Saturday, October 22, 2016

TL;DR: Wonder Woman at 75, at the United Nation and 'Wonder Woman v.2 #170'

Yesterday was, apparently, the official 75th birthday of Wonder Woman.  As part of that event, Wonder Woman was made a Special Ambassador of the United Nations, an icon for new efforts within the UN to speak on behalf of gender equality.

I don't know how much of Wonder Woman's origins most people know, or how hung up they are on some of the more salacious details of creator William Moulton Marston's personal life, or how that played out on the comics page.  But I do know that Marston was sincere in his interest to create a strong female superhero, not just with whom little girls could identify, but for little boys to understand that women could do all the things that men can do.  They can leap into the fray and they stand as equals (although I'd argue Marston may have had a bit more of an ideal of a matriarchy in mind even more than than just an egalitarian ideal).

"Wonder Woman" TV star Lynda Carter was in attendance

The United Nations held a ceremony to mark the debut of Wonder Woman's birthday, and as the UN will cast the character as "special ambassador" - whatever that will mean.  I was pleased to hear they were giving it the old college try, but also I sort of wondered how that got approved.

The DC Comics website.
The UN website.

From the UN website.

The campaign is about women and girls everywhere, who are wonder women in their own right, and the men and boys who support their struggle for gender equality, bringing about positive change in their homes, workplace, communities, countries and the world together.

Okay. Sign me up.

The UN is a very real organization with enough real-life stuff going on that they need to deal with.  In American comics, television and movies Wonder Woman may be seen as an international figure with a pro-woman agenda, but to a whole lot of people, especially over a certain age, Wonder Woman is a bit of sexist cultural fluff.  She's a sex symbol in heels fighting cartoon villains in good-girl art.  And it's not like DC hasn't struggled with how they depict the character over the years.

Whether you want to talk about the 1950's when Marston was long gone and they made WW the maid and secretary for the Justice League in early issues (yes, they did), the 1990's "thong" era for Wonder Woman, or even the misstep of making Wonder Woman the God of War in the Nuevo-Greek Pantheon in the recent pre-Rebirth run of Wonder Woman (I haven't read it)...  More than any other DC Comics character, she's been subject to the psyches and attitudes of the creators, and like the icon-over-character that Superman has become, people tend to project things onto the character without really knowing much other than the outfit and lasso.

I don't like to be skeptical, but DC Comics has a record of tone deaf publicity from over the years, and despite the fact DC Comics is a unit of Time-Warner, their PR often feels like it was cooked up by interns from a privileged kids' school.  I am certain someone thought this would be an easy sell, something fun, a bit of a promotion for their upcoming movie.  No doubt someone at the UN saw this as a way to fill a Friday with a bit of fluff and maybe get access to some WW stock images for media campaigns for a few months.

Despite a chins-up, smiles-on appearance by Lynda Carter, Gal Gadot, DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson and Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, it's not altogether surprising that the Wonder Woman event was met with protest.  Like, legitimate, fists-in-air protests.  

Carter and movie-Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, hold up the pronouncement

If the past year of watching Hillary Clinton has taught me anything, it's that men disappear into a suit and the rest is what they do or say.  I knew that before.  I read the same articles and thought-pieces as all of you.  Even the media that's supposedly handing Clinton the election spent most of the last year pondering Clinton's haircut, her outfits, whether she smiled too much or too little, was warm enough, whether she used her daughter and grandchildren as props.  Whether she was too prepared and thus cold.  Whether she was unprepared and seemed off.  Whether you're a fan of Clinton or not - this is what happened until the DNC.  This is what we do with competent women as figureheads.

But what wasn't controversial about Wonder Woman as a special ambassador?  Her appearance as an attractive, busty Anglo woman was under attack (which had to be super comfortable for Lynda Carter who's actually Latina, but let's not split hairs), as well as her status as a fictional character.  Which... sorry?  A good American lefty with the privilege that suggests can make all sorts of arguments about why we're judging based on appearance, we're slut-shaming, we're making ridiculous attacks on a fictional character.

While the announcement this event was to occur was made some time ago, I only saw mentions on social media directly related to Wonder Woman and Lynda Carter.  Until the petition appeared.  The media has leaped on this turn, more than ready to play this up as a huge mistake on the part of DC and the UN, dumping any mentions of Wonder Woman's decades of existing as a symbol of female empowerment to point out "they draw her kinda sexy".

It's hard to imagine Superman experiencing this sort of backlash as an emblem.  Or Spider-Man (I confess Captain America might not fly).  And, indeed, Superman was used in all sorts of pro-social messaging in comics and elsewhere back in the Silver Age.  Even for a fictional woman, the other-standard (it seems odd to call it a double-standard) applies.  Does the character smile enough?  Too much?  Is she liberated by wearing whatever she pleases or a woman dressing to please as an object of desire?  Is it pro-woman to be drawn as an athletic woman?  Or is she drawn too much like a pin-up?  And should pin-ups be taken seriously or should they be judged by their appearance?

But I get it.  The UN has real-world issues they're trying to tackle,* and maybe asking everyone in the world to support this was a bridge too far and a bad idea for a publicity stunt.  Lots of people still hold the same opinions of comics as low-culture that were standard issue until about a decade ago.  Some people see a cartoon woman in a star-spangled one-piece swimsuit and roll their eyes.  I won't begrudge anyone for holding that opinion, you're not obligated to read comics or get beyond your notions.

I just hope that maybe something of the effort works - that maybe something of the independent spirit Wonder Woman has been imbued with under the better creators - the woman who truly stands up for justice, who is selfless in her pursuit of bettering the world through a mission of peace (even if it means tearing apart some tanks with her bare hands to get that peace), who is the symbol for earned respect because she's the spirit of Truth.

My memory is hazy as to why, exactly, I started picking up Wonder Woman comics back in the day.  I know it was during the Phil Jimenez run.  I also remember it had been a big enough deal when that when I was picking up *Superman* titles that it didn't pass without comment (this was the gritty 90's), but when I brought Wonder Woman up to the counter?  The clerk literally scoffed at my selection.  And, then, (of course) the prerequisite questioning of my masculinity.**  Clearly a dude doing a fair bit of projection, but I just kept picking it up, month after month.

We all have specific issues of comics that stick out to us, that left such an impact you wind up following a character for years.  After the hundreds of issues of Wonder Woman I've read, the Phil Jimenez written and drawn Wonder Woman V.2 #170 still sticks with me.  The issue was a bit of an oddball.  No fighting.  Lots of word balloons.  But Jimenez took the opportunity to throw Wonder Woman up against proxies representing some of the tough questions, and, in the end, his answers made a fan of me.

In order to write a profile piece on the Amazon Princess, for twenty-four hours, Lois Lane follows Wonder Woman as she goes about her business.  It's not a story about Lois seeing Wonder Woman in action, deflecting bullets or tossing around Cheetah.  It's Wonder Woman as she was envisioned for a pretty great period there in the late 90's and 00's - an ambassador of Themyscira, an Amazon on the world stage who sometimes jumped into action with the JLA.

During the issue, Diana meets with a classroom of challenging French college students who take her on with the bravado of your typical herd of opinionated college students.  She checks in on experiments she's running in the JLA Watchtower to find treatments for diabetes.  She goes to the White House to plead for assistance from then-in-the-comics President Lex Luthor.  She goes to a Rwandan refugee camp to feed children.  She helps with an AIDS walk.  She visits her good friends, and Lois is keenly aware of Diana's mere presence triggering Etta Candy's self-confidence issues.

And Wonder Woman goes to the UN where she is ignored and considered foolish, her sincere appeal for her proposed program dismissed.

Lois herself feels threatened by Diana.  After all, her husband spends a lot of time with the seemingly perfect figure - but the day exposes cracks in the facade, and Lois digs into her contradictions.  It's not an unfair attack - Lois is Lois after all.  But - and this is where I take exception to DC's recent-era decisions to cast Diana as "God of War" - she holds the lasso of truth at all times.  And, lest we forget, what is the first casualty of war?

Wonder Woman is aware of her own faults, her own contradictions, of the opinions of others, and she has to tell herself these truths again and again.  That's how she lives not just with but within her own contradictions.  That adherence to and acceptance of truth, no matter what the world throws her way or what it says, may be her greatest power.

I recommend the issue to anyone - it's pretty good reading.

How women, in the UN and otherwise, feel about Wonder Woman is important, too.  That's not something I can speak to, but I'm aware of the conversation, from Gloria Steinem pacing her on the cover of Ms., to shilling for Mac make-up.  To some people she's a comic book, to others a television show from 40 years ago.  To a newer generation she's a movie character who gets a thrill out of leaping into battle.

As icon over character, she is what is projected onto her.  Powerful, self-confident hero.  Sex symbol.  Ambassador of American Imperialism.  Willing subject of the male gaze.  Emblem of women's liberation.  Gay icon.  Soldier.  Carrier of unrealistic body images.  Pan-sexual mythic warrior goddess of truth and peace.

What I can speak to is that the character became important to me not just for comic-book-action reading and enjoying the character's multi-faceted history, but in that the better writers were talking to me as someone who was part of an audience of young, straight men reading comics as well as the audience they sought, of women, of gay men for whom Wonder Woman was and is a bit of an icon.  It was a superhero book from a mainstream publisher that didn't speak to the same tropes you could find of costumed weirdos beating up mental cases (although she did that, too, sometimes).  It was a book with an agenda and an idea of who this remarkable woman was, an idea that was perhaps a bit above the expectations and norms of comics until very recent years.

It was a comic that made me do some thinking - and no matter how much you love comics, that isn't necessarily what you get out of a lot of superhero comic books.

I'm still reading Wonder Woman all these years later.  That run and that issue had some impact on me.

When the very real U.N. staffers began to protest the celebration of Wonder Woman earlier this week, to myself I said "of course they are".  Way back in July of 2001, Jimenez knew the character well enough to know how people saw her.  It doesn't always matter what words you put in the icons mouth, people have written their own stories and have their own opinions.

In the end, I don't mind that DC rolled out yet another clumsy PR stunt.  I like to think some young woman and some young man will embrace the honest dreams the character of Wonder Woman can represent, or equality, or freedom from patriarchal structures which harm women.  Of equal rights in the big ways and the subtler ones.  I don't think we should shy away from asking for these things on a world stage or be ashamed of what we have or who we are.  Whether everyone embraces that or not, it's not wrong to stand by your ideals when they're intended to make the world better for everybody.

And, of course, Lynda Carter was wondrous.

*Of course, the UN is an odd organization made up of people from many lands with ways very different from our own.  True story:  at one point I was working on a bid to create training materials for newly arrived UN ambassadors, and one of the units was about how it was not okay to have slaves either here or abroad.  That was a big no-no and apparently still an issue in 2007.  There was a lot of other "we really have to explain this?" stuff, but, you know, it's been a while and at this point the "no slaves" bit is what really sticks out.

**to my credit, I didn't just let it slide, but it's been 18 years and I forget what was said, specifically, but something about "pretty sure I can read Wonder Woman and not turn into a little girl" which, now, of course, I'd rephrase as "well, I'd be a kick-ass little girl", but whatever I said, it was lost on them.  If you got into comics in the last 10 years, it used to be way, way worse out there.  Keep up the good fight.


Fantomenos said...

I've been so interested in this character since reading Jill Lepore's article, then book, about Marston.

That the UN would do this AND that people would protest both speak well of how potent this character remains.

Also, I second your point about "egalitarian" not being part of Marston's equation. His gender essentialism seems very strange in retrospect, and (to me at least), really shows that there's very different ideas about equality kicking around out there...

The League said...

Bit of sticker-shock on the cost of this one, but should be a good way to get a feel for what Marston was up to.

It is interesting to see how the man's proclivities were woven into the character in ways we're still grappling with today, but I do sometimes worry that the current take on the character has been lost to the details around Marston's life. Nonetheless, always interesting.

There's also an omnibus of the early George Perez stories out there, and a lot of other collections from Jimenez and Perez. Azzarello's run is strong, but it tilts toward that God of War business I didn't find terribly palatable. Still - pretty strong comics.

Fantomenos said...

Trouble is, I have the 3 volumes they published of "The Wonder Woman Chronicles" which covers about 2/3 of the material in the Omnibus. It’s a shame, because many of the more interesting Marston stories are at the end of his run, and no longer in print.

I wish they’d pick a format and actually complete it, which is what the “Chronicles” claimed they were going to do.

As far as the Perez stuff, I’d love a complete edition, but I just bought the “War of the Gods” collection (which is awesome), so again, I’d be re-buying a lot of stuff.

As far as Azarello's run, it's good noir comics, and I love some of the character design for the Greek Pantheon, but I think it's not a great version of the character. The Finch stuff gets even worse, IMHO...

The League said...

Yeah, I was pretty down when the Chronicles ground to a halt. I wasn't much of one for the Archived Editions because of the price point (although I did use the budget I was saving when I quit buying New 52, and, hey, now I've got all the Superman Archives via used and discount online deals). I don't get what the deal is because Marvel Masterworks seem to be reprinted and do fine. I also don't mind re-buying old stuff to collected editions. But that's just me. I'll likely sell my Chronicles editions to make shelf space.

I didn't pick up the Finch stuff. On the other hand, it looked so wonky, it was my first indication DC was planning some sort of reboot. I mean, putting someone on the book with literally no writing credits made absolutely no sense.