So I have threatened on a number of occasions to blog my way through the entire William Moulton Marston/H.G. Peter run on Wonder Woman. I still don’t know if I’m going to make good on that, but at least we’ll give it a try. Starting this week, I’ll try to post on one issue each Thursday without fail unless I have something better to do, pledging to stop only when I have reached Marston’s last issue or when I feel like it.
So both longtime readers may remember that I already have spilled a lot of electrons writing about Wonder Woman #1 (here, here, and here. Most bloggers might say, hey, I’ve covered this, let’s move on to 2. But those most bloggers are not neurotic-completist me. If I’m doing a series where I blog about every Wonder Woman issue, I’m going to start with #1, damn it. Bring on the cover!
So…what’s to say that hasn’t been said? As I mentioned in the previous three posts, the first story in this issue is pretty amazing. This isn’t WW’s first appearance (she’d been appearing in Sensation Comics since 1941, the previous year) but for her own debut title Marston created what has become her more or less canonical origin (retold with some variations by George Perez in the 80s and by the WW animated movie, to name just two I’ve seen.) Compared to Superman or Batman or Spiderman, Wonder Woman’s origin is more complicated, and more unhinged by about a factor of five. Rocketed from a doomed planet? Pshaw. Parents murdered? Please. Bathed in radiation? Ha. How about created-out-of-clay-by-the-leader-of-a-race-of-loving-warrior-woman-and-then-brought-to-life-by-the-divine-will-of-Aphrodite?
That made out of clay bit still kills me, incidentally. It’s a genius fusion of Golden Age off-hand nonsense and Greek myth. It also has some surprising emotional resonances.
Those three panels are really, to me, heart-breaking, though it’s so compressed you’ll miss it if you blink. Athena teaches Hippolyta how to sculpt, and what Hippolyta chooses to create is the image of a child. She wants a kid, in other words, but she can’t have one, and so she becomes obsessed with the image she has created. She prays, and a miracle occurs; the baby comes to life. With Peter’s art, the moment that Diana is “born” is ritualized; the mother and daughter both stiff, shown in the moment before they touch in a frozen tableau, rather than in the moment when they embrace. The whole sequence seems very poignant to me; it reminds me a little bit of the end of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, where Buddy’s family is magically resurrected — or of the end of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, with its unexplained resurrection. The power in all three moments is in having the heart’s desire granted, and in the recognition that the heart’s desire just doesn’t actually get granted in this way. Love demands miracles, and a creator granting a miracle to a creation is sometimes an act of love. That’s at least provisionally part of what the Christian faith is about (a connection both Morrison and Shakespeare make.) Marston’s vision is more pagan — and, perhaps coincidentally, more female.
In Morrison and Shakespeare, men pray for the resurrection of their wives/lovers, and their wish is granted. Here, though, a woman prays to have a child. That prayer is also linked explicitly to artistic creation. Often in various misogynist discourses, you get a contrast between the creation of the artist (done by men) and the creation of children (done by women). But Hippolyta is both artist and mother; the two roles aren’t separable. The love of artist for art object, and of mother for child, are commensurate rather than opposed. Aphrodite is god of both.
I think this does a few things. Most obviously, it emphasizes Hippolyta’s femininity. She may be a warrior queen and an artist, but she’s still a woman. In contrast, the Wonder Woman animated movie that came out this year ended by essentially reprimanding Hippolyta for turning her back on children and men and family; for not being feminine and loving enough. But for Marston, you don’t need men to have family, or even, it seems, children. Women can be sculptors and warriors and Aphrodite is still their patron.
Another aspect of this scene is that it makes a fairly clear analogy between Marston and Hippolyta. After all Marston, like Hippolyta, creates Diana; and brings her to life — and I don’t think it’s too much to say, especially considering that the character was based on Marston’s wife and their lover, that he brings her to life through his love. In general, most commentators (including myself) tend to see Marston’s investment in WW as, you know, sexual; revelatory of the kind of women he wants to be with, and of the way he wants to be with them. But the link with Hippolyta suggests that Marston’s interest seems not only romantic, but aspirational; he doesn’t just want the women he portrays; he wants to be them.
That’s fetishistic too, of course; male sexual fantasies about being women are pretty common — and probably have something to do with the cross-gender identification in exploitation flicks that Carol Clover talks about in “Men, Women and Chainsaws” (though Clover herself doesn’t really make this point.) Even if it is a fetish, though, Marston goes interesting places with it. If you see him as Hippolyta in this sequence, what he wants is to be creative, like women, and a creator of children, like women, and loving, like women. It’s an idealized view, clearly, which can be problematic – but it’s not an idealized view that seems especially limiting for women in the usual ways; Diana starts out on the pedestal, after all, but she gets off it fairly quickly. Hippolyta isn’t barred from masculine activities. Indeed, in many ways Marston seems to want to be a woman as a fantasy of being more, not less masculine — stronger, more competent, even more artistic in traditionally male ways. Marston’s comic, in other words, situates male and female readers in pretty much the same way; both are supposed to look on Wonder Woman and the Amazons as ideals to emulate (both are also supposed to look at Wonder Woman and the Amazons erotically, I think..but that’s a discussion for another day, maybe.)
I also think it’s worth pointing out how odd it is in a super-hero comic to have the kind of celebration of child-hood that Marston provides. I’m thinking of the two panels that follow the three above:
The ostensible purpose, of course, is to show how strong and great Diana is — stronger than Hercules! Faster than mercury! Etc etc. But — not to be too gloppy — to a parent, every child is a wonder child. Diana is amazing, not just because she’s a super-hero, but because she’s a kid. Most male superheroes are all about being orphaned, outcast, alone, agonized, cut off by their powers and their origins. WW’s origin, on the contrary, is all about community; she has a hundred mothers who love her. If that sounds kitschy…well, yep. That second panel above in particular is both sublime and sublimely hokey. I love the elongated deer so outdistanced it doesn’t even get any motion lines, and the way it’s sleekness contrast with the frilly tree leaves above. The effect is strange, especially since the deer’s anatomy isn’t quite right; it looks like medieval drawings of horses where they didn’t have stop motion photography to show them how those creatures actually ran. At the same time, the outdoor scene, the stiffness, the indecently healthy child, all also suggest garage-sale art; something you’d find with “We love our happy home,” scrawled across it — if, you know, you’re happy home was an island populated by an all-female band of warriors.
One of the implications of this is that her story is all about security. Ground zero for her is a happy home. That’s not that unusual for girl’s fiction, I don’t think (Cardcaptor Sakura, for example, doesn’t have family angst; I don’t think Sailor Moon does either.) But in the world of comics, more geared to boys, it’s very odd, and writers tend not to know how to deal with it. (Greg Rucka’s Hiketeia is a particularly flagrant violation.)
As this suggests, the relative lack of angst in Diana’s origin is probably meant to appeal to girls to some degree. But I bet it’s also meant to appeal to, and probably to educate boys — to provide a different vision of heroism that didn’t involve clinging to outcast status and perpetrating bloody revenge.
I was reading an all ages Jeff Parker Marvel Avenger’s comic to my son recently. Giant-Girl (Janet Van Dyne) has run amok (one of those mind-control things) and the team goes to consult her father to see if he can help. Anyway, Dad starts explaining G-Girl’s origin, and at one point, Storm, I think, interrupts and says something like, “So then Giant Girl swore to avenge her mother’s death by fighting crime?” And the dad says “What? No, no. My wife’s fine. She’s away on a ski trip right now. Janet just likes to help people.” I think Marston would approve of that.
All right; so next week we’ll go to number 2. And I’ll do my best to cover more than five panels.