Saturday, January 21, 2017

Wonder Women

One of the first comic books I owned was Secret Origins #3 (1973), featuring the origin of Wonder Woman. The art puzzled me: While the cover's Wonder Woman was lithe like a Seventies model with long, flowing hair, the interior art, a reprint of the 1941 original, gave the Amazon a boxy figure and tight curls like Betty Grable. At the time, I could barely comprehend how art could show one character in such different ways. Now, it's easy to understand: Each era portrayed Wonder Woman as the ideal of the times.

But those were not the only two visions of Wonder Woman available at the time. In the very same year, the contemporary Wonder Woman was the white-suited non-powered version who followed her mentor, I Ching. Also debuting in 1973 was the Super Friends, which showed a Wonder Woman looking like the Sixties version and superpowered, but nowhere near the levels of Superman. By 1976, Wonder Woman in the comics had regained her powers, while the TV version played by Lynda Carter was set in the Forties – prompting DC's Wonder Woman solo title to tell wartime adventures set on Earth Two (but with Seventies-style art) – until the TV show skipped ahead, without explanation, to the Seventies – and the comic version made the same jump, to contemporary stories set on Earth One. In four years, fans were given seven or eight distinct versions of Wonder Woman; trying to juggle all the various versions was probably more complicated than understanding any of the individual stories. And in that era before the Internet, there was no guide to any of this; it was simply up to the fan to make sense of it.

Four decades later, the world once again abounds in alternate versions of Wonder Woman. In 2011, the post-Crisis version of Wonder Woman gave way to the post-Flashpoint New 52 Wonder Woman. Five years later, a tremendous multiplicity of Wonder Women burst upon the scene. The DC Rebirth gave us a new "main" Wonder Woman who is still trying to unravel the secrets of her past, which involves some medley of the New 52 and other elements. Then, within just a few months, DC published two distinctly different Wonder Woman origin graphic novels – the long-awaited "Earth One" from Grant Morrison, and Jill Thompson's Wonder Woman: The True Amazon. Between the publication dates of those two works, the monthly title began running Greg Rucka's "Year One" origin story; an astounding three origin stories were published/begun in under six months! As if that weren't enough, DC's cinematic universe introduced yet another version of Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot in Batman v Superman, as yet mysterious with her story to be explained in a 2017 solo film. All of this came on the heels of superb work done in 2011-2014 by Brian Azzarello, a refreshing take on Wonder Woman and her world that deserved to serve as a foundation for a decade or more to come – like Byrne's Superman and Miller's Batman – rather than be made obsolete after only a year.

As the character turns 75, a high degree of attention is fitting; it is harder, however, to explain why multiple, conflicting origin stories make for the right kind of attention. Certainly, part of the answer is that this bouquet of origin stories was unplanned; the movies and comics are not in sync, and Morrison's story was in the works and long delayed. Rebirth, like the New 52, is obviously a creative direction driven by business considerations. And there we have it: Multiple, uncoordinated creative voices led to multiple, uncoordinated versions of one of the best-known superheroes within a very short span of time.

The rapidfire shuffle of new versions serves as a poll of how the modern comics creator perceives Wonder Woman, and in this, we see one interesting consensus: Azzarello, Morrison, Thompson, and Rucka all speak to the sexuality of the Amazons in general or Diana specifically in a way that had not – probably could not have – been seen before. Both Azzarello and Thompson describe Amazons routinely using men from the world at large as a source of fertilization, with hints and a choice image or two of a domination fantasy. Meanwhile, Morrison and Rucka both give Diana female lovers in her past but leave her open to opposite-sex attraction once Steve Trevor enters her world. These new origins variously assert that Hercules and his men raped the Amazons, a violent horror unimaginable in 1941 comics, a modern extrapolation of Moulton's 1941 panels showing Hercules and Hippolyta lying together as he betrays her.

Morrison and Azzarello also agree to make Diana not a creature made of clay, but rather the direct offspring of Zeus, though Azzarello makes her the principal god's daughter of Zeus; Morrison, his granddaughter. Azzarello modernizes his gods by showing them in Las Vegas, posing as truckers. Morrison modernizes Diana's world by making Steve Trevor the descendent of African slaves, a real people with real history spent in chains like the imaginary Amazons.

Morrison and Rucka also agree by maintaining the Steve Trevor element in Diana's origin, while Thompson diverges sharply by making the young Diana a spoiled brat whose journey to man's world is penance for the sin of hubris and the tragedy it caused; it should not be lost on the reader that in departing from Moulton's original story, Thompson's is classically Greek – character flaws determine the future. A tragedy doesn't happen to a person; a tragedy is who they are. This is the great contribution of Thompson's version, and makes it welcome despite the certain overcrowding of recent origin stories. Thompson abandons the 1941 source material to emphasize in tone the vastly earlier source material of Greek mythology.

None of these stories disagree on one thing: Wonder Woman is wonderful. Nolan's cinematic Wonder Woman immediately wows Superman and Batman by battling Doomsday energetically and somewhat enthusiastically. Rucka and Morrison show the modern world pointing its cellphone cameras at Diana and snapping away, hashtagging her into social media immortality. She glows, indifferent to the attention, like a Forties movie star sipping a milkshake while the world adores her. She's beautiful, strong, brave, and brilliant; there is no depiction of Wonder Woman that doesn't agree on this.

For all these many versions, and creators, it is Rucka and the filmmakers who get to hold serve. Rucka has suggested a multiplicity of Wonder Women in his single version, with a composite past or composite memories of various pasts, with a Multiverse backstory that may involve the overarching Rebirth plot with Dr. Manhattan at the center. Perhaps he will make these alternate memories not "lies" surrounding one true backstory but disparate elements all partly true; this is akin to what Geoff Johns did with Superman in Secret Origin and Morrison in his Batman epic that asserted that all past eras actually happened to the one and only Batman. Wonder Woman is not the first superhero to get multiple, contradictory origin stories; hopefully one of them – and it would be Rucka's – has the chance to be left uncontradicted long enough to give a generation of readers a firm legend to believe in.

However many people read DC's comics, far more will see the 2017 movie, and this will become the "real" Wonder Woman for a generation. This Wonder Woman, we know from the trailer, rescues a crashing Steve Trevor and comes to man's world to stop World War One (not Two). Until the movie debuts, we can guess the details of the content, and one clue is a canny reply to the old stories. In 1942's All Star Comics #12, as the men on the team head off to battle the Axis, Wonder Woman, one of the mightiest heroes in the story, stays home, bidding the male heroes, "Good luck, boys – and I wish I could be going with you," after having agreed off-panel to be their secretary. In 2017, Steve Trevor introduces Diana as his secretary, and after we see her perform some wonderful heroics, he adds, "She's a very good secretary." After 75 years, we can poke fun at 1942's prejudices. Maybe after another 75 years, audiences won't be expected to find that funny.