Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What's in a Name When Your Characterization Sucks?

Everytime I go off about Perez's Wonder Woman run, I get somebody who asks me if at least I like that he tied Wonder Woman so closely to Greek Mythology. The problem with that is I'm not sure he did. Wonder Woman's story was ALWAYS that she was a princess of the Amazons. She was always patronized by the gods, it was just that Marston mixed up the names. Still, I remember the first Pre-Crisis Wonder Woman story I ever read. I borrowed a reprint of her Silver Age origin from my sister, who had been rolling her eyes at it. "Oh, it's terrible," she said, "the Amazons are all 'oh, the men have died in the wars, what'll we do?'" but I still read it. I really liked some parts of it. (Yeah, there's some 60s sexism, but I'll address that some other time.)

Most vividly, I remember the scene where Diana gets her powers. It's very like the start of Sleeping Beauty. The goddesses appear and bestow their gifts, and then the gods come in. There's a spirit of playful competition (with a little sexism from Hercules). Mercury/Hermes in particular stuck out at me, because I remember him being identified by Hipployta and then grinning at the baby. While he's looking at the little princess, his hat slips off. The newborn catches it.

Mercury/Hermes/Argeiophantes/Thoth/Eriounios/Whatever-you-call-him, who knew what he was giving her all along, feigns surprise and smiles with that soft expression you get when talking in front of a baby. "Why, look at that, she's faster than me! That'll be my gift to her." Even the crude still image in this panel gave me the impression of winking when I first read it. There's a life to this character, even though he's only there for a panel or two. I forgot which name the Queen called him by until I tracked this down, but I clearly remembered the smiling man and the playful way he announced his gift to the princess.

Even if she was calling him Mercury in the script, this was definitely Hermes from the Greek stories and you could tell right away. That story about Apollo's cattle? You could see it having happened with this guy. The sheer cheekiness of boring the Spirit of Watchfulness death, and then defending himself in court on the premise that a dull story isn't a murder weapon? You could see it with this guy. Finding joy in a child with such a startling appearance that the kid's own mother ran off? Yeah, this is that guy. He's playing with the baby. That quality with Hermes that made him a popular god, this overconfident (but not insultingly arrogant) and easygoing sense of humor, was in that little panel long before Perez took over the reboot duties.

The names weren't all right, but the Greek gods were sure as hell in the Silver Age stories.

(Side-note, I can't help but notice on the reread that Aphrodite and Athena give her powers vaguely equal to their own, but Mercury and Hercules give her powers specifically GREATER than theirs.)

Hermes has been a favorite since childhood, so naturally I tracked down the Perez issues where he was active. For a long time, I thought I was just annoyed they offed him for so long. But gods die and come back all the time. There's an argument that Persephone does it every year (you think you just fall into the Underworld and become the Queen of Death? No, there's some major mystical transformation going on there.) I'm not sure I'm even mad he was tricked. This happens to Trickster. No, it's all in the way the plot went down.

His storyline is as follows: Hermes is the only male present at Diana's birth. During the early issues he's shown being moody and sullen on Olympus. He directly intervenes in Diana's first encounter with Circe because he thinks it's unfair she wasn't warned about her. (This is weird, because no one had a problem with him tipping off Odysseus.) So far, so good right? The god who was closest to mortals is depressed that the Pantheon is drifting away from the mortal world. The helper of heroes is unhappy he didn't get to perform that role for the current Champion of Athena. The god of messengers is irritated he wasn't allowed to deliver a vital message. So far, he's lost his sense of humor but he's still Hermes. Possibly the solemn underworld aspect of Hermes--who spent his time back and forth between the worlds, was present at the moment of death for mortals, was tied to the Eleusinian Mysteries by bloodline and by carting his sister to hell and back every year, lost a mortal wife to suicide, had a summer house by a river in the underworld, and dated Gothic Lolita Hekate (rumor has it they had a tryst on a lakeside in Thessaly under the night sky where the moon and even the Pleiades could see)--but still arguably Hermes.

That goes away right after this. When we next meet this character, he manifests on Earth and directly announces himself as a god in order to rekindle his dead cult. He throws power around, healing and creating stuff, until he follows a cry for help and finds himself tricked by Phobos and Deimos (Yes. Phobos and Deimos. The DCU version of Phobos and Deimos), who steal the wand and a good portion of his power. Yes, that's right. He was actually tricked by the squabbling children of Ares. Hermes. The Wily One, the Watchful One, the Protector of Property, the Trickster, the Traveler... This guy who's job it was to go to new territories on diplomatic missions, and travel the mortal world incognito to check on their hospitality and pick up the dead... approaches an unfamiliar people in the stupidest way possible, puts himself in a vulnerable position, and gets punked by two members of Ares brood that even in the DC Universe are characterized by more malice and bloodthirst than sense.

I don't know who this guy Perez wrote was, but he wouldn't have lasted a day in Ancient Greece doing the Herald of the Gods job. I mean, seriously? Does anyone think the world of Greek Myth was less formidable than the DC Universe? When Hermes was born, the Gigantes were roaming around (so were a lot of Titans), Echidna's brood was active, and no small number of spirits and nature creatures were attacking even gods. Hermes was an Olympian, but the title alone and his father's reputation didn't protect him from that stuff. Not only that, ancient greeks weren't a bunch of fucking morons just because they were polytheists. They had skeptics, philosophers, and zealots who might just see magic as evidence of evil rather than evidence of the divine. And Hermes of all the Olympians was the one who spent most of his time wandering the earthly plane, dealing with skeptical humans and fending off any enemies of Zeus that might want to prey on one of the younger Olympians. Hermes got his fame for being clever enough to deal with this crap without an outright show of brute force when it came to monsters, and he spent most of his time among mortals being invisible or incognito. Yes, he tried to brazen his way in somewhere as a god among mortals once or twice such as when he was wooing Herse, but notice in those cases ended up with more trouble than he wanted to deal with ("Where'd that statue of my sister come from?"). That's why when you read Aesop he's always sneaking around pretending to be a mortal. That's why he never announced himself to Odysseus or Aeneas and just let them draw conclusions about who was helping them. He was smart enough to expect a little resistance to the "I'm a god" announcement, and had enough of a sense of humor not to have to announce it. At the very least, in an unfamiliar city, he'd do a little scouting around as a mortal first.

Hell, he's the god of communication and persuasion. Surely he'd have come up with a better plan to spread worship than announcing to a hostile world that the son of Zeus is standing Right There, and being extra careless. Surely he'd have done something a little more crafty than just telling everyone who he is and expecting them to believe him, when even in ancient times he'd have gotten more responses along the lines of "....Riiiiight."

The guy can't be this stupid and not have been a cautionary tale by now.

I know exactly the point of the story, that the gods have lost touch with the modern world and are expecting humans not to have changed. The whole point of using Hermes is that he's the only god close enough to humanity to try and reach out and keep the connection open. He's the communication god, the messenger, the herald and the peacekeeper. He'd want to keep the connection alive. And I see that the point was that the Greek Gods were filled with Hubris and didn't know as much as they thought they still. Still, this was totally the wrong god for this moral. For fuck's sake, the most consistent trait of Hermes among all the stories is that he's not a fucking moron. He's a social god, and even at best a con artist. His experience is in dealing with different peoples and carrying messages in the most effective way. He's a suave character, a smooth operator. He's not a naive, blunt buffoon. He'd do a little reconnaissance, and come up with a clever way to approach a strange culture. Then if he fails, at least he failed on the terms that suit the god's realm and was respectibly outmatched. But this guy in the Perez run was deservedly beaten for ridiculous amounts of pride and stupidity.

After this, he spends some time as barely more powerful than a mortal, and ends up dead when Circe eats all his power. Because Circe is in league with Hekate, who just has to be evil even though in her actual mythological appearances she's a good guy who helps against the Titans, helps Demeter look for Persephone, and supports the Olympian Order in the Underworld. She's the goddess of witches, she skeered mortals (except they ALL scared mortals, didn't Socrates get executed because someone was worried about pissing off Hermes?), she had a dark moon aspect so she's a bad guy who gave Circe a shit ton of power to cause a lot of trouble. And kill one of the few deities that Hekate's romantically linked to in the source material. It's as simplistic as making Hades evil, and even less supported. But why I hate War of the Gods could fill a book, and the poor writer was rushed by editorial doesn't make the first five chapters.

I know my Trickster stories, mind you. And I know from Coyote and Loki that the Trickster gets tricked when he's full of himself, and that often it looks stupid. (I can't think of a point where Hermes was tricked, but Hermes was constrained by his official role as the Agent of Zeus, a keeper of the status quo, so maybe he just never had to get cut down to size in his stories. This was a smart move on his father's part, because it kept their resident Trickster figure from running wild all over the epic landscape.) But here's the thing with that. They bounce back and continue to be clever in their other dealings. Getting tricked is a minor setback, and they learn a lesson and keep causing trouble. Perez's version of Hermes was devoid of his Trickster aspect. He never told jokes, he never outsmarted an enemy, I can't even remember a single instance where Perez's Hermes acted in an indirect manner without chafing about it. He confronted all of his problems head on, which is a respectable character trait but not one that applies to the Herald of Olympus. The charm of Hermes is his lateral thinking, his creative way of dealing with people and monsters, his Trickster side, and we never once saw that charm in Wonder Woman, Volume 2.

"Hey baby, ever make it with a fish?"
-- Kalinara's Zeus impression

Of course, when your main character is the spirit of Truth I imagine it's tough to have a patron be a Trickster. Then again, Zeus in his worst behavior has a major Trickster aspect. An aspect that Perez chucked out the window when using Zeus as an antagonist in his "Challenge of the Gods" storyline. Zeus makes no attempt to hide his intentions from the other gods or the Amazons (only Diana, in her naivete doesn't realize he's out to screw her) when in the source material he tends to move as secretly as possible. He's never this blatant. And he doesn't just go "Sleep with me or fight a bunch of monsters." He, as Kalinara pointed out in chat, will just raise his eyebrows at "No", go away, and then come back as a fish. But no, he's blatant. He announces he's going to visit Diana personally, and everyone but poor naive Diana knows that means he wants to screw her over. Everyone knows what he's up to, including Hera (who is apparently made more sympathetic by putting up with this shit), and he doesn't try to hide or cover it up. And when refused, he decrees some stupid punishment (that could easily have been brought about by Hera being pissed off, as it would have been in the source material) rather than come up with some complicated scheme enlisting that son of his that's a friend of Diana. This storyline totally and unnecessarily bypassed the built-in conflict made possible by the identities of these three gods in favor of a totally different character dynamic than seen in any of the Hellenic stories.

But yeah, I guess I can see where making Hera a bad guy would be bad. It's not like women with husbands who cheat on them and abuse them in real life blame people other than their husbands, after all. And it's not like a writer can have compassion for misplaced rage, especially when someone is wronged repeatedly throughout her life and can't do a thing about it. No, that's not something that happens to modern women. Empathizing with a woman who lashes out incorrectly at other women and helping her redirect her rage and power at something constructive isn't suitable for a Wonder Woman story, and having Hera act like Hera isn't close enough to Greek Mythology. The gods have to be called by authentic Greek names, and act completely different than they ever have order to be close to Greek Mythology.

So no, I don't credit Perez's reboot with closely tying Wonder Woman to Greek Mythology. If anything, it lost the spirit of the gods in this zeal to get all the names and places (which is fucking absurd, these deities could use a different name each mention in all 600 issues and not run out of their Ancient World names) to align correctly. Oh, and he put them all in Hellenic costumes. Because that sure helped.


  1. Yeah, I think that's a pretty good analysis of it. The Greek Gods have often not been served well by WW writers.

  2. That is a wonderful and quintessential Hermes moment, yes -- but I'd thought that the Sleeping Beauty Christening part of Diana's origin was something that stemmed from Perez; I wasn't aware of the Silver Age precedent.

    I thought I could safely blame the scapegoat of choice for Wonder Woman-related issues.

    Back in the Bronze Age, when I started reading, we got new stories and Golden Age reprints, but we didn't get a lot of reprints from the Silver Age -- thus, I'm more familiar with Marston's Diana, who had nothing more than the grace and power of her Amazon upbringing, rather than divine favor.

    The divine gifts really undercut the other part of Diana's origin, where she enters the competition to become Wonder Woman incognito, and defeats her sisteren in a series of athletic and martial challenges. If we follow Marston's original version, then Diana wins fairly, and really is the epitome of her culture and values.

    If she does that when she wields divine gifts that none of the other Amazons possess -- she's cheating. And ... she knows about those Gifts. I'm well aware that the Silver Age had volumes and volumes of stories establishing that even "Wonder Tot" was an exceptional creature capable of feats that astounded the other Amazons.

    The character later Flanderized into the Goddess of Truth claims her mantle by deception and dishonesty, and none of the other claimants for the title had a fair chance. It's as if Clark Kent, in full knowledge of his Kryptonian heritage, went to the Olympics and brought home every single gold medal.

    (For the record, I've always liked the Bronze Age revelation that the whole made-from-clay story was a cabbage leaf, and that Diana was really the daughter of Hippolyta and not-a-rapist Hercules. If she didn't know about her divine heritage, she wasn't cheating.)

    I'm hoping that JMS's run ends with a wholesale restoration of Diana's backstory that reconciles these dissonant aspects. I think the reason he's indulging the "something is wrong with time" trope is to explore just what Wonder Woman really means.

  3. Oh, as an aside to the above: I should note that in the Justice League animated continuity, other Amazons are shown to be every bit as formidable as Diana -- and Diana is shown to have stolen the armor, avoiding the contest for the title entirely.

    I rather like that. Golden Age Diana disobeyed her mother and entered the contest out of infatuation. Animated Diana took it upon herself to break the Amazon policy of isolation, because the world was in peril and they wouldn't buck tradition to intervene.

  4. SO nice to read something by someone who really knows her mythology. And seriously, how can anyone NOT like Hermes?

  5. Random Comment:

    I've always been a bit confused by Diana as 'The Goddess of Truth' when she seems more practically to be 'THE GODDESS OF SELF DETERMINATION'.

    But I may just have been spoiled by the animated 90's series and the Greg Ruka run.