Wednesday, November 2, 2011

First Impressions (and more): Wonder Woman

My first memory of Wonder Woman (as a comic book fan—blah blah blah usual disclaimer about how I saw her on Super Friends and lunchboxes as a kid) is her wearing a baseball cap and serving tacos at a fast food joint. I’m referring to the Brian Bolland cover pictured above to Wonder Woman #73, an issue set in the midst of William Messner-Loebs’ mid-90’s run with the character.

I didn’t read Wonder Woman growing up so my exposure came solely from DC house ads and seeing the covers, which more often than not featured her doing stuff I’d more expect out of Batman like fighting the mob or posing for sight gags like the aforementioned waitressing gig or having a delicious pasta dinner with Flash.

As a reader (rather than a cover viewer), I made Wonder Woman’s acquaintance when she became leader of the Justice League following the death of Superman. Now this was a ways before I understood what “pre-Crisis” and “post-Crisis” meant, so the concept that Wonder Woman wasn’t part of the Justice League already and further that her joining was a big deal first time thing baffled me a bit, but I rolled with it. More puzzling to me, I suppose, was how she come off almost as a bit of a wallflower with super strength. Fun Bolland covers aside, my abstract concept of Wonder Woman was still that she was a bad ass—she was an Amazon warrior after all—yet to my mind she was written in Justice League America as a figure whose name and reputation intimidated those around her, but she would then win them over with how down to Earth she was, which was a perfectly valid characterization, but seemed still off to me. I wanted to see her punching Guy Gardner in the face like Batman did, showing him there were women who could stand up to him physically as well as verbally, but instead she tended to reason with him.

Not long after this, Wonder Woman had her Death of Superman/Knightfall/Emerald Twilight prerequisite mid-90’s DC shakeup storyline wherein she was replaced in her role by a redhead named Artemis and took to just calling herself Diana and sporting a leather jacket and biker shorts as her look. I read the stories years later, and as is generally the case with Messner-Loebs (along with a young Mike Deodato) it was solid stuff, but again, at the time it was strange to me how there seemed to be this trending pattern toward making Wonder Woman/Diana “just one of the gang,” and humanizing her whether through comedy, fast food jobs, complacency on a team or losing her status; even at that age, I held the opinion—even if I couldn’t articulate it yet—that Marvel characters fit the “feet of clay” mold better while DC heroes were cool when they were aspirational, so humanizing Wonder Woman didn’t really work for me personally.

Apparently, somebody at DC in the late 90’s thought teenage me was right on, as the next era of Wonder Woman—which coincided with my getting out of comics temporarily, so I didn’t witness it first hand—brought her back in the direction of being a formidable and imposing figure who commanded respect through words as well as actions, both in her solo title under the reins of John Byrne and particularly as Grant Morrison penned her in JLA. Morrison’s Diana was certainly more along the lines of what I always expected, with her being an advocate for peace, but also somebody who understood it may take a smidgen of aggression to get there, at least in the short term. I dug how Wonder Woman fit into the team dynamic, with Superman and Martian Manhunter as her buddies, holding even Batman’s respect, flirting with Aquaman and then reducing Flash and Green Lantern to nervous man-children with her beauty/brassiness combo (Mark Waid was pretty great at writing that last one as well).

I finally jumped into the Wonder Woman well as far as her solo title when my good friend (not then, but now) Phil Jimenez was serving as both writer and artist. I’m a little nervous about using hyperbole here, particularly since I’m talking about a pal, but honestly, Phil’s Diana was the one I’d been waiting for.

Initially I picked Phil’s Wonder Woman up for the art—I’d been a fan since he did Robin fill-ins for Tom Grummett when I was a kid—but I stayed for an endearing take on a character I’d always been flummoxed by in regard to where her following came from. Ok, first off, the art was gorgeous, but I’ve talked about that before. What worked for me was that Phil was able to make Diana the fierce warrior I’d read about in JLA but also give her the softer side I’d always understood she was meant to have without having her roll over when challenged by her friends and teammates or depowering her. The key as I saw it and see was that where past creators had tried to make Wonder Woman more relatable in some way by “humanizing” her and attempted to bring her closer to somebody we felt like we knew, Phil made her empathetic by playing up that while the world may see her as a goddess, this can often make her feel more apart than embraced.

(This is about when I’ll get an e-mail from Phil explaining who this isn’t what he was going for but he can totally see where I’m coming from because he’s the nicest, most charitable person in comics)

She appreciated and loved the people who stood in awe of her, but felt a sad distance from the friends who had grown old while she remained young, the supposed peers who got weak-kneed around her, and the family she had reluctantly put at a distance so she could do her work. Phil’s Wonder Woman was powerful, regal and graceful, but she also had a loneliness in her eyes that made me feel like I knew her more than wearing a baseball hat ever would. This was a woman who could stare Lex Luthor in the eyes and not be intimidated, but didn’t know how to ask a normal man out on a date and was devastated when he said no (both scenes and several other terribly insightful ones occur in Wonder Woman #170, an issue narrated by Lois Lane who follows Diana around for a day and jots down observations, many of which I’ve cribbed for this article; I consider this essential reading for anybody who wants to tackle the character).

I would later read George Perez’s late 80’s reimagining of Wonder Woman—which came directly before the Messner-Loebs run—and see where Phil got a lot of his inspiration from. Perez brings Diana to Man’s World for the first time and grounds his story in her journey of discovery and her relationships with ordinary people. She is very much the foreign exchange student who is fascinated by everything around her and makes mistakes because she doesn’t understand, but she’s also still definitely Wonder Woman, able to stand up inspirationally to any challenge through strength and wits; just because she may be na├»ve doesn’t mean she’s not plenty clever. It was certainly a far cry from the Wonder Woman I remembered playing second fiddle to Captain Atom in my Justice League comics.

When Allan Heinberg launched a new Wonder Woman series back in 2006, I did a retrospective piece on the character speaking with him, Phil, Greg Rucka and others who had worked on her. It was an article about what was upcoming and what made Diana tick, but inevitably a lot of the familiar questions about her relative lack of commercial success against Superman and Batman came up. I explored the gender issue—character and fanbase—as well as the lack of a “Dark Knight Returns” (i.e. classic pivotal story), but also examined the other side of the coin: when Wonder Woman was a success. Two points came up specifically: Wonder Woman was a hugely popular character in the Golden Age, specifically during World War II, and that the Lynda Carter TV series remains a fondly remembered and cherished piece of Americana. While the character has been around over 70 years and had some great stories (and not so great stories) along the way, my conclusion was that her prominent place in the public consciousness came from images ingrained by those earliest tales and her multimedia portrayals in animation and live action TV shows.

I’m no expert on Wonder Woman, I’m just a guy who can kill an evening rambling 1500 words about her while waiting for the new episode of Happy Endings. But the take away I got from that article and really all my experiences reading the character is this: On Wonder Woman either go big or go home (coincidentally enough, a patented Phil Jimenez expression). She succeeded in the 40’s because perhaps even more so than Captain America she was over-the-top American propaganda, but also plain fun. She succeeded on TV because Lynda Carter embraced the role quirks and all. I love the work Perez, Jimenez, Morrison and others did because they enjoyed the fact that they were writing an Amazon princess who had a magic lasso and fought Greek gods; they didn’t feel like they needed to ground her in mundane trappings so readers wouldn’t be intimidated.

I’ve said it before, but it applies double to Wonder Woman: You don’t want to relate to every comic book character, sometimes you just want to read about them having crazy adventures. I’d much rather watch Wonder Woman hanging out with centaurs and fighting Joker with snake hair than serving fast food in a leather jacket.

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