A few weeks ago Kelly Thompson did a fairly spirited critique on Wonder Woman #7 criticizing Brian Azzarello’s take on the title, in particular the Amazons, as being “an arrow to the heart of female empowerment and feminism”. Her reaction reminded me of an earlier work of Azzarello’s.
In 2002, Azzarello and Richard Corben did a mini-series on Marvel’s Luke Cage titled Cage re-imagining him in “gangsta” look and attitude. The reason I remembered this in particular was a criticism by Dwayne McDuffie in a remembrance by Bruce Timm:
In the early 2000s, Marvel did a MAX version of Luke Cage, and he had the gold teeth and stuff. I remember being with [Dwayne] in a comic book store, and he picked up that comic and said, "Oh, so they're trying to get me to not buy this comic."
The inference being that the title was catering to a characterization that while it may be popular and hip for today, would hardly be seen as noble or worthy and playing to stereotypes. Something that McDuffie continually encountered and struggled with throughout his comics career. Was McDuffie fair? He himself had admitted in the past to never being a great fan of Luke Cage because of the character’s thuggish portrayal. But when you look at the scarcity of African American headlining heroes, there’s not a great deal of characters you can really pick and choose from as opposed the gamut of white heroes from Captain America to the Flash to Green Arrow to Thor. And that’s just a fraction of the blonde ones.
I remember when I read the write-up for Mr Terrific #1, I groaned.
“The world's third-smartest man – and one of its most eligible bachelors – uses his…”
Stop. A playa? Really? That’s what you’re selling me with?
I could be wrong about this title. I could be totally prejudging it the way McDuffie did with Cage but the point is, I was put off by the reference to the stereotype of African American men being virile, whether intended or not.
Now I don’t want to dogpile on Azzarello, he’s done some work I’ve really enjoyed. Doctor Thirteen, Hellblazer, even this take on Wonder Woman. So how does one take account for Azzarello’s sometime myopic depiction of women and minorities? Both of which he highlighted to critical acclaim on 100 Bullets?
Here’s what I see it is: Azzarello was hired to write Wonder Woman with one goal in mind, to sell comics. In being tapped for the job, he wasn’t hired to be the guardian for Comics’ greatest ideal of Womanhood, just as he wasn’t hired to show a hero that black kids can aspire to. His job was to sell comics. My guess is he came in with a good pitch, a re-imagining of Greek mythology that just happens to feature Wonder Woman… albeit one that lacks any great focus on her as a character.
Now, with 100 Bullets, Azzarello was hired to tell a story. I think he had more leeway with a title he co-created and without the baggage of some 40 (Luke Cage is forty this year! Old man!) to 70 years of publication and continuity that he had to abide by. He would have done his research and written characters like Dizzy Cordova and Loop Hughes that would have felt true to him in terms of the story.
With Wonder Woman and Cage, he wouldn’t have had that freedom. He would have had the freedom to sell those comics as they have been sold. And to be fair, Luke Cage has always been a character that exemplified a stereotype. Wonder Woman, on the other hand… Or maybe it’s just her ardent fans being pedantic.
But these characters wouldn’t be where they are now if it wasn’t for their fans. Even in spite of his blaxploitation origins, Luke Cage grew into a revered character. He may not be able to headline his own title for long, but at least he’s got game among the heavy-hitters. More so Wonder Woman, in spite of the revealing costume and the fantastic proportions, like Superman and Batman, she is loved for the values she stands for. And it is because of those, she’s endured for over 70 years.
So who is right? The writer’s freedom to tell the stories they want or the fans’ wanting more out of their heroes than just slotting them into tried-and-retried superhero tropes that have always marginalized gender and ethnicity?
I do think writers should have their freedom to tell the stories they want. But Editors and the Companies should also recognize they have a job as guardians of the characters and properties they own and thus should be obligated to outline boundaries to the people they hire.
Now I know what the argument to that is. These companies exist in a free market environment and whatever makes them a profit is what they’re going to do. If it serves them to write them in the same tunnel-vision way in order to make money, then they should do so. They own them, we own nothing.
But let’s apply that to the A-list. Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man. Can anyone argue that these are “protected” properties? Batman will never become a murderer, Steve Rogers will never be a traitor, Spider-Man will never stop trying to make up for failing Uncle Ben. The editorial boundaries exist to never wildly go beyond the parameters of what is acceptable for these properties.
And if such an extreme direction is decided on, it’s usually a big thing. It’s one that’s carefully considered taking the context of the character as a whole looking towards the future as well as the past. Killing off Superman was a big thing. It changed the whole dynamic, it was well plotted, but it took into account where the character had been before and where he was going in the future so that the property itself was never in jeopardy.
Contrast that with turning the Amazons in Wonder Woman from an ideal society into a callous tribe that exploits then murders others in a three page back-story.