Wonder Woman is such a hard character to get right, because on the one hand, "superhero", and on the other hand, "boobs". Right? So tricky.
— Andrew Wheeler (@Wheeler) July 30, 2013
I retweeted Andrew Wheeler’s rant about how sexism plays a role in people saying Wonder Woman is hard to write well (there’s more at his Twitter, it gets scathing real fast) because he was mostly right: there is often some misogyny involved when people say they hate Wonder Woman or think she is boring. It’s comics fandom, you have to assume there’s some soupçon of misogyny in the base more often than not.
Wonder Woman is hard to write well, because there is no definitive Wonder Woman. I’ve written about this before, but think about it for a second. There’s a definitive Batman, now: he’s been arrived at over decades. There’s a definitive Superman, a definitive Spider-Man, and we’re only just starting to hit definitive Wolverine over the past few years and even then there have been mis-steps.1 Definitive Daredevil took, what, 180 issues until Frank Miller showed up? So it can take time. In Wonder Woman’s case it has taken over sixty years and counting.
Like: Who’s a “must” member of Wonder Woman’s supporting cast? Supporting casts are important: they define your character’s milieu (assuming they aren’t a lone wolf like Wolverine is). Superman has Lois and Perry and Jimmy; Batman has Alfred and Dick and Commissioner Gordon; Spidey has MJ and Robbie and Betty and Flash and Jolly Jonah. Who’s Wonder Woman’s supporting cast all-stars? Etta Candy? Only shows up occasionally and has no definitive role. Steve Trevor? Hasn’t been prominent for years, even decades. I-Ching? Please. And so on.
Alternatively, who are Wonder Woman’s most notorious villains? Look at this list of Wonder Woman “adversaries” from Wikipedia:
Angle Man, Ares, Baroness Paula Von Gunther, Badra, Bizarra, Blue Snowman, Captain Wonder, Cheetah, Children of Ares, Circe, Cyborgirl, Dark Angel, Decay, Devastation, Doctor Cyber, Doctor Poison, Doctor Psycho, Duke of Deception, Egg Fu, Eviless, Genocide, Giganta, Hades, Hypnota, Jinx, Mask, Mavis, Osira, Queen Clea, Queen of Fables, Shim’Tar, Silver Swan, Superwoman, Tezcatlipoca, Trinity, Veronica Cale, Villainy Inc., White Magician, Zara
So, to sum up: Cheetah, Circe, Ares and Hades? Maybe Dr. Psycho, but then again Dr. Psycho is a character better known for his stint in Villains United than for his classic Wonder Woman stories. Really, this is not the most inspiring list. Of all of those characters, I think Ares ends up being Diana’s archenemy by default mostly because he’s always been the most powerful, but there is no definitive Ares/Wonder Woman story like there are Batman/Joker or Superman/Luthor or Spidey/Doc Ock2 or even Wolverine/Sabretooth, for crissake.
But then again there are no definitive Wonder Woman stories, are there? There are plenty of good runs on the title. I mean, if you do a list of everybody who wrote more than two years’ worth of Wonder Woman comics, you get:
That’s a goddamn Murderer’s Row of comics writing talent right there – and I’m not going to do the “well William Marston only gets in because he invented the character, because really he was just a weird pervert” because those old Marston comics show a real understanding of the form.3 And then you go into all those great writers who didn’t have long runs on the title: Mike Sekowsky, Len Wein, Alan Heinberg, Phil Jimenez, Walt Simonson. Wonder Woman is a title that DC has always made sure had serious talent working on it. So where is the Wonder Woman equivalent of “Year One”> or “For The Man Who Has Everything” or “The Boy Who Collected Spider-Man”?
I should note I don’t think this is simply a failure of marketing, either, or of DC failing to properly promote groundbreaking stories. All of those great writers wrote decent Wonder Woman stories, and DC over the years has made valiant efforts to publicize them and the character generally. Despite a lot of attention and a lot of talent, we’ve never really found what makes Wonder Woman work, and for the most part the result is every time a new writer gets their hands on it they revamp whatever they like, be it turning Diana into a martial-artist spy without powers, the Avatar of Truth, an ambassador from a very very foreign country or the secret daughter of Zeus. This isn’t just a new spin on the character each time, either: Superman as capricious trickster in the Silver Age, Superman as TV reporter in the Bronze Age, Superman as humble, lovable family man in the Whatever-This-Is Age and Superman as Bloggerman in the New 52 are all still identifiably Superman: Clark Kent, who is also Kal-El from Krypton, last survivor of a dead race, and so on.
But if you took no-powers martial artist spy 1970s Wonder Woman, 1990s George Perez Wonder Woman and current-day daughter-of-Zeus Wonder Woman, and gave them different names, they’re barely the same character. Different powers, different origin stories, they’re really different people when you get down to it. There is no definitive Wonder Woman story because there is no definitive Wonder Woman, and that means every time a writer gets an idea about how to make Wonder Woman relevant they tear down whatever they want to get rid of, which is often something another writer spent time building up. Writing a Wonder Woman series is not unlike building a sandcastle, when you get right down to it, and about as stable.
This matters, because people seek out given comics because they’re looking for a particular reading experience more often than not (Batman: gritty noir; Spider-Man: adolescent angst; Wolverine: revenge drama; etc.). If you pick up a random Wonder Woman comic you have no idea what it’s going to be about, because everybody’s idea of Wonder Woman is different; there is no such standard as a “good Wonder Woman story” (as opposed to simply “a good story,” which is in part why Man of Steel was so divisive in comics fandom).
And realistically this is not going to change until a Wonder Woman movie comes out, because when we get a Wonder Woman movie, that will hard-define the character in a way that no comics event realistically ever will (much like Robert Downey Jr. has defined Tony Stark for the next few decades at least). Brian Azzarello’s current run on the character (what I have seen of it, because I don’t read DC comics any more) is good stuff and inventive, but not enough people are reading it for it to make a dent in comics fandom’s collective understanding. It’s going to take a movie, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of “well, nobody will go to see a Wonder Woman movie, so we’re not going to make one” is presently getting in the way.
- Remember that Jeph Loeb run where Logan was one of a race of werewolf-things? What happened with that? It sucked, I remember that much. [↩]
- Otto is Spider-Man’s definitive arch-enemy. Period. Green Goblin – no, not even close. [↩]
- Granted, which Marston then used as his personal and weird masturbation aid, but that is neither here nor there. [↩]