When she’s not working, writing, or reading, Alicia is also an adrenaline junkie, a polyglot, a duathlete, a stepmom and a hiker.
New 52 Wonder Woman is a stereotype of female power that strips Wonder Woman of everything we hold dear about her. Amazing artwork is wasted on shallow, careless writing.
I’m going to preface this review by saying that I am not familiar with the entire Wonder Woman canon. I am a fan, not an expert. Women my age hold Wonder Woman in a very special place in our hearts. She is one of the first and only female role models many of us remember from girlhood.
I’ve purchased and read trade Volumes 1 and 2 of the New 52 Wonder Woman, and as a fan, I’m deeply disappointed. I’ve struggled to write this review for the last month.
When talking about it on Twitter, J Gray said, “I don’t think DC realizes how important Wonder Woman is to women.”
I think that’s the crux. She is important to me. This story is wrong, and I’m taking it personally.
Great art. Love the clothes
The best thing I can say about the series is that it’s impeccably drawn. Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins together keep the art solid and consistent. They capture the surreal nature of the Greek pantheon, whisk the action across the page, and keep the eye moving.
The battle/confrontation with Poseidon and Hades in the climax of book 1, “Blood”, is tightly-paced and great at covering the various characters’ perspectives and areas of action. The art in every sequence in the Underworld is spectacular.
Wonder Woman’s battle gear for her descent to the Underworld in book 2, “Guts”, by Chiang is precisely the right mix between functional armor and recognizable Wonder Woman gear. I want to cosplay it, and I fear I would never take it off.
I’ll also say this in the credit of the art – she’s never posed like a centerfold. Wonder Woman is presented as a warrior. Most of the females in the series skew away from the typical cheesecake displays so often seen in comics. This is nice, but in a way, it underscores my greatest complaint about the work.
Wonder Woman has been made less a powerful female character, and essentially a genderless strong character with boobs. In the effort to make her “strong” the writers have fallen victim to the “strong female character” trope, where the character has no other defining characteristics or personality.
SPOILER ALERT – Everything below this line is a spoiler. Please discontinue reading if you are sensitive to that.
Stripping Wonder Woman of her Goddess-given power
Any one of the things that happen with Wonder Woman’s origin story would be okay. I would honestly be able to nod and smile my way past one, maybe even two of them. The problem is that there isn’t just one. There is an ongoing pattern of them that together form a constellation of problems that strip Wonder Woman of everything that makes her a powerful female figure in today’s pop culture landscape.
First, Wonder Woman’s origin story has been changed (but DC does this with every reboot, I can live with that). Instead of the source of her superpowers being Hera, or the whole Greek Pantheon, she turns out to be the child of Zeus and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Instead of being imbued with powers via a goddess’s love, her powers now come from the masculine – the most masculine of the male gods, in fact. Her former patron and protector, Hera, is now the antagonist of the storyline.
I could have lived with this change if it were the only one. It fits the Greek mythos, and it’s not that big a stretch. The problem is that it’s the first of many ways that this Wonder Woman has been systematically stripped of her uniquely feminine power and support.
The next way she’s loses feminine power happens at Themyscira (Paradise Island). Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess, the chosen warrior from among a group of strong women warriors. She’s the Champion. In volume one, Azarello has Hera – in a typical fit of rage (see below) – change the Amazons into snakes and Hippolyta into stone. Hera spared Diana, but stripped her of her family. At its core, this takes away the strong network of female friends and family that Wonder Woman knew she could rely on.
This move parallels the themes of loneliness that DC has used successfully with many of its male superheroes and could have been used to powerful effect. Wonder Woman could have become broken; she could have been brought low. Batman is gloriously dark in his isolation, Superman is famous for loneliness. However, Azarello has imbued Diana with the emotional depth of a turnip. She barely even notices that she has lost everyone she loves.
When Diana leaves Themyscira in hurt and shame, it’s because she learns that she’s living a lie in terms of her parentage. Then, she goes to a concert. The characters give lip service to the fact that it’s “out of character” for her to be moving on so blithely, but since we don’t know this character in the slightest, we have no indication as to how or why.
When she comes back to apologize to Hippolyta for harsh words, she doesn’t react to the fate of her sisters. The Amazons have been turned into snakes all around her, and she is never given the chance for that isolation to hit her. When she discovers that Hera has turned her mother to stone, there is a single panel of tears. She never mourns her family – not in the sequence, or in any later scenes.
Wonder Woman is single-mindedly focused on protecting the innocent Zola, without any internal conflict, and without any major motivation. I am not looking for her sob to a friend about her problems, I just want her to be a little less gung-ho, a little more miserable. The writers and editors have created the potential for great depth of character and squandered it.
Her feelings are lost in the gutter between issues again at Hephaestus’s forge. She discovers that the Amazons rape men to death and then give up their male-born children to slavery. She has hundreds of brothers, and rises up to save them – only to find out that they don’t want to be saved because Hephaestus wants them, and the Amazons never did. She never deals with either of these pieces of deeply emotional information on the page. The only thing you see her do is passionately stride forward to rescue the male children of the Amazons.
This story bit has three things wrong with it – two are wrong with what is there, and one with what is absent. First, here’s the story of the Amazons:
“Triumphant, the Amazons return to Paradise Island, and wait. Nine months later, some celebrate the birth of a daughter. Some don’t.” Hephaestus completes his tale with the statement, “So I trade weapons for failures.”
Of all of the sins against Wonder Woman’s feminine roots, this is perhaps the most egregious. Until this reboot, the Amazons were a magical, immortal race of women who didn’t need men to thrive. Now, Diana is sired by Zeus, and her sisters are the fruit of reproduction with hapless, doomed sailors. The Amazons as a race have been destroyed in this version of the mythology.
Further, because her sisters are gone, and her brothers yet live, the plot adds to the phallic constellation undermining the feminine. Now, the female support system could be replaced with a male one. In terms of day-to-day sexism, this essentially turns her into the woman that says “I don’t get along well with other women.”
What’s lacking in this portion of the tale are Diana’s thoughts and feelings before and after these big actions. Her emotions are what cause her to move forward to save her brothers, but they are never depicted with a rise or fall. They don’t change to remorse, or loneliness, or desperation after the fact. This lack of realism (and further vegetable-like emotional depth for the protagonist) reduces the character to a very common (and offensive) female stereotype: a woman who is ruled by her nonsensical, fickle emotions, and is gusted from whim to whimsy by her passion.
I’d also like to point out that as far as we can tell, this version of Wonder Woman is not particularly intelligent. She has a “wily” plan to distract Hera from Zola and her child to get Hades and Poseidon to go after Zeus’s throne. This is a short-term trick, with no long term considerations of the repercussions. She acts first, asks questions later – which again, is something we expect of our superheroes. However, when added to the fact that she acts out of what look like crazy unfounded emotions, it undermines her further. All Azarello would have to do is occasionally show us her emotional build-up or give us a wider, longer thought process to make her a multi-dimensional character instead of a stereotype of the worst sort.
This overly-emotional reduction of the female characters doesn’t stop at Diana – it extends right up to the pantheon.
Archetype vs. Stereotype and Dethroned Goddesses
One of the more common complaints you’ll hear DC readers have about this reboot of Wonder Woman is that it’s all a “boring story about the Greek Gods.” I’ll give you that. Diana is in no way a central figure to this plot. Since she’s not, it’s probably a good time to bring up the characters that are central to the story.
First, I’ve got no major problems with the depictions of Eris, Demeter, or Artemis thus far. My biggest disappointment was that Wonder Woman threw down her cuffs when fighting Artemis because they had been a gift from the Goddess of the Hunt. This, to me was another symbol of Wonder Woman giving up her feminine-sourced power. I was just grateful she put them back on at the end of the fight.
Eris, goddess of Strife, is a major player in this plot, and she’s playing her true goals close to the chest. She qualifies as the most interesting and well-developed female character in the story, with Demeter holding a very small second place.
My biggest problems were with Hera and Persephone, but I’ll try to keep it short. In both of these cases, Azzarello has managed to strip immortal symbols of power and cross-cultural archetypes down to crass stereotypes of women.
Hera is the epitome of the spiteful, jealous wife in this series. Yes, most fictional depictions of Hera are along this vein. It takes a little bit of depth of character to remember that Hera is also the Goddess of Marriage and Birth, capable of bestowing gifts as well as tearing into jealous rages. There is a glimmer of potential, at the end of book two “Guts”, that she will show her gentler side with the onset of mortality. I sincerely hope this happens. Hera is unreasonable, but her fury is spurred by her husband’s actions and her own pride. Could we take a look perhaps at that pride, and at Zeus’s wrong doing, instead of portraying her as an implacable harpy?
The one that made me throw the book across the room, though, was Persephone. I am still angry about this, so I’m going to let you read this page for yourself:
Okay, in case you don’t remember mythology: Persephone is Demeter’s daughter, Hades saw her and swept her off to the underworld. Demeter caused the world to go into an endless winter until they could help her find her beloved daughter. Right before Persephone could be rescued by the other gods (to stop the winter from killing everyone), Persephone ate 3 pomegranate seeds in the underworld (the symbol of marriage). This condemns her to spend 3 months in the Underworld as Hades’ bride, while the rest of the year, she’s allowed to hang out with her mom. Those three months are winter, because Demeter is bummed when her daughter is gone.
In the archetype, Persephone is as dark as she is light. She dies and is reborn and dies again so that the earth can do the same thing, so that seasons can change. She is the Queen of the Underworld and Hades’ wife. Like all goddesses who represent the death/life/rebirth cycle, she’s not a withering child who tries to escape her big, scary husband. She has a big, scary side of her very own, thanks. (Read the myth of Psyche, if you’d like to see it.)
Pardon the pun, but how the hell is Hades trying to get married to Wonder Woman when he has a wife?
If you look at the page above, the writer’s “logic” is that Persephone tried to commit suicide to leave him. That she was “his wife once” and that he doesn’t let her just die.
She is a goddess. She is immortal. By virtue of her own mythology, she dies and is reborn every year. She leaves every year. If he “won’t let her leave” then Demeter would have plunged the world into an eternal winter like she did the first time ‘Seph was snatched.
Then, to portray the Queen of the Underworld as a meek little girl who is dressing Wonder Woman’s hair for her wedding to Hades? This is both bad writing, and incredibly bad mythology. It’s also insulting to a Goddess of Death. Have fun with that one, DC, I hope she likes your movies.
Is redemption possible?
Can the New 52 Wonder Woman be pulled out of these depths? I’m going to give it a highly qualified maybe.
It would take a concerted effort on the part of the creative team to really add depth to Diana’s character – give her emotional arcs instead of emotional outbursts, trains of thought instead of short-term plans. For example, after she discovers that her whole life is a lie, perhaps in conversation later, let her express doubt about her identity. Let her express sadness when the action slows down. These would be relatively simple things to do (that wouldn’t impact the pacing) that would give us a little more insight into Diana’s personality and character.
In my opinion, they would have to reunite Wonder Woman with some of her feminine-borne power. One idea might be to turn the Amazons from snakes back into sisters and give her a support network back. She might make an ally of Hera once again, as another example.
I would say that some of what she’s going through is a little like the classic Heroine’s Journey, but she’s been to the Underworld and back, and that’s the point where she’s supposed to commune with and learn from the Goddess of Darkness. Instead, Persephone helped her pick out clothes. So that’s not looking very likely.
Powerful women are scary. Wonder Woman, at her best, should be intimidating to men. What she shouldn’t be is a genderless character with a Hercules-style hero’s tale slapped on top of her. I don’t think these creators are deliberately being sexist. I think they just have no clue that it matters, or how much it matters. Wonder Woman has been around long enough she has her own myth. She’s her own archetype. By using her to retell a man’s story, it robs her of the essence of everything the fans love about her and need her to be.
So here’s my closing thought, and one that fans of DC and Wonder Woman might want to consider: Why is it an all-male creative team working on DC’s biggest female franchise?