The blu-ray release of Wonder Woman came out this week, and I was happy to see it was filled with plenty of special features, not only about the making of the film, but about the history of the character and her significance in the comics. Watching some of these this weekend, I began to reflect on my somewhat tumultuous relationship with various Wonder Woman comics. I’ve read and written about a handful of Wonder Woman comics on my previous blog. Unfortunately, I wasn’t always the biggest fan of these stories. Looking back and rereading some of my posts, I had some pretty blunt words for the writers who tackled this iconic character. Some, like George Perez’s omnibus, were incredibly enjoyable, while others, like Amazons Attack!, left me wanting to rip my hair out. The recent movie was without a doubt one of the best depictions of Wonder Woman I’ve seen across all forms of media, but I couldn’t help but think about why I have such a difficult time finding Wonder Woman stories I truly appreciate. Have many writers just failed to produce decent stories about the Amazon princess, or are my expectations simply too high?
A Character Rich in History
Wonder Woman has been a flagship character for DC Comics since her first appearance in All-Star Comics #8i in 1941. She was the vision of William Moulton Marston, a man who would be considered progressive even by today’s standards. Reading his original stories, it’s fascinating to realize that such an idealized view of female strength and equality came not only from the 1940s, but from a man. These were the first Wonder Woman stories I ever read, and truth be told they drastically influenced my opinion of the character. Are they perfect? No. There are still plenty of moments that grate on my modern sensibilities, and the blatant bondage imagery heavily peppered throughout the stories inevitably stands out to the reader (though whether that’s good, bad, or indifferent, is entirely up to the reader). Still, as a whole Wonder Woman is a well-thought out, idealized view of womankind, and presents an image of strength and love for many to aspire to emulate.
Of course, Marston was thinking far beyond his contemporaries, and when writing the character passed from him to others, certain key aspects became muddled. For decades, Wonder Woman was left somewhat in the dust; while the likes of Superman and Batman went on to continue engaging in memorable, albeit sometimes ridiculous, stories, Wonder Woman was relegated to the sidelines, serving as a secretary to her fellow heroes, and at one point losing her powers and working as a model. This is a far cry from the powerful character Martson created, and Diana spent many years lost in a sea of lackluster storylines that failed to encapsulate her core spirit.
As comics progressed and feminist representation in comics began to be addressed more closely, writers started using Wonder Woman more fully. These stories were not without problems, though. Writers seemed to have a hard time reconciling Diana’s seemingly opposing personality traits. In a world where one is either a lover or a fighter, how do you write a hero who is both? This was perhaps one of the most prolific problems I came across when reading through Wonder Woman’s history. In some stories, like The New 52’s Justice League ,she’s innocent and almost childlike, enjoying the thrill of ice cream for the first time; in others, like Superman: Sacrifice, she’s mercilessly snapping Max Lord’s neck. How do you process these two seemingly contradictory actions being performed by the same person? It’s here that Wonder Woman suffers the most in more modern times: some writers cling to her belief in love and friendship, wanting to emphasize the womanly aspect of her character, while others stress her fierceness on the battlefield, playing down the compassionate side in favor of a more raw, anger-driven warrior.
The inherent problem, of course, is that both are equally necessary, and ignoring one in favor of the other creates an incomplete version of the character.
Diana as a Symbol
One of Wonder Woman’s greatest strengths, and indeed also one of her greatest obstacles, is that she serves as a shining beacon to so many. Perhaps even moreso than Superman and Batman, Diana has always represented this otherworldly goodness, this unwavering strength and compassion that remains unparalleled in DC comics. Since her creation there have been plenty who have emulated her, yet none hold the same weight as Diana.
Even before I ever read a comic, I could tell you the basics of what Wonder Woman stood for: strength, compassion, love. These core tenants are the driving force behind all of her actions, and they are beliefs that transcend the comics world and have helped make Diana a symbol to comics fans and non-fans alike. Of course, attaching so much significance to a single character can create problems all its own. It is often difficult for readers to reconcile Diana’s fierceness on the battlefield with her compassion towards all; how can she fight if she claims to love everyone? Diana’s beliefs have been laid out so well in certain comics though that it’s really not difficult to understand at all: she will always look for the peaceful solution first, and is always there to extend a hand in friendship, but if no other option remains she will fight until her dying breath for what she believes in. It’s an incredibly powerful and unwavering stance, and one that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we could all learn something from. How many times have we remained complacent rather than fight for what we know to be right? Or conversely, how many times have we rushed into anger instead of pausing a moment to consider alternate solutions? Wonder Woman forces us to confront this duality within ourselves, and teaches us how to balance these conflicting feelings.
Placing Wonder Woman on such a pillar makes it easy to find faults in individual author’s writing. After all, every author has a slightly different take on the character, writing to the best of their ability how they believe Diana would react in a given situation. The problem, then, becomes whether the author’s idea of what is right coincides with the reader’s own beliefs.
What Would Diana Do?
Wonder Woman makes tough choices; this is the mark of a true hero. Unlike some of her fellow heroes though, Wonder Woman’s choices much more closely resemble those we may be forced to make. Superman is inherently good; reading his comics, it is almost always possible to figure out what choice he will make. For better or for worse, he will save everyone if it’s within his power to do so. With Batman, the choices tend to be much darker, but likewise often as predictable as Superman. Batman’s choices are often problematic, and the reader does not agree with them, but we are still able to predict them, because we understand Batman’s moral compass. Whether we believe it to be right or not, we know how Batman would react in a given situation.
Diana, on the other hand, possesses the good heart of Superman, but also the practicality of Batman. Despite the fact that she is technically part-god, Diana’s choices more often reflect the struggles everyday people might face within themselves. It is not a question of good versus evil, but rather one of what we each believe to be moral and just in a world of gray. Therein lies the difficulty in reading Wonder Woman stories. Everyone has a general idea of what is good versus evil, but when confronted with specific moral dilemmas, we all may approach a situation differently. Each writer crafts Wonder Woman to be the image of what he or she believes to be a beacon of morality, but the details of that morality are open to debate. Superman and Batman do not kill. They are virtually unwavering in that respect. Diana is less so. She doesn’t like to kill, but she recognizes that in certain extreme cases it cannot be helped. While Superman represents the ideology we all aspire to emulate, Diana is a more practical hero, allowing us to admit that there are points in time where perhaps there is no other way. After all, we’re not all invulnerable like the man of steel. Each writer creates Wonder Woman with their own personal belief of right and wrong infused in the story. Wonder Woman always lives in the light, but that light shines a little differently for every reader.
I’ve read plenty of Wonder Woman comics over the past few years, and I’ve had incredibly strong opinions on pretty much all of them. Love them or hate them, I was never unsure of how they made me feel. There are certainly storylines that could have been more well-written, and I will probably never forgive the comics of the 60s and 70s for squandering such a rich character’s potential. I may have been a little harsh though on some of the more modern comics. Wonder Woman is such a complex character for any author to undertake writing, and in many cases they must dig deep within themselves to create their own unique vision of what a strong, morally just hero would be. Diana is not easily dissected, as her character’s history is as rich as it is complex. I imagine she is perhaps one of the more difficult comic book characters to write well, and any undertaking must be approached with a level of discernment and inner reflection. Although her sweet, innocent moments are often my favorite, she is not a character to be taken lightly, for she represents the goodness we all strive to embody, even though we may sometimes fall short.
For better or for worse, Wonder Woman is a hero to us all, helping reveal to each and every one of us what we believe within ourselves to be right.