What’s So Wonderful About Wonder Woman
Travis Hedge Coke
Remember, when I said I wouldn’t write about Wonder Woman? I changed my mind.
A prestige format 100 page Wonder Woman comic by a transvestite magician (Grant Morrison) was released this year. We’re deep in a twice-monthly comic by a returning ongoing writer, Greg Rucka, who has said, “I’m pretty content being biologically male. But… I’ve always identified far more as female than male.” And, the original creative team, often credited as one joint pen name of Charles Moulton, included a polyamorous triad, the two women of which get ignored almost every damn time. Stylish gay men and fantastic straight women and Bob Kanigher killing a proxy of the former editor, Dorothy Woolfolk, in the first pages of his return to the Wonder Woman ongoing in the 1970s.
Batman is a rich American WASP. Superman may have been born an alien, but he was raised pure American and, in general, hides his ethnicity and family culture away in museums and his big private rec room. Wonder Woman is not American, not Christian, probably has a funny accent, and never really hid her foreign holidays and traditional games from anyone. Superman had to really trust somebody to let them into his Kryptonian world. Batman hides everything of himself. Wonder Woman would see you were having problems and immediately be all, “Where I come from, we have a better way” and break out the kangaroos and ropes.
Rucka has done something with the queerness of Amazonian culture and with Diana’s sexuality in recent issues and interviews, and yet again, a bunch of folks (who aren’t buying or reading these anyway) have got bent out of shape over it. Bisexuality has been an element of nearly every major run on Wonder Woman in the last thirty years. Queerness, more broadly, has been an aspect of every run in those decades, and goes straight back to the origins of the character, the concept, and the comics.
Wonder Woman’s original oath, “Suffering Sappho” is often credited to Olive Byrne, the domestic partner of William and Elizabeth Marston. We have so ignored and sublimated and erased that these three people seem to have had an awesome romance that continued between the women for forty years after William Marston’s death in 1947. It is easier to pretend, or to “believe” that the oath was a case of Silver Age naivete. They couldn’t possibly know… Because it makes absolute sense that three highly-educated, remarkably literary individuals in the middle of the Twentieth Century could be that ignorant, even if they were straight.
We are desperate to tamp it down, and of course, the three of them did their part at the beginning, too. Byrne wrote an article for The Family Circle, interviewing the Marstons under a pen name of Olive Richard, to hype Wonder Woman and promote the two loves of her life. In that write up, Elizabeth Marston is credited with the decision to make Wonder Woman a woman, William is credited with much, but Olive leaves herself out. It was the 1940s, though and virtually no one in comics were even working under their own name, mostly because they were all a bunch of Jews and Italians and other disparaged ethnicities, or, y’know, women. Stan Lee. Jack Kirby. Bob Kane. Being out nationally, in a relationship such as the three of them (Marston, Byrne, and Marston) were, even inviting that speculation… was not going to happen.
But, we don’t live in the 1940s. To ignore them, now, to ignore their sexuality and their situation, or that they damn well knew what “Suffering Sappho” indicated is bullshit. If you can’t talk about these things without giggling or hiding your head in the sand, or - like a certain NPR interviewer - suggest the relationship, by nature, should be suspected of inherent sexism, you need to grow up.
I think this is why Steve Trevor has been much more morphable than Lois Lane or Alfred Pennyworth. Steve is us. He’s the idea of us. He’s going to be a guy, because we live in a masculine-themed, male-gaze, male-are-default society. But, he can be an old man, a black man, a young soldier, a white barista. He’s American Man, however we happen identify American Man at that moment, from which angle the authors choose.
Wonder Woman, the character, and Wonder Woman the comic both interact as much with real people and real objects as with ideas. Maybe more, even, with ideas. When you’re fighting Ares, praying to Aphrodite, championing freedom through submission and throwing off unfair shackles, you'd have to deal directly and openly with ideas and idea-complexes.
What ten ideas appeal to me the most, about Wonder Woman?
In no real order (scrambled to be even fairer, or more imbalanced):
She makes Superman feel like a farmboy from a small town. - Whether dating him, married to him, or just working together, Diana makes Superman feel like Clark more than any other superhero. Like he’s some small town guy with talent who broke into a bigger world. She’s worldly, she’s experienced, she’s daring and ready to change things in ways he, traditionally, is not.
She’s willing to call her mom or go visit. - Batman’s parents are dead. Superman’s parents are usually dead. Peter Parker’s parents, uncle, et al. Even sometimes his Aunt May. Dead. Diana talks to her mom regularly, in most incarnations, and goes home to visit a lot.
She plays sports. - From wrestling and rodeo riding to Bullets and Bracelets, where they ricochet bullets fired at them off their jewelry, Wonder Woman is into games and sport. And, part of a culture who independently invented firearms solely for play and harmless entertainment.
She has a goofy ass sense of humor. - When Silver Age Wonder Woman got her lasso of truth, the first thing she did with it, was make her doctor and friend stand on her head.
She’s (sometimes) made of clay! - Stone Boy was a huge thing for me, growing up, one of my favorite stories. And, the Adam myth always appealed to me too, for that matter. I like stone people. Stone breathed to life. Clay wished into people.
She’s impossible to de-queer. - Wonder Woman’s basic situation makes her and her people non-heteronormative.
She’s her own sister! - Donna, who we all love, is Wonder Woman’s identical twin or her magic mirror reflection. She’s her, but she’s not. She’s her own best friend.
Liberty! Equality! Education! - Wonder Woman, book and character, show us that it’s okeh to stand apart, to isolate yourself from bad people or bad elements, and that education is more important than nationalistic solidarity. But, freedom, which requires liberty and equality, should be paramount for all.
Big, heroic science/magic! - Traditionally, Wonder Woman’s world contains both super-magic and super-science. Blessed lassos and high-tech healing rays.
She’s a princess philosopher warrior ambassador! - Rather than being a “normal” person who dresses up, or a superhuman who dresses down, Diana is a person who has jobs and hobbies that just happen to be awesome.
Giving strength to concepts and tackling their ideation head on does lead to pretty much every Wonder Woman comic being accused of having agendas, of Wonder Woman writers and artists having agendas.
This cools off, some, when there’s a notably straight man at the helm of the comic. The more gay the talent gets, the more women are onboard, the more likely it is to see the fear creep in and the ranters come out. People who can’t tell education from indoctrination, or representation from enforcement.
“Greg Rucka has an agenda writing Wonder Woman.” “Jill Thompson has an agenda drawing Wonder Woman.” Etc, etc. Even when we can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge that Phil Jimenez is gay (and yes, I have had that argument, both in a comics shop and online), we’re ready to get mad and defensive over his “agenda.”
Wonder Woman was created out of an agenda. So was Batman. Wonder Woman was created to fulfill a certain niche and promote certain ideas. Batman was created, appropriate to his brand-strength and personal fortune, to get some money. The differences are that Wonder Woman was created to promote agendas, as well as out of one, and that the comics were, in the earliest days especially, handled by people who realized they had agendas. Bill Finger, the real creator of what we love about early Batman, was a talented guy, but I don’t think he analyzed his own work much or the agendas at play in the work.
Tearing out all the women in Wonder Woman’s life to make room for men, shoving her into an American “secret” identity so she can have an American job, American boyfriend, and act like a proper American woman… this is BS. We know it is. And, more to the point: It is an agenda. Just because it’s a straight, WASPy, American heater dude agenda does not make it not one.
Rather than getting mad at the existence of agendas, we need to look at them, look at the facets and flaws of them, the shine and strength. Rather than being bent out of shape and angered by the existence of ideas, how are the comics dealing with those ideas? And, how are we?