Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Wonder Woman and origin(al) sin

Every day, people come up to me on the street and ask the same question: 'I know Superman came to Earth in a rocketship and Batman saw his parents shot, but what's the origin of Wonder Woman?'

In the past, I've explained that she was a clay baby given life by the gods after her Amazon queen mother prayed for a child. The questioner looks blank, and tells me they just don't understand a word I've said, and therefore can never, ever try a Wonder Woman comic.

With the coming of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang's version of the Amazon, I can tell them: 'Daughter of a god.' Immediately, they subscribe.

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Why am I making this rubbish up? Because of the interview that the writer and artist of the relaunched Wonder Woman gave to Hero Complex this week. In it, they explain why Wonder Woman's origin - the same since 1941 - has been changed:

Azzarello says: 'We’re kind of forging our own trail right now. We’ve cleaned her up. You can describe who she is now. She’s got the specific description now just like Batman or Superman. She’s the daughter of a god. It’s weird, through the years people don’t have a strong grasp of her. In the general popular culture, she’s huge, not that anybody really knows anything about her. I’ve asked people –what do you know about Wonder Woman and they say, ‘The Amazon, right?’ And that’s about as far as it goes. They don’t know what her origin is. The idea of the character is bigger than the character herself. She’s recognizable but not known. And when that happens they go to the side stuff, they talk about [the accessories] like the lasso and the bracelets.'

Right. The one thing stopping Diana winning the hearts and minds of non-comics readers is the fact that they don't know her origin. How about this for a radical thought - try telling them it. 
Worried that they may think the clay baby bit a tad silly? It's no sillier than an ordinary man dressed as a bat who takes serious blows every night of his life and doesn't wind up in a wheelchair after a month. Or a hero who goes maskless but isn't recognised by the reporters he gives interviews to regularly.

Or Marvel's legion of irradiated humans who gain powers rather than die horribly. Or talking ducks with girlfriends. Fantasising beagles.

Let's not underestimate the willingness of the public to go along with an idea if there's something compelling to grab on to. And with Batman, Superman, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Donald Duck and Snoopy, there's a great visual and there are compelling stories.

Wonder Woman has the great visual. Certainly, the traditional star-spangled 'bathing costume' look is a mite outlandish outside of the comic strip context, but it's memorable. And Lynda Carter showed, in the Seventies live action TV show, that it can work on an actual human being. I don't recall the programme suffering in popularity because it didn't decide that Diana was the daughter of a god. She was a magic Amazon - it's loony, but delightfully so, and certainly no loonier than anything else. 

No one is confused by Diana's origin. Comic readers know it. Non-comic readers who don't ... can you actually be confused by a knowledge vacuum? Surely it's bonkers to care about people not having information they'll never need? Somehow, I get by without knowing how to re-inflate a hot air balloon, or the GDP of Peru. What does it matter if people who aren't comic readers don't know the ins and outs of Wonder Woman's background? If they're interested, they can look the origin up online in ten seconds flat. 

'The Amazon, right?' That's really all you have to know about Wonder Woman to begin reading her adventures. Newcomers will learn the origin as soon as it's relevant to the story. It's up to Azzarello and Chiang to make the stories rip-roaring and original enough to keep new readers around long enough to learn.

If not knowing really is stopping anyone reading a Wonder Woman comic, DC have the perfect entry point - The Circle storyline by Gail Simone, Terry and Rachel Dodson, handily collected in an affordable package. It takes the clay baby anecdote and expands it into a dark, compelling look at the Amazons of Wonder Woman's homeland, Themiscyra. It's a superbly scripted, beautifully drawn tale of passion - Queen Hippolyte's desire for a child, and the jealousy felt by some Amazons at Diana's existence - and good old superheroics.

I recommend it wholeheartedly. I don't, though, think it's a vital read. The person in the street isn't itching to know Diana's back story - they know as much about her as they do about Batman and Superman. She's an Amazon who comes to America to fight for peace. There you have it, in a single line. The concept has been presented in the aforementioned live action TV show, years worth of Justice League cartoons, a recent full-length animation and, more importantly, thousands of comic book stories. Anyone who reads US comics knows Diana, princess of the Amazons, we've grown up with her. Little boys may snub her title, but they definitely recognise her; how else would they know she's (eurgh!) soppy?

As for '... they go to the side stuff, they talk about [the accessories] like the lasso and the bracelets' - well, a magic lariat and bullet-deflecting bracelets are indeed part of Diana's bag of tricks. What's actually wrong with that? They're unique, they're cool. 

The genie is out of the bottle. Azzarello and Chiang have already put the idea that Diana is the daughter of Zeus out there, in their eminently readable Wonder Woman revamp. Can we expect DC to fund a massive ad campaign telling the world, hey, she's a demigod, it's safe to read her book? Because otherwise, the average person's perception of Diana isn't going to change one jot.

I'm actually fine with the demigod bit, it's a tweak that could bring some fascinating stories. And it's a change that decades of comics reading tell me will be gone within a few years - in superhero lore, the classic version always comes back. Always. So make your change, and I'll give it a chance.

But don't tell me it's necessary.

16 comments:

  1. while at NYCC, a friend went to the New DC panel while i went to a writers' panel. he came back a bit miffed about his experience, and said that azzarello told the audience that if they didn't like diana's new origin, they were certainly welcome not to buy the book. i guess he's not handling flak as gracefully as gail simone might.

    i'm enjoying the new run on wonder woman (much better than jodi picoult's "moron in a strange land" diana; far less accomplished than gail simone's take), though having diana as one of zeus' bastards makes her pretty common. zeus never saw a piece of mortal ass he didn't want, and from the stories his sperm never met an ovum they couldn't penetrate. of course strife could be lying because that would cause... well, strife. she'd hardly be doing her job otherwise.

    also, i'm not a fan of the iron age amazons. there's no elegance to them, no philosophy, no columns... i'm on board for now.

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  2. I think part of the problem of WW's origin is that it's a weak origin. Being made of clay doesn't and given powers from goddesses doesn't create any connection with the audience. Granted, being the daughter of Zeus might not create much of an emotional connection either but it helps to set up why she would have conflicts with the gods more. They are her family now too.

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  3. I’m willing to give the new origin a try, too. The one thing about Diana’s made-of-clay origin that falls short of Superman’s and Batman’s origins is that it doesn’t seem to inform the character as much as theirs do. She’s an Amazon, and that is crucial to the character, but until The Circle, I’ve never gotten the sense that that clay origin was ever crucial to the stories that take place in the present. (The Circle was so revelatory to me because it actually used the potential in that story for once.)

    With the Zeus origin, I think there are some richer story veins to mine. Family is expansive, and the relationships are complex in a way that doesn’t necessarily involve recounting all their history together. It’s not at all that I think “daughter of Zeus” makes Diana more relatable than “made of clay.” But I do think it potentially makes her relationships more relatable, going forward.

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  4. I love this post. I doubly-love your opening paragraph.

    I feel... nothing about the change to her origin. It didn't excite me, it didn't intrigue me. It didn't even upset me. I just wasn't bothered.

    Which is the worst response a writer can have, I would think.

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  5. Of course I have to comment. Great column! Except that I don't accept the current take on the origin or the current take (that we've seen so far) on what they're calling "Wonder Woman."

    I'm not a big fan of Xena in any form.

    Wonder Woman is unique, and an important (though backstory) part of her is her male-less origin. But even if Diana were the immaculate daughter of Athena I wouldn't approve.

    Classic Wondie (which we haven't seen in quite a while) was not only made from clay, but had to WORK HARD to get her powers through Amazon Training, a feat anyone (even a kid reading a comic book) can start to do if they work hard enough.

    Is that cool or what?

    And of course since Diana comes from a peace-loving, sane, powerful, creative, etc. civilization (which we haven't seen much hint of since Vol. 2), her mission to bring with her such sanity that cuts at the very edge of society in order to help a mad world get on its collective feet—well, that just seems quite logical, exciting and even inspirational to me.

    It's much more valid than dressing up like a bat. I mean, how silly is that? And the guy uses goofy batarangs and bat-ropes and bat-planes and has a Batcave. Sheesh. He won't last for long. Someone reboot the guy before he brings all of DC's sales down!

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  6. ' ... having Diana as one of zeus' bastards makes her pretty common' That made me laugh, foresightreviews. Thanks, too, for passing on your pal's experience, it's interesting to hear how someone comes across in person as opposed to in 'print'.

    Perhaps the Amazons have some columns and temples on the other side of the island ...

    Marvelboy, I don't see a need to connect with a hero via the first thing we know about them. It's the personalities and relationships that we see as time goes on that I'm interested in. I like the clay baby business because it's unique, it makes me think 'wow!'

    Family is certainly relatable, Rob - but these characters are actual gods. If Azzarello presents them as being 'just like us', what's the point of them? I'd rather see Diana having a range of relationships with her Amazon sisters, friends, co-workers and the like.

    Sounds like DC has worn you down with the constant upending of Diana's life, David. I got to that point during the Rucka run, but the blast of superhero colour provided by the Heinberg/Dodsons restart cheered me up. Right now, I'm just looking at this as another two-year wonder.

    Before it ends, though, we have Grant Morrison's take to look forward to. If he can bring us some of the classic sense of wonder he put into All-Star Superman, we're in for a treat.

    And one thing I really expect to see there is the importance of Amazon training. You're right, Carol, it's important to the legend of Wonder Woman. 'Daughter of Zeus' makes things too easy (and besides, Cassie Sandsmark has worn that particular tee shirt).

    The mission should also be a given, I hope the opening story gives us some idea as to Diana's motivations. It has to be more than 'protecting Man from gods'. Surely other heroes are doing that too?

    Thanks for the comments, everyone - I really appreciate hearing your views.

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  7. Hey Mart,

    Regarding family versus other relationships: I don't think Diana being the daughter of Zeus precludes her having any of the relationships you mention. (The practicalities of limited story space might, though.) I have a family, and still manage to have relationships with friends, co-workers, and whatever the equivalent of my Amazon sisters are.

    I'm not sure if Azz & Chiang will make the gods "just like us" -- I certainly hope not, and I don't necessarily see signs of them doing that. But I think they'll make them a *little* more like us, which for me, at least, is a good thing. I don't understand why Diana would worship beings who consistently reveal themselves to be petty, immature and fickle. (IIRC, even patrons like Aphrodite and Athena have turned their backs on her at times in the past.) But I can totally understand how she wouldn't be able to extricate herself from a family of such beings.

    Anyway, I think it's worth a try. If it doesn't work (and maybe even if it does), things will likely shift back in the future, like you said.

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  8. This current storyline will inevitably pass whenits novelty wears off, but for me the original Marston image will forever remain as the only true origin. Successive rewrites and reboots only serve to water down the character.

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  9. Rob S better states what I've thought about. I never understood why Diana made the Greek gods problems her own or why it would be in her interest to cross her own deities.

    I think the daughter of Zeus angle can explain a lot of WW history. Why would Ares or Hades plot against Diana? Why would Diana ascend to become a goddess when she died? Why would Zeus be so taken aback if Diana renounces him.

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  10. "The one thing about Diana’s made-of-clay origin that falls short of Superman’s and Batman’s origins is that it doesn’t seem to inform the character as much as theirs do. She’s an Amazon, and that is crucial to the character, but until The Circle, I’ve never gotten the sense that that clay origin was ever crucial to the stories that take place in the present."

    For me, that's why Wonder Woman's origin is so important. It separates her from Superman and Batman. She doesn't come from a life of tragedy or loss so that creates a different perspective between the three. Not every character must be defined by their origin, but what they do. I love it how she came into being because her mother wanted a child. Diana represents tangible love!

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  11. Also, I don't like the idea of Diana having a father. All I get from that is that the writers are saying Diana is incomplete unless she has a man involved in her life, god or not.

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  12. "She's an Amazon who comes to America to fight for peace"

    I wish I could add to what you've said, or even challenge it, but the best I can do is say that I'm far more uncomfortable with the daughter of a god turn than you.

    Well, why add anything? Because it seems the best way to respect a really good piece of "editorial" comment. Instead, I'll just have to add my applause from the cheap seats. Great work :)

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  13. Karl. it's received wisdom that Marston and Peters' Diana is too 'out there' to succeed today. I'd be fascinated to see DC attempt to, not directly ape Diana's creators, but recapture their storytelling sensibilities and approach. Just once. Who knows, the world may indeed be waiting for such a Wonder Woman?

    Marvelboy, isn't a Diana who's the daughter of Zeus even MORE likely to spurn Zeus' attentions. I feel rather ill now!

    Wonderful, true point, Jeyl. Barry Allen, too, came from a happy home life, until Geoff Johns decided to pee in that particular pot. Are well-adjusted heroes who do what's right simply BECAUSE it's right so hard to believe in?

    Colin, as ever, you're madly generous, thank you. (And if anyone reading this hasn't been across to Colin's Too Busy Thinking About My Comics, give it a crack, it's your one-stop shop for thoughtful, kind comics commentary - link at right!).

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  14. I remember some reviewer in The Comics Journal back in 1986-87 lamenting the incredibly long post-Crisis Wonder Woman origin story (aka the first year or so of the Potter/Wein/Perez book) because origin stories used to be something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible.

    And I tend to agree when it comes to iconic characters -- the origin story is one of the least interesting things you can do, so get it over with and get on to the adventures. Those original one-, two- and, sometimes, eight-page origins of Superman, Batman and the like were pretty much perfect. Simplify!

    The opening of both the print version and the animated film ALL-STAR SUPERMAN was great because it gave us the origin pretty much everyone knows (Superman's, natch) in eight words and accompanying illustrations. Now that's mythic!

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  15. Too right Jonathan. Morrison's conciseness was radical, yet it seems utterly natural.

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  16. I personally would like to forget about the crappy new 52 incarnation. You know, I just like how the point was made about WW being just another bastard of Zeus making her ordinary. Nearly every darn hero from Greek myth was one of his illegitimate young. i also hate when they say she just isn't relatable or people don't understand her- her origin is pretty straight forward for the passed 75- 80 years. Many people are saying she is a golem and that Hippoltya should give birth has it's female empowerment. To me the reason why she made it out of clay should sense like when with the goddess help she couldn't have a kid by birth. SO she made it out of clay and blood.
    Many people are saying she is a golem and that Hippoltya should give birth has it's female empowerment. To me the reason why she made it out of clay should sense like when with the goddess help she couldn't have a kid by birth. SO she made it out of clay and blood.

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