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.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cry for Justice #3

I'm quite a bit behind the curve since I went overseas, and I'm only paying slight attention to the rest of the Blogosphere.  That's the way my life is now.  Even I couldn't miss the Cry for Justice thing, in no small part because Chris was IMing me for my righteous Hal Jordan defense.

I know, in the past couple weeks this subject has been covered ad nauseum and probably better, but I've let it stew too long.

When I first heard the complaints assumed we were witnessing a case of what I like to call "Civil War Syndrome".  Basically, the phenomenon where they attempt to do a political argument between a character on the Left and a character on the Right, but really end up with a character behaving sanely and a character behaving insanely.   This is because in the past decade American discourse has been skewed so absurdly towards the right on certain issues that people quoting Ronald Reagan's views on torture are considered liberal.  I suspect this is because of the different ways in which both the political parties and the media handles Right-wing and Left-wing crazies in the 21st Century.  The Democrats disavow and distance, the media ignores the Truthers and the wilder sides of the Anti-War movement.  This is to the detriment of the Left because the general public adores the middle of the road, and a little exposure to crazy goes a long way in making your slightly left-of-center view palatable.   On the Right, the Republicans embrace and pander, and the media spotlights the Calhoun Club.  This is to the detriment of the Right because the reasonable viewpoints that are just slightly right of center are glossed over, and never discussed as the centrists and the leftists can only see the dark cloud of madness devouring the landscape and defend themselves accordingly.  And so a proper compromise is never reached.

But that's just me doing my periodic tangent into my Personal Grand Unified Theory of Fiction, the Media and Politics, as required by Paragraph 2(c) subsection 7 of the Universal Blogger's Code.

How does this translate to Civil War and Cry for Justice?  Well, the writer of a story looks at an issue in the media and marks down what the conservative character would do and say, and what the liberal character would do and say.  This way, the writer can have a big relevant story.

This is my Grand Theory of how we get the behavior of Tony "We can totally circumvent the justice system and still be good guys" Stark in Civil War, and more recently Oliver "Are you sure you wanna do this horrible thing?  Okie-dokie, Hal" Queen in Cry for Justice.

When I initially heard of the torture sequence in Cry for Justice, I assumed this was how Robinson placed Hal Fucking Jordan--the guy who was basically the conscience of the Green Lantern Corps up until Emerald Twilight Which Was Recently Proven to Be Not His Fault--in the position of defending the torture of a suspect.

Being quite a fan of the O'Neill/Adams run, I had some expectations about the scene.  I pictured Oliver Queen pitching a fit and Hal having a grief-induced breakdown.  I expected that Oliver Queen would be proven right in the end when, as Mr. Sims informed me on the dark day this issue was released, the suspect was revealed not to be the person they intended to torture after all.

I was outraged and angry that my favorite character would be put in the position of rolling back on his principles to make such an obvious point as "torture is bad" simply because once again the O'Neill/Adams run had been misunderstood, and Hal was needed to play the conservative character when there were plenty of other characters who would canonically be in favor of beating/scaring information out of a prisoner.  Didn't this man understand that there are certain characters that you just don't do that with?   I was fired up and ready to rant but stopped myself until I'd had a chance to read the whole cursed issue, even thought I had already completely made up my mind about just how James Robinson had fucked up the character.

Then I read the issue in question.  And was shocked into silence.

It appeared, on first and second reading, that Robinson was condoning the use of torture on a suspect.  And I'm still not quite sure what to say about that.

I can say that the sequence takes place with three characters acting so far out of character they might be their Crime Syndicate counterparts.  Hal Jordan, who has the role of stopping this sort of thing when it occurs in the Green Lantern Corps is observing as Ray Palmer, who is aware of this technique being used to murder one of his dearest friends, is inside what is apparently the head of Prometheus, tap-dancing.

Oliver Queen, who has the role of stopping this sort of thing anytime it happens anywhere, was timidly asking Hal if this qualified as torture.  The Real Oliver Queen would be standing between Ray and the Prisoner making comparisons to Hitler, but this person wearing Green Arrow's beard and costume was standing slightly behind Hal was asking ever so quietly if they should consider human rights.

And the torture itself.  It was a "clean" torture.  You're supposed to read this and think it's not so bad thing.  This is not watching them argue about getting their hands dirty with something that gets relegated in drama to the
basements of Nazi criminals.  This is something that is designed to say to people "See, this causing pain to other people to get them to talk? That's not bad, that's not really evil.  It's not even a risk to his life."  Just a little headache.  Using the same technique that killed Sue Dibny.

And, even though it turned out to be Clayface rather than Prometheus, the torture worked.  The guy spilled his guts and gave them information.

I was angry before I read it because Hal Jordan is what you'd call a "High Road" character.  I thought that he was being dragged through the mud to present a conservative foil to a moral rant. But no, this doesn't seem like that at all.  This seems like the writer thought it was a perfectly okay way to have them go about.  Edgy.

And yeah, this worked for the Shade, but you know what?  Not every character is the fucking Shade and they shouldn't be.