Wonder Woman

Posted: July 7, 2010 in Braak, comic books
Tags: , ,

Hey, did you hear?  Wonder Woman has a new costume, and a new backstory, and everything.  Folks have written some interesting things on the subject, I’m sure Holland will weigh in at some point.  The issue is very interesting to me.

I mean, I know that I was having trouble making idiots understand my position regarding the sometimes-misogyny of DC and Marvel’s editorial policy; those people will probably misunderstand my position when I say I’m not a huge fan of it.  I also don’t want my objections to it to seem like fan-conservativism — i.e., the kind of “it’s how it ALWAYS was that’s how it’s SUPPOSED to be” reactionary response that you see from some corners.  I think that’s bad in every conceivable respect:  bad art, bad thinking, bad being-a-fan.  I have no respect for that kind of thinking.

I like that it’s not the implausible briefs-and-bustier outfit of the past, I think that’s a good choice.  I just don’t happen to think that what they changed it into is especially interesting.  It looks a little like the Black Canary’s costume, only with a different color scheme, and no fishnets.  Maybe the problem is that it just doesn’t look like anything.

But, then, Wonder Woman’s OLD costume never looked like anything, either (as Chris Sims points out, she could have just easily been bitten by a radioactive Betsy Ross as been an Amazon warrior-princess) — this got me thinking about what costumes are for in the first place.  Why does Wonder Woman even have a costume?  She doesn’t really have a secret identity that she needs to preserve — originally, her friends and family were also invincible Amazons, and also they came from an invisible island that no one could get to.  DC recently re-did the continuity, so I think they’re all dead now.  Which means, okay, there’s no point in trying to keep her identity a secret.

If she’s an Amazon princess, why doesn’t she just fly around wearing her old-time Amazon clothing?  Or some kind of Hoplite armor (though that would beg the question:  if she is invulnerable, why does she need armor)?  I mean, if you think about, “well, she wears bikini briefs because she’s invulnerable, and Amazon’s don’t care about modesty,” so, fine, then why does she wear clothes at all?

Hmmm.  There are other heroes with similar issues — Doctor Strange doesn’t have a secret identity, he still has a costume.  A lot of the Marvel guys actually don’t really have secret identities.  When Grant Morrison wanted a costume re-design for the X-Men, he talked about giving them a costume that made them recognizable members of a paramilitary organization.  For as (in)effective as that was, it was an interesting idea (Wolverine wearing only the jacket and not a shirt underneath was a less interesting idea).

Obviously, a costume is more than just a disguise, otherwise Batman could just run around in a ninja suit.  But Batman has a specific need for his iconography:  not just to represent who he is, but as a kind of psychological warfare waged against the criminal underworld.  He was purposefully giving them something specific to be afraid of, by engineering a bogey-man out of the sorts of things they always thought were creepy.

Superman has an icon, but the icon is only meaningful because it’s worn by Superman.  Superman’s entire get-up is about creating a specific icon — he is an invincible force for good, and the goal is to make his symbol indicative of that.

All of which brings us back to the problem of Wonder Woman:  despite the fact that she’s one of DC’s biggest legacy characters, no one is exactly sure what she’s about.  I think it’s especially interesting, because once you get into what we now think of as “third-wave” feminism, the movement itself has similar sorts of troubles:  what exactly are we, as feminists, striving for at this point?  What is the precise set of outcomes, and the precise methodology to achieve those outcomes?

I don’t think Wonder Woman as a superhero based on the idea of “a strong, independent female” is actually a very strong interpretation.  By which I mean, it’s not really sufficient; if you were talking about Superman as a hero based on “a guy with the regular characteristics you’d expect a guy in society to have”, that’s not a superhero that you’d want to read about.

I’m kind of wondering — and this is brought to mind by the continual references to the fact that Wonder Woman is, technically, Greek — if there’s not some merit in setting her up as a kind of Neo-Classical or Enlightenment superhero.  That she represents the height of Classical Civilization — or the height it could have obtained if it had divested itself of all that racism and misogyny.

It makes Wonder Woman a neat sort of a parallel to Batman, I think, in that she has come to embody a philosophy in which every individual is expected to be the best at all the things they can do:  fighting, obviously, but also philosophy, art, music.  She’s an icon for individual empowerment because, as an Amazon, she’s in the interestingly ironic position of representing a culture that was hypocritical of its treatment of women; one that spoke to individual empowerment, just not for chicks.  So, she’s a feminist because she specifically wants to extend that culture’s philosophy into demographics that were previously not permitted to enjoy it.

It lets you avoid that typical Wonder Woman thing in which she is almost like an Amazon robot, or something:  where she doesn’t understand “the ways of man,” and every basic aspect of human civilization is baffling to her.  Instead, she comes from a philosophical utopia; it’s not that she doesn’t understand the ways of man like, she doesn’t understand them; it’s that she doesn’t understand why everyone is such a jackass when she knows for a fact that it’s possible for people to get along if they behave rationally.

I think the Greek conception of “hero” lines up pretty nicely with the modern conception of “hero” (a little); that sort of, “one person against the universe” idea.  Plus, many ironies about the difference between the ideal Classicism that Wonder Woman embodies, and the actual Classical civilization that wasn’t nearly as good.

And, the Greeks were a people that just didn’t generally care about covering up, so you’ve got plenty of support for Wonder Woman being half-naked all the time, too, if that’s what you want.

  1. katastic says:

    If she’s an Amazon, why is one of her breasts not cut off? Did WW ever address that?

  2. Moff says:

    I’d like to see her in hoplite armor, too, stripped of all the Americana. You could put her in a skirt that way, which sort of highlights her femininity—but interestingly, it wouldn’t actually be a ladies’ skirt, just part of the outfit. Plus, the bracers would make perfect sense that way.

    As usual, your ideas here are right the fuck on. Maybe one augmentation: Could she be, as a hero motivated by the Classical Greek notion of morality, fanatically invested in truth as the root of right living—honesty between individuals, and thorough self-examination within individuals? That would be a nice link to the lasso, and could maybe provide some interesting internal conflict.

  3. braak says:

    Probably because the idea of having one of their breasts hacked off is a later interpolation into early myths, due to confusion over whether “amazon” derived from a root meaning “breastless” or from a root meaning “full-breasted.” It’s also deeply-rooted in classical, Athenian misogyny: i.e., a terror of women so “manly” that they would deform their bodies.

    Also, she doesn’t use a bow and arrow, so why would she need to hack her breast off?

  4. braak says:

    Could she be, as a hero motivated by the Classical Greek notion of morality, fanatically invested in truth as the root of right living—honesty between individuals, and thorough self-examination within individuals?

    Yeah, I think that’s a really good idea. An almost fanatical commitment to truth, too, might also give her some interesting conflicts with some of the other characters that she hangs out with — Batman, for instance, whose psychology is built in part both on delusion of self and delusion of others.

  5. RickRussellTX says:

    “merit in setting her up as a kind of Neo-Classical or Enlightenment superhero”

    Yes, yes, YES. Look at 90% of the ideas on this page:


    Almost all of them draw on her Greek classical heritage. Almost all of them are better than the “X-Man” costume they gave her.

  6. braak says:

    Yeah, a lot of these are great — and it seems to me that Wonder Woman definitely works better when she leans Greek as opposed to Star-Spangly. I also agree that the grand prize winner needed a little more design for the lasso; she probably should just have it wrapped around her waist, since a belt would offset the costume nicely.

    I also like the “best battle accessories” winner, because I dig Wonder Woman when she looks like Athena — which is why I also think that, if Wonder Woman has to have a weapon, it ought to be a long spear, rather than a sword.

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    Yeah, there may be a little overlap in tomorrow’s post.

  8. Gabe Valdez says:

    It’s characters like Superman and Wonder Woman (or the Hulk), who are generally uninteresting in and of their own adventures, that have kept me from really being more of a mainstream comic fan. When there’s an alternate interpretation, like Commie Supes in Red Son or the Reagan ubertool in The Dark Knight Returns, he becomes interesting – Supes is best when he’s all about taking a populist ideology to its Platonic ideal and exposing how that ideal is taken advantage of in the real world.

    That said, Wonder Woman doesn’t even have that. In all honesty, the best interpretation, if I might make the stretch, is something like Xena. And Wonder Woman doesn’t even have the exciting, hot-cheese intensity of Lucy Lawless. Because Wonder Woman doesn’t represent much or stand on her own as an icon, more than any of those other superheroes, she needs an interesting story with interesting characters whom she and I care about – you have that and it doesn’t matter to me if she’s wearing a burlap sack over a tutu.

    That said, the new costume is a weird mix of old vestiges and modern fashion, which is just awkward. Choose one or the other and run with it. I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing a superhero run around in whatever the hell she threw on that morning.

  9. If truth is at the center of Wonder Woman’s persona, that’s a great argument for her as a detective character. Except she’s too overpowered for that, Batman’s got it covered, and Giganta and Ares don’t exactly operate in stealth mode. I got nothin’.

  10. braak says:

    @Gabe: Well, part of the problem with Superman is that, in his basic mode, he’s already the standard from which all other superheroes are measured. Since Superman is the given, then he’s generally only going to be interesting when he’s reversed somehow.

    @Jefferson: I was just thinking in the car that Wonder Woman, as the ambassador (I just wrote “ambadassador”, which is also true) for philosophy-as-civilization, then she should be a raging interventionist in the JLA, and so she should constantly get into fights with the other members about whether or not it’s sufficiently virtuous to just constantly uphold the status quo.

  11. Erin says:

    Costume? Why does anyone care about the costume? I’m just mildly annoyed that they’re dragging WW through a dumb alternate universe story arc, and even then I’ll only care if it crosses over into other books.

    And the only reason I even care about that is because we’re one Bruce Wayne away from having every founding member of the Justice League alive and in the same universe/timeline for the first time since 1986.

  12. braak says:

    I was talking about the fundamental core of her character!

  13. Erin says:

    Like Superman, Wonder Woman is more about the iconography that the character. There is a character – no, wait; correction: there are SEVERAL characters (again, like Superman) – but that’s ultimately secondary. When push comes to shove, Wonder Woman is the archetypal female superhero. She’s the original and all others are, in one way or another, derivative.

    That, incidentally, is why it’s so hard to make changes. If you give her a different costume, a more realistic background, and change her powers, you wind up with Black Canary or Buffy or the Fury or Xena. I don’t mean that figuratively, either: these characters and countless others are basically updated versions of Wonder Woman. Same goes for Superman’s relationship with Captain Marvel, Martian Manhunter, and, well… pretty much every male superhero.

    The main reason to use Superman and Wonder Woman at all is BECAUSE they’re iconic. That’s also why people go nuts whenever someone tries to make changes to that iconography.

  14. braak says:

    Wonder Woman is the archetypal female superhero.

    Yeah, see, that’s what I was talking about in this whole article. “the archetypal female superhero” doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a generic “she’s a superhero, but a chick.” That is the beginning and the end of her archetype, and it’s not semantically dense enough to be a generative archetype, just a confused muddle of people not knowing precisely what to do with it.

    Because if you look at Xena, Xena isn’t really a version of the “archetypal female supehero”; she’s a version of the “wounded-warrior” archetype that happens to be female.

  15. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “I’m kind of wondering — and this is brought to mind by the continual references to the fact that Wonder Woman is, technically, Greek — if there’s not some merit in setting her up as a kind of Neo-Classical or Enlightenment superhero. That she represents the height of Classical Civilization — or the height it could have obtained if it had divested itself of all that racism and misogyny.”

    Fascinating. Could she also be conflicted over the nature and even value of such ideals, when she considers them against pragmatic violence, something often required of The Amazons for their survival (aside: it’s possible that much of the classic, Amazonian reputation being one of hyper-violence, was simply intentional strategy for survival of the tribe; putting their collective “war face” on in order to intimidate outsiders)—knowledge that opportunism buys both survival and “progress” and that elegant ideals and Utopian visions can often hide the ugly, even horrific “necessary evils” required to materialize them?

    I see WW being defined as both something that represents classic Greek ideals and someone who challenges them—someone who understands the nature of war and violence, having made difficult choices for the sake of one side “winning” over another, based on one group’s (society’s) ideals; understanding that ideals are often paid for in blood and that the most beautiful intentions fuel gruesome battles. She probably would “get” the logic of The Spartans, even if she could see where their society was failing.

    So, yeah, painting her as a kind of “Athena” would be legitimate.

  16. Jeff Holland says:

    We will have more to say on this tomorrow. The short version is: I vastly underestimated Gail Simone’s run and JMS can go suck it.

    But with a LOT more words and plenty of pictures (including a hastily drawn new costume design by me!).

  17. Erin says:

    @Braak: Ah, I see the problem. You’re misreading me. Not your fault: the sentence, “Wonder Woman is the archetypal female superhero” is ambiguous. However, to clarify, I’m not saying the sum total of Wonder Woman can be summed up as being “the archetypal female superhero”. I’m saying the sum total of the phrase “the archetypal female superhero” is Wonder Woman.

    Wonder Woman’s premise, of course, is that she’s an emissary from an advanced race of mythological women. On its own, is that “semantically dense enough to be a generative archetype”? I suspect not. But then, I’m not sure I’d consider Batman or Superman to be “generative archetypes” either.

    At least not divested from their iconography. The only reason I can really see for Batman enduring while The Shadow and Green Hornet have languished in his wake is that Batman’s imagery struck a chord. So did Superman’s and Wonder Woman’s.

    Those attempting to recreate these characters would do well to remember that. That’s why concepts like “Blue-Energy” Superman and “Street-Clothes” Wonder Woman never last.

  18. […] Threat Quality Press Someone's got to stand up to experts. « Wonder Woman […]

  19. braak says:

    I don’t think it is the issue of imagery or iconography. I think it’s timing. By 1939, the Shadow was on the radio, while Batman and Superman were primarily in the comics. The war makes it hard for the male population overseas to listen to the radio, but they can read the shit out of comics.

    “Female Superhero,” what I’m trying to say about that, is that’s not a good archetype. It’s not useful for anything. “Like Superman, but a chick,” is not actually an element of the collective unconscious that needs to be filled–it’s insufficient as an archetype to do anything with.

    You can write a story based on “World’s Greatest Detective,” or on “Invincible Force for Good,” but what is the story that you write about, “Invincible Force for Good, but a Chick” that’s going to be different from “Invincible Force for Good, but NOT a Chick”?

  20. braak says:

    @VIP: Maybe this can work. I think the thing about Classical Civilization, though, is that it was already like that; the Greeks talked a good game about being the cradle of philosophy and enlightened self-interest, and that, but in reality they were ruthless, violent, pragmatic, imperialist, racist, xenophobic, misogynist, &c &c &c, like all Olde-Timey guys were.

    So, what I mean is, I wonder if it’s dramatically stronger to have Wonder Woman’s reality come into conflict with the ideals that she’s supposed to represent, or to have her idealism come into conflict with the reality that it’s derived from.

    I don’t know, actually. For a super hero, I like a commitment to idealism. The absolutely certainty that this all could work, combined with the constant miserable weariness over the fact that someone always fucks it up.

  21. Erin says:


    “By 1939, the Shadow was on the radio, while Batman and Superman were primarily in the comics. The war makes it hard for the male population overseas to listen to the radio, but they can read the shit out of comics.”

    Except the US wasn’t involved in the war in 1939. By the time there was a sizable American male population overseas (late in 1941), Batman and Superman were already famous. The war may have helped them spread overseas, but they were already American icons.

  22. Erin says:

    Also, funny you chose “World’s Greatest Detective” as an example of the difference between Batman and Wonder Woman. The statement, “Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective,” really means that he’s Sherlock Holmes in a batsuit. I don’t see that as intrinsically better than “Invincible Force for Good, but a Chick”.

    Sure, Wonder Woman is kind of a female Superman. Just like Batman is “Superman without powers”. Or Superman is “Doc Savage with MORE powers”.

    Batman’s premise is ALSO of “a man trying to avenge the death of his parents by taking on the mantle of bat and fighting crime.” And Wonder Woman’s is an “Ambassador of peace from an advanced warrior race of women.”

    If you’re looking for a consistent core to her character, that’s about as close as you’re likely to find.

  23. braak says:

    I still don’t think it’s interesting enough. Also, I don’t think it’s relied on enough as the essential core of the character. And, ultimately, I’m pretty sure that’s what I was getting at by setting her up as a Classical Superhero.

    The problem that I was illustrating is that the degree of difference between “female supehero” is so small that the archetype has to be defined too broadly; calling Wonder Woman “the archetype of the female superhero” is suggesting a category so expansive as to be meaningless. And, in fact, she helped to spark a tradition of completely meaningless female characters: women that were basically just female versions of their male counterparts.

    Their function in relation to the story and to the characters in their world was identical (or else, their identities as superheroes were sacrificed to play up their femaleness).

    But “World’s Greatest Detective” stories are a different SET of stories from “Invincible Force for Good.” The set of stories for Batman and for Sherlock Holmes actually are, more or less, the same–Batman isn’t married to his archetype, obviously, and so sometimes leans farther into a kind “Revenger on the Wicked” archetype. And those stories are a different set from Sherlock Holmes stories, and ALSO a different set from the Superman “Invincible Force for Good” stories.

    I guess “Ambassadaor for Peace from and Advanced Race” (the fact that the race is all women or primarily mythic shouldn’t be especially relevant; an Ambassador from Themyscira would be fulfilling the same basic function as an Ambassador for Peace from anywhere else) is a thing, though it doesn’t feel especially resonant. It also seems like it should be the same set of stories as, like, Starman, or The Day the Earth Stood Still. Why would a character like that fight crime?

    What does “An Ambassador for Peace” even mean? It’s not like she’s trying to leverage trade agreements in order to help nations stop waging war, or negotiating peace treaties. Until recently, she didn’t have outreach centers or sell books or anything. Whatever the case, if that’s the character that Wonder Woman is, then that should be the motivating engine of her stories.

  24. Erin says:

    “Until recently, she didn’t have outreach centers or sell books or anything. Whatever the case, if that’s the character that Wonder Woman is, then that should be the motivating engine of her stories.”

    No, because it’s not the character she is. I never said it was. I said, “If you’re looking for a consistent core to her character, that’s about as close as you’re likely to find.” My point being, there ISN’T a consistent core character. There are a few loose themes that sort of tie her 70 years history together, but even that’s a stretch.

    Wonder Woman shouldn’t feel singled out: there’s no consistent core character for Batman, either, as evidenced by the decades he spent traveling to brightly-colored planets, battling giant robots, and being depicted by Adam West on TV.

    The character concepts, motivations, and emotional states are developed by the writers and editors. And they change. A lot.

    That doesn’t mean all versions are equal. It doesn’t mean I don’t have my favorite incarnations of the characters, as well as ones I despise. All it means is that the characters change while the icons endure.

  25. […] Jesus, But With More Punching After a week of trying and failing to get a handle on Wonder Woman, I thought it best to get back to basics with the […]

  26. RickRussellTX says:

    And this game trailer *nailed* her costume:


  27. […] can argue a lot about what constitutes the “core” of Wonder Woman (as indeed we have), but, if you need to boil down the basis of most Wonder Woman stories, that’s it. Teaching […]

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