Crown on the Ground / Falling in Love is Hard on the Knees

No matter what you see on social media as a story progresses, there’s nothing people love more than the agonizing pace of a good old slow burn romance. Xena and Gabrielle, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, Korra and Asami. I mean, if we’re being honest, Korrasami hardly counts, given that the other two really have been going since OJ wore Isotoners but I digress. This week I’m going to tell you a love story full of chance encounters, recriminations, and a third act reunion engineered by a wacky sidekick. It’s the story of how I fell in love with Wonder Woman.

Just like any good romance it started out with one party being considerably chilly towards the other, outright tsundere even. Shockingly enough, that was me. For a long time, I just plain didn’t see her appeal. The general idea, the only daughter of a society of immortal women with little to no use for men, is aces, but it rarely seems to spark for what are, for the most part, pretty obvious reasons. Wonder Woman has been used pretty consistently as the measuring stick for womanhood in the DCU for years, occupying a kind of rock star status with practically every other female superhero. The result, for a long time, has been a remote and sexless character, evoking far too much of the notion she was made from clay.

On the flip side, the only truly iconic work on the character is her Golden Age appearances, which, for the most part have been written off as the product of quackery and as Morrison himself put it following Final Crisis, “an uneasy melange of girl power, bondage and disturbed sexuality,” which is one of the more generous takes you’re going to get on William Moulton Marston. Internet snark and clickbait being what it is, the talking points rarely get further than Wonder Woman used to get tied up and isn’t that weird and creepy.

The first Wonder Woman story I can remember giving me the impression that Wonder Woman was a character who had an appeal and staying power beyond the odd story was The Hiketeia, the appeal of which speaks for itself. After all who doesn’t want to see Diana put her foot on Bruce’s face? Beyond that, it still stands as offering the cleanest and clearest entry point into Diana as a character and what ought to set her apart from the pack. The Hiketeia, roughly speaking, is a story about Diana granting asylum within the Themysciran embassy to a woman on the run from Batman for murder. It sure has its rough patches, but the take home message is that Diana is driven by compassion and puts her duty to protect the vulnerable, and women in particular, above secular law and her relationship with Batman and Superman.

Hiketeia is a rite of supplication that is more or less reflective of its usage in ancient Greek culture, but it’s fundamentally deployed as a stealthy way to massage the values behind Marston’s conception of “loving submission” back into the character without using the bondage play directly. Separated from the contentious imagery of the Golden Age stories, what becomes clear is that Diana was given the opportunity to represent a counterpoint and an alternative to the violence and adherence to a punitive model of justice that’s more or less a staple of superhero comics.

There isn’t really a discussion about how much Diana trusts in the American criminal justice system, as she grants asylum to Danielle before knowing precisely what she’s on the run from, but she also isn’t there to render judgement and only hears Danielle out at her insistence, wrapping herself in Diana’s lasso to prove herself. Moreover, Batman is portrayed as being an unrelenting and unfeeling agent of punitive justice more than willing to attempt to break international law by invading the embassy and attempt to exploit Diana’s nature just to get Danielle. It’s one of the stories that most truly reflects how the fundamental nature of the DCU, as I expounded on last week, revolves around a given hero’s relationship with the ideals they represent and Rucka wisely frames that as pushing Diana’s compassion and stewardship to its limits against Bruce’s relentless drive for what he calls justice.

The Hiketeia stands out as a rare exception though, and more often than not, Diana ends up embodying a bad and unexamined compromise, jailing and punishing the women who step too far out of line. Which is where the second act of our love story, marked by the typical misunderstandings and recriminations, begins. As laudable as Rucka’s run is for reconfiguring the basic tenets of Marston’s vision to match the tone of the era and enact a very literal greek tragedy using the institutions of government and criminal justice as stand ins for the gods in the same year that The Wire debuted (David Simon is famous for using that description for his conception of the show), there remains significant latter day baggage that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t address.

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In the debut issue of his run, Diana has a very busy day that includes running the embassy, announcing her forthcoming memoir, and single handedly deposing an African dictator that she intends to bring to justice through the United Nations. That last bit was the head scratcher for me. It’s been a constant refrain since her inception that Wonder Woman is a card carrying feminist, but the question that so rarely gets asked is just whose feminism is Diana meant to be reflecting?

The shipping date was October 2003, directly following the initial invasion of Iraq, a very politically loud time to be having a superhero whose costume (regardless of her fictional citizenship) is essentially an American flag bathing suit flying into an African country for a quick regime change before lunch. It would be incorrect to label the storyline as a manifestation of the Bush doctrine, instead hewing much more closely to Clinton era interventions in Somalia and Kosovo. It was by no means an unpopular or unprecedented idea at DC at the time.

The year before, a Birds of Prey issue penned by Chuck Dixon related Power Girl’s account of a failed rescue mission in a fictional Middle Eastern country that lead to her falling out with Oracle, and a year later Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee would send Superman to intervene in another fictional Middle Eastern country’s civil war. But why Wonder Woman? Why set up an embassy in the United States and pointedly ignore pressing domestic issues to use Diana as an instrument of neo liberal American foreign policy? There’s plenty more to recommend those issues, but it didn’t sit right with me then, and it doesn’t sit right with me now, especially with the legacy of Clinton’s crime bill and the looming spectre of the superpredator myth featuring prominently in the current election cycle.

Ironically, it was a period of intense excitement for the Wonder Woman comics that saw me hit my nadir with Diana herself during the short lived and ill fated collaboration between Allan Heinberg, Terry, and Rachel Dodson. Taking place a year following Infinite Crisis, it begins with Diana having stepped away from her role as Wonder Woman after the public outcry over her killing Maxwell Lord. Despite the convoluted nature of that series of events and the fact that Lord was later determined to have been a robot, it opened up the question of Diana’s position on killing after she’d proved to be both willing and capable of doing intentionally. It remained a key topic of the arc as Circe absorbed the powers of the remaining Olympian based heroes, empowered Diana’s foes, and declared herself Wonder Woman.

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We’re told that in her first day on the job, Circe liberated over two thousand women from situations ranging from abusive relationships to human trafficking, killing any man who got in her way. It definitely showed up Diana’s record of a single dictator on her first day as Themysciran ambassador under Rucka and was a far cry from “loving submission” in practice, but it had the potential to open up a valuable dialogue on the place of strategic violence in feminism and reframe Circe as The Punisher to Diana’s Daredevil. Circe’s argument was more or less that Diana was ineffective and wasn’t going far enough to stop the exploitation of women in the mortal world.

Circe presents a particularly interesting case as a foil for Wonder Woman because she, both within the DCU and her origins in Greek mythology, has very legitimate grievances with men that are more or less on par with Hippolyta’s. While in the real world massive retaliatory violence is problematic for a lot of reasons, it’s a moral question well worth asking in a fictional setting, especially one starring a feminist superhero.

Reclaiming the scorned and wronged women of history and myth as a form of empowerment is a pretty normalized activity within feminism whether it’s an oppositional reading of Lilith or reproducing Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes to depict Kesha severing Dr. Luke’s head, so there’s plenty of reason to expect sympathy for Circe’s perspective, especially when she whips Diana into enough of a frenzy that she very nearly murders Hercules after being reminded that he raped and attempted to enslave her mother. Circe stops her from following through, claiming his punishment is hers to enact, but Diana can never seem to muster an adequate counterpoint. Ostensibly, the intent was to bring out a moral crisis in Diana that would be later resolved, but due to the abbreviated nature of the arc, the issue was never adequately resolved.

It’s disappointing for a number of reasons, not least the fact that Circe’s stated rhetoric comes close to mirroring that of controversial radical feminist Andrea Dworkin as laid out in Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women’s Liberation, the source of her infamous quote about women needing land and guns. Dworkin stated emphatically that “One needs to target individual men who commit crimes against women and institutions that objectify, demean, and hurt women: using either violence or nonviolence. Indiscriminate violence is never justified: there are always innocents.” In the same passage, Dworkin asserted that women ought to have the right to kill any man that harms her or children as well as seize any property on which she’s been violated. Dworkin was by no means a person who believed in anything remotely resembling an inclusive or compassionate feminism. She called for a distinctly Spartan form of womanhood that vilified conventionally feminine women and reserved particularly violent rhetoric for trans women. In her frequently disturbing use of the state of Israel as a model for an end goal for feminism, the fever dream of every alarmist conception of Themyscira as a militant state intent on subjugating men can easily be found, and so a proper reckoning with that kind of ideology would have been particularly welcome fodder for a Wonder Woman story, but that never materialized.

The collapse of the Heinberg/Dodson arc that left Circe’s position without proper examination beyond the flimsy reasoning that she was a villain and therefore wrong seemed to signal to me that The Hiketeia was little more than a fluke and it was time to wash my hands of the idea that Wonder Woman could be anything more than an inoffensive adventure title at best. Was it too much to ask of a corporate controlled superhero? Was I naive and allowed myself to forget that corporations will never love me back? Maybe so, but things are more fun when you allow them some emotional investment and my cautionary advice is to keep one foot out the door and an overnight bag packed at all times.

What about the Simone run, is of course the question left hanging, to which I can only respond “What about it?” It’s a fine run with many fantastic stories in it, but by then I had both feet out the door and was reading it while waiting for the taxi to pick me up (we didn’t have Uber back then). When Simone was announced on the title and was asked the usual questions about Diana navigating her engagement with “Man’s World,” her glib reply was that she wouldn’t be doing any of that, promising instead to begin with Diana punching a gorilla off a waterfall. Which, bless her heart, she did. There was, of course, one last heartbreak to deliver though. Shortly after leaving the title, Simone revealed that she’d requested permission to have Diana’s mother Hippolyta marry one of her royal guard at the conclusion of The Circle, and had it denied. (It’s particularly interesting to note here that while Simone delivered a memorable and fantastic body of work on Wonder Woman despite it coming at a time when everything seemed written in sand and liable to blow away at a moment’s notice, she went on to utterly transform Red Sonja and practically stage a coup of Dynamite’s major female lead properties not long after.)

That was the point at which Grant Morrison weighed in on the topic, professing admiration for Simone’s work as a qualifier before laying out his profound discomfort with Wonder Woman, the discomfort that lead to the genesis of Wonder Woman: Earth One. Which brings us to the sorrowful end of the second act, and the audience likely drowning in a volume of snot and tears equivalent to that shed by Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue is The Warmest Color, but despair not, redemption awaits! I promised the intervention of an unlikely sidekick in the third act to reunite our starcrossed lovers, and she’s about as unlikely an agent of reconciliation as you could imagine.

Hilariously, it’s been Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s work on Harley Quinn that has done the most to evoke the spirit of William Moulton Marston in recent years, perhaps even supplanting Wonder Woman: Earth One in that regard. While it wasn’t apparent until well over a year into their current run, Harley seems to have been built up as a kind of funhouse mirror for Diana by reconnecting her with her original vocation of psychiatry and bringing out the BDSM subtext of her on-again off-again relationship with The Joker. The worldview that Marston projected onto Wonder Woman with the bondage play was in service to his position that society would be better off in control of women, achieved by a state of loving submission that nonetheless required the same care and discretion that any healthy dom/sub relationship, (a dynamic clearly analogized in The Hiketeia).

Harley Quinn, being a submissive trapped in a cycle of abuse, would have made the perfect fodder for a Golden Age Wonder Woman story. In one particularly relevant instance, Diana liberated a group of young women from a Nazi tormentor then, as a method of recovery, shipped them off to Themyscira where they were assigned an Amazon dominatrix as a replacement they eagerly accepted. Unfortunately, Diana kicking The Joker to the curb and bending Harley over her knee wouldn’t pass muster by contemporary storytelling standards, but I’m sure there’s plenty of fanfic out there to indulge the impulse.

Instead, Conner and Palmiotti began building up the prominent usage of BDSM imagery and practice throughout the comic, and in some cases use Harley to tell their own version of Golden Age Wonder Woman stories. In the first arc gathering together the gang of Harleys, they hunted down a reimagined Captain Strong, who had become addicted to  psychoactive seaweed granting him superhuman strength. Once Harley finally subdued him, she tied him up naked in a pretty clear bondage configuration and switched over into Dr. Quinzel mode, identifying herself as a doctor who was there to help him come down off the algae, offering him compassion and treatment instead of incarceration.

Two issues later Harley is sent to the west coast to hunt down a young woman who faked her own kidnapping to extort a ransom fee from her mother to pay off her escalating drug debts. After twists and turns worthy of True Romance and an incident in which Harley tries to hire a sex worker cosplaying Wonder Woman, she again subdues her target, tying the prodigal daughter to a chair complete with ball gag. Again, Harley flips that same mental switch and moves into therapist mode, guiding the girl’s mother through the next steps in her recovery and rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration.

Reading the Conner-Palmiotti Harley Quinn as a darkly comic take on the spirit of Marston’s Wonder Woman stopped being a matter of speculation and became an acknowledged part of her character shortly thereafter in Harley Quinn’s Little Black Bookrevealing a childhood obsession with Diana that inspired her to make her first foray into questionable vigilante behavior on the playground in a Wonder Woman costume.

But Harley’s interest in Diana is pretty clearly characterized as going well beyond a childhood crush to a full on and unmistakably romantic attraction, completely transforming the usual kind of hero worship that other female heroes in the DCU usually have for Diana. Such as it is, Diana hasn’t projected anything more than casual annoyance and patient indulgence, but even so, just as the hypothesized Golden Age solution to Harley’s issues with The Joker, the encounter ends in Diana flying off with Harley over her shoulder. It would be criminal not to imagine the pairing of superhero fiction’s most notable dominatrix and submissive and there sure is a burgeoning demand for fanart to that effect stirred up by the overt BDSM coding of Harley Quinn in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie.

In the face of all this Wonder Woman: Earth One is hardly a panacea, nor is it utterly unprecedented for a desire to reconcile and recontextualize the Marston material for a contemporary audience, but it is the most ambitious and far reaching attempt to do that and reconcile a good many of the other issues brought up along the way.

The most inarguable and valuable thing that Morrison and Yanick Paquette deliver in Wonder Woman: Earth One is to demilitarize the image of the Amazons, bathing them in an art deco sensuousness worthy of Alphonse Mucha. After submerging myself in a decade and a half’s worth of comics and feelings, my fiercely held belief that Amazons who present themselves as being primarily war like is dreary and superfluous at best, dangerously anti-feminist at worst. There’s a lot of truth to Marston’s assessment that comics, and society at large, is drowning in “bloodcurdling masculinity,” and I’ll gladly raise a glass to Beth/Etta Candy’s statement that “science fiction lesbians with a side of bondage,” is a pretty great counterpoint to that state of affairs.

A particularly subtle part of how Morrison rebukes the more violent and warlike constructions of the Amazons typified by the Azzarello/Chiang run and the resulting bloodbath in Meredith and David Finch’s work that followed is the blink-and-you-miss-it reference to the fact that Hippolyta and Diana live in the specifically Athenian city on Amazonia, with Donna Troy, Artemis, and Cheetah traveling from Amazonia’s Sparta for the festival that kicks off the story. While WWEO was well under way by the time any of these stories were published, there’s a particularly welcome reminder that Diana is named after the goddess of the hunt, showing that the idea of her becoming the god of war, in the sense of Ares, is beyond ridiculous and reduces her down to a fragment of her full personality and values.

Etta Candy, referred to as Beth in WWEO owing to the inspiration for her characterization coming from Beth Ditto is a particular delight and a central part of any honest reading of the comic. I’ve gone into depth elsewhere about her physical presence on the page and how she frequently acts as a viewpoint character for the audience, but she also works through the strengths and weaknesses in the fantasy that Hippolyta has constructed for herself on Amazonia. While holding the golden rope that compels her to tell the truth while testifying in front of the Fates, Beth is compelled to overshare, resulting in the foregrounding of her own queerness and how her queer female gaze is enacted on Amazonia.

It’s no accident that Morrison chose an outspoken queer body positivity activist as the model for Candy. It puts her in a position to revel in the obvious attraction that Amazonia holds for her and her enthusiastic participation in Diana’s play, but she also acts as a counterbalance to Hippolyta’s heavy handed, second wave inflected rhetoric and the prejudices of the Amazons themselves. The shortcomings in Hippolyta’s ideology are clearly the result of tremendous pain, as alluded to in the opening sequence where she struggles with Hercules to regain her girdle and free the Amazons, but Candy is rightly merciless in calling them out.

It’s Candy who validates Diana’s feelings of being stifled by the limitations of Amazonia, refuses to allow Hippolyta to erase her and her feminist ideals by referring to the world outside as “Man’s World,” and defends Diana’s agency against Hippolyta’s charge that she was compelled to act by Steve Trevor. There’s an emotional honesty and vitality to the debate between Candy and Hippolyta that unfolds across their testimony calling to mind the fiery confrontations between second wave radical feminists and third wave Riot Grrls. Every time I come back to the sequence where Candy is upbraiding Hippolyta my mind just immediately goes to Kathleen Hanna, in an interview from 1995 giving an account of a confrontation she had with Andrea Dworkin primarily about how dismissive Dworkin was about sex worker rights and Dworkin’s support of carceral feminism. Candy and Hippolyta aren’t discussing these issues directly, but their word choices and how they frame the issues in play ring true to the spirit of it, and that kind of hashing out of feminist ideologies across generations is exactly the kind of thing that I never thought I’d live to see directly on the page in a Wonder Woman comic. It’s astounding, especially given that Morrison began studying feminism precisely for WWEO. If there is a follow up down the line, hopefully their further interactions will be more reminiscent of Hanna and Gloria Steinem’s joint interview.

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By far the most radical thing that WWEO does for the Wonder Woman canon is re-establish the intrinsic queerness of the Amazons. Etta Candy immediately identifying herself as bisexual and enacting a critical gaze on Amazonia is, in and of itself, an unexpected delight, but it’s barely the tip of the iceberg. What seems to have completely disappeared in the discussion around the yonic architecture, bondage, and sensuous posing is that Amazonia is a population of queer women. An argument could be made for how Morrison and Paquette’s male gaze complicate or problematize that construction, but it’s absolutely critical that it doesn’t reduce or erase said queerness.

It’s important to note the distinction in using queerness as opposed to summing it up as same gender attraction. What Hippolyta has constructed on Amazonia in WWEO, and what Marston and his collaborators achieved with their original conception of Themyscira is a society, customs, and culture built to resist and subvert patriarchal norms in what could accurately be described as an act of queer nationalism. It’s been my contention for some time that a queer reading of the X-Men constitutes a similar result, particularly as manifested by the Morlocks, Genosha, Asteroid M, and Utopia, so it really came as a shocking surprise that I’d never honestly contemplated it for Themyscira before immersing myself in WWEO. It’s probably more of a testament to the lengths that successive writers and editors have gone to in order to erase or diminish the fundamental queerness of the Golden Age conception than anything else.

Seeing a queer version of Diana in specific was never really anything I’d ever hoped for before either. My understanding of the character was so dislocated from the Marston version and informed for so long by a seemingly sexless construction that I’d never really thought about it seriously as something that could happen. In hindsight itès kind of a ludicrous expectation that she would be straight or have the same amorphous sexlessness that couldn’t be honestly construed as an intentional depiction of asexuality after having seen how sexually charged the artwork would be, but again, I suppose it’s a reflection of just how much resistance there is to any kind of queer reading in contemporary pop culture. It’s not particularly subtle either, as Diana is frequently the agent for inviting a voyeuristic gaze into Amazonia and there are pretty explicit statements about her relationship with Mala throughout, but really, as much as we joke with memes like “just gals being pals,” there’s an insidious history of burying queer subtext intended to make us question ourselves like this. I’m pretty sure Chuck Dixon occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night screaming about the Pieta to this day.

So it hit me like a ton of bricks when Diana tells Steve Trevor that Mala is her lover. Just full on started crying as I went from being completely dumbfounded that this was allowed to remembering that it’s always been true, we just don’t talk about, we don’t claim her as such. I’m sure it’s been asserted somewhere, by someone, but it’s never been a part of a sustained conversation I can remember being a part of. My presumption is that it just gets thrown out at the presumption of prurient male interest on Marston’s part, if the era is investigated honestly at all.

LBGTQIA comics readers are at a point where we think nothing of invoking statements of intent by Fabian Nicieza, Gail Simone, and other Deadpool writers to validate Wade’s queer identity or bolstering similar claims from Hercules writers with citations from mythology as a counter argument to industry figures up to and including Marvel’s current EIC. William Moulton Marston’s perspective on female queerness is well known and the comics speak for themselves. It ought to be a popularly, if not universally, held notion that Wonder Woman is queer whether or not a given narrative chooses to portray her as such.

It took roughly fifteen years worth of comics and a whole lot of setbacks and frustrations along the way, but I can finally say I’ve arrived at a coherent vision of Wonder Woman that makes sense and appeals to me. She doesn’t belong to any one creative team, but somewhere in the space between several. My Diana is playful, loving, queer, compassionate to a fault, never starts a fight but always finishes one. Now that I’ve found her, I’d love to see her again, but if I don’t, I’ve already got a bag packed and one foot out the door.

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2 comments

  1. This is amazing. Thank you for writing it. I’ve always felt there was something “beyond” the general illustrations of Wonder Woman in most media. Like the version we get is only really the “tip of the iceberg” (if you’ll pardon the cliché) and it’s been great these last few years to really see people clamouring to see the rest. You can get away with just doing the basics in something like the Justice League animated series, but her solo book really should be where her true character shines through. Hopefully the new Rebirth volume with Rucka will dive in deep.

    BTW, in case you hadn’t heard by now, WWEO is supposed to continue with TWO more volumes from the same team, so there’s somethig to look forward to!

    Like

  2. This is so great. It has everything I ever wanted to articulate about Wonder Woman Earth One. Diana has some great books out right now- the main title, Legend of WW, the Jill Thompson book. But WWEO is unquestionably the best one to me, the best portrayal of Amazon society, the best Etta Candy, the best & queerest Diana who loves yet questions those around her. WWEO really made me fall in love with her.

    Like

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