Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Real Strength Is Turning Enemies into Family - 'Wonder Woman'

You know, for a site literally named after Wonder Woman, I feel like I don't talk about her as often as I should. And there's a good reason for that: there's just so freaking much to say. I mean, Wonder Woman isn't the go-to female superhero for nothing. She's been around since the 1940s, had as many different incarnations as Wolverine has had teamups, been the subject of doctoral theses and fanboy fever dreams alike. 

Wonder Woman is so hard to talk about because in a lot of ways, what is there to say that hasn't been said before? What could possibly be left to discuss about the world's best known and least understood female superhero?

So, instead of talking about Wonder Woman as a colossal, domineering figure* it makes a lot more sense for me to talk about Wonder Woman in the specific. This Wonder Woman by these authors. Specifically, we're talking about the incarnation made popular in DC's "New 52" lineup, one of the shining stars from that disastrous reboot.

This Wonder Woman is written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Cliff Chiang. It ran for thirty six issues (though they're numbered 0 - 35) and just recently ended for good, with the mantle being taken up by new writers and artists and taken in a totally different direction. And that's fine. That happens all the time. But the Azzarello - Chiang take on the character remains one of my favorites, so today we're going to talk about those thirty six issues which you will soon be able to buy in one gigantic omnibus I'm sure.

The reason I appreciate this particular run is, as it turns out, exactly why I was really hesitant about it at first. I wasn't super enthused when it was announced and I read the first couple of issues because it seemed like Azzarello and Chiang had completely changed the origin and basis for Wonder Woman's character. 

Or rather, for Diana of Themiscyra's character, since they spent much more time on her as a character of Greek mythology than as a nuts and bolts superhero. I was nonplussed because the story was based around a simple premise that seemed really really problematic: Wonder Woman is actually Zeus' daughter.

And if you don't get why that's such a big problem, you can totally be excused for not knowing. But basically, Wonder Woman's origin has always been a big part of her appeal. She was born on an island of Amazons, an island of only women. Other versions of the story have it that Diana was the only child ever born on Themiscyra, because all the other women came there from elsewhere. They do not tolerate men on "Paradise Island", and so reproduction is kind of a no-no. And it's a bit of a misnomer to say that Wonder Woman was born. She was, in fact, made from clay by the island's lonely queen, Hippolyta. That clay was then struck by an errant lightning bolt and Diana sprang to life.

She is the princess of the island, destined to rule, and cherished by all for her unique birth and amazing status as a woman who has known no touch of man and comes only from woman's hands. It's a huge part of her character, the idea that she is wholly separate and was never part of the male world.

By changing that, by making Diana just another demigod in the literal pantheon of children that Zeus has sired over the years, a lot of us felt like Wonder Woman was being down-graded. Like she was being slotted into this framework and being used to tell someone else's story. That you shouldn't fix what isn't broke.

Well, consider this my moment of eating crow, because it turns out that this one change to the canon allowed Azzarello and Chiang to tell one of the most complex and engaging stories in recent superhero comics. No joke, it's astounding, and it works precisely because Wonder Woman is forced to grapple with the revelation that she is one of Zeus' children, that she has all this family she never knew about, and that all of a sudden she gets to learn what it means to be a sister, aunt, niece, and more.

It's kind of super awesome.

So the basic premise for this story - spoiling as little of it as I can - goes like this. Wonder Woman is happily going about her life as a superhero when one day a whole bunch of crap starts breaking loose on Mt. Olympus. Zeus is missing, Hera is on a rampage, and everyone is searching for Zeus' last child. Diana is shocked to discover that her mother has been lying about her origins all along and that these demigods suddenly surrounding her are actually her kin. Moreover, that the unborn child Hera has sworn to kill is her little brother.

Diana being Diana, she breaks free from Paradise Island and goes off to find her brother and his mother, taking them under her wing. She has to face off against all of the gods of Olympus it seems, finding help in weird little corners of the world, and discovering the size and improbability of the family she has just joined. She has so many siblings she never knew about, and in trying to find out more about herself and protect this little baby, she becomes very close to a lot of them.

In other words, as much as this plot is about Diana fighting other demigods and gods for control of Mt. Olympus - and there's some epicness later on in the arc when Wonder Woman becomes the actual god of War - it's much more about Wonder Woman, a character who has always stood alone, figuring out how to live in relationship with people. Lots of people. Difficult people.

It's great and I love it and you should love it too.

It's fantastic because it's honestly the last story you really expect to see told with Wonder Woman front and center and arguably the one that most needs to be told. 

We already know that Wonder Woman is strong. We know she's wise and compassionate and kind and regal and committed to justice and all of that. But we never get to see her up close. We never see her first thing in the morning or trying to hold back from yelling at her step-mother or fighting a tension headache because people won't stop arguing. We never see Wonder Woman be human, and that's a big deal.

Look, as women we are frequently told what is and is not an appropriate way for us to express our feminine strength. There are so many mixed messages out there. Ones that tell us that real womanly strength is in punching badguys and looking good doing it, that nothing is more liberated than a trash-talking woman who's "just one of the guys" and likes to wear a leather bustier when she fights. Or we're told that women are at our strongest when we're supporting from home, that emotional support is our forte, that we should focus our powers on being the rock of every family and the moral center of the lives around us.

And the truth is that both of those are expressions of female strength and also neither of them are. The truth is always more complex than we want it to be, and that's true of Wonder Woman as well.

A huge facet of her character that's always been important is Diana's physical strength. The fact that she's one of the single most powerful people in the DC universe is important, as is her legacy as one of the "holy trinity" at the center of the Justice League. Diana's physical abilities are a big part of why we love her. We love to see women who not only are strong, but also look strong. She's over six feet tall and covered in muscles, has no moral compunctions about modesty but respects others opinions on it, and can fight gods and come out on top. That's awesome.

But equally as important is Diana's role in the Justice League and in the comics as a diplomat. Not only does she represent Themiscyra to the United Nations, she's also an international peacekeeper and humanitarian. She travels the world and helps people find productive solutions for their problems and differences. 

She's a warrior committed to peace, a woman of great moral character and wisdom and understanding who genuinely wants to help people and listen to them.

Wonder Woman is the best of all views of what it takes to be a strong woman. But up until now, most stories have kind of struggled when it comes to making her seem real. And that's a big deal. If she doesn't seem real, then we can hold Wonder Woman up as an ideal of what women should be, but never have to face the reality of actually trying to live up to her. In other words, unless Wonder Woman has some flaws, we won't sincerely try to be like her.

Which is why this story is so subversively brilliant. By showing Diana consistently not at her best and by showing her relating to all the people around her, we get to see a more clear and present image of what it means to try to be Wonder Woman every day. We come to see that Diana's raw power is actually sometimes harmful. That she tries to be compassionate and kind, but she often fails when people just need someone to listen. That she can get so focused on the long-view and the big picture that she misses the details of the people around her.

It also rocks because we get to see an ideal image of what happens when a bunch of broken, misfit people fight together for the same cause: they become a family. Like I said a few weeks ago, there's a pervasive trope in masculine-oriented media to have the hero at the center of a world that is constantly falling apart. People die and go away and become miserable and everything is the worst. I call this the whirlpool of suck, the thing where as the stakes become higher and higher around our hero, his personal life and the lives of the people around him go more and more to crap.

It's pleasantly subverted here, as it is in a fair amount of female-driven media, happily. Wonder Woman's life doesn't go to hell as the stakes get higher. Instead, she gathers people around her and makes allies and friends and turns her enemies into family. She doesn't drive people away, she invites them closer and proves that an ability to see the best in people can actually be as effective a weapon as some really epic swords.

Making people feel special and important and valuable just as they are, seeing them the way they truly are and loving them for it, those are superpowers we can actually achieve, and those are the ones that will genuinely make our lives better. For me, when it comes down to talking about what makes a truly strong woman, it's that. 

It's a woman who brings people together and helps them find a common mission. It's a woman who can fight and who can support others doing the fighting too. It's a woman who respects herself enough to respect other people.

I can't say definitively that Azzarello and Chiang are the first writers to go this direction with Diana, but I can say that I love what they've done. I love the story they chose to tell, because it hits directly on something I find immensely important. And, frankly, I think their characterization of Wonder Woman, from the dialogue to the simple lines of ink Chiang used to draw her, is one of the best.

It takes a strong woman to show other women how to be strong too. And at long last I feel like we have a vision of Wonder Woman that's just flawed enough to make it seem achievable. So thanks, guys, for writing this story. You will be missed. 

*If you actually want the history of the character and a genuinely expansive and comprehensive take on all the stuff you didn't know about her, check out The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.


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