On Wonder Woman

I had no opinion about Wonder Woman until I read All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. None at all. It is no secret that I’m not a DC kid. I’ve read the major stories from the past few years, some highlighted Elseworlds stories, a long stretch of Green Arrow, and an assortment of random other tights and capes comics from the Company over the past few years. I have to admit, in my comic heart of hearts I am a Marvel fanboy, and the sometimes-saccharine appearance of DC really keeps me away from that scene (even if that sweetness is a fiction [I know about Arsenal]).

Anyway, I was reading Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. I tend to default to the David Brothers side of the “Does Frank Miller write a good Batman?” debate. For me, Frank Miller owns Batman. His word is the first and last word; he understands and writes the character on an unbelievably intuitive level. That is both strange and disturbing, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is true.

I’ve always been confused about Wonder Woman on some base level. She is a powerful woman from an island populated by a whole group of powerful women who have cut themselves off from the rest of the world so they could be women in peace. Yet Wonder Woman is in a group that is, most of the time at least, all male except for her. Comics are very much a man’s world, and while that is shit, I didn’t understand how Wonder Woman fit in.

As someone that cares deeply about superhero comics as a genre and feminist as a politics, I realized that I was lacking. Wonder Woman is an important figure in comics history in both of these fields. We should be talking about her more than arguing about her latest costume change, which is honestly the most that I have heard about Wonder Woman over the past three or four years.

I should probably come clear about what made me so interested in the character. In one of the earlier issues of All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, Wonder Woman shows up. She is having a discussion with the rest of the proto-Justice League, which is made up of Superman, Green Lantern, Plastic Man, and herself. The reason for the meeting is Batman and his methods–the rest of the superheroes are worried that Batman, being an absolute crazy person, will create public and governmental animosity toward superheroes and get them all “shut down.” Superman wants to capture him and hand him over to the authorities. An exchange takes place–I have excerpted Wonder Woman’s lines below:

The kind of Wonder Woman that Miller is presenting is very clear: she is a strong libertarian soul who believes that might makes right. Additionally, there is a strong feminism here that is dismissive and distrustful of male power. It seems to me that she is attaching his male power with the status quo of weak power–in essence, all the things that are wrong about the world outside of Paradise Island are because of male weakness and rule. David Brothers, again in his series on Batman, wrote this about the Wonder Woman portrayed in the illustrations above:

I’m not a particularly huge Wonder Woman fan or anything, but she feels wrong in this book. Miller cranked up the man-hate for some reason, and it poisons the character. It’s surprising to me, because I feel like he did so well with her in Dark Knight Strikes Again. She’s royalty, the next best thing to being a god, and knows it. It makes sense for her to be above the regular folk and a little more willing to get down and dirty when it comes to fighting. She’s a warrior princess, right? She’s not just a regular old superhero. I like that idea, but inASBAR, it barely even comes across. She seems mean-spirited, rather than pragmatic. Man, on reading this after finishing the post, do you know what it is? She has no regal poise inASBAR like she does in DKSA. She’s super-human in DKSA, but still clearly loves people and her friends. She’s too raw in ASBAR. She’s abrasive, and not in an enthralling, Batman/Wolverine sorta way.

The same tension exists here as what I felt initially about Wonder Woman. She is a princess, but she was also raised in a culture that separated itself off from male-ness a long time ago. It makes sense to me that she would have an ideological rejection of male power and strong opinions about justice and politics. So I understand where Miller is coming from.

Wonder Woman is a special case of a superheroine created for a purpose. Most of them, sadly enough, were created for economic purposes. The competitive nature of the comics market in the early 1900s meant that a best-selling hero was copied and copied again, with Superman being the template for most of the other heroes that we have today. Wonder Woman came out of a different process. Rather than being created to grab market share away from Superman, Wonder Woman was created to push the ideology of comics away from the masculine fantasies that Superman represented. Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey write in their Comic Book History of Comics that William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, had a very specific project in mind when he created her.

They quote Moulton as saying that it seemed to him that “from a psychological angle…comics’ worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity. A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to the child as the breath of life” (CBHoCB 69). While this is certainly early-20th century psychology at its weirdest and most stringent in regards to women, it certainly informs the Wonder Woman that came out of the process. As a way of appeasing Marston, Maxwell Gaines offered him a job creating and writing comic books–as if to say “If we can’t do it right, maybe you can.”

Marston created Suprema the Wonder Woman. The following page is from The Comic Book History of Comics:

Wonder Woman, conceived by Marston, is a tempering force that fights against the strict male ideology of the comic book world. She usurps the fantasy of Superman and implants one of powerful women, which Marston believed that men wanted more than anything. As a character, she is an interruptive force that preys on the “real” fantasies of a male readership: to be dominated by a strong woman.

This, however, is the reading of Wonder Woman that Van Lente and Dunlavey get. As you will see, there is a plurality in the portrayal of Wonder Woman throughout the years. There is a key confusion about how Wonder Woman operates and what her motivations are that Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the other “zeitgeist” superheroes have managed to avoid. Mirroring that, the community that has formed around Wonder Woman is multiple in their interpretation and affective connections to the character.

Despite the page above being very clear that Wonder Woman was “fully intended for a male audience,” Gloria Steinem was strongly attached to the character. In an essay that prefaces this collection of Wonder Woman stories, Steinem writes:

Here was a heroic person who might conquer with force, but only a force that was tempered by love and justice. She converted her enemies more often than not. And if they were destroyed, they did it to themselves, usually in some unbloody accident. She was beautiful, brave, and explicitly out to change “a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men.” She was Wonder Woman.

Steinem, not caught in the fetish of Wonder Woman, sees a very clear feminist role model. Steinem continues

Many of the plots revolve around evil men who treat women as inferior beings. In the end, all are brought to their knees and made to recognize women’s strength and value. Some of the stories focus on weak women who are destructive and confused. These misled females are converted to self reliance and self-respect through the example of Wonder Woman. The message of the strips is sometimes inconsistent  and always oversimplified (these are, after all, comics), but it is still a passable version of the truisms that women are rediscovering today: that women are full human beings; that we cannot love others until we love ourselves; that love and respect can only exist between equals.

Steinem sees the same social element to Wonder Woman that Marston intended: Wonder Woman exists to fulfill a role that was lacking in the comic book world before she was on the scene. For both thinkers, she is a symbol of movement and change; an introduction of a rogue element into the fold.

This could be the source of the confusion about Wonder Woman and the mixed messages that often come out of reading her comics. Is she a role model in that she offers a nonmasculine way of thinking for men? Or is she a role model because she is a powerful, loving figure that women can model themselves after? Can we reconcile her revealing costume with her second-wave feminist reading? Steinem writes that she was “worried by these contradictions. . . . How could she bear to be like Diana Prince [her alter ego]? Did that mean that all women really had to disguise their true selves in weak feminine stereotypes in order to survive?”

But all these doubts paled beside the relief, the sweet vengeance, the toe-wriggling pleasure of reading about a woman who was strong, beautiful, courageous, and a fighter for social justice. A woman who strode forth, stopping wars and killing with one hand, distributing largess and compassionate aid with the other.

So, with these two readings of Wonder Woman combined with reading a number of comics, both classic and contemporary, I have come upon a GRAND UNIFYING THEORY OF WONDER WOMAN. That isn’t the proper name, of course, but I’m not good with giving things proper names.

Wonder Woman operates on a spectrum between “love” and “duty.”

By love, I mean the compassionate characteristics that Steinem points out. This is also demonstrated very clearly in Brian Azzarello’s and Cliff Chiang’s current Wonder Woman run. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Chiang said that their goal in the series was to “be able to give a version of Wonder Woman that you can sum up quickly. You can always describe Superman or Batman in three words or less. It means that people are really aware of what that person’s mission and personality are all about.”

A slight spoiler for Azzarello’s current run: Wonder Woman breaks off a marriage arrangement with Hades. He accuses her of lying about loving him, to which she responds, “I love everyone.” On one level it seems like a clever way of escaping a bad situation while also being “pure.” On another level, this is the quick summation that Azzarello and Chiang are going for. There is a universal love and compassion that flows out of Wonder Woman and extends to all beings in the universe. It is the reason that she is always capable of resolving a violent situation with words instead of violence. Gail Simone is explicit about this in the first issue of Wonder Woman that she wrote. After defusing a battle, Wonder Woman tells a group of enemy troops that she knows “who she is” and that “vengeance is for those who do not.” So love, and the political effects of it, is always operating in a Wonder Woman comic. But that doesn’t account for everything–she is, after all, a badass warrior princess.

That brings us to duty. Alongside this infinite love for everyone and everything outside of herself, there is a sense of belonging that Wonder Woman has always carried, whether it be to the Amazon’s of Paradise Island, her heritage as a sometimes-demigod, the Justice League, or the abstract concept of justice. Without psychoanalyzing a character, which makes very little sense to me, I can confidently say that I think this is just as strong as the love that Steinem found in Wonder Woman.

In Palmiotti and Gray’s writing of Wonder Woman, she is a young, rash youth who is devoted to her people. In fighting off intruders to her island home, she tells her mother that the Amazon’s must “make [the invaders] fear us. That will keep them away.” Wonder Woman has a dual duty to both her family of Amazons and to justice and “rightness” as an abstract concept. Abnett and Lanning attach onto this concept during their Flashpoint Wonder Woman series–the social ties, and the ideological and theoretical underpinnings of those ties, inform the way that Wonder Woman deals with the world outside of Paradise Island. The matriarchal social structure of Amazon culture is written into her mind, and she applies it judiciously outside of that space.

It is because of these two poles that we have such a convoluted understanding of Wonder Woman. She is both retributive in her sense of justice and social organization and restorative in her belief that everything has the potential to love and be loved. For instance, the scene where she confronts Hephaestus about his trading weapons for people and then forgives him when the specifics of the situation come out is indicative of this; she is quick to search for justice, but also quick to learn and forgive.

It isn’t just that these poles exist, of course. I think that most superheroes fit this kind of simple reading, which is why they are so culturally resilient. But Wonder Woman pings back and forth between the two violently. Our understanding of her only gets more and more muddled each time she makes the jump between “violent enforcer of justice” and “eternally loving mother-figure.”

Let’s return to Frank Miller. In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a Batman comic that has a public opinion about as solid as Wonder Woman’s characterization, Miller gives us the future of the Wonder Woman we saw in All-Star Batman and Robin. Miller has stated that all of his Batman work is in the same continuity, so lets look at a mirroring event in the two comics and think about what they say about Wonder Woman as a character. The first is from All-Star Batman and Robin:

And this one is from The Dark Knight Strikes Again:

There is a transition of power that goes on in both scenes. In the first, Wonder Woman is a violent, intolerant Amazon. She is on the duty side of the spectrum, fully ready to kill Batman in whatever brutal way is necessary in order for her system of justice to continue working unimpeded by the force of “man’s world.” It is after her demands that Superman’s “mask” falls away and he is possessed by anger, unleashing a power so violent and strong that he doesn’t even have to touch in order to be felt. It is a weakness of Miller’s writing here to have Wonder Woman kiss Superman; she, faced with a power greater than hers, is in love.

In Frank Miller’s world, it is this power dynamic that dulls Wonder Woman and pushes her into an absolute midpoint between love and duty. When David Brothers says that she is regal in TDKSA, what he is really saying is that years of Superman’s influence have dulled her violent edges; she is equidistant from a love that could save the world and a sense of duty that could burn it to the ground. Wonder Woman, in the years between the two comics, is colonized with the sympathetic tendencies toward other people that Superman got from Ma and Pa Kent.

The difference in the kiss scenes are important for that reason. Seeing Superman being incredibly powerful lures Wonder Woman into a life of following his lead. Only when she sees him reduced to nothing, to a place where she could kill him, is it possible for her to reawaken as the strong, libertarian Amazon that Miller gives us in All-Star.

So I’ve done a lot of work to get around to this one point: Frank Miller presents Wonder Woman as the perfect libertarian.

Wonder Woman’s story, from Miller work to Miller work, is the most important and complex. Batman is a psychotic who, like a broken clock, just happened to come out on the right end and fight against an oppressive regime. It could have gone either way. But Wonder Woman, right off of Paradise Island, is equipped with a sense of moral duty and a love for all people that would make her a perfect ruler. The only way to keep her down is to be more powerful than her, and thus to capture her; sadly, we see that happen with Superman.

It is even more clear when we take Superman and Wonder Woman’s daughter, Lara, into account. Her moral principles are guided by Wonder Woman–compare this speech to Wonder Woman’s in the first panel in this post:

Humans just make a mess of things. Look at them. When they aren’t killing their planet they’re killing each other. For their own sake–why don’t they just let us take over and run things?

For Lara, it is not merely “might makes right,” but that the ability to think and act with superhuman power means that Superman, her mother, and herself are better equipped to rule. This is not reducible to arguments about “greater power” meaning that a being has a better ability to rule–this is of another magnitude, a real ethical question about what it means to allow people to kill one another when you know there is a way out. The end of the comic informs this as well. Superman asks his daughter about “what we should do with our planet?”

So what is the large lesson here? Wonder Woman is complex. She makes sense as a being who has a moral obligation to be violent, angry, and compassionate. She carries many paradoxes of action and emotion inside of her, of which Frank Miller only teased out one possible alignment. The fact that he can find that in her, however, is important–it isn’t in Green Lantern or Green Arrow or even The Question.

Wonder Woman is special.

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3 Responses to On Wonder Woman

  1. cuc says:

    Obligatory link to Noah Berlatsky’s series on reading Marston’s Wonder Woman:

    Please read from the beginning. He is now writing a book about it.

  2. Tess says:

    An interesting piece.

    I think it’s made weaker by focusing on Frank Miller’s version, which strikes me as pretty close being one of his Spartans from 300, but in drag. The only part that isn’t straight out of Sparta is her awful Red Sonja complex.

    I’m hopeful that Azzarello is going to go down as the definitive Wonder Woman scribe — his current run makes it the best book in the DCU, at least in my opinion. It’s an interesting contrast with the more conventional reading of Greek mythology from the Perez run.

    One other thing I would add is that the character traditionally suffers from the same characterization problem that Superman has: it’s hard to give a character a rich inner life and get readers to use that character as their POV for a story when that character is a complete paragon of virtue. In Superman, this is traditionally handled by making Clark Kent suffer all sorts of indignities that a reader can sympathize with, but that sort of approach doesn’t suit Diana very well at all. As a result, her characterization has been a problem all along. One approach is to humanize her by giving her flaws to overcome (Palmiotti and Gray’s version you cited being a good example), while another is to let Diana be the paragon that she is but put her in situations that are interesting for her to react to. We’ve seen mostly the latter from Azzarello, but the part where she gets angry at her mother for lying to her about her birth — and regrets her anger a few issues later, when it’s too late to fix it — is a small attempt at the former. It will be interesting to see if this balance changes any as the title progresses.

  3. Niles Day says:

    Per Miller, Wonder Woman is not a paragon because her very being Wonder Woman is the acceptance that she doesn’t know best. To accept Miller’s awful characterization, to accept that Wonder Woman needs Superman as a force of temperance (which is sexist as well; the icons of costumed hero comix do not need each other to be defined) is to reject what Steinem knows. We often address the flaws that can be imagined in an isolationist, xenophobic (to varying degrees), female culture–we forget that regardless of execution, Marston intended for his Amazons to be virtuous. That for all the kinkiness or all their wrong choices, something good was achieved in their experiment–Their daughter holds the truth sacred above all. Regardless of the interests of paradise or man’s world. What you see through Miller is a feminazi, one who believes in might makes right, which is the reason why the Amazons rejected Man’s World in the first place. He does not reconcile love and duty because here, Diana has no wisdom, just fury. This isn’t even worthy of a teenage Diana on Themyscira let alone a full-fledged Wonder Woman in a proto-League.

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