AMAZONS ATTACK -MOON GODS, MAGIC AND MALICE: CIRCE
We’re back with another installment of AMAZONS ATTACK, though this time with a woman who doesn’t even qualify as an Amazon – who is, in fact, by design, their opposite in nearly every way. One of Wonder Woman’s most notable foes, and a regular fixture of her post-Crisis life, today’s subject is a strong contender for the highly contested slot of “Wonder Woman’s arch-enemy:” the magic-slinging madwoman Circe.
Circe is not, of course, an original character created solely for the Wondy mythos. Like much of the comic’s cast and history, she’s actually drawn from ancient Greek mythology, where she’s portrayed as anything from a simple magic-user to a minor god of magic herself, and is known primarily for seducing Odysseus after turning his entire crew into pigs. Like most gods, however, she was more capricious than genuinely malicious, and both gave Odysseus the tools to survive the further perils of his journey, and later granted his wife and son asylum and immortality. Circe was irresistible, unpredictable, and very powerful.
You can see how this makes for an intriguing comic book character, particularly as a foe for a character who, as Wonder Woman does, draws so heavily on mythology herself. Which is perhaps why the Wondy mythos actually adopted Circe very early on, in the hoary days of 1949, in the final chapter of issue #37. This early, quickly-forgotten encounter actually presents a Circe very much like today’s, in both method and malice; however, she was very unlike the modern Circe in threat level. Polymorphing people was her main gimmick, and she couldn’t even do it under her own power, instead having to trick her victims into drinking ensorcelled water. This is probably why she vanished at the end of the story and wasn’t heard from again until 1983, when she got a slight power upgrade (still nothing to take her past third-stringer, mind), and, more significantly, acquired a vague motive for her evil: an oracle foretold that Wonder Woman would be Circe’s undoing, and so she attacked our hero in a preemptive strike. She failed, of course, apparently dying in the process (typical self-fulfilling prophecy at work), and not too long after, the title was cancelled and Wondy continuity was reset.
After the relaunch, then-writer George Perez had a clean slate to define Wonder Woman’s new rogues gallery, and Circe was one of his earliest choices. She first shows up in issue #17 of Perez’s run, for a short storyarc in which she captures and nearly kills Diana in response to a cryptic prophecy that she interprets to mean that Diana will one day kill her. Hewing closely to legend, the story reveals that Circe had originally been a princess of Colchis, with some knowledge of magic. She killed her husband (later revelations will give her good reason, but Perez seems to imply that she just decided she was a better fit for the throne), and when her subjects objected, she grew ever more bitter and hateful and power-hungry in her struggle to control them. Eventually, she hooked up with Hecate, a powerful god of magic who had been mistreated by the other Greek gods and wanted her own revenge. The two traded souls… at which point Hecate promptly died, taking Circe’s soul with her, her last words promising that someday Hecate would repossess her own soul (and presumably therefore kill Circe) “upon the death of witch and birth of witch.”
Circe, now with the power of a minor god at her command and full of both her own generalized misanthropy and Hecate’s desire for vengeance, set about making life miserable for everybody she met. One of her favorite tricks quickly became setting men and women against each other (a remarkably lazy goal in the rampantly misogynistic world of ancient Greece). Naturally, this brought her into conflict with the Amazons, whose entire gods-given purpose was to fight that sort of thing. Thus began Circe’s hardcore hate-on for the entire Amazon race, culminating (at the time) in her orchestrating the murder of their queen – and Diana’s aunt – Antiope.
This basically destroyed what was left of the Amazon Nation (the rest of them having already fled to Paradise Island), and Circe went into seclusion for a couple dozen centuries, happily (well, what passes for happy with a chronically hateful miser like Circe) ruling her island with an iron fist and turning human servants into animal slaves for kicks.
And then came Diana, and the fulfillment of Hecate’s prophecy.
Now, in all honesty, you have to do some pretty impressive mental gymnastics to get from Hecate’s prophecy to anything remotely to do with Diana. But no one ever said Circe was especially stable. She loathes Amazons, and Diana is THE Amazon; she killed Diana’s aunt, and odds are fair that Diana will want retribution for that; she’s into fear and tyranny, and Diana fights that kind of thing. Frankly, on top of her other reasons, the prophecy is just an excuse. But nevertheless, it’s the reason Circe seizes on, and it’s what first brings the two into conflict. And while her motive is pretty lame – “wants to destroy the harmony between the sexes, hates Amazons for getting in the way” isn’t exactly the most impressive thing to put on your Secret Society of Supervillains application – her power is suitably terrifying. She nukes Diana from several miles away with a bolt out of the blue, she transforms loyal allies into monstrous beasts with a wave of her hand, and the only protection against her is the rare herb, moly, which… well, it does essentially grow on trees, yes, but good luck finding one. This newfound formidability combined with her intimate history with the Amazons (and her cool purple hair and sheer panache) made her a very promising villain right out of the gate. Just fix that motivation, and she could be a real contender.
Enter William Messner-Loebs. WML took over writing duties on the title after Perez, and under his aegis, Circe decided to try a new tack. She’d get close to Diana, become her friend, and take her down from the inside. To this end, she gave up her godhood, her memories, and her power, transforming herself into a human woman named Donna Milton. Donna had Circe’s personality, Circe’s intelligence, and Circe’s hatred of Wonder Woman, but she had no idea that she was Circe, since the only way to guarantee she could fool Diana, of all people, was to fool even herself. Not a bad plan, in theory.
In practice, however, it backfired spectacularly. Diana redeems people, it’s kind of her thing, has been since the Golden Age. She brings out the best in most folks, and it’s hard to be around her for long periods of time without reevaluating your life choices and trying to be a better person. Donna Milton was not immune. Donna Milton, in fact, repented, betrayed her onetime allies, and joined Diana on the side of righteousness. She even named her daughter after Diana’s mother, and Diana swore to always protect and take care of the kid. Donna Milton, for the first time in Circe’s multiple thousands of years of life, was genuinely happy, and genuinely liked herself, and genuinely understood the appeal of being good.
And then Diana figured out that Donna was secretly Circe, and asked her help to save a life. Faced with the truth, Donna was able to remember who she was and, to some extent, how to use her power to help, though she got herself badly wounded in the process; her last words before vanishing were to tell Diana, “You’re my only friend.” But now that her inner Circe was waking up again, there was no going back. She wasn’t Donna Milton anymore; Donna Milton was a shell, a lie, and Circe was still the vile and hateful creature underneath that she’d always been, just as bitter and unhappy… and now she knew it. Now she knew what it was like to be human, to be happy, to have friends who loved her – the best and most loving of all possible friends, this is Wonder Woman we’re talking about – and she had to live with that knowledge, and the knowledge that she could never reclaim that sense of self-worth. Basically she suffered the moral equivalent of a “Flowers for Algernon” arc. And this is Diana’s fault. Diana made her good, and then Diana took it away. It’s pretty common for fans to accuse Wondy rogues of having unclear or absent motivations, and usually, that’s pretty fair, but Circe? Circe has the clearest, cleanest and most artful archvillain reason to hate her particular hero in all of comics. Diana almost saved her, and that’s something Circe can never forgive.
Now admittedly, outside of a couple of (quite good) stories by Christopher Priest that not many people have read, very little has really been done with this. Circe’s usual use is for her immense power; she’s functionally a god, so whenever you need something godly done, like messing with superpowers or raising the dead or banishing islands into the aether or whatever, she’s convenient. And this can cause problems for the incautious writer, because it’s difficult to explain how even Diana can defeat a woman who can unmake her with the wave of a hand if you don’t bring along the fact of Circe’s self-loathing and complex history with Diana and desire to make her victims miserable, rather than kill. But when you do bring that sensibility, the results can be truly spectacular, and carry a potential the series has barely begun to tap.