By Devin T. Quin
Comic books used to be about a variety of subjects, ranging from romance to real crime, from cowboys to caped crusaders. Now, outside of struggling independent comic books that are either ready-made screenplays for Hollywood exploitation or pornography (you know, the good stuff!) comic books are dominated by one subject and one audience: Super heroes for 30 year-olds.
It’s a bummer, because comic books CAN be about anything (especially pornography!) One sound-bite that you’ll hear bounced around by folks defending the rotting carcass of comic books from the hungry, circling vultures of critique is that “comic books are the most effective means of mass communication due to their marriage of pictures and words.”
“Wait, isn’t this article about Wonder Woman?” I can hear one incredibly bright young reader somewhere out on the Internet ask.
I’M GETTING THERE!
Comic books ARE a great way to entertain and educate. After the arrival of Superman, comic books became the number one form of kids entertainment because it was ONE thing to hear about a guy shooting another guy in the face on the radio, but it was ANOTHER THING to see it drawn out in gory detail t’wix the pages of a comic book!
THE GOLDEN AGE
This began the golden age of comics, when anybody who could swing a pencil could get work creating comics across a wide variety of subjects and qualities. The real trick to the game was how to get attention on the newsstand amongst all the other titles jockeying for your grandparent’s nickels.
Very clever people at DC comics figured that girls might like to read comic books if there were more interesting female heroines. Somewhere along the lines this simple truth has gone forgotten, as the same people defending comics today cry to the heavens “Why aren’t there more girl comic fans?” while the women portrayed IN the actual comics get nakeder and nakeder by the decade. Seriously, I just read Marvel’s Siege #2 and I don’t think a single female shows up in a complete outfit of clothing. It’s all either midriffs, cut offs or open blouses.
Where the clever people at DC took a misstep, however, was in hiring Dr. William Moulton Marston to invent them a strong female character. Dr. Marston, a well documented feminist and an early pioneer in polygraph technology (that’s a lie-detector to you an I) seemed a perfect choice… the problem was he was also a polygamist, a bondage fetishist and a slight masochist.
So what did we get? Wonder Woman, the strong Amazonian princess from the Island of Themyscira, sent amongst the lands of man to fight Nazis and dominate people by tying them up in her magical, truth-inducing lasso.
Wonder Woman would spend the rest of the golden age either tying people up in a never ending power role-play or BEING tied up herself, which always seemed to magically drain her powers. She was usually trying to get the attentions of her male “Lois Lane,” a bozo by the name of Steve Trevor.
Just as the hasty stroke often goes astray, DC accidentally created many of the worst tropes to female superheroes by trying to bring forth something wholesome. Well, profitable first and wholesome second, but you get the idea.
Did girls read it looking for a positive role model? YES! Did boys read it looking to ogle women in revealing costumes? YES! Did pervy older men read it “between the lines” because they were hip to what it was really all about? You bet your sweet bippy!
RETCON TO RICHES
Wonder Woman has gone through many changes since 1941, but she is still the product of her flawed parents “Sex appeal” and “Female empowerment.” Linda Carter’s phenomenal turn as Diana Prince in the 70’s Wonder Woman TV show DID inspire a generation of young ladies to become stunt women, working professionals and super heroes in their own rights, but it still featured a woman with D cups in her underwear spinning around in slow motion to a song that lauded her ability to “fight for her rights in her satin tights.”
Wonder Woman is, unfortunately, one of the most glaring examples of “tokenism” as well. Never mind the fact that WW could bench press a mountain or that she possessed an invisible jet, Wonder Woman’s real contribution to the roster of the 1980’s cartoon “The Super Friends” was that, without her you were just watching a bunch of dudes hang around each other in their tighty whiteys, often with teenage “wards.” Having one woman on the team rounds out any socio-political snafus the Super Friends could become accused of. The fact that she happened to be a Wonder was immaterial. For their purposes it would’ve been just as good if she was Acceptable Woman.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
So why hasn’t Wonder Woman found a backbone of modern realism, like her teammate Batman the Dark Knight, and what stops Wonder Woman from having her own film series like her big blue buddy Superman the Man of Steel?
The money behind modern comic book companies is in the marketing divisions, NOT the publishing of the books themselves. Since the eighties, many fine creative teams have bent over backwards to showcase Wonder Woman as one of, if not the strongest character in the DC universe.
The problem is DC legal and DC direct marketing do not care one whit about progress, only sales. A scantily clad Wonder Woman action figure sells just as well, better in fact, than a more socially conscious Wonder Woman in a Supreme Court Justice’s robe. It is more important from a marketing standpoint that Wonder Woman be sexy first and a role model second, and it’s only the marketing department of DC that makes significant decisions.
Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire slayer and an expert on empowered female pop-culture icons was hired to write a big budget Wonder Woman film, but had to walk away when he realized that Warner Brothers, DC Comics parent company, was more interested in a heroin that was easy on the eyes than the mind.
WE CAN DO IT
Wonder Woman is a great character stemming out of a desire to market to a variety of audiences, both the innocent and the prurient. She cannot move forward and take her place amongst the greats of her super-heroic peers because times have changed and she hasn’t. The sexual revolution, the civil rights movements and long strides in gender equality in the workplace have changed the landscape of our cultures sexual politics, but Wonder Woman remains the token female with a gigantic golden eagle emblazoned across her open halter top she’s been for decades.
Some fans like Wonder Woman in this way. They say she’s a recognizable symbol of heroism. They have a point; Wonder Woman’s Q ratings are high. The problem, as is the problem with many female characters, is defining her character beyond her costume, beyond her physical appearance.
At least in the 40’s she had a sado-masochistic power role over the men in society. Now all she has is diaphanous platitudes and an iconic image.
The notion has always been right: create a strong female character and your audience will respond. It worked for Ripley in Aliens, it worked for Buffy. It seems that our notions of female strength changes with the times, even if Diana Prince does not.
Comics continue to be “Super-heroes for 30 year olds,” but it could be, and has been so much more. Here’s for hoping that Wonder Woman can defeat her most formidable foe yet, the one that keeps her from taking her right place in the firmament of American respect: DC legal, DC marketing and the strata of her fan base that supports her role as comicdome’s first lady of eye-candy.