More history! But also comics! In this installment of my epic (that is, possibly never-ending) series on the history of fantasy, I wanted to talk about the original Wonder Woman comics – as well as, I suppose, the relationship that comics and fantasy have had since the early days of the superhero.
Wonder Woman herself was invented by a writer named Marston, and I tell you this because he was crazy: he was a psychologist who had a wife and a live-in lover who got it on with both him and his wife. It was his lover, not his wife, who was the visual model for Wonder Woman herself – who, in the original comics, had a more movie-star appeal with coiffed hair and, well, a distinct lack of the bombastic assets usually given to female superheroes. Yeah, she was a knockout, but a fairly realistic knockout. This will require a picture, I imagine.
There she is, in all her dreamy-eyed glory. See, Marston liked the idea of superheroes but thought they were all too masculine. That is, violent. He believed a feminine touch was necessary to balance all that out, so he created Wonder Woman. And yes, all the BDSM stuff is in there. I’ve read the first year of the comics, and the lasso isn’t the only thing that ties people up, and there’s a Nazi woman who takes slaves and puts them in pretty revealing outfits before dragging them around her cave/palace in chains. Yup. That happens.
Why is this important? Well, first, to crib from Grant Morrison, when they took all that stuff out they killed the character. She’s rarely been interesting since. The new stuff with Azarello is great, and partly because, at least implicitly in the art, they gave her that sexuality back. She sleeps nude, but it’s no big deal, that’s just a thing that’s true. She has a clubbing outfit, but we don’t watch her get dressed, we just see her in it (and, uh, stab a demigod through the palm with a champagne glass). So, as a kind of review, yes, if you’re interested, you should be reading the current Wonder Woman.
But what about Marston’s stuff? Well, it’s dated. It has more text than art sometimes, and every panel is shaped the same. It overexplains, the enemies are always Nazis, and on and on. Diana’s in love with Trevor who’s in love with Wonder Woman, blah blah. However, there’s this crazy sense of the female rescuing the male – Trevor is always in distress. He is capable on his own, but because he runs intelligence operations he’s always a high priority target. She’s always rescuing him. She’s also friends with a sorority in town and they help out all the time, and always nonviolently.
That’s the most interesting part. Wonder Woman may punch Nazis, but not because she’s angry. Just to get them to stop shooting. It’s ham-fisted writing, but in her head she’s always playing “Bullets and Bracelets” whenever anyone shoots at her – an Amazonian game in which someone is fired on with a pistol and they use their bracelets to block the bullets and ricochet them into targets. Yes, A: everyone on Paradise Island can do this and B: before they meet men again they have modern revolvers. This is all a game to Wonder Woman, which ties into all the Greek mythology – the gods viewed war as a game, and so does Wonder Woman. She is healthy, free of the lust of violence that marks nearly all the male superheroes of her era. She’s enjoying herself. She doesn’t actually need a secret identity – she apparently lives for weeks, maybe months, without one when she gets to America, making money in a magic act / circus, blocking bullets. She just gets one so she can work in the building Trevor’s in.
So what, you might ask? What about the fantasy? Well, it’s integrated with Greek myth, as was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Thor a few decades later. It injects gods and such into World War II, making of the contemporary conflict a kind of Iliad. It creates a mythology for something that was happening at the time. That is wild, to me. Fantasy was layered over objective reality in such a way as to include the reality and create its own, not markedly different but suddenly meaningful. Wonder Woman, in the first year of her comics at least, never went to Germany and punched Hitler. She just stopped German aggression in America. So the war never changed; the alteration of material reality was one-directional – that is, the war could change the comic but the comic never claimed to change the war (that reminds me, I should really blog about Morrison’s Action Comics and its amazing finale sometime). But the comic still altered one’s perception of the war. This is something historical fiction has laid claim to since its inception in the works of Walter Scott: altering one’s perception of a historical period or event. But Wonder Woman (and Sensational Comics first, actually) could do that with contemporary events in something approaching real time.
And that’s one of the intertwining elements of comics and fantasy I wanted to point out: comics, particularly superhero comics, fictionalize their own contemporary world. They nearly always have. They are set now, or almost now, and in New York, or almost New York (Metropolis/Gotham – and yes, they’re both New York). The Sherlock Holmes stories did this in the Victorian era – they created a fictional space that was still our world. Not a recognizable place and time, like Middlemarch or something (even though I believe that district is fictional), but a real place. And paradoxically, that is possible by the fantasy of it all. The fictional detective stalks real London; the Superman from outer space flies in the skies of [New York] and Middle America. Wonder Woman was Marston’s attempt to take control of that kind of meta-narrative and actually psychoanalyze/prescribe to his readers. He injected something that was 1: pre-existing (through the Greek mythology) 2: markedly positive (through the lack of aggression signaled mostly but not exclusively through game-playing) and 3: in response to something markedly negative in the zero world (the war and the American response to it – i.e. the Nazis have to be stopped but not hated – and this is possible to read in a comic that uses every gross racist and insulting slur imaginable).
Well, I think I just wrote my next conference paper. Hurray?