52/1: Myth and wonder, blood and brothers
One year into DC’s reboot of their primary continuity, known as the New 52, Idler comics writer Matt Santori-Griffith and co-editor Gavin Craig are taking stock of some of the high points. This week, they talk about Wonder Woman’s revitalized mythology, and how family seems to be a central concern of the best titles of the New 52.
Matt: It strikes me as very curious that all of the books we chose to discuss for this month devoted to DC’s New 52 have central themes — if not dominating themes — about family. And not constructed families, but families bound by blood. Of all of them, Wonder Woman definitely hits this note the hardest.
Gavin: Out of all the New 52 titles, Wonder Woman for me has been the biggest surprise, although maybe it shouldn’t be. As a member of DC’s “trinity,” Wonder Woman has often felt like the junior member, in sales or big memorable stories if not power or character. When I’ve dipped into Wonder Woman in the past, she’s felt like someone different almost every time. Which is fine for a character like the Joker, but not for a daughter of the Amazons. Giving her a family seems to have been a good move. It’s given her a center. And worthy antagonists.
Matt: Which is interesting, because I have the opposite reaction. I have read Wonder Woman every month for nearly 30 years and feel like we haven’t seen THAT much variety in her perspective over time. That’s not a dig at any previous run, but for me points to a certain preciousness about her character that the other two members of the Trinity aren’t as subject to. Azzarello and Chiang have taken a great departure from what has come before, and I am enjoying it if even just for what it implies about her iconic (or dare I say mythological) nature.
Gavin: Yeah, I think what I’m talking about would be more an impression of inconsistency — probably growing out of a central uncertainty in the casting of Diana’s character. She’s normally been a character sort of torn between two worlds — Themyscira and the mortal world — but not entirely at home in either. Done well, that sort of tension can be really rich, but if a writer is uncertain about the character, or not totally comfortable in both those worlds, it can lead to weak storytelling. I love that Azzarello has basically cut that Gordian knot.
Matt: Well, Diana being torn between two worlds has been a factor over time at certain points (most notably during George Perez’s magnificent post-Crisis run on the title), but more often than not, her mother and sisters have been made inaccessible to her by a variety of plot devices. So many times, I have a hard time imagining the tension as that real any more. But the tension between being human and being godly? Now that’s a new one. And exceedingly interesting.
Gavin: The way that Azzarello has revealed Diana’s new history — not shaped from clay by her mother and given life by the gods, but the biological daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta, a fact hidden from Diana in order to protect her (and Paradise Island) from Hera — has been a big part of what makes the title work. As you said when we were talking about Bruce Wayne and the Court of Owls, it’s a retcon, but it’s not just an abrupt change, it’s written as information that was hidden from Diana and the world for a reason, and we get to share in Diana’s readjustment to her new understanding of herself.
Matt: Right. And it’s funny, but other than a few minor details (not being able to fly until #12), I can’t reasonably think why Diana’s entire post-Crisis history can’t still be in play. Until we’re told otherwise.
Gavin: And that’s probably a big observation worth making about the New 52: For a continuity-altering reboot, it’s left room for a lot of great old stories to be able to carry forward — titles like Batwoman and Batman Incorporated are big obvious examples where the reboot affects almost nothing, but DC (at least in some places) has done an amazing job of letting writers take a character in a new direction in a way that’s still amazingly faithful to who they’ve been in the past. (Like Barbara Gordon, for example.)
Matt: I understand the frustration many DC Comics fans (and in particular long-time Wonder Woman fans) have experienced, but I also think we don’t have a lot of perspective on what’s being accomplished here yet. Being able to break from previous storylines in such a way that doesn’t necessarily negate anything, but allows the writers to pick and choose what aspects of a character to emphasize, really reinforces how legendary these icons are. Comic books are modern mythology, and like the different portrayals of the Greek gods (over centuries, but heck, even just over the last 20 years in Wonder Woman), there’s always another angle or interpretation to enjoy. Some will get revisited. Ultimately, they are all true.
Gavin: “Ultimately they are all true.” I think that’s exactly right. I think you really can’t undervalue what Azzarello has done in terms of recasting Diana’s place in the cosmos, especially since while it might seem to lend itself to criticism as character aggrandizement (“Oh great, not only is she an AMAZON, now she’s Zeus’s daughter.”), but there’s a way in which Diana has been sort of set apart from the general superhero universe. I’m really happy to see that she’s starting to show up in titles like Batwoman, but I think it’s no accident that she hasn’t had any guests in her own title. Characters like Bruce Wayne always seemed a bit uncomfortable on Olympus, but I almost have a hard time imagining someone like Apollo even deigning to take notice of him.
Matt: I had thought about the break from compartmentalization with the Batwoman/Wonder Woman team-up as a good thing almost exclusively from the Batwoman side, but it’s true in relation to Diana’s title as well. Re-reading Wonder Woman 1-12 as a set was pure joy, but the opportunity to see a little bleed over from the main DC Universe is tempting as well.
I don’t necessarily think of the recasting of Diana as Zeus’ daughter is that prone to the criticism of aggrandizement as much as it has been offensive to those who preferred an exclusively female-centered origin for Diana’s birth and development.
Gavin: Makes sense, although I’ve really appreciated the portrayal of the derision Diana got from at least some of the other Amazons. Even as the perfect Amazon, untainted by the touch of man, things aren’t perfect.
Matt: That actually speared my heart a little. “Clay.” Honestly, what a cruel name. But it is a little unbelievable that a nation of any human beings, exclusively female or not, could be so idyllic as to never resent their monarchy or the princess who everyone loves just a little bit more than each one of them.
Gavin: No one wants a perfect sibling.
Matt: Of course, Diana certainly doesn’t have to worry about standing above her newfound siblings in the same way. It’s not a question in my mind that Diana is a better woman, person, or god than Strife or Apollo, but they certainly wouldn’t think so.
Gavin: Getting back to the question of family, I agree wholeheartedly that throwing Diana into the middle of a big, confusing, lumpy family with conflicting desires and shifting loyalties has been the single best storytelling move Azzarello could have made. I think that you’re right that a big part of what makes Diana’s story right now compelling is the way that all of her struggles have been given the urgency of blood relation, but I think that he’s doing something else as well. I was really happy that we got to run our conversation about the various Robins as an “outtake,” because it has a lot to do with what’s going on here. We talked a bit about the additional tension in Bruce and Damien Wayne’s relationship because he’s the first Robin, the first of Bruce’s many sons to be a blood relation. But it’s really important that while Damien’s blood relation means that Bruce feels responsible for Damien’s shortcomings in a way that he doesn’t for, say, Jason Todd, it’s also true that to Bruce and Alfred (and I think most of us) all of the Robins are Bruce’s sons. Ward, adoptee, or biological, they’re all family.
Now this is a really tough thing to try to portray — that is, family of choice or circumstance as not being lesser than biological or traditional family construction. There’s something Azzarello can do with the Greek gods that’s otherwise challenging (but not quite impossible) — he can create blood relations that actually do a better job of portraying the complexity and contingency of blood relation by taking advantage of the prolificacy of immortality, as well as its destruction of normative family relations based on age seniority.
Matt: I’ve been thinking about this blood versus constructed family thing a lot lately as well, because of my recent look at Hopeless Savages. There actually aren’t that many blood related families in comics. Lots of orphans. Many many constructed families that I hold extremely dear. But outside of the Fantastic Four, not many “families” come from requirement rather than choice. The Olympians are far more a family of requirement for Diana than one of endearment, and I don’t get the sense that that will ever change. However, it’s curious, because her strongest tie at the moment is to Zola, the woman who will bear her half-brother, and to whom she’d really not be related to in even the most generous of family trees. What is it about Zola’s predicament that compels such loyalty in Diana? I’d argue that it’s not about family or her situation at all. It’s that she needs help. Azzarello’s Diana is no different than any previous iteration. She is selfless and as she tells her uncle Hell, “I love everyone.”
That, by the way, was the moment I lost any doubt about whether or not Azzarello gets Diana. If you understand that Diana simply loves everyone, you understand her everything.
Gavin: Indeed. The entire world is family to Diana. Blood (in the traditional sense) doesn’t have much to do with it. She helps the one most in need of help. Zola perhaps even more than her child. On Olympus, everyone is family, and no one loves anyone. Diana is the mirror image of that. Except for Hephaestus! I love him. “No one loves himself more than Eros.” — “And I love [him] even more that that.” He’s the one character who could say that in this comic — the most traditional expression of paternal love — and I totally believe him.
Matt: I agree. And Hephaestus illuminated Diana’s biggest failing as well when she attempted to liberate her Amazon brothers from their “slavery.” At the end of the day, Wonder Woman lives in a world of black and white. Moral greys don’t really factor in. Once decided on a course of action, she acts, and while that makes her an exceedingly strong super-hero, it produces a conundrum at times, particularly in regard to family.
Gavin: “I’m not always right.” Acting and not always being right is just about the perfect formula for good fiction. Or even better, drama, in the ancient Greek sense. As opposed to Strife’s drama, in the contemporary sense.
Matt: Upon re-reading, I absolutely adored that Strife was not a traditional villain, nor even much of an antagonist for Diana, but almost a big sister ruthlessly teasing her little sister.
Gavin: Strife is great. She does nothing but tell the truth.
Matt: Any thoughts on historical/mythological versus comic book literary influences for the Amazons?
Gavin: Not a whole lot specifically, except that it’s another good example of drawing the best of old sources while not feeling limited by them. Kind of like the character design. Every mythological character in Wonder Woman feels like they’re totally in character, and how great is it that they’re not all just drawn as traditional chiseled-marble humans in togas? There are a lot of great reveals in Wonder Woman‘s first year, but Poseidon’s full-page introduction (which is actually drawn by Tony Atkins) was astounding.
Matt: There is something so… ugh, I don’t have the word… elementary about the standard comic book depiction of the gods. Poseidon’s reveal was definitely a highlight, but so too was that last image of Hell staring into his reflection before Diana shot him with Eros’s revolver. For as monstrous as some of them are, they too are weak and vulnerable.
Gavin: I love Hades/Hell. Drawing him as a small boy with an emo candle-wax obscured face is just perfect. He’s all hurt feelings and inadequacy.
Matt: I also loved that you never saw Aphrodite’s face when she appeared in issue 9, as if the comic book panel couldn’t adequately describe her beauty anyway.
Gavin: You made the point about comic books being modern mythology, and I think the reverse is true as well. Myths were the comic books of their day — Homer’s vivid depictions of how spears destroyed people’s faces and knocked out their teeth as they died — and Azzarello and Cliff Chiang really letting their imaginations run wild on how the gods look as well as what they do is actually more faithful to the ancient myths than it would be to draw the gods as walking Greek statuary. After all, what have the gods been doing all these years? It’s exactly right that War has never had a moment of rest, and that Eros would never let himself look less than perfect, whatever perfect means at the particular time.
There’s also a moment I caught re-reading #4 that I skimmed past on my first read. When Hera confronts Hippolyta, she asks Hippolyta how she could have betrayed her as another woman. Hera is interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the Amazons to protect their queen, but in the last moments that the two are alone, Hera asks “What did he say to make you love him? What can I do to make him. . .” She never finishes that sentence, but it’s clear that she’s asking Hippolyta what she can do to make Zeus love her. It’s heartbreaking. Again, the vulnerability behind the rage.
Matt: I felt the exact same thing. These gods are so fallible. The concern has been that Diana’s characterization has seemed weak (although that’s not one I personally subscribe to), but if anything, we’re starting to see a Wonder Woman who is so much more together than her brethren, even in her most vulnerable moments. And then, there’s her powers. The reimagining of Diana’s bracelets (which have not directly represented submission for her alone since pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths) as holding BACK her power, not simply adding to it, is brilliant.
Gavin: I think the key to Wonder Woman’s strength, especially compared to her family, is that she owns her vulnerability, her love. She doesn’t hide them under force like the rest of her family, which is why they’re each overwhelmed by their vulnerabilities. I love how Diana’s powers are still becoming clear to us and (mostly) to her. It wasn’t totally clear before #12 that she couldn’t fly, although she can apparently walk on water.
Matt: So now we have a Wonder Woman whose power level is unknown. That’s more than a little exciting. So many years, debates have gone on about whether she is at Superman’s level or not. Who cares? This is an entirely different ballgame, my friends.
Gavin: Exactly. I love how many times when we’ve asked specific detail or continuity questions, the answer has come back to “who cares?” I think you and I can obsess over detail with the best of them, but that’s been one of the big shortcomings of previous attempts to “clean up” continuity. It’s about telling a great story. You need to be consistent within the bounds of the story you’re telling, but that’s it.
Matt: There have been a lot of cosmetic changes. Diana wields a much larger arsenal than just her lasso, frequently brandishing a sword. No longer an American resident, Diana lives in a London flat and frequents a metropolitan dance club. Perhaps reflecting this move, her costume has a much darker palette. For me, these items have really illuminated, rather than obscured, some of the things that I love dearly about Diana. Her wit. Her adaptability. Her kick-assness.
Gavin: I think you hit on it when you talked about her iconic nature. As a big Batman geek, I’d be the first to say that what makes him so great isn’t the consistency of his continuity, it’s the way that he’s infinitely malleable and still totally recognizable. If DC has finally recognized that about Diana, then we’re in for some great comics, and Chiang and Azzarello had a big hand in that realization. It almost (almost) pains me to say it, but as good as Snyder’s Batman is, I’d put Wonder Woman up as the best title of the New 52, every single month.
Matt: Totally agree. It’s not my heart’s favorite (as Batgirl holds that precious space), but it is probably my brain’s. And frankly, it’s not that far behind on the heart, either.
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He works a day job as an art director for several non-profit organizations, but spends his dark nights and weekends fighting the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.