Sometimes it feels as if Wonder Woman comics only exist so that DC can make money off of merchandising. I mean, yes, that’s exactly why they’re publishing any comics that happen to feature their biggest money makers. However, titles featuring Superman and Batman tend to be held to a higher standard and are frequently injected with high-end talent to keep things interesting. In-between some truly great runs (this century alone has seen them produced by the likes of Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, and Brian Azzarello) I’ve gotten the impression that Wonder Woman has been fighting for scraps and, judging by the comments I hear down at the comic shop I work in, this isn’t an entirely unique feeling.
To their credit, it feels like DC has awakened to the idea that they own the most recognizable female superhero in the world and that, gee, they ought to be doing something cool with her. The cynic in me sees this coming as the result of Warner Bros. decision to compete with Marvel Studios by throwing Wonder Woman into their fledgling cinematic universe but I don’t really care about the reasons so long as it means increased exposure for one of the most endearing feminist icons of modern times.
With a name that’s an ode to the series in which the character debuted, Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman marks only the second time in her more than seventy year history that the character has headlined two solo titles at the same time, something her male counterparts have been doing consistently for decades now. The digital-first anthology follows in the tradition of Legends of the Dark Knight and Adventures of Superman by inviting a variety of creators to tell done-in-one, continuity free stories starring Wonder Woman. For a character that has often been subject to fanboy criticism that she lacks a clearly defined center, the chance for readers to pick up a book aiming to distill the character to her core is also an opportunity for education.
Sensation Comics has become one of the comics that we regularly push down at the comic shop because it represents something that seemed unlikely a few years ago: a Wonder Woman comic you can feel comfortable handing to a young girl. The book is clearly feeding a market that is hungry for it but then something comes along to put a serious bump in the road. I’m not the first to have this criticism but the cover to issue #3 of Sensation Comics is a violent, bloody mess that many parents might not feel comfortable handing to their child. And that’s a shame given that this issue in particular features a story by Sean E. Williams and Marguerite Sauvage about misogyny and female empowerment that I could imagine having a profound effect on a young woman if she could get past that complete train-wreck of a cover. Clearly, there is confusion over at DC in regards to how they should market Wonder Woman that starts with bad covers and extends to a shocking fear of the “f-word.”
Internet shockwaves were made when the oncoming writer and artist team of Meredith and David Finch refused to call Wonder Woman a feminist in an interview. They’re treatment of the word as something dirty immediately made people nervous. The problem only got worse as the two backpedaled in later interviews and betrayed a misunderstanding of the term that they were so quick to dismiss. To be clear, to be a feminist is to desire equal treatment of all people. Feminism has no boundaries of sex, color, or creed so it’s one of those rare –isms in the world that gets to be for the benefit of everyone. And those later comments that push Wonder Woman’s feminism into the background in favor of a humanist point of view (as if the two things could be considered mutually exclusive) is problematic to say the least. If you’re going to be the creative team behind a book called Wonder Woman and you don’t understand the meaning of the word then there is going to be a serious problem.
As for the actual content of Wonder Woman #36, the first issue of the Finchs’ run, it doesn’t do much to dispel those worries. Putting aside lines of dialogue like, I kid you not, “vegetative justice” and art that often portrays the title character as delicate rather than formidable, this book is not written well from a character standpoint. To quote fellow Comics Bulletin writer Chase Magnett on Twitter, “[Wonder Woman is] so overwhelmed by how busy she is, so she punches [Swamp Thing] and Aquaman has to chastise/mansplain life to her.” I’ll address the latter point first. Wonder Woman in current DC continuity is both queen of the Amazons and the literal god of war. She was born and raised to lead her fellow Amazons while also being trained from her youth to take over for Ares; how are these issues that can overwhelm her? I understand the desire to give this mythic character a very human problem but a crisis of confidence just doesn’t fit her. And having Aquaman, the hyper-competent king of Atlantas get on her case and tell her what essentially amounts to “stop being so emotional” shows a lack of awareness. You can’t have a man say that to a woman and have that meant to be serious advice for her to take. It’s sexist. Now to address the former point of Chase’s that is endemic of a much greater problem for Wonder Woman.In a broader context, Wonder Woman attacking first and asking questions later is entirely out of character. However, in the context of the New 52, that’s been the standard characterization when Wonder Woman is written by Geoff Johns in Justice League. Ignore the compassionate take present in Brian Azzarello’s New 52 run since Geoff Johns and most other DC writer have. As the Chief Creative Officer for DC Comics and the writer of the flagship book, Geoff Johns is the voice of the DC universe with his interpretation of a character being equivalent to the entire company’s interpretation. In his inaugural Justice League arc, Wonder Woman was portrayed gleefully leaping into battle to kill parademons with nary a question asked. She developed from there into, as Chase put it, “an angry, uncaring stereotype; the sort that Bill O’Reilly summons when he speaks about feminists.” What has traditionally been a multifaceted character known for her compassion and strength has been reduced to someone that “[r]ather than finding strength in her femininity… [has become] brash and masculine creating a caricature of the angry feminist.” Taking Wonder Woman and unwittingly (there’s no reason to assume anyone involved in writing the character has had malicious intent) turning her into a representation of a non-existent, caricatured brand of feminism is a frightening example of a modern day Trojan Horse.
Just as insidious is the idea of letting Wonder Woman play second fiddle to any male character. As she was created, Wonder Woman was meant to be superior to all men and a symbol of feminine power. Pairing her up with Superman had long been acknowledged as a problematic decision due to his status as the center of the DC universe and, one could argue, the superhero genre that he spawned back in 1938. Putting Wonder Woman in a relationship with the perfect man, capable of doing anything, has the potential to make her look dependent or subservient to a superior male figure, something that would make her creator William Moulton Marston spin in his grave. So when DC made the decision with the New 52 to finally pull the trigger on creating a canon relationship between Wonder Woman and Superman, there was legitimate cause for concern.
Then Charles Soule was put on writing duties for the title Superman/Wonder Woman and a lot of my fears were assuaged. He portrayed a couple that was in the process of learning from each other as they made the decision to embark on a partnership together. They were both equals without one being made to appear superior either physically, mentally, or morally from the other. It was, in short, the best possible outcome. And then the creative team changed and the new writer Peter J. Tomasi made his debut on Superman/Wonder Woman the very same week as the all Finch creative team took over Wonder Woman. The results were a feminist nightmare.Where Superman was portrayed as level-headed and compassionate, Wonder Woman was both brash and disinterested in humanity to the point that she would just watch as a man was bleeding out in a pile of rubble. Superman had to start mansplainin’ to her that you can’t just watch people die only for her to respond with a comment that makes it sound like she was planning to take the man’s life herself. But, hey, that’s a flashback scene to five years ago. Maybe the plan is to demonstrate a change in character. Hope for that outcome disappears as the book shifts to present day and readers are treated to scenes of Wonder Woman complaining at her boyfriend for giving their taxi to an elderly couple in the middle of heavy rain or her being bested by the villains because she rushed into battle without minding her surroundings. Compared to Superman, she looks terrible and that should never be the case.
DC Comics seems confused about the nature of the character they’re pushing. They don’t know if she’s a feminist icon any better than Meredith and David Finch do. They don’t even know how they want to present her, whether she’s for all-ages or covered in blood in order to make concessions to the male section of the audience. Ideally, Wonder Woman should never have to make concessions for a male audience to read her books. The character is feminist; she is for both women and men so there shouldn’t have to be concessions made for either audience because they’re the same exact audience.
One can only hope that the team in charge of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, where Wonder Woman is meant to make her feature-film debut in 2016, have a better idea of the character they’re presenting because, successful or not, it’s going to be the one both movie and comic book audiences are going to be stuck with.