Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wednesday Comics: The Problem of Wonder Woman



It was recently announced that the CW is going to try and develop yet another Wonder Woman TV show called “Amazon.”  This would be after the dismal failure of the David E. Kelley pilot that was universally panned.  But it got me to thinking about Wonder Woman and the problem she has.


Wonder Woman is probably the most recognizable name in the DC Universe after Superman and Batman.  Most people could probably tell you that she was an Amazon with a golden lasso that forced you to tell the truth and an invisible jet.   And yet, her books don’t sell nearly as well.  She has not had hit movie in the last 10 years like Batman.  And she hasn’t had a hit TV show like Superman.  And yet she is held up as one of the DC Trinity. 

But what exactly does she bring to the table?  Months ago when I set up my ideal Justice League, I left her out.  The main reason being I didn’t see the necessity of her character.  I think writers have trouble making any serious noise with her because she is literally an icon: 2-dimmensional and known more for her looks than her actions.

I know that some of you will argue and point some of the great work done with her by writers like Gail Simone and Greg Rucka.  And those stories are very good, to be sure.  But when was the last time someone who read comics put a Wonder Woman story arc in their top 10 stories?  Or top 20?  Top 50?

So here are my thoughts as to the problems with making Wonder Woman work and my humble suggestions for remedies.



Wonder Woman already lacks an important element of the Joseph Campbell hero journey:  She’s not an orphan.  Look at the rest of the JLA lineup:  Superman – Orphan, Batman  – Orphan, The Flash  – Orphan, Green Lantern  – Orphan, Aquaman  – Orphan, Cyborg  – Orphan.  The closest Wonder Woman comes to being an orphan is having an absentee father in Zeus (thanks to the new 52 retcon).

There is a reason most heroes begin as orphans.  It creates a strong sense of sympathy and it shows the strength of their character in overcoming challenges.  Wonder Woman grew up a princess on Paradise Island and she has come to the world of men to lecture us on peace.  This already puts her at a different starting place as all of the other characters who are fighting for justice.  They are doing so because they have felt the injustice of life first-hand.  She is doing so because she thinks she knows better than us.

Solution: Embrace this fact that she is different.  She is a different type of hero.  She is a god-hero.  I think that is why there have been several attempts by those like Azzarello to reconnect with the mythological roots.  She is Hercules, Thor, Perseus.  But like Marvel’s Thor, she needs to be humbled.  In the comics, Thor had to share his existence with the form of weak Dr. Donald Blake.  In his movie he was simply stripped of his powers.  I’m not saying that Wonder Woman should be powerless, but in order for us to connect to her, she has to be brought from on high to our level.


Wonder Woman can fly, is fast, and has super strength.   But there are other heroes in the JLA who have that and more.  She has an invisible jet and a lasso, but they don’t compare to Green Lantern’s magic ring.  At times her powers make her out to be a light version of other heroes amalgamated into one.

Solution: Highlight what is unique.  Brad Meltzer in his amazing mini-series Identity Crisis pointed out that the hero they feared the most was Wonder Woman.  They knew they might be able to outthink Superman or be brave enough to face down Batman.  But they were powerless against Wonder Woman’s lasso.  She took away all of their secrets and there was nothing they could do.  This was one of the times I sat back and really took in the power of the lasso and what it could mean. 

I would love it if she, in her dedication to truth, always left part of her arm wrapped in the lasso, so that everyone would know that she never lied.  Think about how intimidating that would be if she said that she would break all of your fingers and you KNEW she was honest about it.


Wonder Woman has the worst rogues gallery in DC.  If you don’t believe me, click on this link to Wonder Woman villain “Egg Fu.”  There is no one on her roster that matches a Joker or Bizarro or Sinestro.

Solution: Make the villains interesting.  I know that sounds simple, but it really is that straight-forward.  You don’t need to invent a new bad guy every time the book gets a new writer.  Iconic villains are hard to invent.  Instead, tell the story of the bad guys so that we understand them.  Geoff Johns did this brilliantly with the Flash.  He would dedicate whole issues to a single villain like Captain Cold or Heat Wave.  That way, we not only understood how dangerous they were but we also had a sense of sympathy for them.  To this day Captain Cold is one of my favorite villains because of what Johns did.  Someone needs to take Wonder Woman’s villains like the Cheetah and Dr. Psycho and give them the same gravitas.


Wonder Woman, as I said before, is the Amazon ambassador for peace.  This means that she is to be a role model.  Like Superman, she is trying to embody the ideals that people can aspire to.  But she is a walking contradiction.  Mark Waid pointed this out in Kingdom Come.  She preaches peace, but she does so by espousing violence.  This also puts her in a different position than Superman.  He sees himself as one of us (even though he is alien) who is using his powers to show that all of us can live out an ideal.  Wonder Woman is in a sense more alien, growing up in a different culture, and then she tries to tell us that Amazons are in many ways better than Americans.  The difference is that Superman is comes from us.  That’s why he fights for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”  Wonder Woman comes from without fight for “Truth, Justice, and the Amazon Way.”

Solution:  Have her renounce the Amazons.  I know this is a radical step, but it is important to show that she is in the fight with us.  They did try this in a recent storyline called “Amazons Attack.”  But all that did was lead to more stories about how Wonder Woman would reform the Amazons.  She needs a complete break.  She needs to see why our culture is good and worth defending.  Thus she can be someone from the inside who fixes problems.   When someone criticizes us, we are more likely to listen if we share a life with them, not if they seem like moral busy bodies.


This may be the most controversial point, but over the course of the years, Wonder Woman has been rendered more and more masculine.  Look at drawings of her evolve from the 80’s through to the 2000’s.  She bulks up physically, but she also doesn’t engage emotionally the way many women do.  She is often written like a male hero but in star-spangle panties. (as Joss Whedon so eloquently noted).  Wonder Woman should be the number one comic book role model for girls, but she seems distant and aloof.

Solution:  Femininity does not mean weakness.  I look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer (sorry for the additional nod to Whedon).  Buffy was the assertive, intelligent warrior that fought the forces of darkness.  But one of the reasons that Buffy is so popular is that she is also completely feminine.  She is someone that women can relate to.  She speaks from the same inner struggles that modern women face every day: struggles with identity, love, courage, life, friends, etc. 

Wonder Woman is an important character, one that I am always rooting for to succeed.  But she needs to connect to her audience in a new way.

 Referencing Kingdom Come once again, Superman as a character always suffers when they emphasize the “Super” rather than the “man.”  In the same way, we need to emphasize not so much the “Wonder” as we do the “Woman.”  If we can tap in to the universal experience of womanhood, then she can be the rich character that her iconic status promises.

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