930s/40s such a different time than this one, that at least three heroes should evolve into the opposite of their original selves?


Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts, as always. But I have to disagree with one point- WW became busty when Lynda Carter became the quintessential WW back in the late 70s.

The Mutt said...

It just isn't Wonder Woman without the bondage, the spankings and the submission to loving authority.
Or without Etta Candy. Woo! Woo!

Anonymous said...

I'd say we have changed in lots of ways since WWII. The worst among them: our national preference for war instead of peace. That's not even just a post-9/11 thing; ever since Reagan there's been a sense that if we aren't kicking ass overseas, we're letting evil thrive, and it's all the hippies' fault.

(And yet, in today's wars -- allegedly the most desperate struggle our country has ever faced, such that anyone who opposes the war is coward and possibly a traitor -- the army is finding that enlistments are way down, even despite relaxing their standards. So yeah, the bullshit is at least waist deep.)

We're overall less bigoty, though, and that's a plus.

Siskoid said...

Anonymous: Maybe winning WWII was the worst thing that could happen to the US psyche. Seems like the country has been trying to recapture that thrill since then, without success. It's never as good as the first time.

And Scip, I just wanted to chime in to say I'm really enjoying this new series of essays. You're cementing your place as the blogosphere's premiere mythologist.

Anonymous said...

The changes to WW bug me more than anything else. When I was little, WW was a gleeful strong woman who could beat up on people and give a casual wink to the 4th wall while doing it. Occasionally she would fly around with younger versions of herself just for kicks.

Now she's this grumpy uptight woman who spends an enormous amount of time complaining about all the reasons why whatever they used to call Paradise Island is so much better than "Man's World." You constantly wonder why Batman doesn't just turn around and say "if you love it so much, why don't you marry it?"

I also resent the loss of her nerdy identity as Diana Prince. I thought the whole point of the superhero's nerdy identity was to give the reader something with which to identify? What girl can identify with, or become invested in, or even like a totally perfect woman?

Then I always feel that I'm supposed to think she's the total compassionate hero. In reality, I don't see her doing compassionate things, so much as getting pissed off and beating up on people she perceives as being non-compassionate. That seems messed up somehow.

Phew. OK, I feel better now.

Scipio said...

I agree with you, Lonegungirl.

Anonymous said...

"What girl can identify with, or become invested in, or even like a totally perfect woman?"

I am pretty certain that this question is what inspired the de-powered white suit Wonder Woman of the 1970s. Like Superman, Wonder Woman was blessed with great power from her first moment on earth; she didn't have to do anything to earn or develop her abilities. The big difference between Superman and Wonder Woman is that Superman's character was formed by nurturing parents and an actual upbringing, while Wonder Woman was blessed with divine wisdom and grace in the same moment she was granted physical power.

That, combined with the nerdy secret identity you've already pointed to, makes a big difference. In Clark you had a kid (and sometimes adult) who had to put up with being picked on, and wrestling with what exactly to do about it. That's a dynamic all of us mere mortals can identify with. Not so much with Diana Prince, who was occasionally accused of being unattractive, but that's it. It's hardly surprising that a woman blessed with divine wisdom can withstand that sort of ordeal.

Anyway, if they were to revisit the de-powered phase today, they'd undoubtedly do a better job. Writers would make for damn sure that, while she maybe couldn't punch through steel any longer, her determination was far more potent than dumb brute strength.

Marc Burkhardt said...

Well said again.

To be honest, I would be happy if the Kanigher Wonder Woman returned.

THAT woman ran up against some pretty weird S@#$ and never even blinked!

collectededitions said...

I'm open to the Simone Wonder Woman, of course, but for me the Rucka Wonder Woman run (I wrote a look back at it, for interested parties) is when the character really made sense to me. I loved Rucka's West Wing-like take on the character, but moreover I think Rucka did a great job examining Diana's "peaceful warrior" dichotomy--how she could preach peace while at the same time knock bad guys through walls. We see how Diana's really a stranger in a strange land--trained to battle mythological threats like Medousa, and then dropped amongst the human threats in Man's World, and how that can and can't work.

All in all, I was impressed, and my guess is that if Rucka had still been at the helm when Amazons Attack came out as intended, the miniseries might have some out a little different.

Scipio said...

I, too, liked Rucka's Wonder Woman.

David C said...

I'm looking forward to Gail Simone on Wonder Woman - she wrote a great WW in her Justice League Classified arc, one who, when the JLA is at its lowest point, regrouping at the Watchtower, things looking dire... she *bakes*. And it's the right move!

One unremarked change that's a little problematic with Wonder Woman is "power level." A lot of stuff that makes sense for her as a solo character doesn't really if she's part of "the Big 3." As such, it's basically stipulated that she has to be in the same weight class as Superman (punching way, way *above* his weight class is Batman's shtick.) But... that makes fun bits like the "bullets and bracelets" trick just party stunts. (Any explanation I've seen that makes her able to take a punch from Superman *and* still be vulnerable to an errant .38 slug, IMO, doesn't pass the smell test, even for the low standards of explaining impossible superpowers.)

I think it might serve her better as a *solo* character if she was depowered a bit - say, "Spider-Man" level strength or thereabouts. But her "DC Universe" status kinda requires she be more powerful than that somehow.

T said...

“I also resent the loss of her nerdy identity as Diana Prince. I thought the whole point of the superhero's nerdy identity was to give the reader something with which to identify? What girl can identify with, or become invested in, or even like a totally perfect woman?”

You know, now that you bring it up, nerdy Diana Prince really appeals to me. I think the idea of a nerdy woman on the outside hiding the beautiful woman inside (and I’m not just referring to looks here) is a great metaphor people could relate to. It’d be the female equivalent of Clark Kent/Superman, though obviously, Diana Prince wouldn't merely be a female Clark Kent.

Also, I'll add props to Rucka's Wonder Woman: got "The Hiketeia" for my birthday last month and I thought it was wonderful.

Caleb said...

Great piece. I liked modern Wonder Woman stories much, much less after seeing how awesome they were in the Golden Age.

I think there's a fundamental problem with Wonder Woma when you remove her from the World War II Era...her whole origin/point starts to fall apart. Jimenez and Rucka played up the ambassador of a better way here and there in their runs, but only occassionally, and not well enough to counteract this prevalent idea of WW as an ass-kicker, like she has to over-correct for being female by being tougher than everybody else.

While I'm looking forward to Simone's run, she doesn't strike me as a writer who knows all that much about the pasts of the characters she writes (I have a hard time believing we're going to be seeing much Golden Age influence in her run, for example) and in interviews, she's really played up the idea of Wonder Woman as the ultimate warrior.

Anonymous said...

All I know is that *I* haven't changed when it comes to Wonder Woman... All I care is that she wears that costume and keeps looking hot. (Never was interested in her stories.)

Anonymous said...

Re: the increased mammary-size:

Take a look at the Andru/Esposito WW of the 60s some time. They were definitely going the way of the Big Bust Out.