Editorial: Wonder Woman

Given all of the recent comic discussion on this site and in the podcast, I figure it’s about time to discuss the world’s favorite warrior princess from my point of view. She’s come a long way since her debut in Dec. 1941, and that’s probably why I appreciate the character as much as I do.

Like many in my generation, I grew up knowing that Lynda Carter is Wonder Woman. If you’ve seen the Cathy Lee Crosby pilot movie, then you know it takes little imagination to understand how Lynda kept her spot in the world. Lynda is Wonder Woman as Chris Reeve is to Superman. And yet, there’s so much untapped potential in that TV series. It captured the essence of the character in that first season as she was in WWII, but after it changed networks and became a 70s spy show, it lost something. Everything around Diana was…well, it was pop culture of the time, and everything that implies.

As much as I love Lynda, it’s not her series that made me a fan. Boys were brought up to like Superman and Batman, but Wonder Woman was for girls. That was always the stigma growing up, and so Wonder Woman remained at arm’s length for the first half of my life. Looking back at some of the older comics, it’s probably for the best, but I’m glad it changed later.

It was in college that I discovered Wonder Woman. Between Batman and Superman, I had been led down the path to collecting pretty much every DC Universe title out there. I was running a DC RPG. I researched everything about nearly every character. Wonder Woman was not on the list. Her comic rarely sold, and comic shops tended to keep only a handful of copies each month. It’s really an exercise in product placement. Most shops place everything in alphabetical order, separated by company, so DC and Marvel were kept separate. Batman usually sat near the top racks like the prized champion, Superman was often at eye level for most younger kids, and Wonder Woman was always buried on the bottom rack where most people couldn’t see her. So why was X-Men so popular? At the time, there was a successful animated series driving new fans, and the old fans were so numerous that there were 10 X-Men related titles. And that was in the days of variant covers, which were also displayed separately (and only happened once for WW in that era). They got pretty much an entire wall. If all of the titles were mixed and alph’d, X-Men further overshadowed Wonder Woman. Spider-Man had 11 titles, Batman and Superman each had 5 in rotation (4 monthly, one quarterly), with spinoff titles for Supergirl, Superboy, Catwoman, Robin, and Azrael, plus mini-series, Elseworlds one-shots, and specials. Then add in all of the other titles across the multiverse of comic book companies. You get the idea. Wonder Woman stood alone. How anyone discovered her by accident is still a mystery to me to this day. Her book barely hangs on by her fingernails, which is why she tends to get stories that revolve around drastic costume changes, decimated worlds, and sheer mind-numbing brutality. In short, the creative teams do what they must to help her survive.

But Wonder Woman is also a regular in the Justice League book, right? Traditionally, the JLA writers underuse Wonder Woman. She’s treated with a general lack of respect, as a female version of Superman, or worst of all, summarily ignored as little more than background eye candy. Any ramification from her own book seemed to be ignored as well. Anyone reading JLA would be hard-pressed to want to spend the extra money to pick up her solo title. Let’s face it, the odds are stacked against this character, and yet she still stands proud and fights hard in the face of adversity on both sides of the 4th wall.

So how did I discover her? A friend of mine in college was ROTC and about as patriotic as they come. He collected Superman, Captain America, and GI Joe on a regular basis. He was also quite the horn dog, and it was under the artistic talents of Mike Deodato, Jr., that he discovered Wonder Woman. Deodato’s art is distinctive, to say the least, and it was enough to grab my friend’s eye. He bought the book and was greeted with the surprise bonus of a hard-hitting story involving Olympian Gods, fierce Amazons, and the kinds of storytelling risks that are rarely seen in a comic even today. He passed it to me, and I was sold. I immediately regretted never having added Wonder Woman to my pull list. That she was never really on my fanboy radar before that point made feel somewhat embarrassed. To this day, I don’t think any comic collector or superhero fan can claim those titles without at least giving this character the chance she deserves.

Research into the character’s history, however, made me realize why she had never really been given her due. Her creator was the same man that created the lie detector polygraph test, which explains the Lasso of Truth outright. The man was a psychologist who created Wonder Woman on a dare. He felt that if a woman was strong enough and beautiful enough, any man would follow her. Not exactly rocket science. Add in his rather kinky tastes for bondage and consider his own living arrangements with his wife, mistress, and all of their children, Wonder Woman was destined to become something a little different than the likes of Superman and Batman were offering. And yet for the first 40+ years, she really was just a female version of Superman. When she stood with the Justice Society during WWII, she was their secretary. Being the only big name superheroine out there until Supergirl came along helped her book to sell with the female population through the Red Scare of the 50s and the goofy 60s. That the female fans of the time were largely buying romance books meant that Steve Trevor was treated as the male version of Lois Lane, and the title tended to be played as a romance book as well. The stories were trite, but the art sold the books. That DC insisted on rounding out the Justice League with her feminine presence ensured her a place on the Super Friends cartoon later so as to attract even more little girls to the character. It was Lynda Carter that gave her a new dimension. Say what you will of the series, Lynda’s performance was genuine, giving Wonder Woman that little something extra that would help her overcome the stigma of the comic books, assuming you overlooked the little comic-like narrator blurbs between scenes. I love those…

It wasn’t until after the Crisis on Infinite Earths came along in 1985 that Wonder Woman truly developed into a worthy character, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, as an icon she has few equals, and her role in society and in pop culture will never be belittled. But as a character… meh. Until Crisis. The DC Universe was destroyed and reassembled. Right out of the gate, the top names in comics rebooted Batman, Superman, and all the rest of the top line heroes. 1986 gave us some of the riskiest and greatest storytelling of all time. Heroes rose to greatness. Comics were suddenly seen as a viable medium for adults, something far beyond “kiddie books.” And there was no Wonder Woman anywhere to be seen. Enter writer / artist extraordinaire George Perez. The man who pencilled the Crisis series and helped to outline the plot felt sorry for Diana. He approached DC’s top people, feeling sorry that the character had been overlooked, and he expressed his desire to give her a worthy reboot that would kickstart her into her rightful place as one of the Big 3 heroes in the Justice League lineup. DC okayed it, of course, and 1987 gave us what I consider to be the greatest comic book origin story ever written, bar none. Perez did the impossible. We got majestic and terrifying Gods. We got beautiful Amazons that were so much more than just eye candy. We got mortal characters in “Man’s World” that were identifiable and believable, each dealing with everyday problems in a world very much like our own. And we got a heroine who didn’t speak a word of English, was sweet enough to give you diabetes when she smiled, and could turn on the Xena-level brutality when the need called for it. She’s a walking paradox: completely approachable, yet totally untouchable. Lovable, yet intimidating beyond all reason. And best of all, she didn’t identify herself as a superhero. The story lists her as one of the last A-list costumed crimefighters to show up in this version of the world, and yet she’s distanced from them because fighting crime isn’t her mission at all. She’s first called up to stop one of her deities, Ares (God of War), from starting WWIII because he’s gone insane. Put that in perspective: if you could put a face on God and were told you alone needed to stop him, and all you had was a lasso and a world you didn’t understand, could you rise to that challenge? From there, she is charged with a new mission: world peace. She has to ensure that our planet never again becomes brutal enough to call down Ares to level it. No pressure there at all! So she’s an ambassador from a strange land that nobody recognizes, a representative of a religion nobody believes in, and she’s cast by the press as one of a group of brightly-colored costumed avengers that she doesn’t identify with. What’s not to love about this character?

Perez intended only to stay with the character until another writer could be found, but as with many writers after him, he stayed too long because he found something special here. I’ve read many interviews and essays from many Wonder Woman writers over the years, and one of the best pieces I’ve found is in Gail Simone’s forward for The Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia. As Simone puts it, Wonder Woman is the one character that writers fear because she’s tough to write, tough to understand, and doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter nitch of the other characters. But once you dive in and give yourself to the story, you realize she’s a different sort of tough. She’s tough to let go of for that reason. Superman is science fiction at the core, Batman is the gritty pulp detective, and Captain Marvel brings the magic, but Wonder Woman is all about ancient myth and timeless themes of love, honor, and sacrifice colliding with our jaded world view. The love and enthusiasm that these writers bring to the table shines through in their stories, which is why the cult of Wonder Woman fans, while small compared to other characters, is loyal. And that’s why I number myself amongst them. The crying shame is that as popular as the character obviously is over the course of 7 decades, and as inspirational as she remains, each issue of her comic book threatens to be the last because the numbers are barely there, for the reasons I listed above. It’s like she’s famous, but her adventures are the best kept secret in the world. It’s hard to find other comic book geeks that read her title, much less other Wonder Woman fans. They’re out there, but it’s a very tight knit community.

As a bonus, I’ve come to appreciate Superman and Batman on a new level because of Wonder Woman. Even though these are characters I’ve grown up with, the interaction between these characters is astounding. Everyone knows Superman and Batman are the yin and yang of comics. Superman is bright and shiny and powerful, while Batman is grim, dark, and relies on his brains and gadgets. Wonder Woman is the best of both worlds, yet not truly a part of either one. Superman is from another world, yet he’s tied sentimentally to this one as one of us in spite of his great powers. Batman is separated from us on the human level even though he’s as human as they come. Wonder Woman is divinely-created and gifted with Superman-level powers, yet she’s a native of this world like Batman, and separated from it more through upbringing than anything else. She approaches the world from both a childlike innocence and with the eyes of a seasoned warrior. It’s a giant game of rock, paper, scissors when dealing with these characters. Batman beats Superman, Superman beats Wonder Woman, and Wonder Woman beats Batman. In reverse, Batman keeps Superman in constant alignment with his never-ending battle, Superman reminds Wonder Woman how truly human she is in spite of her divine origins, and Wonder Woman keeps Batman grounded in reality while he deals with the epic level threats known to rain down on the Justice League. They keep each other in perfect balance, and nowhere else do I see that sort of thing. The three really are inseparable, and to truly appreciate one, you have to appreciate the other two in due course.

Of all the fandoms I have, this is probably my favorite character. People are always confused when I say that, especially given my Star Wars background, but hopefully I’ve been able to demonstrate why. The others have their places and will always be a part of me, but Wonder Woman battled her way to the top spot through sheer ability. Hopefully somebody that reads this will take it upon themselves to learn more. Or maybe I’ll meet a fan like myself who already gets it. There’s no telling.