Out for Justice

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The New York Sun

Wonder Woman has had her bottom spanked by glassy-eyed adult babies from Grown-Down Land. She has been rendered helpless by the prehensile moustache of Egg Fu, a 30-foot-tall, communist egg. She has been turned into a gorilla against her will, battled villains as depressing as the Paper Man (who has all the powers of paper) and the Mouse Man (who controls mice with his mind), and her own mother has tried to kill her on more than one occasion. But never before has Wonder Woman faced an enemy as demoralizing as the ones she’s found in 2007 — the 66th year, this month, of her super life.

Two years ago, Joss Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” was hired to write and direct a Wonder Woman feature film for Warner Bros., but in February of this year, Mr. Whedon abruptly walked off the project, saying in an interview, “I would go back in a heartbeat if I believed that anybody believed in what I was doing. The lack of enthusiasm was overwhelming.” Ten months later, producer Joel Silver shelved the movie indefinitely.

Over in her own comic book, the news hasn’t been much better. In 2006, Wonder Woman publisher DC Comics had one of those “can’t miss” big ideas that somehow always seem to miss. A companywide revamp of its titles (which also include Superman and Batman) was under way, and at its conclusion, Wonder Woman, then being written by the crime novelist Greg Rucka, would be canceled and relaunched with a new first issue. “Grey’s Anatomy” scripter Alan Heinberg committed to a five-issue opening run, to be followed by five issues by New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult.

But the Heinberg relaunch rapidly went off the scheduling rails, and by 2007 he’d only delivered four issues. Ms. Picoult’s five issues hemorrhaged readers faster than “Jonah Hex,” DC’s lone cowboy title, and “Amazons Attack,” a miniseries commissioned to fill a hole in the book’s publishing schedule caused by Mr. Heinberg’s delays, was reviled by fans who decried it as an abomination. No movie. Declining readership. Angry fans. Was everything lost for the Maid of Steel?

Surprisingly, no. In November, fan-favorite and ex-hairdresser Gail Simone took over the writing of the relaunched comic book on an ongoing basis, providing safe haven, at least for now, for the universe’s greatest female superhero. “These characters are not made of porcelain,” Dan Didio, the executive editor of DC Comics, said. “They’re made of diamond. They can weather a bad story.”

Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman are the only characters to be continuously published by DC Comics since the company’s inception in 1944, and all have achieved a pop culture recognition that transcends their creator and stretches far beyond the nerd-o-sphere. “I tell people I work for DC Comics and they scratch their heads,” Mr. Didio said. “I tell them I work for the company that publishes Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman and they get excited.”

DC Comics is, more than anything, the caretaker of these three characters, each of which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But while Batman and Superman each have several monthly titles and have spawned any number of movies and TV shows, Wonder Woman still has just one title on the stands, she’s never starred in a movie, and there has only been one Wonder Woman TV show, the Lynda Carter series that went off the air in 1979.

“It’s probably more difficult because she’s female,” Mr. Didio acknowledged. “But it’s hard to say that the character has a weakness when she’s outlasted so many other characters.”

Even people with a tenuous grasp of pop culture know that Superman is from the planet Krypton and works at the Daily Planet. They know that millionaire Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered in Gotham City and became Batman. But they’re a little foggier on Wonder Woman. She’s an Amazon from … Amazon Island? No one’s even quite sure what she does. Ambassador? Warrior? Gym teacher? Few people know that she’s really Princess Diana and that she has two mothers. Formed from clay by the Queen of the Amazons, she was imbued with the attributes of the Greek gods by Athena — “beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, swifter than Hermes, and stronger than Hercules.”

“I think that’s because of the lack of exposure,” Ms. Simone, the series’ ongoing writer, said, acknowledging the catch-22 facing Wonder Woman. “She hasn’t had a major motion picture. She’s only had the one TV series, not several of them like Superman has.”

Mr. Rucka offered another explanation.

“All along, there’s been a feeling that they have to bring in more readers, they have to increase sales,” he said. “What they haven’t done is portray her consistently. They relaunch the series, they bring back her secret identity, they take it away, they bring it back, they make two Wonder Women, then three, then none, then one. At the end of the day, it’s that inconsistency that hurts her the most.”

But back in 1941, when superheroes could protect us from Nazis as much as from the Speed Maniacs from Mercury, Wonder Woman’s creator knew exactly how she was to be portrayed.

“Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” wrote William Marston, a psychologist, inventor, and happy polyamorist who lived in a cozy, lifelong ménage à trois with his wife and the couple’s lover, both of whom served as inspiration for Wonder Woman. Marston, who invented the systolic blood-pressure test used to detect deception, which became a component of the modern polygraph (and inspired Wonder Woman’s famous golden lasso), felt that women were more honest and unfailing than men, and he championed their ascent in society. There had been female superheroes before her debut in December 1941, but none of them had served an agenda as ambitious as the one Marston gave his Wonder Woman: to change the world.

While Batman and Superman were fighting saboteurs and war profiteers on the home front, Wonder Woman was leading Marines into battle in the Pacific. Women were entering the workplace in massive numbers, and Wonder Woman was a four-color embodiment of Rosie the Riveter. But her approach to fighting crime was as unorthodox as her creator’s approach to marriage. In an early edition, when debutante-turned-arch-enemy, the Cheetah, attacked, Wonder Woman tricked her into performing a dance number. As the audience applauds, Wonder Woman turns to the Cheetah and raves, “You’re a born dancer — your dancing could attract millions of admirers! Oh, Cheetah, why don’t you dance and make people love you?” Outsmarted, the Cheetah agrees and begs to be sent to “Transformation Island” where strict, slightly kinky Amazonian discipline was used to reform hardened super-villains.

Despite Gloria Steinem putting Wonder Woman on the first cover of Ms. Magazine in 1971, Marston never intended Wonder Woman to be a feminist. Feminism preaches that women are equal to men and should be treated as such, an argument that falls apart when your avatar of femininity is a 6-foot-tall Amazon who flies an invisible jet and handles a golden lasso that forces adversaries to tell the truth. To Marston, it was always very clear: Women weren’t simply as good as men — they were better than men.

The Amazing Amazon owes her longevity and popularity in large part to the politically incorrect idea that Marston etched into her DNA: Maybe women really are superior to men. Ms. Simone downplays any larger agenda in her run on Wonder Woman.

“I just want to give the reader as good of a story as I can write,” she said.

But in the first issue of her relaunch, Wonder Woman fights a gang of super-gorillas before realizing that they’re not evil, merely misguided. Bringing the fight to a halt, she lets them move into her apartment, but only after their leader kneels and kisses her lasso. Not many superheroes turn their enemies into roommates, especially when their enemies are talking gorillas. But while the new Wonder Woman series portrays its heroine as strong and compassionate, it also carries a whiff of slightly sexualized dominance. In other words, as she enters 2008, Wonder Woman is finally back on track, just the way her creator wanted her.


The New York Sun

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