Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Wonder Woman and Religion

Most of us blame the difficulty some writers have understanding Wonder Woman on gender. "She's a complex woman," I've heard. "They're each writing their ideal woman," I've read.

Read On

Most of these writers, of course, have no trouble with characters like Lois Lane, Barbara Gordon, or Dinah Lance. Those who do, they don't have problems to the extent they have with Diana. Lois, Babs, and Dinah seem to have much more clearly defined personalities than Diana. Diana seems almost schizophrenic, as every writer explores a different aspect, every writer makes their own personal stamp on her. For Perez, she was a total innocent, a full optimist. Loebs wrote a rebellious daughter who ran off to see the world and tried to become part of it. Byrne wrote a stiff, formal princess. Waid played up the warrior side. Morrison played up the disciplined competitor. Luke's Diana seemed lost to me. Jimenez wrote a highly emotional woman. Simonson introduced a rational, thinking woman. Rucka took to the rational, thinking side, too, but he added regality and spirituality. But the other three mentioned tend to be the same. Even lackluster writers have a basic handle on those characters, but it takes a really good writer to make Diana work.

Diana's problem isn't her gender, it's that she's from an alien and ancient culture. Not simply in attitude and philosophy, but in the religion. I think that's where it breaks down.

Most of the writers and editors (though not all, I'm sure) can be presumed to be from a monotheistic religious background. Supreme Deity, pitch perfect in all ways, representing the good and only the good in the universe, that's the measure of divinity. Most of their readers are from this background too. From this background, Diana's Pantheon seems like a kindergarten class with cosmic power. Hardly respectable or acceptable in their view of divinity (even though it's supremely unfair to judge a foreign religion in terms of your own). Divinity is good, and anything that's bad is not divine, after all. And if anyone finds the behavior of the Greek Pantheon acceptable in polite society, they need serious counseling. It's bad sometimes, therefore it can't really be divine.

Here's the thing, though. To the Modern Pagan Mind (I can't speak for the Ancients), this isn't the way to view divinity. Divinity is not good or bad, Divinity is good and bad. The Gods Just Are. Their behavior can be truly awful and truly wonderful. Their nature encompasses the extreme best and extreme worst of their spheres of influence. They aren't "people," they are "ideas." Aphrodite isn't a woman, she's the Love/Lust -- The Need to Continue/Protect the Species. Her arena includes lofty, self-sacrificial love and wild, self-(and other-) destructive lust. Ares' realm is protection and defense in addition to excessive force and violence. Athena's gentle compassionate wisdom exists alongside coldblooded scheming.

Some people who've read the Greek stories ask "How could they worship this?" (which is fascinating because I have a pagan friend who's read the Old Testament and constantly asks that about the Judeo-Christian religions). They have trouble reading in the abstract, I guess. They don't realize Athena and Aphrodite aren't women, they're concepts. Where it says "Athena does this" you should read "Wisdom does this," or "Knowledge does this." Apollo would be Reason or Light. Aphrodite is Love and Lust. Ares is War...etc..

Zeus alternately behaves as a loving father and an utter dick. I've seen it analyzed that Zeus represents Men in Power Positions (Kings, CEOs.etc..), or just Power itself. Power blesses, sets rules, rewards, creates and destroys, exploits, brutalizes, tyrannizes also. Worship of Zeus isn't necessarily embracing the worst indulgence of power, but it's representing Power as it is and accepting that it can harm and help. Aphrodite is the full scale of love and lust -- from the lowest urge to the highest regard. Her worship is respecting and accepting the nature of relationships/bonds between people, at the best and worst of it.

But people don't think this way. So, in order to write a character who worships these gods, and still use them, the writers need to find a way to make it acceptable to the majority.

They usually use one of three approaches: 1) Suck all of the life and personality out of these vibrant, energetic deities, 2) Write down the gods, making them subordinate/lesser than the supreme deity, or 3) both of the above.
Then Greek Gods are just background characters, and supporting cast in Wonder Woman. This would be fine, if they were used to support the story and move along the plot without being without being degraded in the above ways. Since the Post-Crisis Reboot, Diana's gods have been arbitrarily put in danger (Hermes, the entire Pantheon a few times), depowered (Hermes), made evil (Hecate), made ineffective (Persephone), rescued by her (Poor Hermes!) and even killed off (Hermes, Hades) in order to make Diana look stronger, and to make their existence more palatable to the majority of readers.

The trendsetter here was Perez. Sure, he told a fine story about a god being made flesh and suffering humiliation and depowerment as a human when he used Hermes. But in doing so, he drained Hermes of all of the personality that made Hermes so likeable. It could have been an acceptable result of this ordeal, but he did the same to the rest of the Pantheon. He turned Olympus into a funeral home. Even when Zeus acted like Zeus, he was so stiff and formal that it was unbelievable. Every god was the walking dead. A cipher. This is what he expected to represent the most vital pieces of life? Even Hades, the god of the dead represents a primal, energetic force in the universe that every human being knows in the deepest part of their soul. Perez's Olympus just didn't convey that. He couldn't even get their appearances right! (Artemis is Not A Blonde!) I groaned every time I saw the gods (with the exception of Hermes, whom I was excusing for his being weakened) when I read Wonder Woman for a long long time. And the death of Hermes was a continual sore spot which was only healed recently.

As I see it, Rucka seemed to have the best approach. The stories were heavy and plodding, like a Greek Tragedy, because he was playing up the cultural aspect. Ultimately, though, he has had my favorite Wonder Woman run to date. He'll always have a special place in my heart for returning Hermes to the living (conversely, he'll always be a sore spot for killing Hades). He wrote the gods as their personalities, introduced a mildly metaphysical (Cotton Candy Symbolism) explanation for their fluctuating power levels called "Indirect Worship" which reinforced the idea of the gods as Concepts with Consciousness as opposed to Normal Characters.

If you follow the maneuvers of Athena throughout Rucka's run, actually, you'll notice a parallel with what's going on inside Diana's head, which is truly an effective way to use the gods (if he did it on purpose -- and I have trouble believing the Hermes part at least wasn't on purpose). During his run I noticed:
-- Artemis -- the joy of the hunt, isolationist feminism (Themiscyra itself, which Athena and Hermes encouraged Diana to leave), seems to have been cut out of the picture (I know it was a name thing, but it still makes a great subconscious pattern especially considering that during Perez's run she was the one equated with Diana's personality the most) as Diana finally takes serious steps to spread her message to the world at large and tries to get away from chasing supervillains in favor of her professional life. Sure, it doesn't work, but notice the heavy themes of the run -- Supervillains scheme in the background while Diana focuses on the embassy, then they seek her out at work -- unlike the other runs, where the scheming took place during a lot of onscreen fighting and maybe a little side lecturing that is referred to but not shown.
-- Athena moves to take the throne as Wisdom, Strategy, and furthering her Ideological Goals moves to the forefront of Diana's thinking.
-- Diana is practically a cipher, seen through other's eyes for much of the run. She's not communicating herself to the reader, her supporting cast is. First person narrative, which is the standard of modern superhero comics, allows us a glimpse into her thoughts only once before Hermes, the God of Communication, Thought, and Learning is returned from the Dead. (Interesting how the single time we saw this method of narration is the crossover with the Flash -- a representative of Hermes if there is one in the DCU)
Rucka disappointed me, though, in Wonder Woman #225. Athena's narration is reverent of Diana, and hints at self-hatred. As though even the gods themselves cannot accept themselves as they are.
Diana's religion, once again, is undermined by the writer, even as he tries to build the character up. In a way, this cancels itself out. Diana is such a spiritual character, brought to life and empowered by the gods, given a mission by the gods, that anytime you undermine her religion you undermine the basis for her personality, and you start to lose what little ground you had.

I'm still really impressed, mind you (Despite my massive annoyance at Hades' treatment, and my irritation with Athena's attitude last issue) with Rucka's handling of the gods. I love using the events on Olympus as an allegory and a catalyst for the Earthly plot. I even more like the gods with their Homerian personalities, the sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent, always interesting Greek Gods that I've read about since Elementary school.

The clerk at my LCS knows this, and so he asked if I was angry by the implication in Infinite Crisis #4 and Wonder Woman #225 that they won't be an active part of Diana's life again. I don't think that's true, but on reflection, I don't think I'd mind if they are shuffled to the origin story and never used aside from retelling that. Too few writers can handle them correctly, and it gets downright insulting after a while.

(And yes, that was another Image stolen off of Poison Ivy)


  1. It's odd, but I saw Athena's role in 225 to be strictly symbolic of Diana herself.

    Athena as the personification of Wisdom representing Diana's own rational mind. She loves the ideal (symbolized by Athena's love for Diana) and what she represents, her cause and righteousness. But I read Athena's implied self-hatred, not so much as the Goddess hating herself, but Diana's rational mind not quite yet able to come to terms with what she had done.

    I'm not saying Diana's self-hating, but I think that a part of her hasn't forgiven herself for what happened with Max Lord, and the subsequent conflict in the League and the Trinity. Max's death was justified, self defense without a doubt, and the rest of it isn't her fault at all. And I think she'll come to terms with that eventually. And then perhaps the Gods will return.

    Probably it's because of my own ex-catholic, currently college-freshman-style-undecided religious affiliation, but I've always seen the Gods as something of a Greek Chorus representing Diana's own personal state. I never really read them so much as actual Gods so much as an extended metaphor.

    I could just be weird though. :-P

  2. Hmm, I also had another thought, the problem with the shared universe in which gods and angels and such actually exist is that essentially, the creators have to determine which, if any, are "right" with regards to the Universe.

    It's easier to have Pagan Gods as some how "lesser" than a single almighty creative force, because most polytheistic religions do have some sort of "original source" figure, whether it be Chaos, Eurynome, Brahma, Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah et al.

    So then they try to take the easy way out. Assimilate like the Jesuits...okay, the Judeo-Christian god is Allah is Brahma is Chaos and so on and so forth.

    Which gets complicated because in most Polytheistic Religions that original creative force is either not really personified or somehow inactive, allowing the Pantheons to be essentially supreme. Whereas in a Monotheistic religion that original creative force is still very much an active force.

    Thus, when you assemble the correlation: Brahma is Allah is Chaos is Yahweh is Jehovah and so on and so forth, the Pantheons' Power will end up diminished, in some sense.

    It's not fair really, and it's a gross oversimplification of people's actual belief systems, but when you've got the Earth Angel, Zauriel, Diana and Etrigan running around in the same universe, you need to construct a cosmology to make it all work.

    Unfortunately, that means some religions unfairly get the shaft. :-(

  3. Its totally possible in a pantheistic universe or better yet henotheistic (which the DC universe can be cast as) to have both monotheism and pantheism both be right. You can have the Angels and the Pagan gods.

    The next reader of Wonder Woman could do alot worse than reading Promethea (and Snakes and Ladders) by Alan Moore and adopting some of its tools, though not its storyline, as a way of handling the cosmos Diana is in.

  4. As usual, R., you've gotten me thinking. I was conflicted after reading WW #225, too, but Rucka piled on such a hearty helping of wish fulfillment that I didn't dwell on it. (For hours after reading the issue, I could be heard muttering "Ummm, wish fulfillment...") Athena said so many things I wanted to hear ... that I didn't cringe too much at the realization that she was cutting herself off at the knees in doing it.

    The mish-mash of paradigms in the DCU is a big problem. And the heart of the problem is that in the West it's pretty much ingrained in us to think of polytheistic religious thought and ritual practice as an intermediate "stage" in human-kind's progression towards monotheism or rationalism/deism, the "right answers".

    As a historian of European-indigenous relations, I look at the misery that resulted when a group believing it had attained the "right answer" stage exerted control over peoples whom were judged to be "stuck" in the polytheistic stage of development--so I'm not saying the ingrained way of thinking is a good thing. Though things have, of course, changed in the last 300 years, the wider culture still doesn't "get" that polytheism can be a component of a complex, rich, and coherent system of belief.

  5. A very nice post, that led me to two different thoughts:

    re: worship of the Greek gods. Modern folks may ask "How could they worship this?", but the Greeks themselves around the year 0 were asking the same question. It was their rejection of the imperfections in their gods that led them to embrace more Eastern philosophies and eventually led to the embrace of Christianity in the Greek world. And your pagan friend asks the right question, because the Greeks couldn't embrace the Hebrew Old Testament God either. But the Christian God was the type of perfect being that the Greeks could get behind.

    re: Why can't anyone write Diana? I think you're partly right that Diana is hard to write because she's from an alien culture, and is indeed totally alien because she wasn't even truly born as a human being is. She's (as you point out) a divine being in her own right, and its hard to get into the head of someone like that.

    But, even more importantly I think, her creator gave the writers very little to work with. The early issues of Wonder Woman, unlike the early issues of Batman or Superman, don't lend themselves well to defining a personality for the character - or at least not one that would work in the modern day. Later writers have had to try to give Diana a personality beyond the one Marsden created for her. And while I think many of them have done okay with what they had (Perez, Messner-Loebs, and Rucka especially), her personality really hasn't gelled completely.

  6. You're the only person I've met since college who understands classical paganism.

    I'm impressed.

  7. In a way, I feel this discussion gives the writers at DC more credit for nuance and intent than they actually deserve. Speaking as a lifelong non-Christian, it's always seemed pretty obvious that the DC (and Marvel) position on religion and philosophy is exactly that of mainstream America. Some sort of nondefined Protestantism is the default "normal" state and characters who are anything else -- including Catholic or Jewish or atheist -- are only those things because it's immediately vital to their histories or a significant plot point. There might be one or two exceptions (Kitty Pryde got to be a Jewish character without her backstory involving the Holocaust or Israel or the Golem of Prague or anything like that) but overall, a generalized nonspecific Christianity is the rule. The Spectre is not the voice of a god, but The Voice of The God...and that God is certainly not Yawheh or Allah.

    The ONE good example I can recall in a superhero comic of a "pagan" viewpoint being depicted as equally valid to a whitebread American viewpoint is in a little-known Marvel comic called Big Town written by Steve Englehart. At one point, Dr. Don Blake confronts a gang of "Odinists" sent by the Red Skull to kill one of Blake's patients. Rather than playing his usual role, Blake stands up to the neo-Nazis and says something to the effect that "You've got it all wrong! I love Odin too! It's true that we admire strength, but we don't prey on the weak, and we hate racism!" For Thor's human alter-ego to "out" himself as a believer in Thor's dad is only logical...but all too rare.

    The payoff is that the Odinist goons of course refuse to believe him...so Blake becomes Thor, and Thor tells them "My father wouldn't have a single one of you as followers!"

    Englehart is that rarity who can look at mainstream beliefs with some perspective and distance, so it's no surprise he treats this issue well. I'm sure he'd do equally well by the Greek pantheon. But as a rule, comics writers are so immersed in the default assumption of the Protestant God being the one real God -- even if they themselves aren't believers -- that they can't get outside that headspace.

  8. But as a rule, comics writers are so immersed in the default assumption of the Protestant God being the one real God -- even if they themselves aren't believers -- that they can't get outside that headspace.

    Sorry to hijack Ragnell's blogspace but I disagree with this completely. A great many comic book creators *aren't* actually of a Protestant background. For example, the original creators of Superman were Jewish (and a lot of the alien-passing-among-humankind is thought to be a metaphor for their own struggles with their religion and dominant culture). Superman, the character, is Methodist because he was raised in rural Kansas, and that's one of the more common religious affiliations associated with that area.

    Over at adherents.com, there is a fantastic list that compiles character beliefs based on creator and writer commentary and visual clues.

    Let's look at some of the Jewish characters listed:

    Kitty Pryde as you mentioned, Ben Grimm, Ragman, Colossal Boy/Gim Allon, Atom Smasher/Al Rothstein, Firestorm/Martin Stein, The Atom/Ray Palmer...

    Now many of these characters are lapsed/non-practicing, it's true, but quite a few are pretty devout in their own quiet ways. And none of them have really had their Judaism used as a Holocaust/Israel related plot point.

    Heck, even the current Robin, though it was never brought up in the comics itself, was considered by his creator, Chuck Dixon, to be Jewish.

    The problem, I think, with Diana isn't that she represents a different religious background (though that's been handled with various success), it's that she comes from a background in which the divine interact with humans on a semi-regular basis.

    The Spectre's God can correlate pretty easy with a wrathful Old Testament God, Wally in Supergirl could correlate pretty easy with the more forgiving New Testament analogy, but that works primarily because of their relative lack of prominence. We don't see the Spectre's God. Wally dances in and out to "work in mysterious ways".

    But Diana's gods are different, while they represent ideas, no question of that, they've also got very strong literary rooted personalities that are connected with their sphere of worship but also feel enough like individuals on their own. And that clouds the issue.

    You can get *mythical scholars* who claim they dislike some of the gods of Greek myth (Aphrodite for example, given many of her less than flattering portrayals). Of course they don't hate the prospect of love/lust/sexual fulfillment/procreation...but it's easy to overlook what she *means* and see her just as a female character in a story and respond like that.

    Is it a fair portrayal, no. But is it an example of an all-pervasive Protestant bias in comics, I don't think it is. It's just a bunch of writers trying to tell a story, responding to stories that came before and not really thinking deeply about the religion behind it.

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  10. Kalinara, I agree with everything you said...and where we seem to disagree may just be a result of me having chosen my words poorly. (Which happens a lot...which is why I'm trying to make a concise reply to replace the longwinded and pompous one I deleted.)

    I don't claim there's any all-pervasive Protestant bias in comics...or certainly not a conscious one. But we Americans all grow up in a culture so immersed in certain assumptions and values that we don't even recognize them as such. A lot of our values come from early settlers who came here to practice their religious beliefs, and these values are so engrained in our way of life that we view them as simply "American" values without recognizing their religious roots. Even for a Jerry Siegel or a Stan Lee or a Jack Kirby, a lot of the "Protestant ethic" was the default norm of being American.

    Some comics writers like Englehart -- or Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, who obviously aren't American but, like many Brits, grew up learning our values through our pop culture and our comics! -- have made a conscious effort to step outside that mindset and examine religious and philosophical questions from an outside perspective. But treating other people's Gods (even archaic ones) fairly does require considerable thought and a deliberate effort to step outside a "box" which is so pervasive that we usually don't even recognize it's there.

  11. The next reader of Wonder Woman could do alot worse than reading Promethea (and Snakes and Ladders) by Alan Moore and adopting some of its tools, though not its storyline, as a way of handling the cosmos Diana is in

    Wait, isn't Moore non-christian, as well, (and Morrison, for that matter)... Wouldn't that make for the better portrayal of a pantheon?

    I agree with Rab, the american protestant majority is generally blind to their on blinders, and (unless they fall prey to the "persecuted majority" complex, as I mentioned briefly in my own blog: For instance, they persist in seeing the portrayal of the sect Opus Dei as power-hungry in Da Vinci Code, when the sect itself is posed as pious, and the fictional leader power-hungry), are largely unaware of the bias they present, unless they are specifically trying to be unbiased or diverse. It's a natural human failing-If what you have is all that you need, generally you won't expend energy looking to see what else it out there. And basic christian monotheism fulfills the need of the general populace who doesn't want to look any further: It gives them a place to start feeling things mean something, when the world is trying to say otherwise. It's remarkably like the ethic pagan majorities that pre-dated it. *shrug*

    Now, should we be forgiving of these writers? I mean, on a majority basis, aren't they writing for a group that shares their blinders?

    Another point: Are the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant monotheistic traditions far enough from the mainstream to count as analogues for the ancient polytheism that Diana practices?