Saturday, June 3, 2017

TL;DR: We Discuss Our Love of Wonder Woman as Character, Icon and Hero

This isn't a review of the movie, which I'm slated to see in a few hours.  But with the arrival of Wonder Woman in cinemas, I wanted to reflect on Wonder Woman as a character and my road with Diana.

Like most kids of my generation, I grew up with Wonder Woman as the default "superhero for girls".  Sure, DC had a wide array of female characters, but a lot of "team" concepts aimed at boys included 1 or maybe 2 girls on the team no matter how big the roster got (see: GI Joe).  And on Super Friends, Wonder Woman was the all-purpose female character who was not Jayna of The Wonder Twins of Wendy of Super Marv and Wendy (ahhh, the 70's).

but at least they gave WW two villains from her rogues gallery

Frankly, I think DC dropped the ball a bit by not throwing Batgirl, Supergirl or any of a dozen other heroines into the show, but that wasn't the thinking or target market.*  I think Hawkgirl showed up every once in a while one season.  Heck, I only remember Lois Lane showing up sporadically, and that's Lois Lane.  It would have been good if the girls we played with had reference for more than just Wonder Woman, but if you have to pick a female superhero - well, she's my favorite.

she just makes a tiara work, dammit

When I was very young, we had Lynda Carter on TV jumping around, blocking bullets, twirling and - if you haven't watched the show since the 1970's - generally feeling progressive even by today's standards.  It was a show where, yes, Wonder Woman was extraordinarily good-looking (we're gonna state that, call it an obvious fact, and move on), and wore the satin tights, but after the first few episodes of the first season, the show lost some of the Batman '66 camp edge and Wonder Woman was treated as seriously as George Reeves' Superman, The Lone Ranger, Michael Knight or any other male solo hero when she entered the scene.  That's not nothing.  She was not ogled, she was respected and listened to (as was Diana Prince, especially in Seasons 2 and 3), and she tossed around chauvinist jerks like paper dolls.

When we'd "play superheroes" when I was very little, I remember finding it a bit curious that the boy down the street always wanted to be Wonder Woman, even at age 3 or 4.  But it wasn't until I got older and recalled this around age 13 and asked my mom if that had actually happened that she said it had, that he was obsessed with Wonder Woman, that I really thought about it.  But, you know, I straight up think Wonder Woman is a good show, so you like what you like.  I can see how he would have been a fan, even as I realize that in the late 1970's, little boys were not exactly (read: at all) encouraged to model themselves on female characters.

And I say this as a kid who was pulling Princess Leia figures out of the box every time we played with Star Wars toys.

To give you an idea of how weird the sexual politics of cartoons aimed at boys were, even I got a little weirded out when Super Friends rebranded as Galactic Guardians and added Firestorm (neat!) and Cyborg (so awesome!) and introduced the Fourth World characters to the kiddos (yeah, even Desaad - kids, pray your parents aren't listening in) - only to center Darkseid's whole plan on forcing Wonder Woman into marriage.  I mean, no, she wasn't having it, but...  as I said, even I didn't buy it and I was about 10 years-old and not exactly interested in Women's Lib.

When it came to comics, which I got into around age 11 or 12, I had no problem picking up "team book" comics featuring female characters.  Anyone who grew up with Uncanny X-Men under the pen of Chris Claremont didn't bat an eye at a scene featuring just Kitty Pryde and Storm.  And that was the tip of iceberg.  Heck, I remember an issue where I realized - for a brief moment - Longshot was the only male character on the team.  Meanwhile, Teen Titans featured Raven, Starfire and whatever hero-name Donna Troy was using that month, all as equal members of the team.

But I never read Wonder Woman.  I wouldn't even flip through it.  Which is a shame, at least in part as buying all those George Perez issues as back-issues has been @#$%ing expensive.

I could try to gloss over why I didn't look at Wonder Woman comics, but let's be honest - unless the female lead in what you were watching or reading was played by Sigourney Weaver, someone was going to accuse you of being "gay" for liking it.  Which makes no sense, I know, but...  middle school.  1980's.  And, of course, while I didn't actually understand what "gay" meant exactly when I was 12 or so, I wasn't going to bring that down upon me - that or any label - so why look at the comic at all?

All of this is perfectly shameful in hindsight, but at age 12 in 1980's America - I was as likely to look at a Wonder Woman comic as I was to go try on Guess Jeans.

By the 1990's, titles like Jim Balent's Catwoman (written by Jo Duffy) provided the then-overwhelmingly-male readership of comics two huge reasons to pick up a female-starring title with their depiction of Selina Kyle fighting gravity in every panel.  That sort of thing was the fashion, and you can still find some examples out there on the shelf at your LCS, but it's more of a niche thing these days.

I don't want to get too much into the Good Girl/ Bad Girl comics of the 1990's, but I do recall at least pausing in the LCS over the work of Mike Deodato Jr. on Wonder Woman and wondering how this approach was going.  

that tunic provides some amazing support

If I didn't pick up Wonder Woman during the Deodato era, I found the art in the Good Girl comics a little... embarrassing.   I'm no prude, but I wasn't a fan of the comics that were being made that seemed to reinforce the already negative stereotypes of nerdy comic guys and their ridiculous approaches/ ideas to women.  And I always sort of thought "if you want to see attractive women with a lack of clothing, there are endless publications out there to serve that need."  Which may just reflect upon my naivete at the time or my functional pragmatism, take your pick.  But whatever story was in those pages - and I've never read "The Contest" or the Artemis era of Wonder Woman (I have it in a trade I've yet to crack) - I now had the flipside problem to  address before getting into the comics.

I might have had some idea that Wonder Woman in thongs was in poor taste, and didn't fit how I thought of Wonder Woman (as a sort of cool aunt with a lasso in Super Friends) or in whatever appearances she's made in comics I usually read.   But it wasn't really something I thought about impacting anything beyond *me*. 

By the end of college I was getting very into the DCU and had changed my approach to reading comics a great deal.  This was the first time I was becoming "that guy" when it came to comics, and started digging deep.  I can't say enough about Les Daniels' Wonder Woman: A Complete History, but suffice to say, I recommend it.

Somewhere along this time, I read somewhere about how this new, terrific creator on Wonder Woman who was handling script and pencils, Phil Jimenez.

And as I'd been getting my head around Wonder Woman at that point by way of Grant Morrison's JLA, I figured it couldn't hurt to try out a few issues of the title itself.  I had already started by picking up an issue here or there (written by Brian K. Vaughan, pencils by Scot Kolins, I think), but even this sounded a bit more solid.  

Jimenez started on Wonder Woman in 2001 with issue 164.  Like (I'd learn later) George Perez during his post-Crisis relaunch of Wonder Woman, Jimenez was not just penciling, but writing the comics.

I picked up issue 168, which actually had George Perez back onboard for a creator-collaboration.  Meanwhile, DC knew about the buzz around Jimenez's work and rushed a sort of reprint/ not-quite-a-trade of the first few issues, co-starring Batman, that I was able to pick up.  

The store I used off-campus (I was no longer a student and now working on campus) is long-since closed and turned over owners a few times before it finally shut its doors - but when I took that first issue of Wonder Woman up to the counter - and I am pretty sure this was back during the Vaughan run - the cashier saw Wonder Woman in my stack and said "you're gonna buy Wonder Woman?"  And then asked - and I don't remember exactly how - if I was gay.

And he did not mean it in a "are you celebrating Wonder Woman as a gay icon?" sort of way.  

The thing is, I wasn't even *that* surprised.  I'd like to say I was heroic, I made some speech, but I didn't.  The early 00's weren't the 2010's, and I'd anticipated some comment, maybe not one to take me back to middle-school, but I figured - I had a pretty good chance of hitting a cashier who wouldn't let it go.**   But - I'd also thought "surely not!".

By 2001, I didn't take the comment personally, not in that same way of being terrified of getting labeled or giving the annoying kids ammo, and I did manage something along the lines of "No, but is that a problem?"  As I recall, the guy said something like, "you know... Wonder Woman!  I, uh...  Most *guys* don't buy it."

I wish I could remember more about the scenario or say it had some triumphant moment like on television, but it mostly fizzled as he realized he'd pissed off a customer and tried to find some coverage and made it worse.

Of course, most of what I've mentioned to this point is about me.  *Me* framing my masculinity and sexuality - two things I was pretty well past caring much about how others perceived me by that point - but none of this has a lot to do with Wonder Woman as a character.  *Me* worrying about things until I was at a point in life where I didn't.  

But, anyway -

That Jimenez run got me started on Wonder Woman and I've been chasing that high for sixteen year, a shelf of collected editions and a few longboxes full of comics.  And, maybe too much Wonder Woman stuff crammed in between the Superman collection and some other things.

I know I've written previously about Wonder Woman, v. 2, # 170.  But we all have some comic somewhere along the line that gives us access to the character in a new way that makes us a fan for life.  This one is mine.  And while it may look like a filler issue - Lois Lane spends a day interviewing/ following Diana, Princess of Themyscira, about her daily duties - the conceit works.

The issue isn't saddled with an overarching plot requiring two fights and a chase.  It isn't part of a multi-issue arc, even though it's absolutely in continuity.  But we see Diana as  UN ambassador, a scientist, a social worker, a sister and a public figure.  Even as a woman who just got turned down by a guy.  And sees her issues dismissed at the UN, with all the reasonable suspicion that the rejection came because of who she is, not the failure of the value of her ideas.

The issue is also about Wonder Woman as a friend.  In this case - as DC was pitching their situation circa 2002 - the best friend of Superman.  Who happened to have a wife, who was spending the day looking for flaws and cracks in the perfect Amazonian princess.  And in that, the issue is also about Diana as a woman in the world.

And while one of the strengths of a Post-Crisis Wonder Woman title and character was that Diana was never defined by her romantic relationships with men, the pairing of Superman and Wonder Woman as a platonic pair of pals resonated.  Wonder Woman V. 2, #170 wasn't the first time we saw Superman and WW depicted as pals (early occurrences are mentioned in the issue), but it's the time Lois and Diana talk about it.

Superhero comics - until very recently - were a medium aimed  almost exclusively at young men.  The concept of a platonic relationship between two characters, one in which love and respect is shared, but romance was not on the table, wasn't something you saw a lot of in comics.  And still don't (if the rampant "shipping" conversation in fandom is any indication, we're not any further along as the readership demographics have changed).

The notion that Superman, Batman, etc... can be, literally, just friends with Wonder Woman, that their inner-monologue isn't about how much they want to get under The Girdle of Gaea - that's important, too.  Whether as pals hanging at the Fortress of Solitude or work colleagues making decisions as JLA'ers, Diana is valued for who she is.

Jimenez's run (which I don't think is collected as an omnibus, which it should be) wasn't actually all that long, but featured both excellent superhero'ing and development of Diana as a character with a family and as a person with a foot in two different worlds.  The arc included a breakdown between Diana and her mother, Hippolyta, and occasional discussions with Donna Troy.  And, in Our Worlds at War, the death of her mother.    Which was, I'll straight up admit, one of the few times I got teary reading comics.

Jimenez's run was actually fairly short, but it was what got me onboard.  He's returned to Wonder Woman a few times, usually as a pin-up or cover artist, usually working on something like Sensation Comics - the non-continuity Wonder Woman title thrown out there by DC for those of us who struggled with the New 52 era (although I'll say good things about Azzarello's run, if asked).

The next run - and the one I can't believe hasn't stuck like glue when it comes to how Wonder Woman functions in the DCU, was written by Greg Rucka.   He built on the concept of Diana as an ambassador by (gasp) giving her an embassy, which functioned as a homebase, gave her a supporting cast (including a minotaur), and he made Diana a public figure who had to deal with the press, public perception, etc... while also tangling with Medusa and sisters.

In a lot of ways, Rucka's depiction is the one picked up in recent years and informs the current filmic version, toting around a sword and shield.  Rucka pushed forward the warrior-Amazons idea in a way that bled over far more into how Diana operated in public as a superhero.  he also gave her a sharper edge and a spirit of pushing herself to the limit (and willing to go a bit darker) than other depictions of the character - although it's arguable you can see pieces of this idea in Kingdom Come, some of Jimenez's run and elsewhere.  But women taking themselves to the edge is sort of Rucka's bread and butter.

Since 2001 or so, I've picked up almost every issue of Wonder Woman as either a single issue or in trade format.  All this despite re-numberings, terrible runs, badly conceived new directions, etc...  Maybe I've not grabbed all the ancillary titles or one-shots, but darn near.  My one gap is the New 52-era titles by Meredith and Brian Finch.  Something about that run just spoke to me of "I don't know what this is, but it's nothing I want to make budget and brainspace for".    And I was a little worried I'd stop reading new issues of Wonder Woman.  But with Rebirth, I'm back onboard, and the past year has been phenomenal.  Rucka has written two storylines - one revisiting Diana's early years in "Man's World" and the other, how those events impact the present, with a mature and seasoned Diana in the lead.

I've watched the animated feature films, re-watched all three seasons of the Lynda Carter show (but I've never seen the Kathie Lee Crosby TV movie), and continue to pick up action figures and whatnot (see the image of my office above).  I've read back-issues and collections from various periods in the publishing history of Wonder Woman, a book or three on the history of her publication.  It's never been quite to the depths I've plunged in studying up on Superman, but I try.  And there's far less out there about The Amazing Amazon than there is about The Man of Steel.

I won't say that I was some perfectly formed young man with terrific ideas about gender, social issues, etc...  That isn't true.  I'm very glad there's no real digital footprint of some of the extremely stupid things I said or thought that I no longer believe.  I think it's important to admit that.  I'm embarrassed and ashamed, but I do remember the process of working through the logic and ethics of what have become the beliefs by which I operate.  Much of this began well before I read Wonder Woman (thanks, higher education!) as the concepts of "what does equality really mean?", "what is the experience of others in relation to this idea?" were considerations I worked through, which I expect is in no way a unique experience.  You wind up coming to some uncomfortable conclusions and wrestle with yourself a bit (a lot).  And it's something that's a constant, uphill battle I still work through every day.

In this case, Clark is sharing advice, but it certainly goes both directions.

But, just as Superman has acted for me as I consider how to best be moral in an ambiguous world, I'll say that Wonder Woman has been also served the same purpose while also acting as a north star for how I've considered feminism, equal rights for women, and issues for women that a straight, white male over six feet generally never has to deal with.  I can't and won't say I don't have all the privileges baked into my status as a WASPy male.  I do.  But I am trying to understand, trying to better respond, and provide women across the spectrum of relationships in which I engage with this 51+% percentage of the world with the same respect I ask for myself and to both check and apply my privilege when I can to make sure the scales get balanced a little more.

During her earliest years under the pen of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman of the comics was a crusader for women's rights (and, perhaps suggesting a matriarchical society was superior) - a movement that would take decades before fully blossoming.  But since that time, Wonder Woman has not always been the forefront of gender politics, and when a feminist approach has appeared, it's not the sort of in-your-face preachiness that some folks find so scary and challenging.  It's an assumption of a culture that has succeeded, separate from our own, and is served with both earnestness and a low-level battle Diana faces in interactions with friend and foe alike.

She's just not that into you, Steve

The complexities of Wonder Woman's mission - to bring peace to Man's World by being a warrior for the innocent - is easy enough to dismiss as hypocritical or paradoxical, as if it's not been considered well.  But in many ways, it was the mission of the US Armed Forces at the time of Wonder Woman's conception.  That Ares, God of War, has been one of Diana's primary foes for most of her existence, is no mistake.

That she was rescued, her image rehabilitated by Ms. magazine and Steinem has, I think, informed much of the path of Wonder Woman since the end of the faux-super spy era.

Of course, there haven't been that many women writing or working on Wonder Woman over her storied history.  We got lucky with a pre-Vertigo Karen Berger as editor on post-Crisis Wonder Woman, writers like Gail Simone and artists like Nicola Scott.  It's still a balancing act in a field in which women are starting to get more opportunities and veterans are usually given plumb assignments on DC's flagship titles.  (We can discuss Meredith Finch's odd assignment to the book at some point, and the fender bender that was famed author Jodi Picoult being asked to write Wonder Woman with no obvious knowledge of the comics or DC in general).

Over the years, various attempts have been made to bring Wonder Woman to live-action.  We're all very lucky the camp version which got a sort of trial pilot back in the 1960's never went any further.  We got 3 seasons of Lynda Carter, for which we should all be forever grateful.  A script was worked on by Joss Whedon circa 2005, but went no further.  And, we got the full pilot for a David E. "Ally McBeal" Kelley version of Wonder Woman that was...  really hard to watch and treated Wonder Woman like a sad co-ed.***

All of this was male-driven, from writers to directors to producers, which always struck me as odd.  I mean, it's not as odd as seeing an all-male panel discussing women's healthcare, or passing legislation on same, but it's still... is it *that* hard to find a woman to consider to take a whack or three at the script and one to wear puffy director's pants?

So, it took til 2015/16 to make that happen.  And while the delay seems a decade or so late, maybe now was the first time this would have happened without some cruddy re-imagining.  We could get something as close to Diana as possible, now that the public doesn't need to be re-assured they were seeing a movie and not one of the many mis-steps in the evolution of comics movies since the days of the serials.

I finally accept Gadot as Wonder Woman.  But Ms. Carter will always have the biggest place in my heart.  (and look at director Patty Jenkins!)

Given DC's slate of films to date, we had decided to wait until reviews came out before buying tickets.  And, frankly, I wasn't as bowled over by Gal Gadot's appearance in Batman v. Superman as most.  It felt like more-of-same when it comes to "bad-ass girls in action movies", and never felt like Wonder Woman, in or out of costume.  During the All-Female-Screening "controversy" instigated by our own local Alamo Drafthouse, we cracked and got tickets for this evening.

The past fifteen or twenty years of superhero movies has been a remarkable roller coaster ride.  Seeing the characters brought to the big-screen in a way that is increasingly less embarrassing - and Hollywood seems to have sorted out that they *can* just do it straight - has been remarkable.  Having Wonder Woman bust out as something that my friends and colleagues are genuinely excited about seeing has been a pure pleasure.

Seeing pictures of little girls who have been dressing as Supergirl thanks to the CW show has been remarkable.  To see star Gal Gadot's smile as she stands with these little girls with their eyes wide, dressed in their own little Wonder Woman outfits?  Absolutely the best.  Give them a light to aspire to.

As recently as this fall, Wonder Woman herself suffered a blow, the exact kind Wonder Woman is seen struggling with from time-to-time in the comics as the United Nations first made the character an ambassador of goodwill-type-character, and then had to retract role as protests abounded, not from men, but from women who did not see themselves in Diana.  This is pressure I don't think Batman or Superman have ever had to deal with.

Gal Gadot and this little girl think you're entitled to your opinion as well as to jump in a lake

I work in an academic library, and my co-workers are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 65% female.   Highly educated, mission-driven, opinionated, deeply intelligent people.   I've continued to adjust and grow as I've worked alongside and for women.  I won't say that libraries aren't different from working in IT or the College of Engineering.  It is different, for a thousand different reasons including the culture that's been influenced by the demographics involved.   No matter how cool and collected these librarians and archivists are, it's been kind of funny how many of my colleagues have been back-channeling me, letting me know "I'm going to see WW tonight!"  "I can't wait to see it!" or asking "when are you going?"  Sometimes it's fun getting to be "the comics guy" and "the guy who likes Wonder Woman".

Heck, I've loaned my DVDs of the 70's show to my boss on more than one occasion.

But I get to work with Wonder Woman every day, and I come home to Wonder Woman every night.  In the pages and on the screen, I'm thrilled to have Wonder Woman back at the top of her form.   And, maybe, this movie will give some young men something to think about and speak up about, even as it provides a long-overdue presentation of a character I'm seeing my friends and colleagues rallying around.

She's a wonder.

*Batgirl did appear in other 1970's animated versions of Batman's local Gotham adventures, if memory serves

**the store turned over soon enough to different management and I never saw the guy again.  He had also hassled me for buying Superman or Action Comics, but I can't recall if there was any insinuation.  Just the general "well, obviously Batman is for adults, whereas Superman is for children" baggage that Superman seems to carry like an albatross.

***not that I have because that would be illegal


mcsteans said...

Yay, you're back! This was a great post and I love that you love Wonder Woman. Can't wait to see the movie with you tonight.

Stuart said...

This was a good read, and actually mirrors a lot of my own experiences. Except it was Perez and then Byrne that got me into the comics. But my love of the character goes back even before I could read. As far as I can remember, I've never not looked up to Wonder Woman.

The League said...

Yeah, I regret my late entrance to the character and title. You're lucky as heck you got in on the ground floor.

Jake Shore said...

Good read. I never got caught up with Wonder Woman. Part of it was just being a boy. I didn't identify with female characters. I don't think that's unusual or wrong. I liked princess Leia, but I was much more interested in Luke and Han. Superheroes were the same. None of my friends that read comics were into reading female books until adulthood, and not because they were macho or sexist. They just weren't into it. I didn't even know any girls who read comics until my sister started reading Michael Turner's Fathom.

I loved many of the DC characters, but in terms of the comics, I was a Marvel fan. And even though I had read and loved Dark Knight Returns, my gateway to the DC Universe didn't come until Kingdom Come. That was pretty much my first exposure to the character outside of Lynda Carter. Her portrayal in KC was pretty much the same as later iterations I came across in the JLA series, DC: The New Frontier, and the New 52 Justice League. I appreciated the character, but the only version I was exposed to in those books was the Amazon warrior. And frankly, it just wasn't that interesting. I've read elsewhere (most prominently on your blog) about the other side of the character; about her mission to bring peace to mankind, her goodness and compassion. That is appealing to me, I've just never come across that in my (admittedly limited) readings. Moreover, the hyper-sexual visual treatment of female characters that took hold in the 90s (and still going) didn't help. I never read comics to be titillated, so Jim Lee's Psylocke, Todd McFarlane's Mary Jane and their hordes of imitators (remember the outfit they gave Invisible Woman?) were just lost on me. And as you highlighted, Wonder Woman was not exempt. And after seeing the opening pages of the New 52's Woman Wonder #1 where she is nude, I wrote off ever recommending comics to my goddaughters.

I've been tempted several times to go back and check out George Perez's run on Wonder Woman. I never quite got around to it, but now that I've seen the movie, I've decided the first couple trade paperbacks from 1987-88 might be a good birthday present for my 11 going 12 year-old goddaughter. Is it tacky if I read them first?

The League said...

Hey Jake - I see my response never actually posted, which is disconcerting.

I'm not sure I'd hand over those WW comics by Perez until you've read them. While there's a great 13 or 14 year old POV character in that run, you'd also be the godfather who handed over comics featuring a Diana who may be marginally different from how you're thinking, so flip through it and make sure you're comfortable with everything before you pass it on. If a "sleep in the buff Diana" isn't your cup of tea, this features "go out in the woods in the buff" Diana, but it's not sexualized.

You may want to check out the Jimenez and Rucka runs on WW before delving into other creators. There's a bit there that I think you'd like, and I strongly suspect you'd like Rucka's take in particular.