Here and here I argued that Wonder Woman is a the result of a particular idiosyncratic, fetishistic vision. Charles Moulton was more like R. Crumb than he was like Jerry Siegel or Lee/Ditko. As a result, Wonder Woman as icon is essentially a decades long disaster; she’s particular, not universal, and every effort to prove otherwise makes both the perpetrator and the character look ridiculous.
So…I’ll stand by the argument that, outside of Moulton’s work, there aren’t any Wonder Woman stories that I’ve seen which I’d call “great” or even “really good.” There are a couple of takes, though, that are at least relatively unobjectionable. I thought I’d take a post to look at some of them, and talk about why they manage to do better than some of their peers.
(And just to get this out of the way: no, I haven’t read the current Gail Simone run on the Wonder Woman title. I’m willing to give it a go if anyone’ll vouch for it…though, jeez, the internets are not exactly abuzz with news of the series…is she even still on the title? Oh well…anyway…)
First off..the love it/hate it Denny O;Neill/Mike Sekowsky run, where Diana gets to wear a full suit of clothes in exchange for losing all her powers (doesn’t sound like such a bad deal, really.) There’s one of these stories in the Greatest Wonder Woman Stories Ever Told (from before she changed her outfit and lost her powers)…and reading it through the first time I was fairly appalled. Even after reading the Kanigher stories, it’s hard to believe how dumb, dumb, dumb Diana is in this outing. It’s like someone popped her head open and scooped her brain out with a mellon-baller. First of all, she lets some random lech crawl all over her at some random party…and then it’s Steve who bashes his head in, not her. Then Steve cheats on her, and tells her…and she doesn’t notice! Then she’s forced to testify against him in court, is obviously broken up about it…and Steve whines and bitches and tells her she betrayed him…and she just sort of sits there and takes it and feels bad. And then she goes undercover and gets dressed up in fab hippie clothing…and all of a sudden she realizes that she’s good looking! I mean, okay, many lovely women have body issues…but she’s been running around in her underwear for 20 years at this point! The idea that a change to sexier clothes is going to reinvent her self image seems…confused.
But after the initial shock wore off, I started to see some of the appeal of O’Neil’s approach. In the first place, Mike Sekowsky’s art is fantastic.
Really dramatic, off-kilter page compositions, with figures occasionally breaking out of the panels; beautiful giant-eyed faces emoting, almost art nouveau clothing deisgns — it would make me think of manga, if the trippy, psychedelic colors weren’t so central. I don’t think I like it more than Harry Peter’s original art for the series, but these are the only WW visuals I’ve seen that are even in the same ballpark. (And, no, alas, George Perez is nowhere near the artist that Peter or Sekowsky are…I’ll discuss him a bit more below.)
So, yeah…great art can salvage a lot. And even the story…I mean, the story isn’t good. It’s dumb and insulting; the gestures at hipness are just embarrassing, the gestures at feminine psychology are ludicrous; the whole thing makes you wonder if O’Neill ever met an actual hippie, or an actual woman…or an actual human being for that matter.
But all that aside…you do sort of have to admire the way he’s managed to get around the pitfalls of writing a Wonder Woman story. Because, while this is not good, it’s not good in a Denny O’Neill way. The problems here aren’t really the problems Moulton has bequeathed his heirs. Their isn’t any bondage nonsense bizarrely tripping things up. There isn’t the snickering frat-boy snickering at the character’s sexuality. There isn’t the desperate confusion over setting — where the hell does Wonder Woman even make sense? — that is often a problem. O’Neill avoids all that by pretty much ignoring it. His Wonder Woman isn’t Wonder Woman at all, really — yes, she still has the character design (though he got rid of even that a couple issues down the road.) But he treats her pretty much as if she’s just some random chick. I think this panel sums it up:
There she is, at a cocktail party, looking off semi-vacuously as the men talk, the way any woman might in a dumb romance comic. There’s nothing wonderful about her; she’s just some random dame who accidentally put on the wrong duds this morning. Similarly, even though WW spends most of the comic investigating a mystery, and even though she has this magic lasso which supposedly makes people tell her the truth, she never uses it to further her investigation. Magic truth-making lassos? No way; you can’t tell a story and make sense of that! Not unless you’re Charles Moulton, anyway. O’Neill isn’t, knows he isn’t, and wants as little part of the mystic clap-trap as he can get away with.
Of course, at some point, you’ve got to ask…if you don’t want to write about Wonder Woman, if you have not interest in Wonder Woman, if, in fact, you’ve realized that it isn’t really possible to write Wonder Woman — why not just get a new character to put in your mediocre, misogynist story with the great art? Why call it Wonder Woman at all? But such are the whims of marketing.
I do think, though, that this is pretty much the only way a great Wonder Woman story will ever get written, if one ever does. Somebody will come along, say, right, I’m going to create a completely new character, put the name “Wonder Woman” on her, and tell a story that doesn’t have anything to do with the character’s origin, not to speak of her 60 plus years of history. If a great writer did that…well, the story would have at least a chance of being great. Alan Moore’s Promethea is I guess the hypothetical that almost/coulda/shoulda been, except that he didn’t call it Wonder Woman, and it turned into a lame-ass treaty on the Kabbala half-way through. So we’re stuck with O’Neill’s effort instead, which isn’t great, or even necessarily good, but of which is, at least, his own failure. And lord knows, reading those Kanigher/Andru stories, he could have done a lot worse.
Update: and here’s a discussion of George Perez’s run…
Update 2: And part 5.