To examine this debate, I sat down with Will West of williambrucewest.com. He’s forgotten more about popular culture than I’ve ever know, and he provides expert commentary on the history of Wonder Woman, financial pressures of superhero comics and the comics industry, the impact of feminist critiques of modern comics, and much more!
This is a discussion you do NOT want to miss! A half-hour of brilliant superhero comics commentary to answer the question: Why Wonder Woman?
Zack Snyder cast Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman for the upcoming Man of Steel sequel, thereby ending months of speculation about the possible portrayal of DC Comics’ oldest nod to feminist virtue and grrl power. Previously seen by American audiences in the recent Fast & Furious movies, Gal Gadot’s casting has been met with equal praise and derision. My initial response is hearty, heartfelt, and honest.
As a child, I did not collect comics weekly. At ten, I lacked the funds and access to a friendly neighborhood comic book shop. Travel to the closest store required leaving Black suburban safety, crossing highways and railroad tracks, and strolling through an alien White community three miles away to feed a Cable and Nightwing habit. No. Besides, graphic novels offered complete story arcs, so to read new comics I would cajole my mother into forking over twenty dollars American (not including sales tax) each time I wished to depart Waldenbooks in Chesapeake Square Mall with the Spider-Man Clone Saga, or Batman: Contagion.
I loved those comics. Time-travel maxiseries like 1991’s Time and Time Again hurled Superman though linear time, stretching the limits of invulnerability and relativity, while Elseworlds like Superman: Speeding Bullets questioned our familiarity with the World’s Finest origins by neatly merging their narratives. (That’s right: the Waynes find the rocket from Krypton, but Joe Chill still finds them. What’s not to like?) I’d spend long hours on a unrolled forest green foam mat in my backyard, broiling under unrepentant sun, inhaling freshly cut grass, reading voraciously. Dogs barked, mosquitoes feasted, friends and foes alike traded concussions on manicured gridirons, and a stack of dog-eared and comfortable trade paperbacks proved my only companions.
I retain those memories, but lost the passion. Details, not desire. I don’t read superheroes that way anymore. When you follow characters as a child, immaturity confers humanity. Reality and fiction did not blur in my mind; no manner of computer-aided pencils and India ink could make Wally West outrace Carl Lewis. But there was an innocence when I was young! Back then, comic characters shouted and ran and jumped and fought, they foiled the dastardly and protected the innocent, they managed corporations and wrote opinion columns and discovered unknown elements – they stole the texture of life, if not it’s flavor. They did things! Childhood aches – we constantly reach for increased freedom as children, without the patience to care about dangers we can’t fathom. For superheroes, danger is not relevant. Save the day, win the girl, defeat Darkseid – that matters.
But let’s admit, the price of the ticket is Whiteness. When most people close their eyes and imagine a Superhero, the vast majority envision a strapping White male, muscular and determined, with steely blue eyes and biceps that can curl Ford pickups. That’s the starting point. That’s what nearly a century of comic art imprints on the Western mind. Even as every other facet of the shared global experience publicly acknowledges non-European populations’ economic and political contributions, the American comic industry and its burgeoning film components routinely place the same pale Olympian specimens on the power fantasy as global hero altar. Millions of people pay to watch sweat bead under a stringy, half-braided blond mop while a bodybuilder bleeds under a scarlet cape, writhing in agony below an unforgiving world’s cloudy grey sky, the treachery of his wayward trickster brother foremost in his thoughts.
I watched two young women in the audience for a local showing of Thor: The Dark World. These portly, pockmarked brunettes guffawed at every tasteless joke, swooned with every Chris Hemsworth half-smile, and embraced the silence of attraction whenever Thor exposed his shirtless glory. You could pen a long treatise on the tyranny of conformity these images promote, you can YouTube a discussion on the irresponsible corporate socialization inherent in selling a film about a White male god who runs around planet Earth hammering foes into submission, but none of this will change the heady lust in those girls’ eyes. That gaze is uncritical of Thor’s geopolitical implications, his brazen sexism, even his indifference to high school physics. Hell, that gaze could care less that the movie sucked! Taut muscle, metallic spandex and Australian features sold admission. The obvious objective of Thor: The Dark World is capitalist: sell as many movie tickets and as much official memorabilia as possible. All of it — the sweaty masculinity, the computer-generated effects, the human deer impersonation Natalie Portman called acting, the annoying Kat Dennings camp – contributes to that objective. The end result was a terrible forced lobotomy of a movie, devoid of narrative coherence, enjoyable characters, and compelling visuals. Thor: The Dark World is, quite possibly, the worst thing Marvel has ever done.
And I can’t imagine what would improve about that film if they made Thor Black.
The Walking Dead, AMC’s smash-hit zombie apocalypse action-drama, owes much of its success to the general interest in and support for gore-infested violence by American audiences. This season’s premiere raked in 16.1 million viewers, and devoured more 18-49 year old view attention than this season’s N.F.L. games. Thanks to Jenn Reappropriate’s conference commitments, I watched and live-tweeted “Infected!”, last-night’s episode , and my perspective and mild spoilers follow.
Robert Kirkman’s dystopia appealed as a comic because, during most of its run, the narrative focus highlighted human survivors. Rick’s post-traumatic insanity, Sophia’s alternate mental universe, Carl’s sociopathic nihilism, and even Michonne’s clumsy sexuality all fell within what reader would recognize as human responses to the unreasonable events presented by The Walking Dead. One of the most useful moments in the comic happens somewhere in the Prison, when Rick, in a frenzied monologue, explains the nature of the new world no meek can inherit.
I can scarcely imagine a worse waste of digital celluloid: flying spears thrown from thin, gangly limbs, a star-spangled miniskirt threatening wardrobe malfunctions for two and a quarter hours, unblemished ivory skin strained under gold and platinum body armor, practicality be damned. Wonder Woman the movie — fangirl nirvana, fanboy nightmare. Whenever people discuss the needless parade of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who populate superhero movies’ starring roles, part of me appreciates their boredom with the obnoxious identity politics at play; what was The Avengers but a classic fraternity bro-down with human growth hormone, outdated mythology and colorful titanium tossed in for kicks?
The problem is that my stunted imagination cannot anticipate a Wonder Woman movie that would rise above such over-budgeted B-movie camp. For many, it shouldn’t — some progressives argue that corporate movie studios owe their female fans a film that highlights feminine superheroics, a movie that proves that women can helm action films and generate revenue with amoral vengeance as violent as any man’s. I find this argument wanting. Corporate movie studios are not public charities, and the thought of spending one-hundred-fifty million dollars to offer American little girls a superheroine to idolize appears to my mind an obnoxious misuse of movie funding. (That’s like nine Fruitvale Stations). Superhero comics involve White male power fantasies — when creators and fans support properties that challenge this monochrome status quo, we can applaud and demand more.
“The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.”
—Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont, 1981
A widely-held defense of Marvel Comics’ X-Men states that their stories chronicle the trials of an emergent minority who are hated and feared by the rest of humanity. Race presents the easiest and most popular application of this comic allegory, and casts Magneto’s mutant uplift through global terrorism perspective against the global harmony across cultural boundaries philosophy of Professor Charles Xavier. The parallel beckons: we are to understand Magneto as Malcolm X and respect Prof. Xavier as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Separation or integration, with superpowers. The African American political divide, replacing melanin with the mutant gene.
But when we examine this metaphor in the context of major X-Men storylines in comics, animation, and television, we observe an alternate reality where a human being can gain extra-normal abilities like flight and super speed through the caprice of the genetic lottery, a new world where those not blessed with pyrokinesis or healing factors vote for dogmatic politicians who shuttle public money into robotics programs designed to meet the clear and present danger posed by this modern American minority with lethal force. In the X-Men, Prof. Xavier promotes mutual cooperation and understanding between humans and mutants, while Magneto argues for violent uprising against human oppressors, and the creation of an independent mutant state. Of course, this is offensively sloppy thinking, a political reduction so dramatic it approaches bad comedy.
My parents attended different Baptist churches in my hometown, vibrant, bright places of worship where suburban Blacks developed a respectful, life-affirming, joyous relationship with a living God. Each Sunday meant uptempo gospel music, dedicated Bible study, and hour-long sermons on the spiritual uplift offered through Christian precepts. This was the Black church: fine clothing, expensive hats, smiling children, gaunt deacons, relaxed tresses, choir robes, public praise, Negro spirituals, religious supplication, spiritual uplift. For my neighbors, for my mother, church was the emotional recharge, the soul cleansing needed before Monday morning’s journey into corporate White villainy. I don’t pretend the same of my father; I always found his belief an extension of his duty to family and country. Still personal, but reserved, stately, imperial.
My mother would sing in church. For years, she gave up her Sundays to care for an ancient grandmother and her elderly son; when the grandmother passed in a tragic hospital fire, my mother’s return to the church jumpstarted her perspective. She learned to smile again. Church meant community, friends, gossip for the jealous, and prayer for the troubled. For me, church was ostracism. I loved science fiction and comic books — Jean-Luc Picard and Jean-Paul Valley — and my irrepressible skepticism toward Biblical stories reaped disapproval from peers and adults alike. Church was high drama and high emotion; weighty secular concerns like systemic poverty and environmental racism did not, in my opinion, respond to the power of prayer. So I skipped, usually by taking so long to prepare myself on Sunday mornings that waiting for me risked tardiness, and watched new episodes of Star Trek.
Sand without end. Sand that cakes upon people and things, children and toys, mothers and baby bottles. Sand on the productive and listless alike. Desert sand. Sand that obscures hope and defines poverty. The opening scenes of Elysium, director Neill Blomkamp’s recent sci-fi thriller, center the viewer in a ruined Los Angeles, circa 2154, populated by an undifferentiated brown stuff only George Orwell could appreciate. American Marrakech. Quickly, we learn that the only people who live in this God-awful Depression postscript are those without means; an undeveloped protagonist dreams of Elysium, where poverty, war, sickness, and even death have been vanquished by man. Heaven, not on Earth, but above. The nun who listens with ancient grace cautions the roguish boy. “That place is not for us.”
The beginning is the worst best time in a comic – either the material lives up to its promise, and offers something interesting and lively, or the collaboration between words and art wastes trees with hackneyed prose and sloppy pencils, and you feel cheated out of four bucks. Here’s hoping I don’t leave you feeling played.
I read comics because I did not easily make friends in elementary school. I was not shy or awkward. I knew the answers. To everything. Every question in arithmetic or social studies posed by our teachers left my hand raised amid a sea of the darker nation’s bright shining apathy, children who despised both their ignorance and my knowledge. (Maybe they were just being young.) No matter – I wanted friends. Badly. I did not make them, so my mother introduced me to a world where friends were plentiful and perpetual. She purchased my first Archie comic.