Friday, September 25, 2009

Even the Title Screams Hopelessness

Several of my so-called friends this evening took it upon themselves to remind me that Trina Robbins once wrote Wonder Woman. To be fair, they were thinking of a charming miniseries she helped illustrate, but the first thing that came to my mind upon broaching this best-forgotten subject was a little known one-shot from the 90s entitled Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story.

If you are interested in viewing Colleen Doran's beautiful depiction of the iconic female superhero, this is the book to purchase. But I would advise you to flip through and view the artwork without actually paying attention to the plot or dialogue, because you greatly risk exposing yourself to a display of feminine powerlessness singularly unsuited to the concept of Wonder Woman.

It's been years since I looked at this miserable pamphlet, but the pertinent details are still clear in my memory. Wonder Woman befriends a female archaeologist (a coworker of Julia's, I think) who is being abused by her husband. Diana's feeble and flailing attempts to understand and improve the situation culminate in the drunken husband holding a gun to his hapless wife's head. Despite Wonder Woman having super-speed, and super-strength, and the Eye of the Huntress, and the ability to communicate with animals, and the ability to force people to see the truth with a nifty golden rope she carries, and a nifty golden rope that can be used to humanely restrain crazy people, and talent in negotiation/social strategy gifted to her by ATHENA AND APHRODITE THEMSELVES; the woman (and I believe her husband) is killed because Diana is too late to prevent the tragedy and too naive to see it coming.

Every once in a while, a well-meaning writer chooses to touch upon serious issues in superhero comics. Now, I'm all for a little real-world awareness raising. But there's a danger, when touching on certain issues, of stripping the superhero of the very thing that draws readers to superheroes--the fantasy that you have power to affect your world. Hell, what makes them heroes is not only that they have direct power over the world and use that power to better it, but that when they come across a situation their powers can't fix they go about fixing it through wit or by seeking help from a hero who can fix it. It is absolutely vital to the story that writers find the fine line between treating the chosen issue too flippantly, and robbing the hero of their heroic appeal.

Different characters are better for this than others. Some characters are just win-some, lose-some heroes so they can be helpless in the situation without losing too much for the reader. Some characters only suit certain situations. Some are so ridiculously powerful in certain realms that being unable to affect certain lives positively is not a huge blow to the hero's appeal. And some characters are Batman, and will be awesome even though no one's life can really be improved in their traditional setting.

And some characters are like Wonder Woman, specifically packaged as an icon for a disenfranchised portion of the population. Custom-made and marketed as someone who teaches little girls that they are important and able to make a difference in the world.

Some issues are personal issues, things the writer can deal with directly. Things where one person's life can be improved but everyone's can't so it's a win-one, lose-the-rest or lose-one but maybe-save-the-next resolution. Some issues (such as ongoing genocides) are so fucking huge that they can only be handled in a metaphor, because it would just suck to have the heroes lose. Some issues are close to home, and some are far away and distorted.

And some issues are like domestic violence against women, immediate and personal and directly tied to the core concept and appeal of a character like Wonder Woman. This issue is specifically a matter of women losing their power to direct their own lives. This is an issue that hits close to home for a large number of women, whether they were directly affected or watched a friend or relative suffer through it. This issue is the very definition of powerlessness for many women.

Of course, any well-meaning writer is going to handle it delicately. A good many writers are inclined to end stories of domestic violence in tragedy, so that they can show how a naive girl learns a lesson, raise awareness, or even just vent some of their own helpless feeling a bit. And a number of writers would probably see any victory, however small, against domestic violence as betraying the seriousness of the issue. I can understand why any writer would hold these positions.

But why any writer would think that the Portrait of Feminine Power and Agency completely unable to help a friend suffering from domestic violence would make a good Wonder Woman story, I don't know.

The "Once and Future Story" is the perfect example of where writers go wrong with serious issues and Wonder Woman stories. The problems facing women in the world are overwhelming and quite depressing, and it seems most natural that a character who was raised free of these problems would be unable to effectively wade through the morass of misogyny she encounters. It probably seems most respectful to these problems that a magical princess from an island out of time is unable to make any true headway with them. But that angle strips Wonder Woman of her power, and turns her from a symbol of hope into just another helpless woman pushed around by a cold world

This nicely illustrated piece of shit grated on my nerves more than any stale Greg Horn cover could, because this kind of plot gives a very specific message to readers. Even if you get wisdom and wit as a gift from the goddesses themselves, you can't resolve a conflict peacefully. Even if you have the help of the gods themselves and all the animals of the forest, you're still getting tripped up by the mundane stuff. Even if you can fly high enough to skim the clouds and run faster than a cheetah, you'll never make any headway where it really matters. Even if you can pick up a Mack truck, throw it at a target two miles away and hit exactly what you aimed for, you can't ever fix things.

That's not the message we're supposed to get from Wonder Woman.


  1. Well, y'know, it's not like women can actually DO anything by themselves.


  2. For all of Moulton's eccentric ideas and mores, this is the one thing that he inevitably, consistently got right in his stories. His Wonder Woman would have prevailed in this situation, and most probably would have done it by inspiring her friend to stand up for herself and make her husband back down.

    If the husband then pulled out the gun, Diana would have interposed herself -- but only after the victim had transformed herself into the victor.

    That's the biggest thing we lost when Perez recreated Diana as a Disney Princess, with Super-Special Gifts bestowed upon Her and Only Her by her Fairy God(dess)mothers. Moulton's Wonder Woman stated, time and again, that the things she did were what ANY woman could do, if only they allowed themselves to be free.

    Naive, innocent, sophomoric, even... but damn, that's a powerful statement.