Wonder Woman: Relevant or Ridiculous?

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In the world of comic book superheroes, there is the trinity: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

2160789-sensation1_coverBatman and Superman are iconic characters and have changed and morphed over the decades since their first appearances. They have changed to stay relevant to comic book fans in a changing world.

But how successful has that transformation been? The male heroes have become darker, grittier and grimmer, but what about Wonder Woman? How has she been able to stay relevant?

Has she been able to stay relevant?

Wonder Woman has had an interesting history that few comic book readers are familiar with.

In the early 1940’s the DC comics line was dominated by super powered male characters. Psychologist William Moulton Marston, the inventor of the polygraph, or lie-detector test, struck upon the idea for a new kind of superhero, one who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love. After introducing the idea to comic publisher Max Gaines, Marston, along with his wife Elizabeth, began to develop the hero who would eventually become Wonder Woman

All-Star-Comics-8-december-1941-featuring-wonder-womanMarston was an unconventional figure in the 1940’s as was his wife, Elizabeth, whom he considered a model of the unconventional liberated woman. He was also inspired by a former student of his, Olive Byrne, who lived with the couple in a polygamous/poly-amorous relationship.

“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power.” Marston wrote in 1943. “Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Marston used a pen name that combined his middle name with that of Gaines to create Charles Moulton. Marston intended his character, which he called “Suprema”, to be “tender, submissive, peace loving as good women are,” combining “all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” His character was a native of an all-female utopia who became a crime-fighting U.S. government agent, using her superhuman strength and agility, and her ability to force villains to tell the truth by binding them with her magic lasso. Her appearance, including her heavy silver bracelets (which she used to deflect bullets), was based somewhat on Olive Byrne.

In 2002, Heritage Auctions listed an original Illustration by Harry G. Peter, the first sketches of Wonder Woman, with notes from Marston on the look.

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Editor Sheldon Mayer replaced the name “Suprema” with “Wonder Woman”, and the character made her debut in All-Star Comics #8 (December 1941).

sensation-comics_05It was never smooth sailing with Marston who wrote the comics under the pseudonym Charles Moulton. Complaints began coming in almost immediately with one prominent bishop complaining that Wonder Woman was “not fully dressed”. Marston also had, it seemed, an obsession with bondage. He was extremely specific as to what kind of chains Wonder Woman should be bound with. A lot of Marston’s storylines involve Wonder Woman being tied up. “The secret of woman’s allure,” he once told Gaines, is that “Women enjoy submission—being bound.”

Wonder Woman was never allowed to be just a comic book like the other heroes. Gaines was in constant consultation with psychologists regarding Wonder Woman’s storylines. Great scrutiny was brought to her every action and to her wardrobe.

Wonder_WomanThat was, sadly, not to change over the seventy year history of the character. Her origins have been revised many times throughout the decades, as has her outfit. With the television series from the 1970’s starring Lynda Carter, a good deal of campiness was introduced to the character. Carter was a voluptuous woman. In the Wonder Woman outfit, her assets were on prominent display, often overshadowing the character’s other virtues.

And that, I think, is part of the problem for Wonder Woman. She is a strong and potent ideal for feminism, but in a bathing suit. The cognitive dissonance of Wonder Woman almost rivals that of the Miss America Pageant where spin doctors try to portray it as a “scholarship program” but one where the contestants are required to participate in swimwear.

WonderWoman_by_els3basWomen scholars are not to be judged based on how they look in a bathing suit. Neither should a superhero, but there’s the rub. Wonder Woman represents the pinnacle of heroic behavior but also of athleticism and beauty. In that respect she is representative of modern women in the pursuit of that balance. Still, not even her steel bracelets can protect her from society’s judgment and, often, scorn.

Changing her costume to something a little less sexist is fraught with controversy. Old school fans rail against the change and still others accuse the comic creators of pandering to feminists. Some readers want Wonder Woman to live up to feminist ideals. Others just want her looking hot in her costume.

2903163-01So what’s a Wonder Woman to do? Her latest incarnation (and, it seems, her upcoming appearance in the Superman vs. Batman film) has her more closely resembling Xena the Warrior Princess.

Greek Goddess… Miss America… Xena… which role does she play in order to make others happy. Isn’t that the dilemma of a woman today? She finds herself having to behave and dress in certain ways to make others (mostly men) happy. That’s the irony of Wonder Woman. For a character who is portrayed as being true to herself and to her heroic ideals, she has to, it seems, do an awful lot of pandering to her audience.

Along the way I have to wonder (pardon the pun) is she the representative of a feminine ideal or just a boob show? Is she a positive role model for women and girls or is she just a bit of cheesecake for male comic book readers?

I’d like to think it was the former, but after all this time I still don’t think the answer is entirely clear.

What do you think?

The Artist as Criminal: The Frank Cho Spider Gwen Controversy

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This is a cross post from the AMAZING STORIES MAGAZINE website:

You see, this last week the internet exploded.

Yeah, I know, the internet is exploding all the time. The most recent big explosion has been all about the Hugo Awards and the Sad Puppies. That explosion has caused lots of aftershocks that are still going on. But I’m not talking about that internet volcano.

Frank Cho is a brilliantly talented comic book artist. As well as drawing and writing his own comic strip, Liberty Meadows for five years in National Syndication and still today under his own banner, Cho has worked extensively for Marvel Comics and Dynamite comics. Cho is noted for his figure drawing, precise lines, and depiction of well-endowed women.

Cho maintains his own website, Apes and Babes where his award winning Liberty Meadows strip can be seen and where he posts images of works-in-progress as well as quick sketeches, many of them humorous.

It was one of these sketches that recently caused the internet to blow up.

Let’s back up a bit. In 2014 Marvel Comics announced that they would be releasing issues of certain titles with variant covers drawn by Italian artist Milo Manara. Manara is a world renowned artist who has created work for Marvel before as well as other comics in America. Manara also produces comics, mostly in Europe, that are highly erotic and, in some cases pornographic. That kind of work raises few eyebrows in Europe, but in America it is not tolerated.

Manara produced a variant cover for Marvel’s Spider-Woman #1.

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And the reaction was… intense. So intense, in fact, that Marvel ended up pulling Manara’s cover and using another artist.

But the damage was done. The image flew around the internet followed by angry tirades and accusations of sexism.

So, last week Frank Cho, in his off-time, created a cheeky drawing based on Manara’s cover. He depicted a character called Spider-Gwen, an alternate universe variant of Spider-Man that has become popular with younger readers. Cho did a quick sketch and posted it to his own website.

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Cue the internet explosion. This time it was led by Robbi Rodriguez, the lead artist on the Spider-Gwen title. On his twitter feed Rodriguez uttered a vague threat against Cho for besmirching the virtue of his character. “Your (sic) drawing dirty pictures of one of my kids. Be lucky your (sic) never around me.” The twitter post implied physical violence but Rodriguez later stepped back from that in a longer post on his Facebook, saying he would only have given Cho an earful with a lot of cursing and then proceeded to give Cho and the world said earful in a profanity laden rant. In his rant he states that there is a place for drawing like that (on an artist’s own website, perhaps?) and that it isn’t about censorship but then exhorts Cho to stop doing it and change with the times. The internet then proceeded to crucify Cho for daring to sexualize a comic book character.

Although apparently posting art of that sort is okay for Rodriguez when he does it on his own website:

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The irony of this (and there is so much irony to go around) is that many of the same voices decrying Cho’s art were likely the same people who plastered their Facebook pages with “Je Suis Charlie” in sympathy with the Charlie Hebdo artists who were massacred by extremists.

And that is where the irony lies in it for me. Free speech is a right that must be defended and defended vigorously. But it is not always an easy thing to do. When you defend free speech some of that speech is going to come from opinions and world views that are different from your own. Sometimes that speech may seem to you to be verging on hateful. Nevertheless, if you are committed to free speech than you must be committed. You can’t cherry pick what free speech you champion and censor what you don’t like. If you do that then you are NOT championing free speech.

Free speech means that there will be lots of ranting and raving. Cho is free to express himself. Rodriguez is free to respond. I defend his right to do so. But then I am free to take Rodriguez to task for his reaction, his inconsistency, and his vague threats.

As for Frank Cho, his response was this:

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and he wrote: “To be honest, I was amused and surprised by the uproar since it was, in my opinion, over nothing. It’s essentially a small group of angry and humorless people ranting against my DRAWING of a pretty woman. It’s utter nonsense. This world would be a better and a happier place if some people just grow a sense of humor and relax”

As the infamous underground artist Robert Crumb observed years ago: “It’s only lines on paper, folks!”.

Addendum: The internet changes fast. After I had marked this post as “Ready to Go” Frank posted another drawing. Clearly the man is incorrigible. The flames of burning internet have not made him lose his sense of humor.

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He’s having fun with the outrage. Don’t stop, Frank!

DEBT’S PLEDGE and the Bechdel Test

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So, my daughter came home for Christmas, which is enough of a Christmas present for her mother and I. While on the Greyhound she passed the time reading a trade paperback edition of my book, Debt’s Pledge. When she pulled the book out of her backpack she told me she was only three quarters of the way through. I asked her what she thought about it.

“Well, first thing; your book would not pass the Bechdel Test”, she said.

For those of you who don’t know, the Bechdel Test (sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule) is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. The test was popularized by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called The Rule.

I thought about it for a moment and realized that what she had told me was very true. There are several women characters in the book, and most of them are strong characters. Some are more feminine than others but none are shrinking violets. However, the book’s main character is Jefferson Odett and the entire book is told from his point of view. It’s not told in the first person, but the third person narrative is deliberately limited to Odett’s point of view. That makes it kind of difficult to pass the Bechdel Rule.

I admitted as much to my daughter.

“Also,” she continued. “Why do all the women characters all have to have some sort of relationship with Odett? It’s like they’re all there just as sex objects for him”

“Wait,” I said, trying to think. I’m writing the sequel but the details of the first book aren’t as fresh in my head as they are in hers. “What about Amy Brown, the guildswoman?” I asked.

My daughter nodded. “Yeah, I was hoping that she would be different, but then you ruined it by having them kiss!”

Oh, yeah. I’d forgotten about that. “Well… okay… but…”

“And where are the feels, Dad? The book has no feels!”

Feels? The book’s got feels!” I protest.

“No it doesn’t” said my wife, which caught me off guard.

“I thought you loved my book.”

“I do. But you’re daughter’s right. It’s got no feels.”

At this point I felt a bit out of my depth. “Well… I set out to write a vary manly book…” I heard myself saying. “It’s a manly book… for manly men!”

They both looked at me like I was some sort of special mental case. I felt a bit like one.

“Well…” I sputtered. “The sequel will be better.”

“Dad,” my daughter said. “You know you wouldn’t get this kind of honest criticism from someone who didn’t love you, right?”

It was true. I had received a negative review… honestly, the worst review the book has garnered so far, from the two people whose opinions I value the most… and yet, I never felt so loved.

Family is funny that way.

Whatever your faith, however you choose to celebrate (or even if you don’t), I hope you all have a good holiday season and that it is filled with warmth and love.