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Grumpy Old Fan | Sex, violence, and Wonder Woman

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Sex, violence, and Wonder Woman

It would be easy, and probably utterly predictable, for me to launch into an all-out rant about the origins of the New-52 Wonder Woman. In fact, because I found Kelly Thompson’s arguments fairly persuasive, that may still happen. However, I am more inclined to agree with Ragnell that the latest round of Amazonian revelations doesn’t quite square with what we’ve already been told, not just in Wonder Woman but in Justice League too. Therefore, there’s a chance that Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang are trying (with the best of intentions, naturally) to be provocative, ginning up interest in the book before the real story comes out.

Make no mistake, I understand completely Kelly’s argument that this version of Wonder Woman undercuts DC’s most venerable feminist institution. Even if the account in WW #7 is squarely contradicted, the insinuation is still pretty harmful. Either way, this is not the “old” Wonder Woman. Accordingly, this may simply be a new Wonder Woman, as different in origin as Hal Jordan was from Alan Scott; and her history may be the brutally-simple solution to the decades-old issue of “what to do with Wonder Woman.”

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Of course, “what to do with Wonder Woman” might just as well be “what to do with William Moulton Marston,” the psychologist with an unusual home life and a drive to save the world who created the Amazing Amazon over seventy years ago. Marston intended Wonder Woman (who debuted in All Star Comics #8 (Winter 1941)) to be a paragon of femininity, teaching both genders how to live in peace and harmony. Accordingly, Marston equipped her with emblems of bondage — a magic lasso* and bracelets meant to recall manacles — which were, in turn, repurposed as part of Diana’s armory.

To be sure, this is a fairly elementary insight. We might see similar symbolism in Catwoman’s whip, inasmuch as it goes to her roots as a femme fatale or even a female revenge fantasy. (I don’t want to dwell unnecessarily on the last part, because I think Catwoman has always transcended that particular image.) The difference, even beyond Catwoman’s longstanding supervillain status, is that Catwoman has had more of an aggressive posture, whereas historically Wonder Woman hasn’t used any of the typical offensive weapons. The Amazon-warrior part of her background has always been present, but I would argue that only since the 1980s (and especially the 1986 revamp) has it been emphasized regularly.

That shift in emphasis signifies a drift from Marston’s original conception and, to put it bluntly, its more sexually-charged underpinnings. Although Marston’s ideas about “loving submission” were fundamental to Wonder Woman’s social-justice calling, over the years subsequent creative teams have found ways to de-sexify that aspect of her adventures. Generally this means Diana is still incredibly compassionate, empathetic, etc.; but with an amazing capacity for violence — carefully considered, judiciously administered violence — when the limits of those positive emotions are reached.

Naturally, critical to Wonder Woman’s mission is her native Amazonian culture. From Marston through Gail Simone (and even underlying the apocalyptic events of 2010-11’s “Odyssey”), the Amazons were set apart by the Greek goddesses as examples for the rest of humanity, with Diana their eventual ambassador. They weren’t perfect, but for the most part they didn’t stop trying. Most importantly, their constant positive presence in Wonder Woman’s life set her apart from her fellow superheroes. Make them just memories and you have Krypton (not always an ethical model, I know), the Green Martians, or the Waynes; take away the support and they’re Atlantis or the Guardians.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Wonder Woman #7….

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Consequently, if you turn them into bloodthirsty misandrists — on par with, if not worse than, the Hercules-led marauders who assaulted the original Amazons — you undercut pretty thoroughly Diana’s traditional mission, to say nothing of her credibility. Wonder Woman #7 reveals that three times a century, the Amazons take to the seas expressly to rape whatever men they can find, killing them afterwards and casting aside any resultant male babies. Rush Limbaugh could not have dreamed up a more perfect “feminazi” image.

Kelly points out that although the Greek myths may give this some support, the new version of the Amazons is diametrically opposed to Marston’s (and by extension DC’s) portrayal. Yes, there was Amazons Attack, the Bana-Mighdall, and the Purple Healing Ray jerry-rigged into a Purple Death Ray, but those were exceptions which proved the rule. Although the Amazons are peaceful, they’re not naïve; because their naïveté allowed Hercules’ men to overpower them and (indirectly) send them into exile. Now, though, the Amazons have apparently gone so far the other way that they’re actively reducing the male population, however gradually. Never mind the superficialities of Catwoman and her whip, the Amazons have become a female-revenge fantasy on a much larger scale.

Let’s be clear: the story isn’t over, and these supposed changes could themselves be waved away. Certainly a more brutal group of Amazons fits Azzarello’s horror-oriented approach, where Wonder Woman is one of the few things standing between humans and the gods’ oft-unpleasant whims. Indeed, if you look at it that way, the Amazons may well be doing just what their gods want.

Regardless, it’s all at odds with Marston, and it’s part of that continuing trend. Greg Rucka had Diana kill Medousa on live television, which of course foreshadowed her snapping Max Lord’s neck (also broadcast worldwide, by Brother Eye); but I’m reminded more of Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti’s 2009 “Rise of the Olympian” storyline.  “ROTO” was probably the bleakest part of Simone’s too-short tenure, putting Diana through an emotional and physical wringer along the lines of “Knightfall” or “Doomsday.” It included an effective scene of Diana single-handedly destroying the Gotham headquarters of the Secret Society of Super-Villains, accompanied by mad-as-hell-and-not-taking-it internal narration. I liked the scene in the context of the story, and thought it was well-executed; and I liked “ROTO” overall — but Diana’s display of raw power, fueled by naked emotion, was just the kind of thing Marston didn’t want to see in his creation. While Wonder Woman’s “bracelets of submission” deflected bullets and reminded her of the Amazons’ defeat, originally they also kept her from losing control and just going on a rampage. Marston set up Wonder Woman as the champion of Aphrodite’s love over Ares’ violence, so letting such violence come unreasonably to the fore would have been anathema. As it happens, “ROTO” ends with Diana killing Ares himself, but Simone is careful afterward to show Diana mending relationships (with Etta Candy and Donna Troy, among others) damaged in the battles with the Genocide monster. Love and compassion still drive Diana, even if her warrior side is more prevalent.

The overall effect isn’t quite switching-out sexuality for violence (although I’m not sure there was much of either in the Silver or Bronze Age WW). It’s more like a gradual encroachment of violence (expressed in her “warrior persona”), mostly at the expense of sex, into the feature’s general makeup. The societal issues haven’t really been pushed to the background until now — and they may well return — but the fact that they’re not part of the current storyline is a little disturbing given its emphasis on fightin’ and killin’.

This is not to say that Wonder Woman absolutely needs a healthy dose of sexuality to offset all the blood, because goodness knows that can be taken to the nth degree as well. Cliff Chiang deserves all the praise he’s gotten for his not-hypersexualized depiction of Diana, and I’d add more recent WW artists like Lopresti, Terry Dodson, Bernard Chang, and Nicola Scott to that list. There’s no getting around the delicate balancing any writer or artist must perform to “do right” by Wonder Woman, and her sexuality is a significant part of it. Marston and Peter didn’t make it easy on their successors, and Azzarello and Chiang have been fairly successful so far.

However, if the events of Wonder Woman #7 aren’t mitigated, the New-52 version will represent a significant break from how the character has traditionally been handled. In part it’s comparable to the science-vs.-magic differences between the Silver Age and Golden Age Green Lanterns — and that gets me back to sex-vs.-violence, which again isn’t quite the case — but it goes deeper than that. Instead of Wonder Woman bringing together the worlds of women and men, she’d merely be “one of the good ones.” How demeaning for her as a character, let alone a cultural institution.

And the thing is, for the most part I have enjoyed the new direction. It’s got action, the aforementioned great art, and a clever set of perspectives on the Greek pantheon.  Their Wonder Woman may well pull off that balancing act.  They just can’t let this slight to the Amazons stand.

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* [While the lasso was a slightly later addition, first appearing in June 1942’s Sensation Comics #6, it was still a reminder of the Amazons’ enslavement, being made of the girdle which Hercules sought to steal.]

** [On the subject of sex-vs.-violence in today’s superhero comics, I commend to you highly plok’s latest post at A Trout In The Milk.]

CREATOR CREDITS

William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman and (probably with H.G. Peter) Etta Candy. Bill Finger and Martin Nodell created Green Lantern (Alan Scott), and John Broome and Gil Kane created Green Lantern Hal Jordan. Finger and Bob Kane created Catwoman. Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky created T.O. Morrow. Greg Rucka and Drew Johnson created Medousa. Jack Kirby created Brother Eye, and Rucka and Jesus Saiz adapted it for The OMAC Project. Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire created Max Lord. Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti created Genocide. Bob Kanigher and Bruno Premani created Donna “Wonder Girl” Troy, and Marv Wolfman and George Pérez developed her into Troia.