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?

You decide.

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!


.

17 comments:

  1. Last year, Noah Berlatsky at the Hooded Utilitarian blog (which has since moved to tcj.com) developed a fascination with Wonder Woman that led to a long series of posts analyzing those early issues and comparing later revisions of the character.

    It was sometimes very disturbing stuff--weird things were happening in this guy's head--but you're right... in its own way, it was fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for the links, Wesley. I suppose it was obvious how I'd enjoy reading more about this whole business. I really do appreciate you taking the time to nudge me along in the right direction.

    I think what makes Moulton's "weird things" so fascinating is ultimately that he had a bright mind & (what appears to have been)a kind heart. Usually weirdness of this magnitude seems to come from dark, and not light, places, but not with Moulton.

    ReplyDelete
  3. What a wonderful essay - full of great ideas and superbly written. See why I'm keeping the cat?

    It'll be interesting to see what J Michael Straczynski does as WW writer. And just as Gail and Aaron had hit their stride. Sigh.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I see no correlation between what I've written and my cat, Mart. Even if you weren't just being kind about this blog, you must know that keeping the cat won't help you write as glibbly & shallowly as this. (I don't even think that "shallowly" is a word.) You're too good for that.

    So. Kitty to me. Please.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I love the first issues of Wonder Woman-waaay back in the 40s....great article BTW

    celsius

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you, Celsius. It's kind of you to say so.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've written some sort of article like this (on spanish, as i'm from Spain), due to the fact I was also impressed with first issues of WW by Moulton.

    The thought of love plus submission to save the world, yet being entertaining and kindly was a shock for me, even when you considerate the naive ideas of Moulton.

    You know, "The Only real happiness for anybody is to be found in obedience to loving authority." :D

    Glad Simone is taking back the characters to his roots, as I had enough of seeing she beating starro, Achilles and others ridiculous beat'm up guys. For some reason, Diana seems to be ok when she's on JLA though.

    Excuse my awful english, as im not a native english person.

    ReplyDelete
  8. to Ryo99: Thank you for your kind words, and please don't worry about your English. The sense of what you're saying came through very clearly!

    ReplyDelete
  9. You know, it's funny, I remember thinking Ms. Simone's run had suddenly gotten a little more Marston. Though it may have just been the spanking and the refusal to engage in the childish superhero Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots match.

    I also liked how her dealing with Quetzlotl sort of subverted something Ms. Simone has been guilty of herself - a tendency to sort of add some, I don't know, bad-ass cred to Wonder Woman by making her the axe-wielding Wolverine of the mythological world. That whole concept sort of goes against the whole reformation/healing theme of the character.

    Hm, not trying to be a downer here... I've wanted to write something similar for Wonder Woman to what you've done for Aquaman but I would appear to be too undisciplined a writer/human being to get it out. Lots of thoughts, though!

    Really enjoy the blog, by the way! It's good work and nice to see someone looking with a little less cynicism.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hello Mr Bretterson! I was SO cheered about what you said in your comment. You know, I've been cynical all my life, and I'm not sure it's a position that's been very good for me. That doesn't mean I want to reject critical standards at all. I'm an old stickler there! But I feel there's alot of good out there in the world, including the world of comics, that sometimes I don't notice because I'm being negative. So I'm going to try and see the sunny side abit more than I have; to be honest, I've loved being positive about the comics I love where I honestly feel so & everything feels more ... well, more alive, I guess. Good point, Mr B.

    I've been fascinated to read your comments, and those of JAMES above, about the current run on WW. As I say, it was Mart at the TooDangerousForAGirl blog who got me curious about WW, and all I've seen so far is #41 & 42. My disposable income isn't as it was, & so I have to economise where previously I would have indulged! As I said, I thoroughly enjoyed the Aquetzlotl incident in # 40. My feeling was that Ms Simone wasn't trying to make WW too "bad-ass" a character: my feeling is that she already that "bad-ass" a character! I think that whole problem of WW being a warrior & a woman of peace was one which could be easily squared in her original magical universe: it's much harder in today's superhero worlds, but I DID like & respect a great deal of what I read. I've always thought very well of Ms Simone, but of course I respect those that disagree as long as it doesn't get personal.

    Thank you for mentioning my Aquaman blogs. When I wrote them, I thought they were my blogger suicide note, never thought anyone would ever find them, let alone read them. People have been very kind & their feedback has led to me rethinking alot of what I wrote.

    I would love to read a "Points On The Curve" on WW from you. Why not just add a paragraph on your blog The Immateria at http://route32.blogspot.com/ as you go. The great thing about blogging, I find, and I'm really new to it, & I hope I don't seem to be teaching grandpa & grandma to suck eggs, is that you can take little steps at a time & then you turn around and ... well, there it is!

    I hope to hear from you again. Take care!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I imagine that Morrison will be very, very keen to re-appropriate a bit of Marston. Unfortunately it's not entirely clear that he's going to get a stab at the character now that JMS's tenure on her monthly has been announced. The twittersphere is speculating that Grant might be writing one of those Earth Wotsit OGN's. I hope so - would be the closest we're likely to get to All Star Wonder Woman.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hello Zom. I can't tell you how pleased I am to hear from one of the Mindless Ones, and I hope that anyone reading these comments will consider nipping straight away off to http://mindlessones.com/. It'll be good for them,

    If anybody could square the circle that is fantasy heroine ('40s version) & costumed superhero (2010 version), then Morrison writing out of continuity would probably be the man. You're quite right, Zom. Some folks have shuddered at the idea, but who is more off-the-wall and yet respectful than Mr Morrison, and wall-off-ness is a major requirement for a job of this magnitude.

    Yet I find myself feeling intensely empathetic to Ms Simone & all of those who take on the task of writing WW in the standard superhero universe. It's as if WW is one of those extra-dimensional creatures from Lovecraft whose true appearance can only be partially perceived in modern-DC land, though hers is a benign presence, of course. And I can't blame DC for wanting WW functioning in continuity, for it makes economic sense, certainly in the short-to-medium term. Nor can I find the slightest temptation to damn in any measure at all those creators who so nobly attempt and often largely succeed in making Diana shine in the strange half-world she's placed in. But it is a really tough call. The toughest job in mainstream superhero comics? I think so. And that's another reason why I enjoyed as I did the material I wrote about here.

    ReplyDelete
  13. BTW, Gotham City Sirens is almost as good as it's WW currently. First issues are lame but it's going better and better with each new release.

    Harley is so charming and refreshing, and Ivy it's a lot darker and minded about her plants and human relationships.

    Can't think of a better DC title, besides Tiny Titans.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I put something up and I hope it is at least readable. Don't want to take up room in your comment section talking about me, but I'd be interested if you have any thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hello again, Mr Bretterson. And you're not taking room up here at all. I hope anyone interested in Wonder Woman will hit the "Mr Bretterson" link above this comment & go and have an enjoyable read of one man's thoughts on a character he thinks alot of. I have & with all honesty did not for one moment regret the visit.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Given your enjoyment of Greg Rucka's Batwoman and Gotham Central, you might find a lot to love in his Wonder Woman run. Rucka's run was the first time I'd honestly been compelled to pick up and read her solo adventures rather than enjoy Grant Morrison and others' tales of her on the Justice League.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hello K.D.:- thank you for the recommendation, and for taking a look at a piece that isn't current on the blog.

    Greg Rucka is someone I fear I'm going to have to spend a large amount of time and money going back and enjoying. I think I'm holding back for fear that I've not quite either the time or money to really splurge upon his back-catalogue. But I think WW is the right spot to jump in. OK, will do, and my thanks for the nudge!

    ReplyDelete