Superhero Makeovers: Wonder Woman, part two
Through the 1980s, Wonder Woman changed a lot due largely to editorial laziness and inconsistent writing. People just couldn’t be bothered to try and keep her consistent from one issue to another up until Perez’s post-Crisis reboot. Going into the 90s, though, Wonder Woman changed even more, not due (entirely) to creator laziness but rather due to attempts to repeatedly market her or reinvent her for a changing crowd.
The 1990s brought a lot of change to superhero comics. Fans veered toward the idea of “grim and gritty” and superheroes who were less idealistic than the Silver Age icons. Paragon heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman suffered as a result. The market also targeted comic book speculators, the folks who mistakenly thought that buying special edition comics was a good investment. As a result, there was a big push to churn out major event after major event in an attempt to convince the speculators to buy variant covers, holo-foil covers, and comics where the iconic superheroes were supposedly “changed forever.” The death of Superman is a good example of this, with people rushing out to buy the issue where he died under the impression that it would make them rich someday. The fact is that such issues A) meant nothing in a comics universe where death was a speedbump, and B) were not rare like the valuable comics of the Golden and Silver Ages, and thus never really increased in value. That didn’t stop speculators from buying into comics, however, nor did it stop Marvel and DC from creating constant upheaval in their stories to appeal to said speculators. Wonder Woman had to face this battle as well as the fact that DC didn’t really know what to do with the iconic female superhero. She was a feminist character in a market primarily composed of adolescent males. So how do you get her to sell to high schoolers?
One of the most important lessons from the 90s: when in doubt, give the audience more skin.
The 1990s brought Rob Liefeld, who was an artist who had…well let’s just call it an interesting idea of human anatomy. Liefeld’s art proved popular, and a lot of people tried to match that style. Fortunately, most of Wonder Woman’s truly hideous costume changes were in Elseworlds stories, and thus won’t get touched upon here. However, it is worth noting the biggest selling point of Wonder Woman in the 1990s: her sex appeal.
Comics fans wonder why their hobby is looked down upon as immature, or why there aren’t more female fans. Well, while many of us aren’t mouth-breathing losers, the industry definitely seems to think we are. And the sales numbers back up that notion time and again. Case in point: the Wonderthong. In the 90s, Wonder Woman’s star-spangled trunks kept getting smaller and smaller until she was fighting crime in something only slightly less revealing than a G-string. And how did this affect sales? Well, let’s use a quote from Mike Deodato, an artist from that era:
In three months, the sales doubled and tripled or something like that. Because they gave me freedom to do whatever I want[ed]. It was not said, but I kept doing things and I kept making her more … um … hot? Wearing thongs. I talked to Bill Loebs at a convention, and he said his friends call his run on Wonder Woman with me ‘porn Wonder Woman.’ OK. Thanks for letting me know. But back then it worked. Every time the bikini was smaller, the sales get higher.
Keep in mind that this is the same era when Sue Storm, the responsible, somewhat conservative mother from The Fantastic Four, suddenly dressed up like a stripper in all her adventures as well. Comics fans: you want people to respect you and your hobby, stop justifying this crap with increasing sales.
Aside from dopey costumes, deformed anatomy, and blatant pandering to horny teenagers, another major trend marked the 1990s: a movement toward a darker and grimmer hero. The Punisher became huge in the 90s, and Image Comics managed to live off of presenting guys in costumes who were generally as bad as the villains they fought. Superman and Batman both got replaced temporarily with more violent heroes wearing their mantle, and the same happened to Wonder Woman.
Hippolyta received a vision where Wonder Woman died. Desperate to save her daughter, she claimed that Diana had failed in her role as an ambassador to man’s world and called for a do-over on the contest that had determined Diana fit to carry the Wonder Woman mantle in the first place. This time, a splinter group of Amazons known as the Bana were given a chance to compete as well. Due to Hippolyta secretly meddling so her daughter would lose the contest, Diana lost to one of the Bana named Artemis, who became the new Wonder Woman. Artemis was a more violent version of Diana. Meanwhile, Diana herself wore the costume equivalent of black lingerie and a jacket and continued to fight crime.
Switching to Artemis as Wonder Woman was a way to appeal to the “dark end edgy” crowd while simultaneously pandering to those who wanted even more sex appeal in the book. Artemis was a badass lady who took more violent solutions than Diana. Meanwhile even Diana became darker, dressing in a more XTREME! Costume. Ultimately, though, as with similar attempts for other heroes, DC learned that the classics can’t be that easily replaced. Artemis was killed off, resulting in the death of Wonder Woman that Hippolyta had foreseen, and Diana returned as Wonder Woman. Artemis, meanwhile, would eventually return to life and become a pretty fascinating character in her own right – a less compassionate but still (mostly) heroic Amazon.
Incidentally, the Bana themselves have sparked many an interesting debate on racism in comics. Occasionally presented as darker-skinned than the other Amazons, they are a more savage, violent group, which leads many to conclude that there is a not-so-subtle racist implication there. Artemis herself varies between having the same skin tone as Diana and a darker skin color, depending on the artist. The fact that she often looks darker when her violent traits are emphasized and has about the same skin tone as Diana when she’s portrayed in a more positive light has some very unfortunate implications. But that’s a whole other rant for another time.
Death and Rebirth:
You don’t get to graduate from superhero college if you don’t die and come back at least once. We’re still in the 90s here, which was a tough decade for poor Diana. Artemis got resurrected and joined Wonder Woman in a battle against the demon Neron. Neron was slain, but he got in a solid blow against Diana in battle, who later died from her injuries. But the Greek gods didn’t want to let one of their greatest creations die, so they elevated her to deity status, turning Diana into the goddess of truth. But somebody on Earth had to pick up the mantle of Wonder Woman, mainly because DC would have lost the rights to the character if the book got canceled. Diana chose her mother to succeed her, and Hippolyta became Wonder Woman for a short period of time.
The problem with being a goddess is that Diana was ordered to stay out of mortal affairs. This didn’t go over so well when her friends were trapped in Hell for a while, and Diana aided them by giving them inspiration to keep going. Through her actions, she ticked off the notoriously fickle Zeus, who stripped her of her godhood and cast her down among mortals once more.
So now Diana’s gone through sexual objectification, been stripped of her title, been killed, been turned into a goddess, and then made mortal again. Can she finally catch a break?
Crowning Moment of Awesome:
There are two guys named Greg who I would love to kiss full on the mouth: Greg Pak, who wrote some of the best Incredible Hulk stories of all time, and Greg Rucka, who is unbelievably awesome when it comes to writing female characters. He’s the guy responsible for the awesomeness that is Batwoman and the new Question, but both of those are discussions for another time. In the 2000s, he took over Wonder Woman, and did as much to make the character awesome as anyone not named William Moulton Marston or George Perez.
Rucka’s run didn’t really feature a major costume change or switch in powers, which was pretty nice considering how little had stayed the same in the 90s. Rucka’s big contribution was moving Diana into a traditionally non-superhero field: diplomacy. Diana became the official ambassador of Themiscyra, meeting with the United Nations as a diplomat and developing relations between her people and man’s world. During this time, she also wrote a memoir about her long and bizarre life. There’s a lot of good stuff in Rucka’s run that, as with most good Wonder Woman stories, emphasize that she is not just Superman with boobs.
Wonder Woman wouldn’t make it through the run without some major injury or change to her status quo, though. She was attacked by Medousa, as in the Greek gorgon who could turn people to stone and whose voice could compel people to look into her deadly eyes. Medousa had an elaborate plot to turn much of the world to stone, forcing Wonder Woman to meet her in single combat. The resulting battle is one of the biggest crowning moments of awesome that any superhero has ever seen. You can find some of the scans at the Scans Daily community, but I really recommend tracking down the Eyes of the Gorgon trade paperback to get the full story. For those who don’t want to bother clicking on links, Diana enters the battle blindfolded, gets her butt kicked and the blindfold removed, then takes one of the severed snakes from Medousa’s head, pours the acidic blood into her eyes, and kills the gorgon while blinded. It’s just 100% awesome.
Perhaps even more awesome is the way Diana eventually regained her sight. In a later story, her good deeds led to the goddess Athena granting her one wish, which Athena expected to be the return of her sight. Instead, Wonder Woman wished for those who had been turned to stone by Medousa to be restored. Surprised by Diana’s selflessness, Athena granted that wish and then restored Wonder Woman’s sight anyway, granting her the ability to see with the eyes of the goddess. That whole story arc is pretty much Wonder Woman in a nutshell. Yes, she is one of the most powerful superheroes out there, but what really makes her Wonder Woman is her compassion and her unconditional love for the world around her.
Grabbing the Idiot Ball:
In the lead-up to DC’s big event Infinite Crisis, which would eventually restore the multiverse that had been gone for 20 years, several controversial moves got made. One of the big ones is that Maxwell Lord, the one-time leader of the Justice League and a greedy yet good-hearted jerk, was retconned to being a mind-controlling evil maniac who hated all superheroes. He killed the Blue Beetle and took control of Superman’s mind, causing Superman to believe he was fighting his greatest foes when he was really going nuts and smashing up the world. Wonder Woman intervened, battling Superman to a standstill until she finally got her lasso of truth around Maxwell Lord. (I’m not sure if there’s an in-story explanation as to why her lasso couldn’t have broken Superman free of the mind control or if the writer just forgot that it had this ability.) While under the effects of the lasso, Max said that the only way to free Superman of his control would be to kill him.
So that’s just what Wonder Woman did.
Hey, she might be the spirit of truth and a woman driven by compassion, but Wonder Woman has never had an oath against killing. She’d prefer not to do it, but she will kill if necessary. In fact, just a few years ago, the world had watched her decapitate Medousa in a televised battle. But apparently everyone in the DC Universe was holding the idiot ball when Maxwell Lord died, because all of a sudden everyone stopped trusting Wonder Woman, including Superman and Batman. The event led to a bunch of out of character angsting on Diana’s part. At the end of Infinite Crisis, Wonder Woman left to travel the world for a year so she could find herself. This effectively undid all of the character development she had received over the past decade.
The succession of writers that followed apparently didn’t bother to do research and each decided that they just wanted to write their own version of the character with little regard as to what had come before. Most notably grievous in this regard is best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult, who got a short run on the book and wrote Diana as someone completely unfamiliar with man’s world, to the point where she didn’t even know how to pump gas. This is the same character who was a UN ambassador. This era also had Wonder Woman working for the government in disguise, bringing back the Diana Prince secret identity, mostly just because someone on the creative team was a fan of the old TV show or something.
Wonder Woman would then go on to suffer through the Amazons Attack event, where the Amazons of Themiscyra launched an attack against America – and effectively overthrew the largest military power in the world with some spears, arrows, and giant killer bees. The entire event could have been avoided had Diana used her lasso of truth to break Hippolyta out of the obvious mind control she was in, but no one ever thought to bring up that fact.
Fortunately, Gail Simone took over the book and finally gave us some good Wonder Woman stories again. Unfortunately, the book’s sales didn’t pick up despite some good writing and art. Rather than think that maybe the five years or so of crappy stories had driven the character into a rut, DC decided to take Wonder Woman in a new direction. Enter J. Michael Straczynski.
Wonder Woman Today:
Wonder Woman got three new costumes during DC’s Blackest Night event. First, she along with the other DC superheroes who had died and then come back were forced to wear Black Lantern rings, turning them into undead beings under the control of the villain Nekron. Wonder Woman got a save, though, when the other lantern corps (there are lots of them) each chose new champions to aid in their fight. Diana received the power ring of the Star Sapphires, a corps empowered by love. This gave her a skimpy, kind of tacky costume that was nonetheless (quite sadly) more flattering than what most of the rest of the Star Sapphires wore. At the very end of the event, she and a bunch of other superheroes became White Lanterns briefly to defeat Nekron. By the end of the event, she went back to being Wonder Woman again, sans a power ring.
Shortly after Blackest Night, Gail Simone’s run on the book ended and J. Michael Straczynski picked up. I’ve given Straczynski a lot of grief in both my Superman and Spider-Man rants, but the truth is that he’s not really a bad writer. Unfortunately, he tends to be at his best when he’s not charged with reinventing iconic superheroes, which for some reason editors keep telling him to do. Straczynski decided that a costume and mythos change was in order for Wonder Woman, since she had become “too insular.” Due to some wackiness with time travel, we now have a Wonder Woman who was never raised on Themiscyra, because the island of the Amazons was destroyed. At the same time, other superheroines who should be effected by this, such as Donna Troy, are not changed at all. Weird.
Anyway, Wonder Woman also has a new costume, which Straczynski said was “long overdue.” He offered this nugget of wisdom in his defense:
Her look, her dynamic and the sorts of stories being told have ossified over the years. Other characters have had their image buffed and altered over the years, but absent the regrettable mod look of the 60s, Wonder Woman looks pretty much the same now as she did in 1941.
This demonstrates pretty well that Straczynski is either playing a PR game here or he just hasn’t researched the character. Wonder Woman’s look has changed just as much if not more than Superman and Batman, and as the length of this rant demonstrates, she has changed even more in terms of powers and personality. Unlike Superman, who is the eternal boyscout, Wonder Woman has shown a very complex moral code despite her boundless compassion. Unlike Batman, who has yet to move beyond, “My parents are DEEEEEAAAAAAD!!!” Wonder Woman has developed greatly in both personality and motivation over the years. Of DC’s iconic characters, there are few who have changed as much.
More frustrating than the sudden status quo change is that Straczynski left the book after only a few issues, stating that the current monthly comic book format is dead and expressing a desire to work on longer comics like his Superman: Earth One graphic novel. I personally disagree that monthly books are dead, but that’s neither here nor there. The big problem is the fact that Straczynski did a total overhaul of Wonder Woman’s character and continuity and then jumped ship before he saw it through, leaving other writers to clean up the mess. Admittedly, some of the writing actually hasn’t been all that bad. Other parts, such as a recent appearance in Superman’s book, have been kind of painful. In the aforementioned Superman book, we discover that in this new continuity, Wonder Woman was inspired into heroics by viewing Superman in action – kind of sexist, first of all, since one of the few non-derivative female characters is suddenly incapable of heroism without being guided by the perfect man, and also a major knock against Wonder Woman’s own integrity.
This version of Wonder Woman seems to emphasize her warrior roots, but also tones down her compassion, which is one of the core elements of her character. Many writers, both male and female, have trouble writing a feminist character. Most commonly, they resort to the ass-kicking woman archetype, which we’re seeing now, but doing so doesn’t really show off a woman’s strengths. The original ideal for Wonder Woman was a character who not only had strength in battle, but who took the feminine aspects of being a woman and turned them into strengths. While the ass-kicking warrior woman we see now is fun to read, it’s hard not to feel like a part of the character is missing. In redesigning the character, DC has made her more masculine, as though those masculine traits are all that the average comic reader can connect with. Maybe that’s true, but if it is then it’s quite a shame and doesn’t paint comics fans in the best of lights.
On the bright side, despite my criticism of the misguided premise that another major change in the status quo is the best way to boost Wonder Woman’s sales, the actual stories aren’t bad. Sure, there are some wall-bangers like Diana being an unheroic git until Superman shows her the light, but such incidents are fairly easily ignored. And just like the mod look, Artemis’ time in the uniform, and Wonder Woman’s period spent as the goddess of truth, you can rest assured that this too shall pass and that Wonder Woman’s history, personality, and iconic look will eventually be restored…although hopefully the Wonderthong will remain gone for good.
Citing some sources: While I mentioned the biggest of Wonder Woman’s costume changes over the years, there have been a lot more, particularly in Elseworlds stories. You can get a full rundown in exhaustive detail at Carol Strickland’s web page, which is where I went to make sure I had my history in proper chronologic order.