Wonder Woman Chronicles: Volume One

I cannot even begin to explain how excited I was to read this trade.  Although I’ve never read the Wonder Woman comics, I’m familiar with the character, having grown up watching old reruns of the 70’s television show.  I knew enough to recognize that Wonder Woman was the first female superhero to appear in comics, and the fact that she has stood the test of time made me eager to read her earliest adventures.  I also knew even before reading the trade that I would likely have plenty to say on the subject, especially from a feminist viewpoint.

After reading Wonder Woman’s first appearance in All-Star Comics #8, I admit I had a bad taste in my mouth.  I was intrigued by the character, but there were a fair share of instances when off-hand comments were made about stereotypical womanly behavior, for example:

wpid-20150910_185240.jpgI couldn’t help but roll my eyes at these asides.  Comments like this weren’t made about any of the male heroes I had read about, so the fact that Wonder Woman was being called out for her femininity irked me.  I found myself searching for further instances of this, making myself more and more annoyed as I read.

Going into these comics expecting to see the writing talk down to women, I began reading this trade with that mentality.  Finally I took a step back and analyzed what I was reading from a more critical viewpoint.  Yes, there are certain points in the story that seem unnecessary to the “superhero” side, and to a discerning modern reader may feel a bit sexist, but at the same time, I can’t help but think the feminine observations aren’t completely inaccurate, per se.  After all, even I paused at the first appearance of Wonder Woman’s costume to admire it:

wpid-20150910_184515.jpgI certainly couldn’t criticize the inclusion of a feminine stereotype while I was embodying one of them myself.  Maybe I was viewing these occasions with more disdain because I knew they were written in the 1940’s, a time when women were treated far from equal.  I realized it was just as unfair of me, though, to view this portrayal as anti-feminist.  After all, why can’t Wonder Woman be badass and like pretty clothes?  These characteristics are not mutually exclusive, as Wonder Woman proves.

Once I made this realization, I began appreciating her stories so much more.  Not only is Wonder Woman flat-out awesome in these comics, but her stories are so much more detailed and richly developed than basically any of the other early comics I’ve read so far.  While some of the other superhero stories feel more like outlines, with nothing included that’s not directly related to the main story, Wonder Woman’s tales feel more like a saga, with interesting, unique characters popping up in every story.

(As a side note, can we talk about how awesome Wonder Woman’s costume is here?  This is the 1940’s, yet here’s a woman sporting a strapless top and a skirt that hangs well above the knees.  Sure, the first time she sports this outfit in the comics the women call her a hussy and the men make leering comments, but these are fleeting and eventually forgotten.  Her costume further marks her liberation from the societal norm.  While as Diana she dresses like every other woman, she is free to break those rules as Wonder Woman and embrace a look that’s truer to who she really is.  While a lot of other superheroes put on masks and hide their identities, Wonder Woman saves lives as her true self.)

I was especially impressed with the portrayal of villains, who differ greatly in each story rather than being the exact same character portrayed over and over with a different face.  Likewise I was pleased to find that the culprits were equally split between men and women.  I liked seeing women in the role of criminal, but I’m glad they were not the sole villains seen here.  Excluding men from the fray might imply that Wonder Woman is stronger than all other women, but couldn’t necessarily defeat a man.  Luckily that is not the case.  Wonder Woman is an equal-opportunity ass kicker.

As though the stories aren’t entertaining enough, we are graced with truly exciting artwork.  The artwork depicted in these comics is so well developed that I’d expect it to be from at least a decade or two later.  While other comics of the time sometimes had relatively plain backgrounds or a lack of detail, Wonder Woman’s comics had richly drawn panels that were thoroughly engaging.

wpid-20150910_194815.jpgThis is a brilliant cover, even by today’s standards.  It’s visually interesting and makes you want to read more.  I’m happy to report the story lives up to the cover, and this is a trend that follows Wonder Woman throughout all of her first appearances.

Need some evidence that Wonder Woman’s stories are unique?

wpid-20150910_200851.jpgYeah no big deal, Wonder Woman’s just getting ready to compete in a lassoing competition on Paradise Island while riding a friggin kangaroo.

I’m sorry, I know everyone loves Superman, but it’s scenes like this that make his early comics look like child’s play in comparison.  I tip my hat to William Moulton Marston (writing under the pseudonym Charles Moulton), Wonder Woman’s creator, for writing such original stories, and to  Harry G. Peter for producing such vivid images to accompany them.

The entire backstory to Diana coming to the US and her life beforehand on Paradise Island (retold twice in this collection, in Sensation Comics #8 and again in Wonder Woman #1) was richly detailed and provided more backstory than Batman, Superman, or any other hero story I’ve read up to this point.  Marston created an entire world for Wonder Woman to inhabit, rather than keeping her confined to whatever individual story she’s featured in at the time.  I was especially excited to see the introduction of her famous accessories and learn their original purpose.  The symbolism of her shackles, to remind the Amazons of the danger of man, was especially poignant.  Unlike other characters’ devices, most of which are self-made, Wonder Woman’s are steeped in historical significance.  These are not just mere objects; they help define the character.

One point I feel can’t go without mentioning is the prevalence of what looks like a bondage fetish, especially in the earliest issues.  I know, most superheroes are tied up at one point in time or another, but in Wonder Woman’s comics there is a certain frequency to it that can’t be overlooked.  Not only is our heroine tied up, but peripheral characters are tied up as well, a fact that adds nothing to the story.

wpid-20150910_193612.jpgLook at this image for a moment.  This is a more richly detailed drawing of a person’s face than I came across anywhere in this entire trade, and this is only a side character who appears in one story.  The detail given to this image, the sensual drawing of the face, and the unnecessary reference to the collar, gives the story an unexpected sexual undertone.

I’m sure there are those out there who would think this is reaching, and generally I would agree.  One image does not a bondage fetish make.  However, this is something that crops up again and again, be it with unnamed women bound and bowing in the background of a panel, or with the numerous depictions of a woman literally being hogtied (often on a bed).  These images are distinctly missing from any of the other comics I’ve read so far, and while they don’t overpower the story, they’re noticeable enough.   I can’t help but hope those occurrences lessen as time passes.

Despite the inclusion of bondage references, I found these early stories to be quite progressive for their portrayal of a strong female superhero.  Some may argue there are a few points that feel old-fashioned (the focus on Wonder Woman’s love for Steve Trevor, for instance), but these examples can also be viewed as adding another dimension to the overall story, making Wonder Woman a much more developed character than any of her male counterparts.  She is not just a superhero; she is also a woman with a full range of emotions.  The fact that she can feel love yet still be strong and fearless seems to be the perfect balance of characteristics for a young reader to aspire to.  I can only hope young girls of the time read these stories and hoped to be more like Wonder Woman as a result.

Overall I was very pleased with this trade.  Wonder Woman greatly surpassed my expectations.  I am impressed with her not for being a female superhero, but for being an insanely awesome superhero regardless of gender.  Do I enjoy the fact that such a strong character happens to be a woman? Absolutely, especially considering she likely inspired every other strong female character in comics that followed her.  I thought her gender would be played up in the comics to a distracting degree.  I’m happy to report I’ve changed my tune, and now view the emphasis of her gender as just one of her many strengths.

One last note: Shout-out to Steve Trevor for being man enough to give credit where credit’s due, and always pointing out that Wonder Woman actually saved the day when everyone’s showering him with praise.  For this, I think we can all agree he’s awesome.

-Jess

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