Art: Yanick Paquette
Colors: Nathan Fairbairn
Letters: Todd Klein
Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.
[this review contains spoilers]
Among comic book fans, Wonder Woman continues to be strongly linked to her original creators William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter. After almost 80 years, their version of the character is still considered definitive, which is sort of an issue. Since Marston’s death in 1947, DC Comics has been steadily moving away from their peculiar vision to make WW a little more compatible to an entertainment industry not always friendly to modern feminism, let alone a female supremacist social order prominently featuring female bondage and a veiled form of lesbianism.
Wonder Woman: Earth One is an ostensible return and update to her classic origin story. The writer chosen for this task, Grant Morrison, has a reputation for revitalizing iconic characters like Superman and Batman while retaining their core ideals. So it seems like a foregone conclusion that he’d eventually turn his attention to the last and reputedly most problematic member of the DC “Trinity.” To assuage any concerns, Morrison’s given interviews where he’s stated his admiration for the work of Marston and Peter, as well gone through the canon of feminist literature. So is that why the creative team for this book is all-male? Is it some kind of faithful imitation of the 40s workplace?
At any rate, Morrison and artist Yanick Paquette get many of the details right. The kangas, Purple Ray, Holliday Girls, Festival of Diana, a voluptuous Etta Candy and her “Woo woo!” catch phrase, and the numerous scenes of bondage, both voluntary (“loving submission”) and involuntary. Even Paquette’s ornate cover image of a regal-looking Diana wrapped in chains promises something different from the usual warrior woman interpretation. And yet, there’s something off about the story. A harshness that fails to capture the compassion at the heart of Marston’s vision of femininity (which was strongly informed by his polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne).
Part of the problem is that the politics tend to get a bit reductive. The comic opens with a triumphant Hercules standing over a chained and kneeling Queen Hippolyta. He refers to her by the b-word, then spends several pages insulting her before she finally breaks free and kills the Demi-God, liberates her fellow Amazons, so they can slaughter his invading army. The deed accomplished, Hippolyta swears to live in a world without men. The story then skips 3,000 years ahead to reveal Paradise Island, a glittering utopia without a single male presence. The story itself is faithful to Marston’s original tale, but rendered more shocking by the explicit language and more detailed art. And with it, an uncompromising black-and-white view of gender relations begins to form in Hippolyta’s mind.
Paradise Island, as drawn by Paquette and colored by Nathan Fairbairn, is a gorgeous, pastel-colored wonderland that mixes gleaming classical architecture with curvaceous futuristic technology. The floral designs found on the flying motorcycles, invisible planes, and some of the fashions are suggestively vaginal. The Amazons, unsurprisingly, are all perfect specimens imbued with a casual sensuality found in fashion models and pin ups as they cavort on the pristine beaches and verdant forests. Morrison and Paquette underline this sultriness with much more open portrayals of lesbianism than found in Marston and Peter.
But perfection has a habit of quickly turning oppressive. Unlike Marston's creation, Hippolyta is dead set on maintaining her kingdom’s splendid isolation. There’s no outside threat (e.g. the Nazis of Marston's era) she feels deserves her attention, let alone requiring intervention by sending a champion. When she looks into her magic mirror and spies on the rest of the world, all she sees is a “wasteland beyond our perfect shores. The dreadful din is man’s nightmare of unending conflict… Their ’masculinity’ is a sad, broken aberration of nature. Genetically incomplete man. Always yearning for what he cannot be or own.” It’s no wonder that when the plane piloted by Captain Steve Trevor crash lands on the island, Diana is forced to hide him and concoct a plan to smuggle him out, lest he face summary execution. What’s Hippolyta's response to her daughter’s unexpected disobedience? She sends the gorgon Medusa after them both.
Her contemptuous attitude is shared by the rest of the Amazons. They react similarly to Diana’s actions with anger and aggression. And their view of the rest of humankind is equally unforgiving. Instead of treating the women in man’s world as worthy of their respect, they’re seen as being almost as debased as the men. When Diana’s jilted lover Mala first sets her eyes on the Holliday Girls, she remarks with obvious disgust “These are women of man’s world? Deformed, shrunken, bloated — domesticated cattle.” After listening to Elizabeth “Beth” Candy, the updated version of Etta, passionately defend Diana’s actions to Hippolyta, the physician Althea dismisses her testimony with “This is absurd. This girl is sick — her body mass grotesquely distorted.” That’s right, the Amazons are a bunch of pampered, body shaming mean girls.
Not that Diana does much better upon arriving in America. Her first contact with the U.S. military results in her tossing a hummer and questioning the masculinity of the soldiers, just because of their clean-shaven faces. She’s haughty and belligerent, demanding that “This broken man’s world must submit to the merciful authority of the wonder women of Amazonia. Then all will be well. Trust me.” It’s only due of the influence of Beth and Steve that she learns to moderate her views. “It’s not just man’s world out there… Sure, the patriarchy sucks, but we ain’t shy about telling ’em!” declares an always upbeat Beth. And Steve, who’s been recast as African American, admits to not entirely trusting his military commanders and points out that “My ancestors were enslaved by men with too much power.” His speech is a little on the nose, but both supporting characters come across as truly sympathetic, which is more than can be said for the supposably superior immortals who populate this book. When the Amazons insult Beth for being overweight, they become a metaphor for the kind of economic privilege needed to meet society’s unrealistic beauty standards. That doesn’t seem right for a Wonder Woman story.
This makes for a intertextually complicated read. On one hand, it’s impressive how eagerly Morrison uses so many of Marston’s classic elements. But the end results are as much a deconstruction as a homage. Instead of being paragons of empowerment, the Amazons express so many militant ideas they practically become the kind of man-hating straw feminists whose objections will be overcome by the understated nobility of Steve and the infectious optimism of Beth. Their perfection is an ideological conservatism to be surpassed by the wealth of experiences found in the outside world. And their Queen Hippolyta a 3,000 year old tyrant and overbearing parent any child would want to escape from, eventually.
Diana is a child of that isolated civilization. She’s spoiled and clueless. But she’s willfully looking for any pretext to rebel. In what is a complete reversal of the spirit of Marston's Amazons, Diana learns towards the end that she's a weapon created by Hippolyta to conquer man’s world, should the need ever arise. So Morrison’s Wonder Woman isn’t a saviour sent during a time of need, but a byproduct of Diana's rebellion against a narrowly defined role, and a self-conscious attempt to bridge the gap between the exceptionalism of the Amazons and the inclusiveness of Beth and Steve. But as with many rebellious kids, Diana still has a lot to learn.