Monday, June 26, 2017

Bullets and Bracelets

Gal Gadot in Wonder Women

Sing, O goddess, the wrath of Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Queen Hippolyta, that brought countless ills upon the scions of Germany. Many a brave soul did her ruinous wrath send down to Hades, many a hero did it yield to dogs and vultures. For so were the counsels of Zeus fulfilled from the day on which Hippolyta, queen of Amazons, and her thoughtless daughter first fell out with one another.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I watched the Lynda Carter version of Wonder Woman religiously. I was 8 when the show premiered. It was one of the only times popular culture let me exercise my inner aspirations for my gender identity without betraying them to the world at large. I've heard a lot of women my age talk about how they played at being Wonder Woman in the 1970s using Underroos as costumes and jump ropes as Lassos of Truth. I didn't get to do any of that, though I might have wanted to. My neighbor across the street was such a girl and I was insanely jealous of the fact that she had a Wonder Woman tiara and bracelets. I had to settle for pretending to be Batman, which was acceptable to a point. I couldn't do the things I wanted as play activity, but I could watch the show, and watch it I did. Because it was superheroes and nominally an action show, it was permitted for someone who was perceived to be a boy. But it spoke to me as a girl. Wonder Woman was an aspirational figure: gorgeous, badass, invincible. Hell, even her secret identity, Diana Prince, worked for a spy organization. No life of motherhood and housewifery for her. Moreover, there was a transformational element to Wonder Woman that was absent in her near contemporary rival for girl power superheroics, The Bionic Woman. Jamie Sommers required six million dollars worth of bionic upgrades to become a hero, which was way out of reach to a lower middle-class kid like me. Diana Prince spun around and magically transformed into Diana of Paradise Island. There's a hardcore wish fantasy involved with Wonder Woman's spinning transformation, which maybe explains how Wonder Woman's fantasy gifts seemed more attainable than Jamie Sommers's technological ones. Magic doesn't have a price tag, after all. A lot of girls my age spent time spinning in hopes of becoming Wonder Woman. I did it myself in private moments every once in a while.

Wonder Woman #1 by George Perez

Wonder Woman comics in the 1970s were lousy, though. Her best stories generally appeared in team books like Justice League of America, where she was often sidelined in favor of male characters, or damselled. In her own book, the stories were often silly and usually pretty patronizing, even when the creators were aware of her status as a feminist icon. The first Wonder Woman series I ever bought was Kurt Busiek and Trina Robbins The Legend of Wonder Woman mini-series, followed closely by George Perez's revamp in 1987. The Legend of Wonder Woman was a loving pastiche of the original Golden Age version of the character, while Perez's book re-imagined her along more mythological lines. Perez's version is the canon from which the current character is drawn and it populates Wonder Woman's rogues gallery with mythological figures in preference to costumed enemies (though some of those show up too). It also changes Wonder Woman's mission in the world. She is an ambassador for both Themyscira and Amazonian ideals of peace and kindness. Moreover, the Perez comics largely avoid a male gaze when drawing both Diana and the other women who populate the story. The Amazons themselves and their island and Mount Olympus itself are rendered in loving pastiche of Hellenic art and architecture, often crossed with the gonzo spacial experiments of M. C. Escher. Perez provides Wonder Woman with an arch-enemy in Ares, the God of War. These comics are mostly pretty good. They are state of the art (in 1987) traditional comics. They stand out in stark contrast to the deconstructive versions of Batman and Superman and superheroes in general that are their contemporaries.

But they have their issues.

Wonder Woman by Azarello and ChiangMost comics created almost exclusively by men are going to step on their own dicks when writing about women eventually, and the Perez version of Wonder Woman is no different. In one issue, Diana's friend, Julia, goes off on the god, Hermes, with a righteous anger that's fully justified. At the end of the book, her outburst is written off by the character herself as menopausal, as if women's anger isn't justifiable if there's not an underlying feminine reason. Menopause, PMS, whatever. That's not to say that men can't write about women or Wonder Women specifically--Greg Rucka's superior version of Wonder Woman is largely free of this kind of shit--only that these things often happen when they do. The New 52 version of Wonder Woman, which debuted in 2011, is almost laughable in its anti-feminism. It's as if writer Brian Azarello went through the Perez origin story with the intention of demolishing its finer points, as if he wants to say, "Look! The Amazons are just as bad as Patriarchy." As if to establish a false equivalence between feminism and patriarchy. When Azarello revealed that the Amazons repopulated Themyscira by raping men and selling resulting male children into slavery, I should have checked out (the lovely Cliff Chiang art kept me reading for a while afterward, much to my chagrin). When the New God, Orion, slapped Diana on the ass and she failed to even attempt to rip his arm out of its socket, I did check out. (1) The New 52 more generally pursued a misguided romance between Diana and Superman that was just too much to bear. DC comics of the current decade really doesn't understand the appeal of most of their characters when they aren't brooding dark-night vigilantes.

In any event, these are the poles of depiction that the new film version navigates.