What’s at Stake: Wonder Woman and the “F” Word
It’s been less than a week and the announcement that comics writer Meredith Finch and artist-husband David Finch are taking over as Wonder Woman‘s new creative team with issue #36 is still an open sore, the constant media reminder of which continue to drive me into a fury. On the one hand, because half of the commentators hardly care or don’t see any harm in the creative change; on the other hand, because savvy writers who do get it are just as outraged.
Some might think “outrage” and “fury” are harsh, maybe even over-reactive descriptors. But consider for a moment our collective comic book fandom outrage when Orson Scott Card, homophobe extraordinaire, was slated to write 2013’s Adventures of Superman. Comics fandom won a major battle with help of media coverage, the artist Chris Sprouse, a petition by AllOut.org, and comic shop owners who refused to stock a comic written by Card. (This was not unlike the response to Gail Simone’s firing from DC’s Batgirl that got her quickly rehired.)
Recalling these moments in recent comic book history (hmm, both having to do with DC’s creative choices…), imagine now that Orson Scott Card had been asked to write a well-known gay or lesbian character, and that he had stated in interviews his desire to make the character decidedly “not that gay” or generally uninterested in the narrative purposes put to the creation of an LGBTQ comic book hero. We’d be burning down DC’s boors and firing Dan DiDio! (We should anyway after this.)
So why aren’t we now? To put my and other commentator’s frustration into context, let’s consider the facts of the Wonder Woman creative team change. On June 30th USA Today announced that Meredith and David Finch, a wife-and-husband duo, would take over Wonder Woman, signaling the end of the three-year and 36-issue-long era of Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, and to a lesser extent Goran Sužuka and Tony Akins. While this team defined an entirely new Wonder Woman steeped in the mythos of a redesigned Greek pantheon of hipster gods, badass goddesses, and an as yet unbeatable First Born, all good comic book runs must come to an end.
Alone, this announcement was a disappointment: Meredith Finch is an almost unheard of writer, unless of course you’ve read Zenescope Entertainment’s Grimm Fairy Tales Presents: Tales from Oz, a series of one-shots. Bleeding Cool, who wrote several articles based on “informed sources” starting in February 2014 about the potential for David Finch to take over drawing Wonder Woman and the suspicion that his wife, Meredith, would write, decided to take a look at one M. Finch’s oeuvre, reviewing it in view of the possibility that she might write the Amazon princess’ monthly. The reviewer, who badly needed a copyeditor, concluded that despite an abundance of sexist imagery, the comic displayed “a definite awareness of feminine stereotypes,” and, ultimately, was about warriors being warriors, “which is probably what you might want for Wonder Woman.”
Zenescope Entertainment is essentially the Playboy of the comics industry, a company whose income is derived solely from comics based on public domain fairy tale and fantasy narratives that are populated with scantily-clad, huge breasted women and the warriorest of warrior men. Their “warrior women” usually look something like the image to the left, with dialogue by M. Finch. All of this said, it is exciting to see a new female creator come on board at DC, though her politics seem to accord generally with the “we’re not feminists” stance of DC’s creative heads.
Turning away from Meredith’s inexperience, her husband, David Finch, is not the greatest artist for female characters, and the art he supplied for the “big reveal” is atrocious, unrefined, and cookie-cutter. His is a Wonder Woman who looks like she works at a strip club in order to show how empowered women are by showing their skin. In other words, a “strong female character” made for men, like basically everything else. For a discussion of some of the problems with the strong female character trope, see Shana Mlawski’s poignant article.
These were just my thoughts from the night of June 30th. Then came July 1st and the Comic Book Resources interview with M. and D. Finch. Some highlights of the interview include David Finch’s curt “No.” to the question “Have the two of you collaborated on a creative project together, either in comics or outside of it?” and the quick follow-up by Meredith, in which she points out that, in fact, she’s helped him on plotting and layouts for years. Finch then came up with a brilliant save by pointing out that he probably ignored any advice she gave, complete with “[Laughter].” What a guy!
When asked what direction the team will take, either following Azzarello’s mythos or not, Meredith responds that, “we’re definitely going to steer the book a little more into a more mainstream — I guess I’d say there will be some superhero stuff in it. It really will still be a very character-driven book, though.” The desire not to tread on Azzarello’s heels in understandable, especially for a complete newcomer to superhero comics writing. But, for me and many other readers, Wonder Woman of the New 52 has been defined by Azzarello’s reluctance to bring the book into the larger DCU, especially his resistance to incorporating Superman as a love interest. As noted in their interview, M. and D. Finch fully intend to bring in Superman.
Thus far in the interview we’ve seen variations on viewpoints regarding the type of character Wonder Woman is and should be, the genre of narratives she should be engaged in, and her level of involvement in the DCU. Azzarello’s reluctance to bring Wonder Woman into the DCU is, of course, a point of frustration for many readers, and though I highly admire his Wonder Woman run and would love to see it continue for a hundred issues, the character’s critical presence is lacking from the DCU in a major way that Superman and Batman, who have multiple books to themselves, are not. Eric Diaz at Nerdist has some solid thoughts about Wonder Woman and her current place in the New 52 line-up.
The interview ends with a question about what aspects of Wonder Woman the team hopes to play out in their opening issues of their run. M. Finch wants to write a Wonder Woman of the 1970s, a female icon of power and strength. D. Finch wants to draw “a strong — I don’t want to say feminist, but a strong character. Beautiful, but strong.” With these closing words, D. Finch articulates the central concern of this creative team change. With his final lines he highlights the greatest challenges for female characters across all media today:
- Strong women aren’t by default feminist because
- Feminist isn’t something we want to label female figures of authority
- There is an inherent and contradictory relationship between attractiveness and strength
- Superheroines must be overcome this contradictory relationship by being beautiful and strong, resulting all too often in hypersexualizations like Power Girl
I’m not the first to voice my objections: Susana Polo at The Mary Sue offers a summary of the issue, Janelle Asselin at Comics Alliance gives a short background to Wonder Woman’s entirely obvious feminist legacy, and Jenna McLaughlin at Mother Jones provides some insight from the director of the documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.
Whether commentators and Internet trolls like it or not, Wonder Woman has had obvious feminist deployments by comics writers and in the feminist movement in general, and her origin in William Moulton Marston’s bondage and male-dominance stories of the 1940s hearkens to a history of radical writers, mostly female, suggesting that the patriarchy get a taste of their own medicine. Wonder Woman’s Themyscira was an updated, superheroic version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian Herland (1915). Utopian visions of female-only worlds abound in the history of science fiction and fantasy literature.
I do not mean to suggest that feminism advocates for a replacement of the patriarchy by a matriarchy, one in which women rule over and enslave men. Rather, these examples serve the point that, like it or not, Wonder Woman is a feminist icon. However, as Lillian S. Robinson warns in Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes, we should not confuse her iconic status in the history of women’s rights and the feminist movement for feminism in general. As Shana Mlawski points out, strong female characters on their own, can harm the fight for equality for women by using scantily-clad, sexy, but strong kick-ass women to cover up the lack of social equality or justice outside of the comics, movies, and films populated by Xenas, Buffys, and Wonder Womans.
Moreover, “feminism” is a continuously evolving, often overlapping, and sometimes contradictory set of individualized, group-specific, and differently-theorized feminisms. Feminism is not a monolith, but a nexus of ideas about social justice and equality. Characters like Wonder Woman may stand as an icon, but they are far from descriptive of feminism as a whole; they describe particular feminisms. Janelle Asselin at Comics Alliance, for example, offers a critique of the current Azzarello and Chiang run, arguing that the retconning of Wonder Woman’s born-of-clay origin and the revelation that she has a father, namely Zeus, was a negative change for the character. Her biological attachment to Zeus undermined her self-made status.
What’s at stake, then, in denying Wonder Woman the feminist title is not necessarily denying that she can be analyzed as a feminist character or, even, that she will cease to be used as a feminist icon in the ways that she has been for 74 years. It is instead a misogynist attempt to rein in positive social change in the mainstream comics industry, to deny readers’ desire for characters that bring about social and ideological change not just in the DCU or the Marvel Universe, but in our world as well. It’s also a slap in the face to common sense: there’s just no humane reason not to be feminist.
We want heroes who make change, and heroes cannot make change if they are denied identities that advocate for social justice. We want a Wonder Woman who’s not afraid of the “F” word and a creative team who understands that.
At the very least, come August we’ll have a new Wonder Woman comic to turn to: Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman.