Friday, February 27, 2009

Understanding Wonder Woman, Part Three

I think I made it clear in Part One to this piece, but in case you're joining late, this was written during Jodi Picoult's run on Wonder Woman. That's why I make some references to Gail Simone's "upcoming" run on the series. I'll plan to do another piece later focusing on Simone's work (so far).

So, I was talking about Greg Rucka. I haven't enjoyed every Greg Rucka story I've ever read, but I love how he approaches them. He thinks hard about them, and if he doesn't think he has anything interesting to say about a character, he won't write the story. And usually, I'm interested in his take on the characters he writes about.

So, I got pretty excited when I heard that he was writing Wonder Woman and I think he did a fine job of capturing the confidence that I've gone on and on about. Where I started getting tired was with his interpretation of Wonder Woman's Mission.

Although I think that giving her a Mission was probably a mistake in the first place, Rucka took it seriously and I think that's okay. It's part of the story now and dealing with it is probably better than ignoring it. But even though Rucka made the Mission the central part of his story (by making the Amazonian embassy Diana's base of operations and having her write a best-selling book that promoted Amazonian ideals), I think he was just as unclear about the Mission's details as anyone else.

Mad Thinker Scott takes a stab at defining the Mission and the thought he put into it is worth reading even though I don't agree with him. He sees "the championing of women’s rights and equality" as the core theme of her character and I think that's the perception that a lot of people have. But Scott also summarizes the inherent problems with having that as the Mission. He says, "If fighting for women’s rights is going to be the central theme of Wonder Woman’s conflicts, she’s going to have to get into stickier situations than she has in the past. For instance, there are women’s issues that Wonder Woman could fight for in the US. She could lobby to increase the amount of child care available to working women, so women aren’t held back in their careers as much as some are now. However, that isn’t the kind of conflict that comic buyers are looking for when they pick up a magazine about a woman who can deflect bullets and throw cars."

He goes on to suggest other women's rights situations that might make for more exciting adventures, but when he takes this Mission to its logical conclusion, he sees the reason that it would never work for a serialized, ongoing story: "I’d love to see Themyscira take a more aggressive stance on international women’s rights and actually get into armed conflicts with other nations; however, I’m not sure how long that Paradise Island v. the World theme can last, and Wonder Woman’s role in the wider DC universe would be radically altered." He finishes his article by admitting that he doesn't know where the line should be drawn in regard to how aggressively Wonder Woman defends the rights of women.

My own observation is that Wonder Woman probably ought to leave alone real-world issues like the Thai sex trade and the way women are treated by Islamic extremists. That would be as pointless as having Superman capture Osama bin Laden. It might be a cathartic story to tell, but it would ultimately make the DC Universe unrelatable. In an attempt to make comics more relevant, the ironic result would be that they'd become less so.

But there's another Mission that Wonder Woman has that's not only relevant, but has the advantage (for an ongoing series) of being never ending. And it all has to do with this confidence thing. In her post that originally got me thinking about all of this, Ragnell says that "Wonder Woman is supposed to already be the woman other women in fiction learn to be." And that's the Mission, folks. She's the woman that all women want to be. She's the role model.

I'm gonna skip ahead in my chronological examination of Wonder Woman comics and mention Will Pfiefer's fill-in issue between Allan Heinberg and Jodi Picoult's runs. It's a simple, stand-alone tale that was unfortunately overlooked by many in anticipation of seeing what Picoult would do. But it's a beautiful story about the dramatic influence that Wonder Woman has on the lives of women she's never even met. They want to be stronger women thanks simply to the example Wonder Woman sets. She doesn't have to take down the Thai sex trade to fulfill her Mission in Man's World; she does it just by being who she is. If the Amazon's have a philosophy that needs sharing with humanity, it's not all that contradictory nonsense about peaceful warriors; it's that women can and should be strong, confident people. And Wonder Woman's here to show them how. And you don't have to make the comic about that all the time in order for it to be true. It's just background to whatever she's currently doing.

Back to how the comics went though.

In the end, it wasn't lack of clarity about the Mission that made me grow tired of Rucka's run. It was his slow, thoughtful plotting. There just weren't enough big moments in his early issues, which was sort of the opposite problem that I had with Jimenez's run. Somewhere in between is a balance. But more on that in a minute.

I got interested again in Wonder Woman in the build up to Infinite Crisis. DC started playing up the idealogical differences between Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman, and Rucka was a huge part of making that happen. In a great issue of Adventures of Superman (written by Rucka), Wonder Woman made it clear that, unlike her male counterparts, she would be willing to kill if the need ever arose. I found that fascinating given the usual hardline, "no killing" policy most traditional superheroes take (antiheroes like the Punisher notwithstanding). I also found it profoundly believable considering that she's an Amazon warrior. Her opinions about execution and killing come from an entirely different place than ours and I loved that Rucka and DC were willing to explore that. And explore it they did just a little bit later when they had Wonder Woman kill Maxwell Lord in Wonder Woman #219.

Suddenly I was entranced again and I've been hooked on Wonder Woman's story ever since. Allan Heinberg got off to a great start during his run by not only exploring the consequences of Maxwell Lord's murder, but by balancing Jimenez's big action with Rucka's personal drama. Unfortunately -- though I'm thrilled to have him involved with Gray's Anatomy -- other duties took precedence and he wasn't able to finish what he started.

Jodi Picoult's run, with the return to the fish-out-of-water version of Wonder Woman, was a disappointment. I quit buying it after the first issue of it, but writing these articles made we want to check it out again, if only to keep up with where the character is going, so I've gone back and caught up. It's less annoying than that first issue, but I'm still anxiously awaiting Gail Simone.

I'm trying not to put too much pressure on Gail to be awesome, but as I've said before, I have high hopes for her. I haven't read her take on the character, but she's too good a writer not to have one and I have faith that at heart, her Wonder Woman will be a continuation of the character who grew to maturity in Messner-Loeb's run and we saw in Jimenez's and Rucka's. I also know that Gail has the ability to tell a great adventure story while grounding it in human drama, so I'm not worried on that end either. After all: "She’s punching a monkey off a waterfall on page three."

Gail seems much more concerned with telling exciting stories about "the best goddamned warrior planet Earth has ever known" than she is about the Mission or the dichotomy between Peace and War or any of the headier stuff and that sounds exactly right to me. Jimenez and Rucka needed to explore that part of her to get her to where she is today, but that work's been done. It's backstory now and as long as it remains backstory, there's no need to go over it again. Wonder Woman's ready to punch monkeys (or air pirates, kangas, man-fish, seal men, or Christopher Columbus).

I'm sorry I never got to talking about the Justice League cartoons. That's going to require more research, but I'm at a point now where I'd love to do it. In writing this article, I learned that Greg Rucka doesn't care so much for that version of Wonder Woman, so I'm curious to balance his opinion with Siskoid's (who rightly thinks that Wonder Woman was generally done correctly in the JLA comic) and see what I think. I'm done analyzing Wonder Woman for a while though. I just want to be able to enjoy her adventures now.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Ragnell's idea is interesting and I pretty much agree with it, but "being" isn't an interesting conflict. The mission without a story to go along with it is kind of dull. Mind you, I'm all for WW doing the usual sort of superhero stuff, but I'd like to see a feminist bent to some of the stories where the conflict is specifically dealing with a feminist issue. The being stuff should be there all along, of course, but sometimes, I'd like to see her punch a guy who abuses women.