Thursday, February 26, 2009

Understanding Wonder Woman, Part Two

In the first part of this look at Wonder Woman, I decided that what I want to see in a Wonder Woman comic is a heroine who is absolutely confident. I talked about the way that she's been portrayed visually over the last 20 years and promised to look at how she's been written during that same time period. So let's do that.

I've already covered George Perez's take on her because his visual depiction of her perfectly matched the way he wrote her: a wide-eyed, innocent fish-out-of-water who wasn't at all ready to stand next to heroes like Batman and Superman. What I haven't yet talked much about was Perez's reason for having Wonder Woman leave Paradise Island Themyscira.

In the '40s, when Wonder Woman was first introduced, she left the Amazons to help fight Nazis. It was an admirable reason and nobody questioned it. I don't think anyone today would question it either. But in the mid-'80s when Perez rebooted the concept, there wasn't an easy enemy like that who needed a Wonder Woman butt-whoopin'. So, Perez gave her the Mission.

If Wonder Woman's mission to Man's/Patriarch's World has ever been clearly defined, I haven't read it. I welcome correction if I'm wrong about this, but as far as I've ever been able to tell, it's description is limited to a vague "ambassador of Amazonian ideals." But what those ideals are has never been explained to me. It's been a while since I read the early Perez issues (out of dissatisfaction with whomever was writing Wonder Woman's current adventures at the time), but I remember there being something about living peacefully and somehow trying to line that up with the Amazons' status as a warrior race. I just never got it. And I don't think that any of the writers ever got it either.

Wonder Woman's next writer was William Messner-Loebs and it was about ten issues into his run that I read my first Wonder Woman comic. And it was this cover that made me pick it up. Unfortunately, the majesty depicted on that cover was very different from the struggling-to-find-herself character I read about inside. That character was much more in keeping with the following issue's cover that shows Wonder Woman having to get a job at a fast food joint in order to make ends meet. It was a cute story, but as a new reader to the book, I couldn't make it fit in with what I wanted to see Wonder Woman doing. You'd never see Lynda Carter flipping burgers unless Diana Prince was undercover somewhere. I didn't stick with it for very long.

I'm assuming that Ragnell read more of Messner-Loebs' run than I did. Her description of it is that it's about "a rebellious daughter who ran off to see the world and tried to become part of it." That fits with the whole Having to Get a Job thing, but it also describes why it wasn't the Wonder Woman I wanted to read about. My Wonder Woman would never have to run away from home or try to become a part of something. She'd do whatever she damn well liked and expect the world to conform to her. After all, isn't that the entire idea behind her having a Mission? To try to teach Amazonian ideals to humanity? And what is that if not trying to get the world to conform to her standards? Maybe she'd given up on that by that point, I don't know. What I do know is that she was a floundering character who elicited pity rather than awe. I want to be in awe of Wonder Woman.

I came back to Messner-Loebs' run later on, tempted by the event of having Diana replaced as Wonder Woman by Artemis. Replacing traditional heroes with newer versions was an old gimmick of DC's by that point, but they were making a really big deal about it and remember, I was looking for reasons to read Wonder Woman. And interestingly, I liked it a lot.

Even though her "official" status as Wonder Woman was taken from her, Diana was woman enough to give Themyscira and her mom a big ole "f*** you" and keep on doing her thing in a different costume. That's the Wonder Woman I wanted to see. It looks like maybe Messner-Loebs had a plan all along and was chronicling Wonder Woman's transformation from Perez's innocent to the confident heroine I wanted to see. Too bad DC fired Messner-Loebs right about then in order to make room for John Byrne's return to the company.

I won't go into a John Byrne rant here, but I need to say that even though he's single-handedly responsible for making me a hardcore comics addict, I really wasn't fond of his art in the '90s and couldn't make myself buy any of his Wonder Woman run. As Ragnell describes it though, "Byrne wrote a stiff, formal princess." I don't feel like I missed much.

After a couple of fill-in issues by Christopher Priest that I don't know anything about (though I really like Priest's work, so maybe they were good?), Eric Luke was the next writer. I'm pretty sure that I read the end of his run, but I didn't remember that until I started researching this article. Ragnell describes his version of Wonder Woman as "lost." Wikipedia says that she "was often questioning her mission in Man's World, and most primarily her reason for existing." Maybe that's why I don't remember his issues.

The reason that I read the end of Luke's run (and the fill-in issues by Brian K. Vaughan and Ben Raab at the end of it) was that I was getting ready for Phil Jimenez. I'd met Jimenez at a local convention and been totally wowed by him as a person and by his Wonder Woman pitch (which he was enthusiastically sharing with anyone who was interested). I wish I remembered now what the pitch was because I'm sure it would shed some light on this subject, but all I retained was the feeling of being impressed with how much thought he'd given the character. And for a while, I was impressed with his run too.

Jimenez was on the right track. His Wonder Woman was a strong, confident woman and in hindsight I think a lot of my opinions about what Wonder Woman should be were formed by the way he portrayed her. He gave her a love interest in Trevor Barnes and had her do all the pursuing at first. Trevor initially turned her down, but came to his senses later and asked her out.

There was a lot of controversy about Trevor at the time. Liberals thought that Wonder Woman should be portrayed as a lesbian; conservatives thought that Trevor's being black was overly PC. Jimenez couldn't win that one. My personal feeling about it at the time was nervousness that Trevor was going to be portrayed as not being entirely masculine. If Wonder Woman took the agressive, "male" role, then there was a possibility that Trevor might end up taking a passive, "female" role. I shouldn't have worried though. Jimenez was too smart and too talented to let either character be "weak" or passive. He started crafting a relationship of equals between the two of them. Unfortunately, I never did learn what ultimately became of it.

My dropping Wonder Woman during Jimenez's run had nothing to do with how the character was being portrayed and it had nothing to do with Trevor Barnes. But though I think he had those elements exactly right, Jimenez -- either through his own fault or DC editorial's -- kept presenting plots that I just wasn't interested in. There was the return of some George Perez characters whom I didn't care about. There was a civil war on Paradise Island that resulted in Wonder Woman's losing her crown as princess of the Amazons. Then there was that whole Our World at War crossover in which her mom died. It seemed like we were always going from one big event to the next and I started getting tired. There were some quieter issues, like the one in which Lois Lane spends a day with Wonder Woman for an interview, but the run as a whole didn't feel grounded. I finally gave up on it, but I'd like to go back and finish his run now to see where he ended up taking it.

After Jimenez, Walt Simonson wrote a six-issue homage to the powerless, white costume, spy years. I totally missed that one, but I got interested again when Greg Rucka, who's approach to writing I love, took over.

This is getting long again, so I'm going to cut it short here. Next time I'll talk about Greg Rucka, Allan Heinberg, and Jodi Picoult. I'll also try to mention her portrayal in the Justice League cartoon, but I haven't seen many of those, so we'll see if I can find anything interesting to say about them. But I will put in my two cents about what Wonder Woman's mission ought to be.

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