Sunday, 28 March 2010
Some Fantastic Place No 3: Like Gloria Steinem Said: Wonder Woman # 40 & 41
I do have a problem with any Wonder Woman that hasn't been produced by Charles Moulton, a man who was so patently out there that anything sent back to Planet Earth from Planet Moulton - aka Planet "Huh?-What-Was-That-Again?" - is worthy of our baffled and engrossed attention. Consider this quote from Moulton taken from a letter written to the historian of comic books Coulton Waugh, as quoted in Les Daniels's "Wonder Woman: The Complete History";
"Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. There isn't love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. Woman's body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male. What woman lacks is the dominance or self-assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way."
I have no idea what a love generating organ is, or how it can be measured to establish how much more love it produces than the male equivilant, but just reading Moulton's words gives me something of a psychedelic high. As a feminist, I can't help but believe that sexual and gender equality should be built on something more rigorous than "love generating organs", and I'm as uncomfortable with the idea that women should rule the world as I am with that which argues men should, but reality does looks more intense, more meaningful, and, frankly, just that little bit more charmingly bonkers through Charles Moulton's eyes.
I have a strong sense that Mr Moulton's Wonder Woman fulfills a similar purpose to his other major invention, the systolic blood-pressure test or "lie detector". Both super-heroine and lie detector can be used, I'd contend, to help uncover what sort of person a subject might actually be, although issues of Golden Age Wonder Woman comics are more reliable scientifically in this process than even the most advanced lie detector. For it is my deeply-held contention, backed up by years of opinionated experience, that anyone who declares that they aren't fascinated by the early Moulton/Harry G Peters stories is a dull dud of a reader, and quite possibly a dull dud of a person too.
Now, here's a guide to how you can use these early Golden Age Wonder Woman stories to discover the truth about even a somebody who you barely know;
You (interrogating): "Have you read "Battle For Womanhood" from Wonder Woman #5 from July 1943?"
Subject: "I have."
You: "Who else except for Wonder Woman appears in the story?"
Subject: "Er. George Washington?"
You: "Who else?"
Subject: "That really small evil scientist with the big head?"
You: "Dr Psycho. Yes. (Pause for breath.) Would you agree with me that this story was absolutely fascinating?"
Subject: "No. Not really ... "
And here Charles Moulton's invention of the fascination detector, or "Wonder Woman" as we civilians know it as, reveals the true nature of your interviewee, for a "Not really .." answer objectively reveals several things about this subject. Either (a) they don't know what "fascinating" means, or (b) they are a strangely unimaginative and obtuse individual. We shall have none of the cultural relativism here which holds elsewhere in my blogs. There is only one acceptable response to the Wonder Woman produced by Charles Moulton and his collaborators between 1941 and 1947. These stories are empirically fascinating. They may not always be narratively exciting, and they may not always be exactly fun. Lord knows, they're often absolutely barking and they're regularly ridiculous. And after a while, the sense of repetition does begin to grate.
But. But Moulton's unique and often absurd fusion of Freudianism and Feminism, of bondage and submission and various other sundry and wondersome sexual perversities, and the sheer utter intellectualised oddness of his scripts, must serve to help indicate how engaged or otherwise an individuals brain is. If you can't play around on Planet Moulton in the Wonder Woman exhibits, and feel exceedingly fascinated while you're there, then something is seriously wrong with your intellectual curiosity. With, indeed, your intellect.
I know I'm out on a limb here, but stick with me.
But of Wonder Woman since Moulton's premature death in 1947? Ah, I have endless problems with the many, many takes on Princess Diana since then. (Perhaps a "Points On The Curve" about Wonder Woman might be an appropriate way to engage with those concerns.) But Mart at the estimable "Too Dangerous For A Girl" review blog, which you should visit as soon as you're finished here using the link to your right in the "Comic Book Role Of Honour (UK)" list, inspired me to check out Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti's two-part adventure "A Murder Of Crows" in DC's current "Wonder Woman" # 40 and 41. Will we discover any pleasing moments there-in? And shall we approach the material through the tiara-shaped window or the amazonian bracelet-shaped one?
Pleasing Moment No. 1. Wonder Woman seems to have acquired a troop of intelligent, talking great apes as a bodyguard. This is an obviously fine idea. It's both absurd and simultaneously appropriate, for Moulton himself would have approved of having such an obvious symbol of male brute force under Diana's tempering control. It's also touching to see that Wonder Woman is both strong enough and kind enough to inspire loyalty and obedience from a very large and very powerful white ape. It's a wonderful conceit. I hope these apes all have their own invisible planes and invisible parachutes too. With invisible guns which fire purple-healing rays.
And I love the way that that gorilla enjoys his ears being scratched.
Pleasing Moment No. 2. Ah, that ridiculous breast-plate and those star-spangled knickers. What was charming when Mr Peters was drawing Princess Diana in the 1940s, give or take a slightly-more tasteful skirt and the occasional skin-shielding cloak, often looks at best absurd and at worst tacky and titillating when most "realistic" super-hero artists tackle it. Yet Mr Lopresti here avoids prurience, bless him, and even the threatening sheen of camp silliness. Instead, his Wonder Woman is an athlete, her few clothes a functional uniform freeing her extremities for the purpose of flinging them around at super-villains and Nazi storm-troopers.
And thankfully there's nothing sexualised at all about this Princess Diana. She's strong and she's beautiful, but she's not projecting her sexuality to exert power over others nor conforming to anyone elses' demands as to what a woman should be. I have regularly cringed and raged when Wonder Woman has been portrayed as a pair of preternaturally large breasts flying around beneath some wide be-lashed child's eyes and above a pair of hips which a twelve year girl might find constrictingly narrow. But this, this feels innocent to me, in the best sense of the word. (Indeed, in the above panel, I can even accept that daft breast-place, for this Diana, it seems to me, would be determined to wear a daft breast-place if she felt it symbolised something important, such as her Wonder Woman Foundation.)
And, forgive me if I speak from the distant and socially conservative days of the mid-70s and my youth, but I can't help but feel that Wonder Woman should regularly be seen comforting small children. Isn't that what super-heroes are for, comforting small children, in age or in spirit? There is a place for the Wolverines and Punishers of the superhero community, slashing off limbs with their bloody claws and blowing holes through communities of gangsters with their very big and noisy guns. But there's also much to be said for a strong, calm woman who can reassure a small girl and boy that a train-eating, Central American God-worm has gone now.
Pleasing Moment No. 3. I'm entranced by Wonder Woman's stance in this panel. She looks as if she were stepping back and taking a breath after sternly if quietly scolding a small dog that has run its claws up the side of a old sofa. That she's staring rather at a gargantuan Mesoamerican deity who she's just compelled to vomit up an entire ingested subway train serves to underline how very powerful she is. She doesn't need to pose. She knows that she's worthy of respect, both according to her rank and because of her achievements. And our Mesoamerican god Quetzlotl certainly agrees. I love the way that he knows her, that he is respectful of her, and that he apparently genuflects while speaking her title: "I am sorry, Princess." Ms Simone's sense of how important Princess Diana is is charmingly understated, in that there's no reeling off of endless titles and mythical protocols, but the point is clear. This is a very important (Wonder) Woman.
And of course Princess Diana, daughter of Queen Hippolyta of The Amazons, would be known by the great deities of Central America, and by those of everywhere else too. That juxtaposition of the mythical and the contemporary, the mundane city-scape and the mystical train-eating deity, that's something which suffused the more modest designs of Mr's Moulton and Peters. And I'm pleased to see it's spirit here, almost 70 years after Wonder Woman's first appearance.
Pleasing Moment No. 4. In her famous introduction to the 1972 hardback collection of Charles Moulton Wonder Woman adventures, the then-stratospherically-famous feminist Gloria Steinem touchingly explained how she became so enamoured of Wonder Woman at the age of 8. "No longer did I have to pretend to like the "pow!" and "crunch!" style of Captain Marvel or the Green Hornet ... Here was a heroic person who might conquer with force, but only a force that was tempered by love and justice." And here we see those qualities of strength and restraint still extant as Diana gracefully sways to avoid the haymakers thrown by the far more aggressive Power Girl. I love how, contrary to superhero tradition, Lopresti avoids drawing Diana's face as being contorted with teeth-grinding rage. In fact, how remarkably benign her face is, relaxed almost to the point of contempt while facing an opponent who has previously punched her into Canada. This is battle as strategy, not a test of determination and machismo, not a question of ego and rage but a matter of calculation and will and regret. This is not, on the whole, how men fight. And all the better for it.
I think that Mr Moulton, and Ms Steinem, would have approved of the spirit, if not necessarily the form, of this panel. Huzzah to Ms Simone and Mr Lopresti.
Pleasing Moment No. 5. As we already discussed in "Some Fantastic Place No 1", "Spooky little killer children are always entertaining villains." And these little horrors, in their school uniforms almost straight out of "Village Of The Damned", the 1960 film adaption of John Wyndham's "The Midwich Cuckoos", provide us with a pleasingly beguiling mixture of malice and good manners. (I can't say that I approve of how Diana eventually punishes them, however. Too many years in the English school system has made it impossible for me to approve of extra-judicial corporal punishment, or "spanking" to be disturbingly explicit. )
Result: For my mind, a pseudo-realistic superhero universe is still an uncomfortably inappropriate environment for Wonder Woman to play out her adventures in. Like poor old Captain Marvel, I can't help but feel that she is a creature of fancy and fairy tale, far better suited in some ways to guest-starring with Rupert The Bear than with the grim'n'gritty super-heroics of the contemporary DC Universe. But I will happily concede that if she must continue to be shoe-horned into this flatter, less magical landscape than that of her creator's original imaginings, then Ms Simone and Mr Lopresti's vision is both respectful and entertaining. Which is, I must say, a result. Huzzah!