One of the only major DC characters to get an honest-to-gosh head-to-toe makeover in the company’s “New 52″ revamp was one of its most famous and (formerly) recognizable properties, Wonder Woman. The makeover has been an almost entirely bad one: the character has been re-conceived as less original, less interesting, and, needless to say, less powerful than in virtually any of her previous incarnations.
There have been a lot of those incarnations, mainly because few of DC’s characters have been so poorly served by its editors and writers than this one. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, imagined her in 1941 as trained to the pinnacle of perfection on magical Paradise Island, home of the legendary Amazons, and later elaboration had her shaped from the clay of Paradise Island, beholden to no man, granted fantastic super-powers by the Greek gods themselves, and when she grew to adulthood, she left Paradise Island for the outside world (“Man’s World”) on an embassy of peace and Amazonian ideals.
Then things promptly went to Hades, and they stayed there for a very long time. In her own comic, she was a bumbling stooge swooningly in love with a boring military type named Steve Trevor, and as a member of the Justice Society and later the Justice League, she, being a girl, was the super-secretary, carving the meeting-minutes into stone tablets with her invulnerable fingernails. One fat, sexist male writer after another contrived some way to strip her of her powers and her dignity, and most attempts to grapple with the simple implication that a character possessing “the strength of Hercules” might be stronger than, say, Superman, came to nothing. In the 1980s and 90s, the character finally got the intelligent attention she’d always deserved, and gradually there emerged a Wonder Woman long-time fans could finally like: a wise and fierce warrior who was one of the most powerful characters in the DC universe (in a typically wonderful little moment in a random issue of “Justice League,” when the team is confronting an unknown alien phenomenon, one teammate matter-of-factly says “Without Superman or Wonder Woman here, let’s not start anything we can’t finish” – a simple enough thing, but long-suffering fans from the ’60s would have cheered).
Then came the “New 52.” Gone the parthenogenic origin – Wonder Woman is just another despised and half-remembered demi-god offspring of Zeus. Gone the Amazonian ideals – the Amazons are all butch psychopaths now, with Wonder Woman the worst of the bunch. Gone the dignity – this ‘super-hero’ is basically Conan the Barbarian in a tortoise-shell bra. Even the old familiar (and, admittedly, absurd) star-spangled bikini bottom is gone.
Fortunately, even so spotty a character-history has yielded, from time to time, some highlights. I encountered two of them during a recent hunting-trip to my beloved Brattle Bookshop (where gift certificates for your humble book-blogger are always obtainable by phone … ahem …) – two oversized special issues, but separated by a little over 20 years.
The first is from 1978, an epic-length team-up of Superman and Wonder Woman written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. The central gimmick is to somehow arrange a fight bewteen DC Comics’ two most powerful superheroes, and Conway goes about it in his usual straightforward way: it’s 1942, and Wonder Woman (in her civilian identity as Yeoman Diana Prince) learns of a mysterious US program called the Manhattan Project. She flies her invisible plane (in the ’70s, the character couldn’t yet fly under her own power) to Paradise Island to confer with her mother, Queen Hippolyta, about what exactly this ‘atomic bomb’ is – and returns to “Man’s World” determined to eradicate it. Superman, also now becoming aware of this mystery project, is determined to stop her until they can both learn more. There ensues a fight (two, actually – once our heroes realize how much property damage they’re causing, they re-locate to the moon, Gerry Conway being, like most comics writers, certifiably nuts), and we must give our Swingin’ Seventies writer credit where it’s due: his Wonder Woman is every bit the combat-equal of Superman. And the issue’s requisite bad guys manage to nuke each other, so it’s win-win.
Skip ahead to 2001 and the bad guys are a whole lot more realistic: sexism and the world-wide oppression of women. The special issue this time is “Wonder Woman – Spirit of Truth,” written by nostalgia-junky Paul Dini and painted in exquisite retro style by fan favorite Alex Ross. Their Wonder Woman is curiously very similar to Conway’s – she doesn’t fly (it’s the return of the invisible plane), she’s a physical powerhouse, and the issue’s story is intricately connected with Superman, although the two of them don’t fight (a Superman/Wonder Woman fight drawn by Alex Ross would be a nerd-orgy too far, I think). This Wonder Woman yearns to free the world’s oppressed women from their brutal patriarchies … and in some very well-done scenes, she encounters her most bewildering resistance from the women themselves, many of whom have been raised to be horrified at the sight of a buxom female clad in the aforementioned star-spangled bikini shorts. Hurt by this rejection where she least expected it, Wonder Woman consults with Superman in his Clark Kent persona – and learns from him that he sees himself exactly the opposite: Superman is the persona, and Clark Kent is the real, decent person whose emotional grounding makes Superman possible. It’s all infinitely less silly than the earlier ‘special issue,’ of course – but equally poignant, since the Wonder Woman featured in both – powerful, smart, dignified, unique, even inspiring – is now gone from the comics world, and who knows if we’ll ever see her again.
Comics like these make me realize all over again how much I’ll miss her.