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Grumpy Old Fan | Tainted love

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Tainted love

Serialized storytelling provides superhero-comics publishers a pretty handy buffer. Anything can be judged unfairly, perhaps even after the whole story has been collected. Don’t like a preview image? Wait until the issue itself comes out. Don’t like how the story is going? Wait for it to end, so you can evaluate it in a more proper context. Don’t like how the story ended? Hey, at least you got the thrill of following it issue by issue.

There will always be a certain distance between fans and professionals, simply because the pros know where the stories are going and the fans can only make educated guesses. The previous paragraph’s view of it may be cynical, but I don’t think it’s too far off. Beyond nostalgic, blue-sky wishes for publishers to stop aiming low, and for fans to stop assuming the worst, I don’t have any easy solutions. Sometimes I just wish these sorts of observations weren’t necessary.

Having said all that, I’m not going to call the latest Superman/Wonder Woman pairing (in this week’s Justice League #12, as you might have heard) The Dumbest Thing DC’s Ever Done. I’m not sure it’s even in the Top 20. Heck, I’m not sure it’s the dumbest thing DC’s done in the past 12 months.

What I will say is that it misses the point.

In fact, it misses a number of points:

1. Superman isn’t about “having it all.”

The thing about Superman is that ultimately, his powers don’t matter; he’d act the same without them. In fact, in a very real sense, “Superman” is just the most visible expression of Clark’s desire to do good. Now, this is not to be confused with the different approaches to Clark’s public persona. In the Silver Age, “Clark” became an elaborate fiction, designed expressly to dispel any notion that a certain well-known journalist could also be an omnipotent superhero. Since the 1986 revamp, though, Clark’s Kryptonian origins were downplayed, such that he thought of himself (understandably) as a human being, and aspired to be the best example thereof. We might argue about which version of Clark was the more humble, and therefore the less likely to elevate himself to messianic status, but such an event would be equally improbable in either case.

The point is that Clark/Superman is humble, and he doesn’t consider himself entitled to any more than anyone else. However, apparently such a perspective is difficult for fans (and perhaps some professionals) to understand. Instead, they may find Superman boring for not being sufficiently self-indulgent, and therefore not allowing them to live vicariously through him. Accordingly, to the extent that anyone believes Superman must be with Wonder Woman because no other woman is good enough, he misreads fundamentally the bulk of the character’s portrayals.  (To be sure, this is not how JL #12 plays out, but the preliminary publicity has not exactly repudiated it.)

Almost all of Superman’s most significant relationships are with non-powered humans (pretty much necessarily, but still). Ma and Pa Kent first helped him connect to humanity. Chris Sims can probably tell you more, but I think Superman sees a lot of his own youth in Jimmy Olsen. Perry White personifies everything Clark wants to be in a journalist, which for Superman is as much a calling as it is an easy way to be close to the action. Batman and Superman are kindred spirits, despite their different approaches, and Batman has also trained non-super body and mind to the upper limits of their potential. Conversely, Lex Luthor represents the dark side of human potential: great power and ambition used only selfishly. Finally, Lois Lane embodies all of the others’ positive qualities — a great journalist who never rests on her laurels and never stops working for the greater good. In the 25 years since the 1986 revamp, she had become Superman’s strongest link to his humanity, perhaps even more so than the Kents.

This is not to say that Superman has no significant relationships with super-powered people. However, those relationships tend to show how sometimes, he just needs to be among others who can do what he can. His time with the Legion of Super-Heroes, and his first encounters with the New Gods, are examples of this. So too are his relationships with other Kryptonians, although those carry the weight of their shared loss. Until her death in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superman and Supergirl were especially close, since (notwithstanding unusual communities like the Bottle City of Kandor or the Phantom Zone) they had only each other to carry on Krypton’s legacy. Nevertheless, to one extent or another, Superman has always been more concerned with his Earthly life — and Lois has always been a big part of that.

2. Wonder Woman is on a mission.

For me, the biggest difference between Superman and Wonder Woman is that while Superman shares some traits with Biblical figures, he’s not really out to bring Kryptonian values to an unenlightened world. However, Wonder Woman’s main gig is just that. Whether you call it Paradise Island or Themyscira, or Man’s World or Patriarch’s World, Princess Diana was sent to show the latter what it could learn from the former. Superman’s ethics come from Middle America, but Wonder Woman’s come from Someplace Else — and that gives her an edge that he should never have.  (“There’s the door, spaceman.”)

Make no mistake, that edge has defined Diana since her debut. The Amazons got in trouble in the first place because Hippolyta trusted Hercules a little too much, so Wonder Woman was given the power to avoid getting fooled again.

Thus, it’s a little dissonant to realize that Diana first got the bug to leave home because of a man — Steve Trevor — crash-landing on her doorstep. Steve’s inelegant arrival also brought with it news of the wider global conflict we call World War II, which convinced the Amazons that maybe they should get involved in beating back the Axis (and the forces of the war-gods who were allied with them). Still, for decades Steve was Diana’s Lois, facilitating romance and rescue in equal parts. As with Superman, a 1986 revamp changed things; but where Lois eventually married Clark, Steve got pushed to the background, eventually settling down with Etta Candy (who had long since grown past her own Jimmy Olsen-ish role).

Even Steve’s place in the origin story was downplayed. As told by George Pérez and Greg Potter in Wonder Woman Vol. 2 #1, a dire warning from Olympus about Ares mucking in human affairs prompted the Amazons’ choose-a-champion tournament. Steve’s appearance in Issue 2 confirmed that Ares was on the move, and Diana’s mission was about to start. (For its part, Justice League #12 reveals that Diana helped Steve “escape” from the Amazons, something about which I presume we’ll learn more in Wonder Woman #0.)

As a result, for most of the past 25 years, Diana’s romantic side hasn’t really been explored. Instead, the texts have doubled down on her duties as a diplomat and ambassador. In fact, writer/artist Phil Jimenez created the short-lived (literally) Trevor Barnes, a United Nations functionary, to be Diana’s boyfriend. Most recently, before the New 52 relaunch, Diana got pretty serious with super-spy Tom “Nemesis” Tresser. Another intriguing sort-of pairing involved Aquaman, because they both balanced superheroics with royal responsibilities. Unfortunately, Flashpoint twisted this notion into one of the darker cornerstones of its nightmarish backstory.

Indeed, Flashpoint still offers an unwelcome cautionary tale about the wrong way to write Wonder Woman. In a world where whatever could go wrong probably has, Wonder Woman and her sister Amazons declared war on humanity, believing their queen to have been assassinated by Aquaman’s Atlantean forces. Regardless of the cause, however, this allowed the Flashpoint writers and artists to have Wonder Woman cut loose, ostensibly to show how cool, hardcore, and/or scary she could be. Whether intentional or not, though, this reinforced the notions that a) Wonder Woman needs to be ultra-violent in order to be cool, and b) nothing’s scarier than an angry woman.

Now that Amazon history has been revised to make them more warlike (and apparently more bloodthirsty) in general, it’s not too much of a stretch to suppose that Superman needs to watch out, or else risk setting off the nigh-omnipotent Amazon Princess. This is a real concern, because the attention-getting thrill of breaking such a narrative taboo is nothing compared to the fannish pleasure of restarting a cherished relationship. DC may say it’s not happening anytime soon, but before you know it, Superman and Lois Lane will be back together — and that means Superman and Wonder Woman have to exile themselves to the Friend Zone. However, if Geoff Johns and company use a bad breakup to justify internecine conflict in the upcoming “Trinity War” — that is, if part of “TW” hinges on Wonder Woman being scorned — I don’t see how the New-52 setup recovers.

3. Wonder Woman is not a sidekick.

Because Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s New-52 Wonder Woman has been so iconoclastic, or at least so removed from the rest of the superhero line, this particular coupling feels especially stunt-y by comparison. Even as Geoff Johns and company have reintroduced Steve and Etta (and will soon bring back the Cheetah) in the pages of Justice League, its version of Wonder Woman has been fairly generic, existing mostly to provide the required beatdowns. Before Issue 12, Johns had described Diana’s relationship with Steve in a few oblique, expository sentences here and there. The current issue goes a little further, giving them a couple of pages (or so) worth of interaction. It’s enough to set up a we-can’t-be-together plot point, which in turn facilitates a Significant Moment between Wonder Woman and Supes. I’m not sure it works even in the shorthand-characterization of Justice League, and I really can’t connect it with Azzarello and Chiang’s more fully formed character. Wonder Woman’s brief appearance in Batwoman #12 feels more authentic.

Again, I expect Wonder Woman #0 to shed more light, but it makes me wonder how much coordinating Johns did with Azzarello. Before this all came down, Azzarello told CBR:

Let’s just say that I have fielded calls about her being in some other books right now, but I think her just being in Wonder Woman and Justice League is enough right now. It’s so important to establish her and build her as a strong character. Once that’s all done, then she can go guest star in somebody else’s book. But let us finish what we’re building right now, first.

Oddly enough, there is a lot more freedom with Wonder Woman than there would be with Superman or Batman. There is a lot more freedom. I am allowed to say, “No, let’s keep her out of other books right now.” You can’t say that with Superman and Batman. Superman was in the first issue of Swamp Thing, for Christ sakes. Why was that? To get people to buy Swamp Thing. [Laughs] With Wonder Woman, we’re allowed to be a little insular. It’s not going to last. We can already feel the pressure.

By now I’d say the pressure has gotten pretty great. Ironically, the freedom Azzarello mentions — which neither Superman nor Batman can enjoy — may well come from the longstanding ambivalence about how to handle Wonder Woman. (Yet another take, this time from Grant Morrison, is apparently on the way.)  While I’ve not been entirely happy with the New-52 Wonder Woman, by and large I think it’s a well-crafted book, and its approach deserves some deference.

It should therefore go without saying that the new romance must not risk subordinating Wonder Woman to Superman — but if either party to this relationship is going to be subordinated, or (as described above) is going to end up looking bad, I’m not betting on the Man of Steel. After all, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

4. The Justice League is a team of equals.

For longer than I care to remember, I have argued that the Justice League isn’t just a group of A-list all-stars, it’s an opportunity to blend disparate storytelling styles. In the context of a League adventure, space opera and classical mythology can coexist alongside science-based heroes, pulp-derived urban avengers and magic-users. Those characters normally play by their own rules, but in the Justice League those rules can change, blend, or be thrown out altogether. Above all, though, the characters who make up the League must stay true to themselves — i.e., as they appear in their own books — because to do otherwise (yes) misses the point of the book.

Needless to say, this is a big part of my frustration with the New-52 Justice League. As much as I think this romance is a bad idea, if it had arisen in the context of the Wonder Woman book it’d be somewhat easier to take. That it comes out of Justice League, which so far has had the superficial quality of action-figure play, makes it feel grafted onto the characters. It’s not just that nothing in their respective histories argues for the relationship — nothing in the New-52 especially argues for it either.

And with that we come full circle, because the inevitable response will be “but this is all-new, full of wide-open possibilities we are just beginning to explore,” etc. That’s fine for what it’s worth, I suppose. Remember, if you don’t like This, wait ‘til you see That — and The Other will blow you away!

Regardless, having read Justice League #12, I can say that it doesn’t make the case for a Superman/Wonder Woman romance. The burden of proof might be high, but that’s because the risks are so great. Without sounding too much like an inadvertent advertisement, the very fabric of the New-52 may rest on an amicable separation. Here’s hoping all involved know what they’re getting into.