Whither Wonder Woman?

So…here’s a problem, and a solution.

I was going to write a million words here, seeing as how this all connects with all the stuff I was saying before, all the Mystery Machines and Made-Up Superheroes and like that…but as it turns out, a million words is not necessary.

Because it’s just this:  when I showed my Wednesday Comics around to my non-comics friends, the biggest hit by far was Ben Caldwell’s Wonder Woman, that beautiful and slightly-hard-to-read YA off-model WW…I mean, here is a strange thing, okay?  They were interested in reading it.

Let’s chew on that a moment, Bloggers.  Both girls and boys:  interested in reading Wonder Woman.  Not merely interested in Wonder Woman!  But interested in reading Wonder Woman.

When’s the last time you were interested in reading Wonder Woman?

I think Ben Caldwell must’ve seen the same kinds of things online that I did, a few years ago.  Independent WW reimaginings, in various styles…things done for the love of it, things for teenage girls and not completist dudes in their late thirties.  Not complicated things, mind you!  Not even uncommon things.  But just, you know…

Relevant things.

And you might be surprised (or you might not!) to learn that it doesn’t actually take much, to make relevant superhero-fantasy entertainment.  Because the relevance is sort of baked-in, see?  Being that it’s all a matter of what the idealized figure does:  how the problems of identity and society are worked out, and in what environment, and to what purpose.  “Being grown-up”, for example…that’s a big fascination in this sort of thing.  Every child’s number-one object of fantastic flight, whether it goes over in disguise or is put right there on the page so that no one can miss it…is nothing but that most mysterious world of motive and action and instrumentality, the world of the adult:  keys jingling in pockets, change on the dresser, a job involving a special hat, watches and calendars and bad dating experiences and transcendent freedom.  The self, reconstructed as important.  The wider world, reconstructed as a home…and without the need for water wings.

But “being grown-up” is only one kind of maturation-based fantasy;  as great as it is, there are others as well.  For example, not being grown-up, but growing up, that’s a mysterious world of adventure too!  Every adult enjoys the fantasy of “being an adult” in the same way, which is pretty much the same way they enjoyed it when they were a child:  sure, that important self stuff, it’s great! James Bond, Jack Ryan, Ellen Ripley…Bruce Wayne and Hal Jordan?  But then on the other hand you also have the pleasures of Peter Parker, Harry Potter (yes, Harry Potter)…Dick Grayson and Kyle Rayner?  Relevance, folks:  it really is quite easy to come by.  It’s natural.  And — in my humble opinion, anyway — it’s what sells comics.

Just:  not Wonder Woman comics.

And to be honest, it’s pretty easy to see why.  “The Mission to Man’s World”, I mean okay…so what is it?  Once it was something, perhaps.  But now, who knows.  Seriously.  WHO KNOWS WHAT IT IS.  Oh, individual writers may have their ideas about it, but individual writers don’t last long…and apparently it is now an article of editorial faith that Wonder Woman must not only have a mission, but be all about it, no matter who’s writing her…and okay, she’s in the JLA, but so what?  What can that be made to mean over the long term?  Aside from her just being in it, that is…which is, y’know, great and everything…but still…

…It doesn’t make her more than a bit player, just because she’s there.  You know?  No, the only thing that makes her more than a bit player is that she’s Wonder Woman…but the problem with that is, I submit it to you, that no one can make much in the way of heads or tails of what being Wonder Woman should mean.  In other words:  why anyone should read her.  Hey, don’t look at me — I’ll read anything, under the right conditions.  I collected a Batwoman comic just recently, for heaven’s sake.  I’d collect a Ben Caldwell Wonder Woman book too.  Boy, would I!  But the only problem is…

As far as I can tell, that book’s just not going to be made.  Is it.  I mean, you could have it, but it could never be “real Wonder Woman”.  Because real Wonder Woman has to hang out with real Batman and real Superman, and that real Wonder Woman is boring no matter what else you do to her, because by and large she’s turned into nothing but an exercise in her own self-justification.  “Why Must There Be A Wonder Woman?” It’s a question every writer/artist team at least since the mid-Eighties and probably since the mid-Sixties has been at excruciating pains to answer, and in the end — like that other, related perennial “Who Is Donna Troy?” — the answer has come down that there’s just no there there.  Hey, no one asks why there must be a Batgirl, you know?  Batgirl’s anything but lacking in justification:  Batgirl’s just plain awesome, and everybody knows it.  But then Batgirl is more than just a token;  Batgirl has stuff to do, besides proving she can be “real”.  A million Batgirl miniseries can’t damage the usefulness of Batgirl, she’s an active fantasy-identification character who can tell any story — can tell all different kinds of stories — without ever diluting her “iconic” appeal.  But Wonder Woman is constrained by her own “iconic” status:  Wonder Woman is not an active fantasy-identification character, but a passive one.  Everybody knows her — she’s on lunchboxes, she’s in cartoons — but the real Wonder Woman is static, so wherever she’s in motion she’s by necessity just a riff.  Real WW is a posed figure: just an idea, not a character.  You’re not supposed to identify with her anymore — you’re just supposed to admire her, as the “icon” she is.  Who knows what she’s really about?  Many talented writers have tried their hand at bestowing some lasting characterization on her, but with the best will in the world it’s never stuck, it’s never crossed the blood-brain barrier into real WW.  Sure, throw a real live human actor into the mix and you’ve got something!  Hey, concentrate on her creator’s original intentions and you’ve got something too!  But whatever that is, it’s all you’ll ever have.  Because if you had a Special-Imprint Wonder Woman you could make her work, probably — Vertigo Wonder Woman — but then do you really want to put yourself in a position where “real” WW is hated by the only people who like to read WW?  Well…

It’s really the same problem, you see.  Managing these corporate brands, it’s no picnic lemme tellya!  You can’t make Wonder Woman good, without changing her;  but if you do change her, then you screw up the static admirableness that makes her such a valuable token.  If this were another time, if people cared less, if comics were just for kids and you didn’t have to care what you did…well, then you could just let those concerns go.  But these aren’t those times, these are these times:  the times wherein tokens are badly needed, because they’re the times wherein respectability is of the most overriding importance.  Because you’ve got lunchboxes to move, you know?  And, what’s more:  a self-image to maintain.  So you can do anything you want to with Superman and Batman, because to roughen their edges and ruffle their feathers is to court a greater respectability:  more “literary” Batman and Superman, more “realistic” Batman and Superman, more culturally-significant Batman and Superman!  But with Wonder Woman, what can you possibly do?  Turn her “dark”?  Turn her “realistic”?  Spunky?  Scary?  Lusty?  Witty?  Witchy?

Why would you?

If you didn’t have something to teach with it.  Which is to say:  somewhere for it all to end up.

So…oh my God, is it actually to be a million words now, after all?  Is it?  After I promised it wouldn’t be?  For heaven’s sake then, what’s the answer, to all this Wonder Woman jazz…!

Okay, fine.  Here’s the answer.  And it’s an easy one.

What do you do with Wonder Woman?

Open-source her.

Ben Caldwell noticed it and I did too:  all the amateur YA WW stuff is huge fun.  Everything that departs from the current boring old WW template is a blast to read.  There’s no reason people couldn’t be reading all kinds of Wonder Woman, all over the place…if the folks at DC would just finally trying to stop saving what can’t be saved, stop trying to link up two things that no longer have anything to do with one another.  WW the brand is what you put on lunchboxes and in cartoons;  WW the brand is working fine, in its static perfection.  But as a result of that brand-imperative WW the character is about as interesting as doing community service, at least while she’s operating within the confines of official DCU exclusivity.  Hey, look:  the old Lynda Carter show, with the WWII setting…seriously, that would be off-model WW today, know what I mean?  Because it was off-model even then.  But does it matter?

Do you care?

Should you care?

What’s being saved here, in the name of more JLA comics featuring Wonder Woman?  Nothing.  What’s holding Wonder Woman back from popularity, except her placement in the “DCU”?  Nothing.  And so what’s really being added by keeping her there, what would be at risk if she weren’t?

Is it really just a matter of how “real” she is?

One of these days, Wonder Woman is going to enter the public domain.  When that happens, it won’t be like when Superman and Batman enter the public domain.  Superman and Batman will still be the moneymaking props of whatever company DC manages to become.  People will still be dying to read “real” Superman and Batman stories, and it’ll simply be a matter of getting the best possible talent to work on them.  But Wonder Woman will be totally different. No one will ever be dying to read the “real” stuff;  no one will be dying to write the “real” stuff.  The real stuff won’t be “real”.

Because it’s already not real.

Because the brand is empty-centred.  Uniquely empty-centred.  Because Superman and Batman, those two are like Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown…who wants to read the “fake” stuff?  But Wonder Woman’s like King Arthur, and it’s all the fake stuff if you’re not a scholar.  If we think of it in Lunchbox Terms, you can boil it down like this:  into a small number of very simple ways to make money.  Down one road, you license your character to someone else working in another medium, so they can strip away all the “on-model” stuff that detracts from that character’s likeability…you know, the stuff you encumber the character with in your medium.  And then lunchbox business proceeds to be done.  Down another road, you yourself strip away, in your medium, all the stuff that detracts from your character’s likeability…and then license the character anyway, hoping that not only will lunchbox business be done, but comics business as well.

But there’s a third road…

Which is, stop thinking of your character as part of a TEAM

And start thinking of her as part of a MEME.

And set her free.  Am I saying (you must be wondering) that DC would be better off just giving Wonder Woman away to anyone who wants her?  Well, I guess that’s the dream…but journeys, thousand miles, single steps, eh?  So, no, don’t give her away…

…Just stop keeping her, that’s all!

For starters, stop keeping her from people like Ben Caldwell.  Because, seriously, if there’s one thing we’ve all learned through our adventures in adulthood is that it’s always later than we think…and people don’t have to read Wonder Woman, you know.  They don’t have to want to, and you don’t have to want them to.  If you liked, you could completely abandon any desire to have anyone read her who isn’t already reading her, and let howevermany people might read her if you did something different…instead go off and find something they like better.  I mean, that’s really easy to do, all that’s necessary is to forget what time it is.  The people who’d cheerfully read a YA WW, you can always pretend they’ll always be around if you ever feel like attracting them.  And I don’t really care if you do or not, now that I think about it…I mean, why should I?

Why shouldn’t Wonder Woman just die off and be forgotten?

What would be the harm?

This isn’t 1941, you know.  Girls have strong female heroes whose exploits they can read, and watch, and identify with.  Heck, you can even find such heroic examples who have complicated relationships with the Greco-Roman gods, if you only look!  And so maybe WW is a great, natural fit for that role — maybe she’s even the best fit for that role — but if she doesn’t fill it, it isn’t like no one else will.  She isn’t filling it now, and others are.  This time next year, she still won’t be filling it.  Because the truth is, she’s just so encumbered with crap no one cares about, that she can’t fill it.  What might a Wonder Woman strip have to teach, to adults as well as children, if Wonder Woman licenses went far out into the wider world?  Like ripples:  and what might we all potentially have to learn from them?  Well, one thing I’m sure might be carried on the wave, is a new spin on a familiar truth:  that repression is never a good strategy for solving your problems.  “We’ve taken a mass medium and made it into a subculture”, saith Comic-Book Guy, but that can only be the most instinctive analytical posture available to us as regards the history of mainstream superhero comic-book fiction — and its readers — and its makers — because perspective always needs hindsight…

…But hey that isn’t ALL it needs, so let me just ask you all:  how often is it really that a vital fictional character comes down into the public domain from private hands?  Quick, name ten!  And now subtract from that number the vital characters whose future stories are likely to be better, than most of their past stories.  And what are you left with?

Pretty much just Wonder Woman?

…I think it’s easy for us to underestimate just how much subversive art-creation is really going on in our culture, working around the necessity of making occluded references to closely-guarded intellectual property.  Those of you who know me, will know I’m hardly a “Copyleft Hawk” type of guy…but I think even a mild-mannered fellow like myself can see that a lot of art’s been made while dodging the searchlights over the last hundred years or so.  “Conscious riffing” has made it possible for analogues to tantalize us, for illicit homages to delight us, but that doesn’t by any means cover all the learned responses of the Century Of Psychology vis-a-vis its “protected” stories…at times I feel it’s like we’re all teenagers slipping out at night after curfew, going down to the river to do all the things we’re not supposed to do, getting into all that not-really-trouble our not-really-rebellious minds can concoct…in the emulation of adulthood, of course.  And my goodness but how liminal it all is, eh?  We would hardly know what to do with real freedom, should it suddenly be visited upon us just a bare handful of years before its proper time.  After all, in us freedom inspires terror as much as desire, as we straddle the present and try to hang on…

…As we try to hang on to what is by its nature fleeting.

Because as delicious as it is, eventually we must agree to come through it…either that, or develop terrible neuroses.  Because eventually, every protest has its effect…y’know?

Eventually, everything changes.

So I guess I may’ve lied — twice! — about the whole million words thing, but finally I think we’ve gotten where it was I wanted to go.  In every way that counts, Wonder Woman is as good as in the public domain already…except in just one way that counts, and that’s the way in which people with genuinely great Wonder Woman stories to tell can’t tell them.  And I gotta tell you, for sure:  they’re fuzzing at the edges.  They’re absolutely a cloud.  And so here we are with the whole Internet spread before us, the lowest-cost distribution system ever for the priceless hours that talented people put in on labours of love…and it opens the door to anyone…but what we’re not understanding about it, I believe, is that it’s much more than just a copy of one of our old “Wild West” media scenarios.  Over in the world of quantum computing they’re making the same mistake:  assuming that quantum computation will work just like classical computation, only with more cheating.  Maybe I jump the gun on a possible future post, here, but I’ve just got to say it:  you can use quantum effects to get “better” classical results, but in the end it’s like using the Internet to get “cheaper” distribution of regular old truck-and-highway product.  I mean, you can do it!  And it’s definitely cheaper…!

But it’s a bit like pretending e-mail is just a faster way to send letters.  You see, we’re conceptually-imprisoned by all these inadequate portmanteaux — personally I think it started back in 1905 with “spacetime”, but I guess that’s really going off on a tangent — that start as jokes, and then become sales tactics, and then become orthodox perceptions.  Rigid definitions;  verbal barricades.  Iron-y bars, that do in fact a prison make.  Have you heard this one before, Bloggers?  When my brother first explained e-mail to me ‘way back when, I LAUGHED…and said “that’s hilarious, because how is this like mail?”  Because it wasn’t anything like it then, just as it isn’t anything like it now.  We’ve fallen so far away from Marshall McLuhan, eh?  We look at a piece of steel, and we call it “rock”…we look at a piece of plastic and we call it “bone”.  We look at an interference pattern and call it “computation”…

…So I suppose you can guess what sort of name I’d say that thinking goes by?

We look at a piece of intellectual property, and we think of how to defend it from exploitation.  But we are so guilty (in my opinion) of not taking things on a case-by-case basis, that we can’t see how sometimes our defence only destroys the value of the thing we’re defending.  What’s the value — for example! — of the comic-book character known as Wonder Woman?

At the moment, for the most part, as far as these eyes can see…it’s expressed negatively:  by how much money is not being made from her.  By how many people are not finding any satisfying employment/enjoyment in the existence of that character.  Yeah, you heard it here first:  Wonder Woman functions as a brake on GDP, even counting all the lawyers’ fees.

In a way, that’s what makes her special.

Because psychologically, she’s our hurdle.

How would DC Comics suffer, if “Wonder Woman Licenses” were available starting at one dollar?  And going up from there.  I am not sketching out a blueprint for corporate predation here…in fact I’d fight like hell against predatory WW “hereinafter named Licenses”…but how would DC take a hit, any kind of hit, if they simply abandoned the “empty-centred” strategy of that character’s development and exploitation?  The folks on Whitechapel could donate their Ctl-Alt-Cover designs to worthy charities, and ask DC to waive the dollar.  Online YA WW strips could split their coffee-cup and T-shirt take with the copyright-holder.  And Wonder Woman would be out there.

Heh.  “Out there.”

Hey, let me tell you guys a story about a music video shoot I once attended.

I can’t give many details.  But it went approximately like this:  a day of shooting on a Big Idea, and at the end when everybody was just about dead beat, one of those “hey, fuck it, let’s try something” moments…that resulted in cries of “that is so funny!” and “that is so annoying!” and “that is so stupid!”…and then it went on up to be presented to the record execs alongside the “proper” version.  And the proper version got (I thought:  far too cavalierly) shot down, and so then the funny/annoying/stupid one came out, and it didn’t actually get “shot down”…

…Because it didn’t even get graded on the same scale of dismissiveness.  Because instead of “I’m not sure this is good enough” the prevailing thought seemed to be:  “this makes our company look stupid, this calls our good name into disrepute, this isn’t worthy of us.”

And me, who’d just that day encountered the ugly remnants of the English will-to-classism and found it quaint, and cute aw like a self-important kitten, and well if you don’t want to be ridiculed by random log-sawing Canadians who’re getting on a plane in a week anyway maybe you shouldn’t chase the puerile power-dreams of the schoolyard monkey-bars into fucking ADULTHOOD YOU SAD BASTARDS…I guess it goes without saying this was in downtown London?  And I met some of the swingin’-est people I ever met in my life in London, but there were also some, oh what is that convenient English colloquialism…cunts

Anyway, me:  that’s when I saw the back of the will-to-classism hand, even (yea verily!) among the tragic America-worshippers.  Because these executive folks cared what people thought of them, more than they cared about money.

And I knew, because I’d grown up with America like John D. grew up with Tom D…that in America they would’ve said “yeah, let’s take the annoying one that makes us look like fuckheads, that’s AWESOME…!  People will grow to HATE IT…!” And then they would’ve gone straight to the hot tub and the speed-dial.  I mean I’m not saying it’s better

I’m just saying that one group of people cares about something that conditions their choices in the same way that ethics ought to condition choices, except it isn’t actually ethical, it’s only something that co-opts the calculus of ethicity in order to tranquilize the conscience…and oh my God, why don’t we talk about going off on a tangent…!

…And the other group just plain doesn’t give a damn about anything but money, and they’d tell you so.

And it’s true, both groups suck so much black and corroded shit that it almost seems they must be drawing it from some sort of Darkshit Dimension

…But the point is, if one truly understands that one is only in this for the money…I mean if that is one’s position…then one should not have a problem doing something with potentially beneficial social results, if there’s money in it.  And yet even in America…!

Bad people are leery of making good moves.

But what if one of the licensed online Wonder Women was bisexual or something?

Yeah, well…what if? I’m sorry, when did this become the 1950s?

But there are lots of Wonder Woman purchasers out there who aren’t comfortable with different…

Dude, that’s YOU who’s not comfortable with it.  Hey, wake up.  Try, if you can, to pretend to be American.  Ever hear of “pink dollars“?  Oh, you have?  Well fuck you, I hate that expression, eh?  Dollars are green, you idiot.


But me no buts.  Are we really relying on the Republican Midwest Moms who voted for Osama Bin Laden over John McMerica because John wasn’t sufficiently anti-gay, to buy WW lunchboxes?  Jesus, I thought you guys had facts and figures at your fingertips.

But now I see the quantum future is passing you by.

It is completely possible that the judicious use of Wonder Woman in sex-education materials in high schools could lower the suicide rate, boost the economy, hell save the oyster fishery…I mean you motherfuckers think so SMALL.  Wonder Woman could be a global phenomenon, don’t you understand that?  She could actually save real human lives.

She could give a voice, to the voiceless.

That “all the superheroes admire Wonder Woman” thing you’ve got going over there, DC Comics…well it’s been a long time since anyone could apply the term with any force, but what you’re doing there is called sexual inversion.  And it’s not healthy.

But you know what’s always healthy?

I’m sorry, Bloggers, I think I’ve gone way off the track.  It just makes me so mad, eh?  I mean, what in the fuck is WW’s famous “mission”, anyway?  Go at it like a satellite from orbit, forget the mere bird’s-eye view, what’s her goddamn mission?

Why was she created?

What’s she for?

She was supposed to help undervalued people realize some dignity.

Boil it down, cook it up, however you want:  that’s what it’s all about.  The Mission To Man, so much more ambitious than the Mission To Mars.

What’s always healthy?

What’s always an adequate solution to problems?

EXPRESSION is.  Like, the opposite of repression.

Open-source Wonder Woman.  Think of it as some good PSA action you don’t have to pay for.  Somewhere out there is a troubled teen who does not yet know our 21st-century society actually will support and value them…because that shit will take time to trickle down all the way to the basic social-instructional level of schooling.  First, you know, they self-medicate by reading.

Then, oftentimes, they self-medicate by writing.

And lucky us, that they do.

Okay, one more after this, you talked me into it.


9 responses to “Whither Wonder Woman?

  1. I’m conflicted about “open-source Wonder Woman” for a few reasons. I do tend to like the bootleg WW comics which crop up from time to time. However, what I’ve noticed with “real” Wonder Woman is the freedom DC has given various creators to screw around with her traditional status quo. The Perez revamp got rid of Diana Prince and the Invisible Plane, Byrne made Hippolyta the de facto Golden Age WW, Rucka had her kill Max Lord, Simone gave her a set of gorilla bodyguards, etc. And each of them, I think, were trying (consciously or not) to make up for losing Marston’s weird elements.

    It just hit me, though: isn’t Marston’s Wonder Woman a combination of Mister Miracle and Big Barda…?

  2. Marston’s Wonder Woman is a creation no one will ever truly get because it was born from a unique viewpoint that not too many others share or comprehend.

    The only way the character can prosper, I think, is by breaking away from the traditional super-hero universe and fanboy (and girl) notions of what proper super-hero books should be.

    Actually, I think this would also work for Plastic Man (Kyle Baker’s humor was too inside baseball for the common bloke; Jack Cole was just plain funny) and Captain Marvel(imagine a Jeff Smith Cap distributed by Scholastic instead of Diamond. Gold!!!)

    Public Domain is the best thing that could ever happen to these characters, and many more.

  3. I think what holds people back from doing great “in-universe” Wonder Woman comics is they get too self-conscious. It’s like Captain America, because of what he represents, almost every “modern” writer grapples with what Cap represents or means or should mean. People seem to think Wonder Woman should MEAN something as well, but what? We’re all cool with Cap being the Idealized American, but should Wonder Woman be the Idealized Woman? That’s dodgy as hell territory, yet I think that’s where a lot of people are coming from. There’s a sense of “otherness” around Wonder Woman, a question of working with a character some consider (or once considered) a feminist icon, and because of it she seems to get a new self-conscious “mission statement” every couple of years – is it that men are warlike and women promote peace (dodgy stuff, again), or is it that she’s just as tough as the boys, or is it all about Greek mythology, or is she maybe Truth? All the while knowing that Wonder Woman was BUILT for the expressed purpose of promoting his creator’s agenda, and either you’re into it or you’re weirded out by it, or you just think it’s funny, or even if you’re just cool with it and leave it at that, that lasso and those bracelets are STILL THERE to remind you.

    Well, that’ll crush ANYONE. I bet open source “outsider” Wonder Woman would be freer of that self-consciousness. Or at least have the potential to be. You’d still have some of that hand-wringing out of some people, but you’d also get some Ben Caldwells who wouldn’t feel beholden to history and tradition and what SHOULD be, they just have some cool ideas surrounding this character and her iconography.

  4. Anybody remember that Project Rooftop set of Wonder Woman redesigns from a couple of years ago? There was one where the artist adapted her costume into a cowboy outfit and put her in a Western setting? It was obviously and elementarily an awesome idea.

    I had halfway expected that this article would turn into a memecall: everybody show how you’d write Wonder Woman if she was public domain. I don’t quite have an idea for it, though.

    I think this would also work for Plastic Man (Kyle Baker’s humor was too inside baseball for the common bloke; Jack Cole was just plain funny)

    I read a thing once that argued (and convinced me!) that the key to doing Plas right is to make him the straight man and everyone else silly. The world, even including his own body, may be ridiculous, but Plas himself can cope with it.

      • Hey, Matthew, was that Scipio on the Absorbascon who wrote that thing you read? I saw that too.

        My first encounter with Plastic Man was in Morrison-era JLA, and so Super Jim Carrey made sense to me at the time, but when I read that post all of a sudden the potential of the concept clicked. Plas can cope with anything and stay normal because he’s FLEXIBLE.

  5. Sounds like an awesome idea, I musta missed that one! Also, after a second of thinking about WW as Mister Miracle and Big Barda, I confess to a sudden snort of laughter — ha, it totally does make sense, you know!

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