Wednesday, December 3, 2008

ONE HUNDRED!


Hey, what'd you know...my 100th post (thanks to pal Rob Kelly over at the Aquaman Shrine for the idea of using the above cover to illustrate it...why would I think of such a thing, just 'cause I wrote the comic--well, co-wrote, with Paul Levitz--and a 3-D diorama of the lovely Joe Staton/Dick Giordano cover sits about two and a half feet from my desk) in the form of Part 2 of the Wonder Woman essay:


What Is So Hard About Wonder Woman?! (Part 2)
© respective copyright holder

Not everyone agreed to go along with the idea. Some mocked it with a vehemence that revealed mid-century man’s deep fear of the equal, or, heaven forbid!, dominant woman. In 1954, MAD (then a comic book; it would later evolve into the magazine format more familiar to today’s audience) offered up the parody “Woman Wonder,” by Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder. In it, Woman Wonder is every bit the strong, capable, dominant woman. Her boyfriend Steve Adore is a little weenie of a man, constantly needing rescue by his bigger, stronger Amazon girlfriend. They can’t even make out without his complaining “Ooh, dearest! When you crush me so hard in your strong, sinewy, hairy muscular arms ... I ... I ... I ... I ... break ... something in the side of chest ... something broke, sweetheart!” Diana Banana, this relationship’s obvious top, is oblivious to Steve’s pain as she demands “Give me another kiss!” over and over through his discomfort. Steve fakes his own abduction to drawn Woman Wonder into a trap where he first psychologically berates her for being dumb enough believing her great powers are even possible “both physically and mathematically” (stupid girl!), and then he and his muscle goons beat and torture her for two pages of non-stop hilarity, ending with his stomping on her face “raised so tenderly in tearful supplication” with his hob-nailed boot. “I’ve been planning for years to beat you to a bloody pulp!” he screams as jumps up and down on her, kicking her “back in the kitchen where you belong, sweetheart!” And so we see in the final panel, Steve and Diana in stereotypical comic strip domestic bliss, complete with a houseful of screaming, misbehaving children (including a little girl in a Woman Wonder outfit who is setting fire to her brother), a haggard Diana with baby in one arm, burning dinner with the other, while Steve reclines with a cigar and racing form in the living room. “Diana Banana is now content with the normal female life of working over a hot stove!” the caption reads. “And Steve can even knock her down in boxing!”

Take that, Wonder Bitch!

In all fairness, MAD’s mission statement, as much as one ever existed, was to twist and subvert the conventions and pretensions of their parody subjects. Superman and Batman both received earlier and similar skewerings in MAD, both equally honest in their own ways, but the sheer brutality and misogyny of “Woman Wonder” is, especially in retrospect, disturbing. This is what happens to a dame who thinks she’s better than a man: she gets stomped into submission.

Gloria Steinem worked, coincidentally, for Harvey Kurtzman, writer of “Woman Wonder” in the early-1960s when she was a contributing editor to his humor magazine, Help. There is no indication, anecdotal or otherwise, that Kurtzman, creator of MAD and Playboy’s “Little Annie Fanny” was himself in any way a misogynist; indeed, for it’s overt sexuality, the harassed Annie usually came up the winner in the strip’s battle of the sexists. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of chalking it up to the 1950s zeitgeist, when domestic violence was looked at as understandable and sometimes necessary disciplinary action, or the punch line of every episode of Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners: “Pow, zoom, to the moon, Alice!” Ralph bellowed, his clenched fist in her nonplussed face. Yes, viewers knew – the apologists now contend – Ralph was all bluster, that, in fact, Alice could and would kick his ass if he ever dared strike her, but did the viewers of the 1950s, inured by decades of implied violence against women in the media, know this? How many simply heard the stated message without bothering to dig out its comedic nuance? It was the mass media’s selling of the socially acceptable belief that conflicts in the home could be settled at the end of a fist.

Television was rife with this subliminal message (as were comic books and movies), from the 1950s and continuing through ... well, what year is it? Sometimes, when Ricky lost his temper and loomed menacingly over Lucy, berating her in machinegun Spanish, she would cower, literally in a corner, under his verbal assault. His eyes bulged, veins throbbed in his forehead, he flailed about with clenched fists and the thought is sometimes unavoidable: Oh, my God! Ricky beats Lucy! Why else would she be so fearful of his fiery Cuban temper?

Edith Bunker was another victim, verbally “stifled” by Archie’s bigotry, hatred, and stupidity. Yes, Edith was smarter than Archie ... but Woman Wonder will tell you what happens to girls who don’t hide their superiority from the boys. Even Charlie’s Angels answered to Charlie.

Wonder Woman was a symbol waiting to be discovered, both on TV and as a political icon. Steinem, like most kids during the 1940s, read comic books, but was bothered that the women in them were relegated to the role of getting into trouble so the superhero could then rescue them. “I’m happy to say that I was rescued from this dependent fate at the age of seven or so; rescued (Great Hera!) by a woman,” Steinem recalled in the 1995 introduction to Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was the woman girls who followed the muscular world of comic book heroes wanted to be when they grew up, someone worthy of being, unlike “a Technicolor clotheshorse, getting into jams with villains, and saying things like, ‘Oh, Superman! I’ll always be grateful to you!’”

Steinem found Lynda Carter to be “a little blue of eye and large of breast” for the role, “but she still retained her Amazon powers, her ability to convert instead of kill, and her appeal for many young female viewers.”

“Wonder Woman is this enigma within the world of superhero comics. No one seems to ever ‘get her.’ One moment, she is this completely powerful and independent character that stands just as strong (and often stronger) than her male counterpart. Then, she diverts to this out of touch ditz who doesn't even know how to pump her own gas, then sway into a ball-busting man-hater who thinks us dudes are nothing but disgusting sperm banks. Suddenly, she is the leader of an entire race of warrior woman, (and) finally she becomes Superman with ovaries. So, what gives? Which Wonder Woman is the correct Wonder Woman?”
Aaron Duran, 2007 (“What Is So Hard About Wonder Woman?”)

When I assumed editorship of the Wonder Woman comic book in early 1994, the character was in what could only be described as a slump. The character was fifty-plus years old and showing, not her age, but the inability of the boy’s club that is the comic book industry to fully comprehend the needs of a complex, older woman. Girls stopped reading just about anything other than Archie comics sometime in the 1960s; that left the next few generations of comic book creators an almost exclusively male domain.

Writing any character of subtlety and nuance is difficult to do in the often limited scope of mainstream comic books. For a male writer who grew up on the testosterone soaked comics of the last three decades, it was probably asking a lot of him to convincingly write a character of the opposite sex who is supposed to embody everything that is good and virtuous and above all, peaceful in womanhood ... yet stands for the personification of the invincible warrior class. How is a man who probably doesn’t even understand his girlfriend or wife supposed to decode the exemplar of womanhood? It was by no means an impossibility, nor was it for any lack of effort; George Perez managed to come close in a popular and critically successful run of Wonder Woman starting in 1987. Dennis O’Neil, the writer who kicked off a controversial 1968 story line in which she was “de-powered” and played as an Emma Peel karate expert in a white jumpsuit, partnered with a wise little blind Asian martial arts master, I Ching, readily admits to the weakness, saying in a 2006 online interview, “You have to understand, writers like me, we have the best of intentions. We simply don't always know how to do things well.”

O’Neil, one of the most respected writers in the medium, would seem to have shown us the error of those particular 1968-ways. He recalled in a 2007 online interview, “Gloria Steinem, bless her, without mentioning my name, wrote an article about that and after the fact I saw her point, absolutely. At the time I thought I was serving the cause of feminism by making this woman self-made and then I immediately undercut that by having her have a male martial arts teacher. My heart was pure, but I now see Steinem's point. To take the one really powerful [female] character in the comics pantheon, and take away her powers was really not serving the cause of feminism.”

And yet, almost three decades after that fact, Wonder Woman, under the auspices of a talented editor and inventive writer, was reduced to working in a fast food taco franchise in stories published under covers depicting her in various poses of humiliation and defeat. Several years later, down the line of my editorial tenure, a storyline by writer/artist John Byrne elevated Wonder Woman to the level of a god in the Greek pantheon. A large segment of fans were outraged; how dare anyone suggest Wonder Woman could be the equal, or (that troubling concept again) superior, to Superman? He was the male, naturally superior. Wonder Woman would, in the estimation of some, be allowed second place on the superpowers scale. Others busied themselves compiling lists of all the male heroes who are stronger and why; role playing games have given the hardcore accepted standards for the quantification of magical and super-powers to bolster their arguments, which generated considerable heat on the internet before subsequent editors and writers returned her to the comfortable, familiar status quo.

# # #

What is so hard about Wonder Woman?

Is she, in the end, just a fungible fictional character responding to the personalities of whoever happens to be creating her adventures? Or is she the sum total of the reader’s interpretation as they filter the writer’s experiences through their own? After all, every argument for William Moulton Marston being a proto-feminist can be rebutted with quotes from his writings that blatantly and specifically espouse the psychological benefits of bondage and domination, the proof of which can be found in its almost comically obvious presence in all of his Wonder Woman stories; spankings – boy on girl and girl on girl alike – were routine, covers depicting her astride, or bound to, missiles hurtling through the air were plentiful, and lots of characters spent many, many panels trussed up by ropes and chains in a variety of bondage poses. As a dramatic device, Marston said, “binding and chaining are the one harmless, painless way of subjecting the heroine to menace and making drama of it.” Besides, he said, “women enjoy submission.”

Which carries more creative weight: the original intent of the creator, the judgment of the individual reader, or the interpretations of later creators? Comic book characters, like all serialized characterizations everywhere, are kept fresh through the illusion of change; readers and fans want their favorites to go through six different kinds of hell on a monthly basis ... just as long as they emerge exactly as they’ve always been (since the particular reader have been reading it, that is) but different on the other end.

More people know Wonder Woman from the television show than have or ever will read the comic books, but the influence of the creator’s original intent were hard to ignore, even in the event of cross-medium translation in which the receiving medium usually has little or no trouble ignoring exactly what it was that attracted them to the character in the first place. Network television standards and practices kept it clean – there would be no straddling of phallic symbols on the Peacock Network! – but every review, every reminiscence couldn’t help but reference the true star of the show: Lynda Carter’s breasts.

So: Feminist icon. B&D poster girl. Propaganda tool for enlightening the malleable minds of impressionable little boys. Smartass broad who needs a smacking around. Role model for girls. Goddess. Harmless TV entertainment. Jiggle-TV.

Because, in the end, everyone reads into Wonder Woman the qualities they need to satisfy themselves. She is, in the final, clich├ęd analysis, a fictionalized earth mother. We come to her as viewers and readers and she, in her nurturing way, shows us exactly what we need. Lynda Carter needed a higher meaning to a role as a comic strip character. Gloria Steinem needed a symbol for women’s equality. Harvey Kurtzman needed a strong woman victimize in order to comment on the decade’s misogyny. Dennis O’Neil needed a reminder of how art intersects politics.

William Moulton Marston needed a spanking.

And the writers find what they need to make Wonder Woman work for them: Robert Kanigher, who took over scripting Wonder Woman after Marston’s death in 1947, took the character off into light, romantic comedy mixed with fantasy and high adventure by way of romance comics. Fantasy novelist and Wonder Woman writer Jodi Picoult told Newsarama.com in a 2006 interview, “My thoughts are to sort of give her some mother-daughter issues – because I think all women have those, and to beef up the relationships that she now has in the world of man, as she's assuming an identity given to her.”

Assuming an identity given to her.

That’s something Wonder Woman should be used to by now.

2 comments:

rob! said...

congrats on 100!

oh, and if you want me to read what you're writing, you gotta stop with the Lynda Carter as WW pics!

Paul Kupperberg said...

I took pity on you and replaced the image.