How to really revitalize the DC Universe

You know what the saddest part of DC’s “New 52” “soft reboot” (apparently they’re calling it that now, apparently out of a realization of just how reboot-like it is) is? A hard reboot isn’t really that bad an idea.

I can understand why they don’t want to do it. Aside from alienating existing fans, they have some critically-acclaimed storylines going in their Batman and Green Lantern books, and they’d rather not kill that golden goose. It’s really the same sort of thing that screwed up Crisis on Infinite Earths, when they didn’t want to screw up well-praised runs on books like New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes. That, coupled with poor editorial control, resulted in continuity being more of a mishmash than it had any right to be, and screwed up some properties to a state of confusion beyond repair. (Ironically, Legion wound up more rebooted than the rest of the DCU as a result of CoIE.) The solution is to announce the reboot well in advance, allowing all storylines to be wrapped up (if the old continuity is abandoned entirely) and preventing anyone from starting new critically-acclaimed storylines you’ll want to keep until after the reboot, much as Eric Burns(-White) suggested a while back.

But Crisis on Infinite Earths was also an opportunity, an opportunity to shake up DC’s stable of superheroes and tell their stories afresh, stories not possible in the mature universe CoIE replaced, stories about superheroes in the early days of their careers and going through the associated trials and tribulations. The only other time in DC’s history that has produced this sort of opportunity until now was at the very start of the Silver Age, but DC was more interested in telling their “iconic” style of superhero story, so while they refreshed many old concepts, they didn’t spend much time going into the story potential of their just starting out. Marvel did, however, and when CoIE came around, DC made up for lost time. Most of the core concepts of their heroes remained the same (most of the changes coming to villains and minor heroes), but despite CoIE depositing readers in an established universe not that different from the one left behind, DC took advantage of the opportunity to retell the early days of their classic heroes in books like The Man of Steel, Batman: Year One, and George Perez’s run on Wonder Woman (who was retconned to not have existed before CoIE).

With this reboot, DC has/had another opportunity to start afresh, shake up its core concepts, and tell new stories about superheroes just establishing their careers. DC seems to be taking the Silver Age approach: many if not most of their heroes are being shaken up, but aside from Superman and the Justice League, no stories set in the unique, ever-changing, uncertain period early in the age of superheroes, and precious few origin retellings, with everyone being thrown into the five-years-on continuity minefield I’ve talked about, and complained about, before.

While I’d prefer that DC go whole-hog with their reboot and start at the beginning, that’s not to say I disdain the importance of shaking up their old concepts. The whole reason DC is going through with this reboot is to make itself more relevant to today’s audience, especially outside established superhero comic fandom. From virtually the instant Marvel declared independence from the restrictions of a DC-controlled distribution system, and for virtually the entire time since (the major interruption coming at the turn of the millennium when Marvel declared bankruptcy), especially following the rise of the direct market, DC has placed a distant second to Marvel in the comic book sales charts. They just haven’t captured the zeitgeist as well as Marvel for the better part of 40 years.

This might be explained by Marvel’s product being better suited for the existing hardcore comic book fanbase, but Marvel’s movies have done ghostbusters at the box office while DC’s have had mixed success at best, and Marvel first struck a chord with audiences when comic books were a lot more popular among the general public. Marvel revolutionized the superhero in the 60s, presenting heroes that seemed more human and relatable and touching on important themes, and since then DC has had to fight the perception that their stories and heroes are still stuck in the 40s and 50s, that they’re too committed to an unrealistic Platonic ideal of the superhero, that their stories and heroes are too idealistic, too abstract, not human enough.

Now, there is certainly a place for idealism, and it’s certainly possible that DC’s commitment to those ideals has been overstated. I think there is still room for DC’s heroes and the ideals they embody, but I think their presentation needs to be modernized, made more relevant to today’s audiences, to make the message of those ideals all the stronger. Here, then, is my proposal to, for lack of a better word, “Marvel-ize” DC’s properties. I’ll skip Batman, the most Marvel-esque of DC’s properties, and perhaps not coincidentially the most successful and popular, both in comic books and the box office; he doesn’t need any major updates. But I will take a look at DC’s other major properties to find out how to improve their appeal to modern audiences while preserving and strengthening the core of their character, and to what extent DC is achieving these things with the present reboot, starting after the jump (because this will be a long post).First up is Superman. As goes Superman’s perception, so goes DC’s, and Superman has been hamstrung by his status as the archetypal superhero. Superman has been held on such a pedestal that he has become almost hopelessly idealized and abstract, losing almost any distinguishing character traits that would distinguish him from any other superhero in the public eye, and has become a target for deconstructions and critiques of the superhero. It may seem as though Marvel’s 60s revolution of the superhero was a reaction to Superman in particular.

The objection to Superman’s nature and idealism is primarily twofold, and both have started creeping into the comics themselves in recent years. The first is encapsulated in one of the many nicknames that have attached themselves to Superman over the years: the “Big Blue Boy Scout”. This holds that by any standard, Superman is too goody-goody and naive, overly committed to the high-falutin’ principles of “truth, justice, and the American way”. The second is more general, and holds that no one with Superman’s power would realistically refrain from using that power to the fullest extent to dominate everyone and rule the world. However, because of Superman’s status as the archetypal superhero, criticisms of Superman are to some extent criticisms of the superhero. If the superhero is worth keeping at all, at DC or Marvel, these criticisms can’t be insurmountable.

If we go way back to the very origins of both Superman and the superhero, in his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (the real one), we can begin to see the glimmerings of an answer. Back then, Superman was a far cry from today’s idealistic Big Blue Boy Scout; the most charitable description I could give might be “what Batman would do if he had Superman’s powers”. Superman spends that first issue taking on criminals and even corrupt lobbyists in more explicitly extralegal fashion, even breaking into the governor’s mansion at one point. Obviously going that far back to basics probably wouldn’t fly in this day and age; indeed Superman arguably got softened as soon as he got popular, but it’s still instructive to note that Superman didn’t catch on because he was idealistic. In the midst of the Great Depression, there wasn’t much trust in government, the rule of law, or the “old ways”, and having a Superman rule the world might have seemed like a good idea (this was when Hitler was offering his own vision of the “superman” in Europe), and part of Superman’s appeal at first was probably that he was “mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore”, and that there was someone going around taking on evildoers of all stripes, great or small.

This could be seen as a prototypical form of Superman’s modern idealism, of his status as an abstract icon, but it also suggests that Superman was originally a creation of a specific zeitgeist, and it would be hard to recreate those circumstances in a believable way without running afoul of certain easily-offended groups. But it does contain a germ of Superman’s lasting appeal, and so does the appeal it had to their creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Siegel and Shuster were nerds before there was such a thing, bespectacled sci-fi fans who wrote for the student newspaper and were utterly ignored by the girls. “Those attractive schoolgirls in the classes and corridors didn’t care that I existed,” Siegel reflected in 1983. “But!! If I were to wear a colorful, skintight costume! If I could run faster than a train, lift great weights easily, and leap over skyscrapers in a single bound! Then they would notice me!” Siegel worked his frustrations into the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane – the mild-mannered reporter who is utterly ignored by the girl of his dreams (Siegel’s reality), but as the super-strong Superman, is fawned over by the same girl (Siegel’s fantasy).

As it was for Siegel and Shuster, so it has always been for millions of fans. For all that has been said about Superman as idealistic or unnecessarily self-humbling, for all that has been said about the superhero as mythology, it is this third way of looking at the character, Superman as wish fulfillment, that has always been at the core of his appeal, and that of superheroes in general. Looking at Superman from this third direction can illuminate the way to resolving the other two. Thus, to create a more relevant Superman, start from that basic premise: Superman as a conduit for the power fantasies and escapist tendencies of his readership. Beyond anything else, Superman should be us – what we, the mild-mannered readers of Superman comic books, would do with his power.

In a sense, then, I would re-vision Superman as the anti-Spider-Man. If Spider-Man is well known for the constant tortures both sides of his double life provide him, from the deaths of loved ones to the hatchet jobs in the local paper to just trying to make ends meet, Superman has none of it and is simply happy at how awesome having superpowers is. Superman may be a larger-than-life, mythological figure, but he doesn’t particularly feel like it; he’s just a farm boy from Kansas who happens to be able to lift cars over his head. He may not be the perfect embodiment of our ideals – chances are he certainly revels in the glory his exploits earn him – but he’s far from a supervillain either, if only because saving people is cooler, more popular, and less stressful than oppressing them. Whether he’d be singing a different tune if he hadn’t been raised a human instilled with the values of his parents is an open question.

I wouldn’t completely dispense with Superman’s idealism, but I would make the conflict between it and the “real world” an important part of his character rather than a criticism of it, like a toned-down version of those early stories. Things seemed so much simpler back in the small town of Smallville, but when Clark Kent goes to college in the big city, he comes face to face with real suffering and the complex, morally ambiguous world of today, full of ill-meaning people, where the virtues of freedom, liberty, truth and justice he learned back on the farm seem to ring hollow and some problems just can’t (or shouldn’t) be solved with superpowers. He understands that the world is anything but what his ideals may make it out to be, but darn it, it should be. People may laugh at what he believes in, but he knows they will admire him for it at the same time. And perhaps it is this experience that convinces him to become a reporter, that he can do as much good in that capacity as he can as Superman, perhaps taking to heart Calvin’s critique of comic book supervillains.

In this conception, Lex Luthor, in his post-Crisis on Infinite Earths corporate-executive incarnation, becomes the antithesis of Superman’s idealism. Lex is the embodiment of the “greed is good” philosophy of doing things, that either devalues Superman’s ideals or cynically reinterprets them for his own ends. His vision of the world exists to make him more money, and he will not let anything stand in the way of doing more of that – certainly not a guy in a goofy outfit that keeps breaking his stuff. Superman’s idealism is almost incomprehensible to Luthor, but also dangerous because it suggests to people that maybe his way isn’t the best way. (Are my liberal leanings seeping through in this description?)

In short, I imagine a Superman who reacts to having powers the way we imagine we might react, and who becomes a superhero partly because it’s cool and partly because it’s the way his parents raised him. Not a radical change, but a substantial shift in perception for the better, in my mind. Is DC thinking the same way?

Well, from what I’m reading, the focus is on making the Superman of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics retelling of his early days “young and edgy”, which mostly has him angst a lot at how lonely he is as the last survivor of a dead planet without any real friends. (DC actually describes him as “younger, brasher and more brooding”, as though “brooding” hasn’t become an overblown cliche to the point of self-parody. If there’s one thing Superman is not, it’s Edward Cullen.) This seems to me the opposite of what’s needed, making it more unrealistic that he wouldn’t attempt to take over the world, not less. Superman needs friends, whether they’re his parents, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Batman, or even Wonder Woman (more on that in a bit) to keep him rooted and down-to-earth. It is “humanizing” and “Marvelizing” in exactly the wrong sense, losing sight of Superman’s mythology and what makes him what he is in favor of what’s supposedly ”hip” now. It ultimately makes Superman into a more powerful Spider-Man knockoff.

I don’t mean to say that Superman shouldn’t feel some measure of survivor guilt, but this sounds like DC hasn’t learned a thing from the worst excesses of the 90s, when “grim’n’gritty” was the watchword of the day. Throw in the fact that Clark and Lois haven’t even dated, even in the “present-day” stories, as well as the costume redesigns, and I almost feel that this isn’t Superman at all, but some other guy with powers who decided to pretend to be him. Suddenly I’m not exactly optimistic about DC’s other relaunches either.

Wonder Woman: Honestly, I feel like Wonder Woman’s place in DC’s “trinity” is more because we’ve been constantly told that she is rather than on her own merits. Superfriends cartoon and Lynda Carter TV show aside, Wonder Woman has always been a very distant third in the DC pecking order, if even that, and has never had remotely the popularity of Superman or Batman. Her status as a feminist icon is secure, but pretty much everything else seems up for grabs. Is there some way we can help Wonder Woman to earn her iconic status?

First, let’s talk about the costume. While Wonder Woman’s costume is iconic on a level known only by Superman and Batman among DC heroes, there have always been some serious problems with it, from the presence of American symbolism considering her origin, to the fact that the alleged feminist icon is constantly cavorting around in a bustier and panties, which isn’t exactly the best approach for protection or avoiding sexualization.

Last year, DC redesigned Wonder Woman’s costume considerably (and changed her origin to make her a Superman knockoff), to decidedly mixed reviews. While I think the redesign was well-guided, I don’t think it looks particularly like a superhero, much less Wonder Woman. I’d certainly ditch the cheesy leather jacket, and probably make the chest insignia look less like a necklace, but I like the leggings as a way to make her less of a sex object while keeping some iconic value, and it doesn’t even have to be any less sexy. In any case, the version at right has since been replaced by a version that brings back the panties.

You know one fan who didn’t like the leggings? Gloria Steinem – you know, the woman whose article in the first issue of Ms. magazine almost singlehandedly cemented Wonder Woman’s role as a feminist icon. While she did point out that the leggings amounted to “painting her legs blue”, she had a broader problem with what she sees as the implied “idea that only pants can be powerful — tell that to Greek warriors and Sumo wrestlers.”

Would Steinem accept, even welcome, this as an outfit for Wonder Woman? (Created with HeroMachine)

What? Is Wonder Woman the arbiter of what sorts of clothing can be “powerful” now? By the same token, wouldn’t anything she wears send the message that that’s the only thing that can be powerful? Or is Steinem saying that, by being powerful despite wearing panties, Wonder Woman sends a message that women can be powerful in anything, implying that making her less sexy actually degrades her feminist message by having less to overcome?

A look at the origin of the panties may shed some light on this notion. When Wonder Woman was originally created in the Golden Age, she wore a star-spangled skirt instead of panties. But even as late as the 60s, she dressed in shorts. In fact, it could be argued that the first appearance of the now-familiar panties was… the cover of that same first issue of Ms., advertising the aforementioned piece (although the angle makes it hard to tell). Throw in the fact that, while DC’s misguided attempt at appealing to feminists by stripping Wonder Woman of her powers and making her a martial artist in attempted imitation of the character of Emma Peel on the TV show The Avengers was a mistake, the pressure resulting from Steinem’s piece resulted in that era not only being ended rather abruptly but followed an admittedly reactionary “woman’s lib issue” with a steady stream of bondage covers, and you might be forgiven for doubting Steinem’s worthiness as a spokeswoman for Wonder Woman’s status as a feminist icon.

It turns out the world of feminism is a far more complicated place than you (or I) may be aware of, and while I could write a hundred posts going over all the nuances, I can summarize most of them in a single term: “third-wave feminism“. If the first wave of feminism sought to give women the explicit rights denied them, and the second wave dealt with their implicit oppression, third-wave feminism seeks to free women (and mankind in general) from any sort of predefined role, including those the second wave would impose, allowing them to define for themselves what femininity and their life should be. To third wavers, for second wavers to tell them that they cannot conform to any “traditional” notions of femininity, and must stay away from anything that smacks of it, is as restrictive and oppressive as anything men have ever done, especially if it means becoming “men with vaginas”. Chronologically, Steinem would seem to be a second-waver, but she may have been a third-waver before they existed.

There is considerable story potential in a Wonder Woman that must deal with this conflict, on either side of the generational divide. And applying the ideals of third wave feminism to Wonder Woman would effectively free her to effectively be whatever we want her to be… except that we’re then left without a map to figure out what we do want her to be. If the goal is to make Wonder Woman earn her iconic status, her place in feminist history is all she has going for her. So let’s defer this line of reasoning for the moment and focus on the question: what is it that makes Wonder Woman a feminist icon?

At the most basic level, it is simply that she is a woman who kicks ass just as well as any superman. That might be it. On the other hand, considering that there are a lot more superheroines now than there were in the Golden Age, it isn’t really something that can support her character today, at least not without reference to and reflecting on the long history of the character. (This is one reason why I suspect the decision to retcon things so that she didn’t exist before CoIE was a mistake.) If we’re looking for other keys to her lofty status within feminism, we can look at the proto-feminist thinking of her creator, William Moulton Marston, as well as Steinem’s original thinking on the character.

Marston was… weird, even by today’s standards, living in a polyamorous relationship and holding weird ideas about the benefits of bondage. He also wasn’t always consistent about how he saw Wonder Woman, and some of his comments can be interpreted as saying that Wonder Woman was actually intended to lead girls to accept their femininity and the status quo: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.” However, he then claimed that “women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness,” suggesting Marston’s real intent was to praise what he saw as feminine virtues by presenting them in “a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Given the adjectives “good” and “beautiful” used to describe the “woman” aspect of her nature, some of the specific virtues chosen, and (from a third-wave feminist perspective) the implied need to praise female virtues by way of juxtaposing them with a male one, the end result is still not exactly praiseworthy by modern standards, yet elsewhere Marston seemed to make clear that he saw women as better than men, calling Wonder Woman “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” In the midst of World War II, both the worst war in human history to that time and a milestone in the liberation of women, Marston saw the rule of women as the best hope for the end of war: “Women represent love; men represent force. Man’s use of force without love brings evil and unhappiness. Wonder Woman proves that women are superior to men because they have love in addition to force.”

Marston saw Wonder Woman as satisfying a “subconscious, elaborately disguised desire of males to be mastered by a woman who loves them”, Freudian or not, and saw “womanly wiles” as ultimately stronger than male brute force, noting that the leaders of the World War II powers exercised their control with their words first and with guns second: “No man wants to be freed by the girl who has caught him and no man has the slightest interest in tying up a girl who holds out her hands to be bound.” More than just a fetish, then, Marston saw Wonder Woman’s themes of bondage as an integral part of her message: “Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society.”

Of course, as with Superman, few of these Golden Age themes can be translated entirely to the modern age; while the bondage themes were probably a major reason for Wonder Woman’s early popularity, they’d never fly today, and in general Marston’s theories can’t be accepted uncritically. Marston created a popular character (at one point more popular than virtually any male rivals), one that proved influential enough to inspire Steinem to write, but not enduring enough to become an icon on the level of Superman or Batman. Distilling Marston’s ideas is a compelling solution to returning Wonder Woman to glory, but I’m not convinced that those Golden Age stories took themselves seriously enough to form a lasting basis for a flexible, archetypal, iconic character. If we were to distill them, though, perhaps Steinem can provide a guide.

Steinem actually didn’t write the piece on Wonder Woman in the first issue of Ms. – that fell to someone named Joanne Edgar – and fairly exhaustive Google searching, even going into academic databases, didn’t turn up an online version of that piece, aside from a single page and citations in other people’s analyses. Steinem did, however, write an introduction to a collection of Marston-era Wonder Woman stories the same year, and that I did find a complete version of. Both pieces give primary focus to that most basic level of Wonder Woman’s feminist appeal – a woman who was taking matters into her own hands in a world where women were seemingly universally expected to be Lois Lane – but Steinem at least provides a window into a deeper level of analysis.

For starters, Steinem remarks that Marston “had…seen straight into my heart and understood the secret fears of violence hidden there…Here was a heroic person who might conquer with force, but only a force that was tempered by love and justice. She converted her enemies more often than not”, often by sending them to “Transformation Island” near Paradise Island. Steinem also marvels at how often women look to each other for mutual support in Marston’s stories (“The idea of such cooperation may not seem particularly revolutionary to the male reader…but women know how rare and therefore exhilarating the idea of sisterhood really is”) and the leadership qualities of Wonder Woman’s mother in an era where strong motherly figures were at a premium and daughters were disdained. Wonder Woman, Steinem concludes, “symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce to the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment both of ‘masculine’ aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts.”

But Steinem wasn’t entirely a fan of Marston’s brand of feminism (although she sometimes shows the influence of the same ideas she criticizes), feeling he didn’t go far enough (why did Wonder Woman’s secret identity accept such a conventional role and suck up to her love interest all the time like Lois Lane redux, and why was that love interest so weak himself, as opposed to an equal?), at times went too far (as linked to earlier, she had a problem with Marston’s notions of female supremacy, although she notes that Wonder Woman would preach general respect for human rights, suggesting his thinking might not be as bad as he let on), and at times just didn’t stay focused (it’s odd that she wears the American flag and beats up Nazis on behalf of a nation as patriarchal as the rest, but Steinem admits that WWII was no time for national criticism). She also worried about the message that portraying the utopia as an isolated community on an island sent. Marston’s submission kink, to Steinem, got in the way of the feminist message as often as it aided it, by seemingly affirming “the masculine notion that there must be…a conqueror and a conquered”.

Steinem’s criticisms of Marston’s feminism can help us point the way to a model of Wonder Woman that is feminist yet novel, but can that alone sustain an iconic character? From a third-wave perspective, to attempt to simply update her to the modern goals of feminism not only hamstrings her to a specific role, but by doing so, betrays those very goals. Fortunately, DC’s constant shoving of the character down our throats has inadvertently opened the way to another way of seeing the character: through her place in DC’s Trinity.

This isn’t exactly an easy road to take. There are many established contrasts between Superman and Batman, but most of them are very stark and polarizing, between Superman’s light and Batman’s dark, and Wonder Woman’s only place in them would seem to be as a mediator between the two; I’d rather she move along the opposing axis and find her own identity as part of a triangle rather than the midpoint of a line. In the aftermath of the lead-up to Infinite Crisis, which saw Wonder Woman kill a villain when it appeared to be her only alternative to fighting a losing battle against a mind-controlled Superman, some writers have attempted to fit her into the Trinity by over-emphasizing the “warrior” aspect of her origins and portraying her as a blood-thirsty, kill-happy maniac, which does neither the character nor women in general justice (and probably makes Marston spin in his grave). And most of TV Tropes’ relevant models for trios would either put Wonder Woman in the aforementioned “mediator” role, put her somewhere she already is, or put her in a rather demeaning position.

One way of looking at the difference between Superman and Batman is in their philosophies and visions of human nature. Superman sees the world in terms of good and evil, with most of humanity falling under the former, and fights to uphold several firm principles that protect humanity from those who would do evil. Batman’s faith in principle and human goodness died in a dark alley when he was eight years old. To Batman, the world is a dark, twisted place, where criminals do the only logical thing available to them and one has to do whatever he can to get by. Batman fights just to keep humanity from killing each other.

In this framework, Wonder Woman sees humanity as neither good nor evil, but more than that, throws out the whole notion of an objective “good” or “evil”. To Wonder Woman, both good and evil are expressions of natural human impulses; they are categories men impose on the world to foment hatred and keep people apart. Wonder Woman reminds Superman of the value of humanity and the reason he fights for his principles, and keeps Batman honest and assures him his cause isn’t completely hopeless. If Superman represents the high-minded notion of liberty, and Batman sees life as the only thing worth protecting, Wonder Woman subscribes to the pursuit of happiness. If Superman subscribes to a Rousseauian idealism, and Batman sees the world as a Hobbesian conflict, then Wonder Woman subscribes to a certain hedonism. By this, I don’t mean that she spends all her time goofing off and certainly not (necessarily) that she’s having sex left and right, but rather the original definition of the term, that of seeking the most pleasure for everyone.

Wonder Woman, I think, is likely to take superheroing more playfully and less seriously than either Superman or Batman. Superman may see a given villain as simply a force of evil, and Batman may see him as a cowardly criminal like any other, but both are likely to single him out for some sort of punishment. Wonder Woman is more likely to see the villain as misguided, warped by the patriarchal society he was raised in, and in need of simply being corrected down the right path for his impulses. Fortuitously, this aligns quite nicely with the tendency of Wonder Woman to attempt to “redeem” criminals in Marston’s stories, as well as the virtues Steinem espouses. (One idea could be for Wonder Woman to face a villain in some early stories that eventually becomes a sidekick and love interest – without making her a Mary Sue, of course.) At the same time, it doesn’t completely drain Wonder Woman of the sort of action people read superheroes for, which evidence suggests both men and women are into – it does not turn her stories into boring, talkative negotiation sessions – nor need it be as preachy as some of Marston’s stories could be.

Superman and Batman are representative of their settings – Metropolis, a shining, technological utopia, and Gotham, a grimy urban hell. Both, however, are modern cities, unless you choose to make Superman representative of his Smallville upbringing. Wonder Woman is arguably representative of what might be called a “primitive utopia”, where the Amazons live a fairly simple, pastoral lifestyle. Wonder Woman is not opposed to technological advancement on principle, but a lot of it is developed by man for questionable purposes using questionable means and often serves to complicate life more and drive people further apart.

Because Wonder Woman is known only for her gadgets and her status as a feminist icon, everything else about the character, in my opinion, is thrown wide open. Wonder Woman’s origin is nowhere near as iconic as that of Superman and Batman, and also raises a lot of questions and problems. Previous attempts to stress her “Greek” origins have, in my opinion, rendered her appeal less universal, and considering that the original Amazons were likely a hateful caricature of an actual tribe of “barbarians” the Greeks had to fight, making the DC version too true to Greek mythology would probably raise too many contradictions and effectively betray both them and Wonder Woman herself (for example, Ares was originally the patron god of the Amazons, but has been a recurring villain of Wonder Woman’s since the Marston days). It’s important to remember that the only real reason she was tied in with the Amazons of Greek mythology was because that was the most familiar class of warrior women the audience would be familiar with, and she wasn’t all that Greek before Perez got his hands on her.

One of Steinem’s criticisms of the new origin that came with the new costume was that depriving Wonder Woman of “her home, her Amazon mother and sisters” would “give her no place to go to gain strength and create an inspiring storyline”, so the Amazons should probably stay in some form. But I think everything else can be re-worked to create a story that not only has more universal appeal, but by avoiding the “Superman problem” to some extent, creates a far more “inspiring storyline.” Try this on for size:

Once upon a time, men and women lived in relative equality. But then men started to seize power from women, and began introducing more and more hatred into the world, and women were reduced to serfhood. But everywhere men took power, women continued to meet in secret and preserve the memory of those peaceful days gone by, and the secret of their strength, which they did not dare to flaunt in the world of men, lest their meetings be destroyed and all hope lost.

For the goddess had left them a prophecy, that one day, when the world was ready, there would come among them a champion, with even greater strength than themselves, who would raise the Daughters of the Amazon out of the shadows and restore humanity to those glory days of peace and equality. As time passed, word of the prophecy was passed down from mother to daughter, as did the secret ways of the Amazon. And as women continued to make more and more gains over the course of the 20th century, hopes rose that either the one prophecied would come soon, or wouldn’t be necessary. Now she has come.

(Yes, I did just turn Wonder Woman into Feminist Jesus.)

Gone are the inexplicably-isolated, inexplicably-immortal Amazons; in is an origin that relates Wonder Woman to the plight of all women the world over. From this basic framework, we have given Wonder Woman a worldwide cadre of sisters she serves as the representative (and possibly walking advertisement) of, and can build on top of it whatever else Steinem would like, such as a strong motherly figure.

What are the “secrets” the Daughters of the Amazon were hoarding for millennia? This is where we get into the problem of the exact origin of Wonder Woman’s powers, and relatedly, how replicable they are. Marston’s stories explained Wonder Woman’s powers as coming from channeling “brain energy” into the muscles, and indicated that anyone could become super-strong with enough Amazon training. (This became the origin of the original, accidental, Wonder Girl, about which the less I say here the better.) Golden Age pseudoscience (and you thought comics today had questionable science!) aside, the idea that any woman can tap into Wonder Woman’s strength to some extent would seem to rob Wonder Woman of some of the specialness that allows the title to revolve around her, but it’s still appealing for other reasons – inspiration to women, emphasizing the value of numbers, strengthening the sisterhood Steinem values so much, and so on. If all else fails, well, the Green Lantern Corps doesn’t seem to have hindered that franchise (although considering its success outside comics…).

Ultimately, what will do the most to secure Wonder Woman’s place as an iconic figure is a) a woman writing the title and, far more difficultly, b) more women reading comics. DC could have encouraged the latter through its new digital initiatives, but the kerfluffle over the number of female creators and the portrayal of female heroes may have burned that bridge. It’s too bad, because the new Wonder Woman title could have really…

The Gods walk among us. To them, our lives are playthings. Only one woman would dare to protect humanity from the wrath of such strange and powerful forces. But is she one of us – or one of them?

Oh. Never mind then.

The Justice League of America: Finally, a personal preference of mine. Several years ago I had opportunity to read a scanned copy of All-Star Comics #3, the first appearance of the Justice Society of America, generally accepted as the first super-team, DC or not. They made their debut in issue #3 because for the first two issues, All-Star Comics was basically just a place to collect disparate stories from various superheroes that weren’t Superman or Batman and thus weren’t popular enough to carry their own title.

What struck me about that third issue was that the meeting of the JSA was basically a framing device for more of the same. While they would get called in by FDR to have a joint adventure that took place in the following issue, the JSA spent their first appearance mostly just hanging around their base and trading stories of their exploits. And really, that’s what comes to mind when I think of something called the Justice Society: not a miniature army like modern super-teams, but a group of people that simply comes together to promote a common interest.

Most super-team origins come off an assembly line, and they usually aren’t much different than any other issue of the series: some foe pops up that’s more than any one hero can handle, several heroes come together to beat the foe, heroes decide to continue as a group. The Justice League, the Avengers, the Teen Titans, even the JSA got such an origin in Roy Thomas’ Golden Age-nostalgia book All-Star Squadron, which didn’t make much sense to me. It’s simple, it doesn’t take much more work than someone already writing a super-team book would otherwise take on, and it seems to me not particularly conducive to the creation of particularly cohesive, let alone iconic, teams. What’s more, these enemies don’t always come across as all that much more threatening than what some of these heroes encounter on their own, and it seems that when real crises hit the super-teams are usually conspicuously absent, often recently dissolved.

Some teams manage to rise above this rut – the Fantastic Four decided to form a team because of the shared bonds of their existing relationships and shared origin, and then there’s the X-Men and Charles Xavier’s recruitment of mutants to protect the rest of mutantkind and improve their relations with the rest of humanity – and perhaps it’s no coincidence that those are the most iconic super-team origins. However, perhaps that’s also because the FF and X-Men, whose members rarely have solo titles and would be diminished away from their teammates (aside from Wolverine), are best seen as single properties, as opposed to the alliance of properties most true super-teams are composed of.

There are no shortage of ways to break out of the standard super-team origin rut. Perhaps the Avengers formed because some heroes decided they had a lot in common and should stick together for mutual support and a united front for their interests. Perhaps the Justice League formed because the government decided there needed to be an organization of these superpowered folk to keep them organized, and perhaps, in line. Perhaps the Teen Titans formed because all the sidekicks had to spend time in the back room during Justice League meetings and realized how well they got along.

So what’s the solicitation for the first issue of the new Justice League series? “In a universe where super heroes are strange and new, Batman has discovered a dark evil that requires him to unite the World’s Greatest Heroes!” In other words: heroes unite to handle a threat no one hero can handle. Sigh.

Simply put, DC doesn’t get it. They’re floundering around in the dark looking to save their business without a clue how. They think the solution is to throw out continuity without throwing out continuity and adopt “digital” gimmicks, but are they telling the stories that will attract people to those digital comics? I doubt it. The writers are the same ones that have been around for years, what retools exist are either in the precise wrong direction or are just plain aimless, and one gets the impression that the reboot is just a way for Geoff Johns and Jim Lee to have their own sandbox to play in. Fixing DC comics is doable, but I don’t know that DC is even interested in doing it, or has any clue what people are like outside their own offices and comic book conventions – and if they don’t, they deserve whatever they get, or rather, don’t get.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] ever tried to fly by putting on a cape and jumping knows well, and back when the New 52 happened I suggested that DC revitalize the character by playing up those […]

  2. […] I once thought that, if DC was going to reboot its universe the way it did with the New 52 it should have gone whole-hog and restart everything from the beginning, but now I think that would have just made the problems with the New 52 worse. Clark Kent’s […]

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