Wednesday, April 04, 2007

She's a wonder, Wonder Woman

The sixth issue of the new run of Wonder Woman has come out. Some are enjoying it.

But for some, there are a lot of things to quibble about.

Things that have happen. Wonder Woman has been around a while, in the world of men. She has acted as a diplomat, a hero, a warrior, food service, romantic, been struck blind, and she's even died for what she believed (She got better, became a god, then gave it up to come back.).

Recently, someone was bringing doom to the world, and was mind controlling Superman into a WMD of epic proportion. She knew she couldn't/wouldn't kill Superman, the only way to stop him. So she did what had to be done, she killed the man manipulating Superman and causing all the havoc (A man you'd already murdered an old favorite of many, Blue Beetle.). Quick and nasty. But it stopped and freed Superman. For that she was shunned by her friends. And all the Infinite Crisis stuff came about. BLAH. BLAH. BLAH. Didn't read a lot of this, so my intel in limited. Suffice to say, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman make nice. Superman and Wonder Woman lose their powers. She goes underground, makes a secret ID (God, we're back here. Wait until she starts spinning to get into costume.) and joins an organization, which happens to be hunting her. See, she went on trial for murder. Things didn't go well. So there we are.

ONE YEAR LATER. And one issue of her book scrapped, thanks to shoddy work from a SUPERSTAR brought in.

So we get into the mean now of the new book, Issue 6.

Things we have Wonder Woman in a white tight jump suit. If you look at her comic history, she had a period of being depowered where she went all Emma Peel, of the British Avengers TV show. She had trendy outfits, a boutique she owned, and she didn't like feminist. Plus she went from one bad relationship to the was great.

So for the second time in 5 years, writers are trolling the 70's for the same idea for this book. Good job people.

So how is Diana doing?

The Limits of Meta-Fiction

What did surprise me-- and excite my interest-- was the announcement that novelist Jodi Picoult was going to be writing it. She's a very popular writer and, from what little I've read, very good with complex issues of identity and morality. She's lauded for her convincing female characters, and so I thought I'd give it a try.


There's no deep morality here, no real character work. The plot is pedestrian and not in a fun way. What we have instead is meta-fiction:

Meta-Fiction is fiction that is about itself: fiction that is aware of the devices of fiction, fiction that explores the relationship between authors, works, and their audience, fiction that comments on itself and its genre.

It's one of-- if not the-- hallmark of Post-Modernism. Some people will tell you that post-modernism is a mark of maturity or intelligence. What post-modernism usually means is that the author has no idea how to tell an actual story about actual characters, so instead they write about themselves writing.

I don't hate meta-fiction, or even post-modernism-- I'm just wary of it as an end in and of itself. As a means, though-- as an ingredient and a storytelling device, it can add depth and context.


But in the case of Wonder Woman number 6, Picoult's story is not deepened by her meta approach, because there's really nothing there beyond the meta. Instead of a story, we have an argument: that Wonder Woman is just as cool as her male cohorts.

But the logic at play here-- that Wonder Woman is cool because she saves the world-- fails to see the fundamental flaw in Wonder Woman, one which Your Friend and Mine, The Amazing Alan Kistler has pointed out in his excellent profile-in-progress: Wonder Woman has no core identity: she's gone from bondage-chick to spy to goddess; she's all over the map. Or, at least, her core is not one that's conducive to good storytelling.

As my wife pointed out to me this afternoon (hi Mary!), Batman is a character who is defined by his origin. His parents are murdered before his eyes; he is motivated by grief and rage to fight crime. Superman is the last surviving son of an advanced race and is given a strong moral upbringing by kindly farm folk; he is Good and Inspiring. Spider-Man's Uncle Ben is murdered, a death that Spider-Man could prevent; the twin themes of responsibility and maturity have defined Spider-Man.

Wonder Woman is sent by Amazons to engender peace and justice. It's such a hazy origin, and it tells us nothing about her personality. In the case of the Big Three (Spidey, Supes, and Bats), their origin stories speak volumes about who they are.

The reason why Wonder Woman doesn't sell as well as the others-- the reason why she's not as "cool"-- is because she lacks a real viable core.

Now, she has had a core in the past-- two of them, in fact. But the first one-- Moulton's original bondage-object philosophizer-- is diametrically opposed to the second:

The problem with this characterization (Wonder Woman as Feminist Icon), which has defined the character for so long, is that it lacks real definition and real conflict. It's a Sidney Poitier characterization: a minority character who is perfect and good and without flaw or equal.

And, y'know, that's fine, to a point: there was a need for that kind of characterization, and it helped overcome years of stereotyping. But it is not a viable, long-term option for serial fiction.

And so, without a real story to tell, Picoult has fallen on a meta-fictional approach: she's trying to validate Wonder Woman in fictional form, which is doomed to failure because the answers for which she is searching are not present.

The best way to show a character is cool is to tell good, interesting stories about that character, which is diametrically opposed to a post-modernist, meta-fictional approach.

You know who should write Wonder Woman? You know which "hot" novelist not only routinely tells good, interesting stories about actual people, but also understands the fundamental differences between men and women? Joyce Carol Oates.

If Joyce Carol Oates wrote Wonder Woman, you can bet your ass this shallow, limiting "feminist symbol" iconography would be replaced by an actual character. That the conflicts would be interesting, that the stories would affect you, that they would hurt you and you would like it.
I have to surprise myself and agree here, for the most part.

I have long liked the Wonder Woman character. But it seems it is a love for the whole concept, more than the writing. It bugged. I focused on the writing and writers. It seemed that every time the writer changed, the character took a big swing and shifted. Unlike Batman, who was rooted, she would radically change. She, and Paradise Island (Themyscira, in the comics, for those TV fans.). It is an island, the Themyscirans get slaughtered, and come back. Blown up, then returned. A floating island and university, then not. They're peaceful, they're violent, they are peaceful...Every writer really seems to get carte blanche with the whole setting and it bugged me.

But this fundamental flaw with the character and approach may be the key issue. She is a clay figure, and each writer gets to just project their thought on her. Superman and Batman are built to resist this.

To be fair I think all 3 characters started out the same, in the 30's and 40's. But the other 2 were built on and refined. Diana, not so lucky.

There is a lot to work with. She is not one of us. She grew up in a utopia. She has a different life philosophy. So her choice to live in this world has consequences, it has a chance to influence her. She has to come to grips with the day to day conflicts in interacting with people. She is a diplomat, but also a warrior and hero. These conflict. So her attempt to bring together her distinct views and duties, and the conflict it will cause with her, her people, and the rest of the world...I think she has been a rich vein of potential.

But as a character, she needs to shed some of the perfection she is imbued with.

Wonder Woman #6

There’s nothing specifically wrong with giving Wonder Woman the “stranger-in-a-strange-land-fresh-from-Paradise-Island” treatment again (“What does it mean to be Wonder Woman? What does it mean to be human?”)… except that this brooding and troubled Diana is rather an abrupt shift from the worldly and contemporary Diana Prince that Heinberg was giving us waaaay back in issues #1-4 (it’s also light-years from the Themysciran ambassador that Greg Rucka was writing back in the dim antiquity of 2005, but I suppose that’s been retconned by now). There’s lots of fish-out-of-water jokes (those Starbucks people and their wacky drink names—all Diana wants is a cuppa coffee!), and meta fun for everyone: agent Prince’s assignment is bodyguarding a reality-show superhero doing an autograph signing at an amusement park, with attendant yuks about merchandising and product placement.

And, for whatever reason, new writers on this character rarely even try. After a couple of false starts, they give us Wonder Woman’s real honest-to-gosh new direction… which turns out to be pretty much the same direction that every new team has taken with this character since the 60’s: Who is Wonder Woman?
This character, as I mentioned above is not an idiot. She has lived a long time in this world. Starbucks jokes? I can't wait for the comic when she is on a commercial flight and asks, "What's the deal with airline peanuts?"

It just makes little sense...did I mention this story takes place over a year since she went undercover? How does this gel with a consistent storyline? It's lazy.

This panel from Wonder Woman #6. Honestly, who nearly gets shot in the face by a mugger then comes out with "I did a paper on you in my feminist theory class! I said you were an icon of womanhood we could all derive strength from! But I didn't realise you were!"

Awesome. That's the stupidest thing I ever heard anyone say that was only seconds earlier having a GUN WAVED IN THEIR FACE. Isn't the whole point this comic has been so badly delayed is because the all singing, all dancing writer who apparently does novels or TV programs or something needed extra time to work on it? So why does it sound like a ten year old wrote it? Supposedly prestigious characters from the DC Universe are having their publishing schedules stretched to breaking point for this?!
Written World:
Yes, every bad review you've read is true. She treats the character like a complete fish out of water even though Diana's been underground pretending to be a regular person for an entire year, and before that had been around for years and gotten her lumps in during Perez and Messner-Loebs runs.

Beyond that, she's being vain and petty and existential and it makes me roll my eyes. Why does Wonder Woman give a flying fuck about being "cool"?

And why is Nemesis suddenly acting like Xander Harris?

It might be the first comparison, the milkshake replacement with a Black Canary milkshake, bothered me and set the tone wrong. Even though Diana didn't display overt jealousy, using the Black Canary replacement (and then driving it home with a mention by Nemesis) implied competition. Diana's from Themiscyra, where women can excel without tearing each other down. It also smacked of the Black Canary replacing Wonder Woman in the post-Crisis JLA recon, which irked me.
And this really bugs me. As silly as some might find the TV Wonder Woman, one point they hammered home was the idea that women didn't need to enter petty competition. It was beneath them. The PI girls fought to be the one to go as Wonder Woman, but when Diana was chosen, everyone was cool, happy, and proud of her. Here, Diana is obsessed with being cool, and number one. When did she get that vain.

Still, even taking that into account, the plot was a stock plot (And the art seemed rushed. Drew Johnson is better than this) and the characters were too far off-base to make up for that. Diana's still supposed to be savvier, Tom's supposed to be more competent. This is a fresh off the boat story for an entrenched character.

And, KKGlinka has summed it all up beautifully.
So, the Gods sent you to protect humans. Was the clause about pretending to be one a requirement written in invisible ink? Maybe you need to wear rose-colored glasses to see it?

Subtle, huh? Rose-tinted glasses = self-delusion.

Gawd, excuse me, I had to pry a sledge-hammer out from between my eyes. The Wonder Woman milkshake has been discontinued. Did you hear that? This book is "going in a new direction". No more escapist power fantasy for you girls! No more! A real heroic woman holds down a day job and puts up with annoying coworkers. (Or has a baby and obsesses with being a good mommy except when she seems to completely forget).

Oh, never mind, there goes the realism right out the window. I've worked at a theme park. You know how often roller-coasters suddenly break? Never. They jam. They stop. They hang people upside down. For hours and some of those people puke. The maintenance crew comes and frees them. Management issues them comp tickets after they finish screaming at the PR folks (I was one of them). You know why roller coasters don't break like that? Because manslaughter charges are financially inconvenient so the tracks are inspected every day.

Anyway, the appearing/disappearing thing doesn't bother me much because I watched Lynda Carter faithfully. I consider "Diana Prince" to be a glamour, and magic tricks like turning into WW, and no one noticing you're the same person, are acceptable. But only because of that TV show run run run ching ching ching smile Wonder Woman! Get it? If I weren't coming from that background, I would be all like WTF how can anyone not notice? And how come Batman and Superman are allowed to have special vehicles and Diana can't have her invisible plane? Sure she doesn't need one, but have you ever tried to drive in a large city? Batman shouldn't have a car; he should have a jet pack. It's not about logical need; it's about status.

"Maybe this ie what I was born for. To protect them... not to understand them."

Dear Diana, please see page one when you recounted what the Gods sent you do to. I know it's very hard for you to remember things, being female and all that, but you see to be confusing an Earth2 version of yourself with the Gods. Incidentally, I'm pretty sure GranmaWoman was acting as a mouthpiece for Editorial, so it's not entirely your fault your character is being yanked in opposite directions.

Dear Picoult, please do not cite comic book sales statistics in the middle of a fictional story. The sledgehammer hurts. The preaching and justifying is not very subtle. I don't like it when Pfeifer uses his characters as mouthpieces and I think it's just as clunky here. Your creative fiction professors would have smacked you.

Oh, Diana, you went blind didn't you? See all those billboards with the three rows of numbers on them? They occur every few blocks in many cities, every few miles in less urban areas and sometimes twenty miles apart in rural areas. They are called gas station price signs. I learned how to read them when I was very little. Either that or you are one dumb bint. BTW, we have credit cards in New Hampshire, too.

Oh. My. God. She doesn't know how to insert tab A into slot B and depress the obvious lever? She doesn't understand basic mechanics?! OMG, what a fucking moron. That's the only explanation there because even I know Diana's lived in western human society for quite some time now. Somehow, she managed to only just notice our society is built upon economic and material stock-piling? Ahahahahahaha! That's part of the American Stereotype, it's so well known (along with being fat).

Dear Picoult, you seem to be laboring under the delusion this comic will be read by elementary school children. FYI, the average comic costs $2.99. The average parent will not pay that for such a meager entertainment product. I couldn't pay that until I was well into my teens. Please learn some more about social economics.

The government "hand-wavey" gesture wants to bring WW in for questioning even though the World Court already cleared her. Uh huh. I work for a government agency. We don't do nothin' without orders on paper, in triplicate, carefully refined by several layers of bureaucracy. If it doesn't make sense to the writer, it probably just plain don't make sense. The government often appreciates when third parties take care of internal problems, whether through deliberation or accident. Because "taking care of its own" often requires tedious paperwork that leaves behind a trail. Dear readers, please do not question the logic of this plot device.

I'm gonna assume Diana keeps repeating her identity and job description because she has memory problems and not because Picoult wants us to see how slow in the head she is. Oh, and blond guy? She talks like a lot of people I know. Mostly people who don't want to deal with their problems and dwell in idealist fantasy, but all the same... why is he giving her a speech the experienced Ambassador of Themiscryea probably gave herself?

Ooookkkaaayyyy.... So that's 90's Selina dressed up in a Wonder Woman costume, right? Okay, whew, that was Circe. I also read up about Nemesis and I think he's playing dumb as a way to help Diana. Although, with as stupid as she's being, maybe Picoult considers him a generic dumb blond guy. (Hey, Diana and Selina can compare notes!)

Dear Wonder Woman, I know teenagers smarter and more experienced than you. And I don't mean just the odd one here or there. In fact, I know immigrant teenagers, who barely speak English, smarter and more experienced than you.

Dear Picoult, Diana is not five years old and from a third world country. Please to not be writing so stupid. It makes me think you're ignorant, lazy at background research, or both, and then I crack linguistics jokes which makes everything worse. I gotta say, DC really sucks at "smart women", except for Gail Simone but that's obvious.

Maybe she is written too perfect. She could use some emotional mark. But, darn, she has been a great character, dedicated, opiniionated, and focused on a goal.

She can be a powerful, a role model, and a figure that girls can be in awe of...

She really can be a wonder. Especially, if writers aren't lazy, or treat the character as a joke or a goof for them.

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