Monday, November 28, 2011

Side Trip - Paradise Dungeons (1)

Hey all. Some quick orders of business, and then on to our somewhat unusual show for the day.


First off, I'm pleased to announce that the print edition of the Hartnell essays now exists. You can buy it here. It is, sadly, only available from amazon.com, and international readers will have to pay for international shipping. It is, however, quite lovely, and the perfect gift for the overeducated and underemployed Doctor Who fan in your life this holiday season. It's $16, which is the price at which I get the same royalty I do selling the Kindle edition for $5. Speaking of the Kindle edition, it remains available on Amazon.com, .co.uk, .de, and .fr. Buy it with Euros while you still can.

Finally, an announcement about an odd week of posts. This week TARDIS Eruditorum will post on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Monday and Wednesday I'll be running sample chapters of the next project I'm trying to get off the ground, a book I'm calling Paradise Dungeons. Basically, it's a psychochronography of Wonder Woman, focusing on the way in which a piece of feminist bondage utopian propaganda unexpectedly became a popular culture phenomenon, and what that means throughout the 70 year history of the character.

Instead of doing this one as a blog, I'm doing this one straight-up as a book, and attempting to pre-finance it via Kickstarter. So if you like the sample chapter below, please swing by the project's Kickstarter page and kick in a few bucks. For a $10 contribution you get the book when it's written, and beyond that there are various other shiny toys available. And, of course, please spread the word. I'm really excited about this project. (And promise it will not interfere with your God-given right to three horrifically wordy posts about Doctor Who a week.)

And we'll be posting again tomorrow with The Horror of Fang Rock, of which Steven Moffat notes that "There's the obligatory THE and OF - and all the other words rock. One of them actually."


Man's World (December 1941)

The first thing we have to admit is that she does not get a glorious debut. Batman and Superman, the two better-selling members of DC’s supposed “Trinity” of characters, got famous debuts. Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27 are two of the most valuable comics in the world, with their debuting characters splashed across the cover in two of comics’ most iconic images. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, debuted as a backup feature in All-Star Comics #8 that was, for lack of a better word, an advertisement.

This is not quite as bad as it sounds. If we’re being honest, All-Star Comics in general was an advertisement. To understand this, however, we need to first explain what DC Comics in general looked like in 1941. The bulk of DC’s line were not single-character comics like Batman or Superman but anthologies featuring a lead story and several backups. So, for instance, Action Comics #43, which came out the same month as All-Star Comics #8, featured a thirteen-page Superman story as its lead feature, followed by five stories featuring more obscure characters (The Vigilante, Three Aces, Mr. America, Congo Bill, and Zatara) ranging from six to thirteen pages themselves.

All-Star Comics is a comic that only makes sense in this context. Its main feature is the Justice Society of America - the first real superhero team, and exemplars of one of the two main approaches in creating a team book out of existing characters: take a bunch of characters that can’t quite support their own book and put them in one book together. Crucially, a typical Justice Society story is not a story of the team working together, but rather a story in which a team-based frame story wraps around solo stories featuring the various heroes on the team, each of which ends reminding the reader what book they can follow the adventures of the character in. It is, in other words, a book that exists to take the readers of, say, Hawkman and persuade them to try More Fun Comics where they can read about the adventures of The Spectre.

Wonder Woman was introduced in the final nine pages of All-Star Comics #8, after the conclusion of that month’s Justice Society story. Not only is her debut, unlike that of Batman or Superman, not the lead feature of the issue, it’s not even treated as a highlight. She doesn’t merit mention on the cover. Her debut is an advertisement for Sensation Comics, the series she starts headlining in January of 1942, shoved at the back of a book that basically consisted of ads for other books anyway.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is the pessimistic way. The entire history of Wonder Woman is going to be characterized, in part, by her having a visibly harder time of it in the market than her male counterparts. Batman and Superman both anchor entire lines of comics, with at least two solo books running at any time alongside, these days, a host of spinoffs. Wonder Woman has had a single title since 1952. Batman and Superman both saw their main books relaunched from #1 for the first time in September of 2011. Wonder Woman had her third relaunch from #1 that month. And, of course, Batman and Superman outsell Wonder Woman by miles. In this context, launching Wonder Woman with an unheralded advertisement shoved in the back of another book is merely the first of a thousand slights.

But there’s another option. If Wonder Woman has never managed to be unambiguously successful and equal to her male colleagues, after all, she’s surely no worse off than feminism, which is itself an unfinished project. So Wonder Woman is compromised and marginalized from day one. It’s hard to come up with a more fitting point of origin for a feminist project than the material reality of second class citizenship.

This sort of debased materialism is, after all, mirrored in Wonder Woman’s actual story. We are told explicitly that Wonder Woman is “giving up her heritage and her right to eternal life” to come to Man’s World. For all that is made of the messianic themes in Superman, fleeing the dying world of Krypton is not half as drenched in Christ imagery as this. Wonder Woman explicitly departs the world of the gods for the mortal world, giving up her divinity to become mortal.

When one looks at Wonder Woman’s first appearance through this lens, the frustrating aspects of it suddenly make an odd sort of sense. Central to the Christ story is the image of the divine incarnating not only in the mortal world, but into the most degrading and humiliating conditions in the mortal world. What’s important isn’t just that the divine walks the Earth, but that the divine is born in a manger and dies in agony nailed to a tree, having spent the life in between walking among the sick, the poor, and the outcast. So too, then, as Wonder Woman descends from Paradise Island to Man’s World, she incarnates first in comics’ most crassly materialist form: an advertisement in the back of a book that only exists to try to sell other books.

But the crass materialism of her landing is not sufficient to define the sublime breadth of her trajectory. To show the equivalence of the sacred and the profane requires more than just the profane. How, then, does this initial story do at capturing that?

Reading All-Star Comics #8 seventy years later, the moment where one turns onto the first page of the Wonder Woman story bristles with uncanny power. This power is not merely the weight of history and the realization that one is about to read nine of the most important pages in comics history, although that is certainly there. The entire tone of the comic changes. The artists over the first 69 pages of the issue fall into fairly predictable comic styles - the cartoonish approach of Stan Aschmeier, the photorealist influences of Jack Burnley, the frenetic, noir layouts of Bernard Baily , and, of course, the scratchy angularity of Everett E. Hibbard. All of these artists, and especially Baily, whose command of the page is visibly miles ahead of his contemporaries, are skilled comics artists who compellingly execute the sorts of styles that fit the strips they’re writing.

But 69 pages of their art leaves one utterly unprepared for the sight of Harry G. Peter’s art. The opening splash of Wonder Woman - a pose recycled for the cover of Sensation Comics #1 a month later - is striking. The image is almost completely devoid of straight lines - even the stars on Wonder Woman’s billowing skirt are bent and lumpy compared to the stars adorning the previous page’s ad for the next Justice Society story. Even the lettering is a sharp change, striving towards the tight regularity of type instead of the more natural and hand-written feel of the issue’s other artists.

But perhaps the most striking difference is the faces. We’ll talk at length about Peter’s art in a later chapter, but for now let’s look simply at Wonder Woman’s face. Her nose is perfunctory at best. Her eyes are far too widely spaced, and misaligned to boot. Her lips are pursed and unexpressive. Her face is statuesque and austere. The result of this is that attention is drawn away from her face and towards the rest of her body. This technique evokes the Decadent-era erotica of Aubrey Beardsley and Franz von Bayros, who similarly simplified faces to draw attention to the bodies of their characters - a far cry from the sort of referencing found in other comics.

But it is also worth remarking on the nature of the image. Peter’s initial depiction of the character is a fascinating mixture of the severe and the libidinous. On the one hand, as one would expect from art with visible influence from Victorian erotica, she is unquestionably a sexy woman. Her skirt billows up to reveal one of her thighs, and though it is tame by the standards of modern comics art, it falls around her in such a way as to be tantalizingly close to revealing her undergarments. On her upper body, her arms and shoulders are bare, and her breastplate is more than slightly complementary to her cleavage. On the other hand, her face is serious, and her eyes are trained not to make eye contact with the reader but to look past them, as if focusing on some larger object behind her. Her build, though sensuous, is also strong and muscular. She is erotic, but not in a sense that lends itself to being claimed or leered at by the reader. She wholly refuses to interact with the reader or to acknowledge their gaze.

By most standards, this is a very strange way to begin a superhero comic. The standard issue explanation of superhero comics, for better or for worse, is that they are power fantasies for the reader - that the reader imagines themselves as the superhero. There are countless reasons to be skeptical of this theory, but even still it’s worth noting how little Wonder Woman’s appearance adheres to that theory, remaining oblique and forcing the reader to watch from a distance instead of investing in her.

And this is, of course, assuming the reader is female and likely to identify with Wonder Woman in the first place. Given that Wonder Woman was not even advertised as a part of this issue, one has to assume the readers of this particular issue were, like those of most superhero comics, overwhelmingly male. Given that assumption, the first few pages of this story would have been similarly off-putting. The story opens with a plane crashing onto an island. Two scantily clad women see the crash and rush to search for survivors. Pulling a blonde-haired man in a military uniform from the wreckage, they are shocked to discover a man on Paradise Island. One of them carries him to a hospital, and we learn that the island looks like Ancient Greece. We learn that he is Captain Steve Trevor of the US Army intelligence Service, and that the woman who carried him to the hospital - who has black hair much like that of Wonder Woman - has fallen in love with him. Upon learning about this, her mother, the Queen, forbids her to see Trevor.

What is most interesting about these first two and a half pages is the way in which they actively push the standard male comic book reader out of the story. Steve Trevor is a standard sort of character. Both his name and his appearance evoke Timely Comics’ Captain America, introduced a little over a year before Wonder Woman with an alter-ego of Steve Rogers, a blonde American soldier. This is, in other words, a character that a regular comics reader already knows on some level and is used to. But here the character is injured, unconscious, and, most alarmingly, seemingly inside some sort of love story. If one does adhere to a theory in which the reader imagines themselves as the superhero, this amounts to a fall that counterbalances that of Wonder Woman’s fall into Man’s World - the fall of a standard issue superhero (indeed, a thinly veiled parody of the DC’s competitor’s flagship character) into Paradise Island.

Here the story does something unusual, breaking into a one-and-a-half page text piece with a couple of illustrations. This is not quite as strange as it might seem to a modern reader. Comic books regularly included a text piece or two - there’s one a few pages earlier in All-Star Comics #8, in fact, about a pilot that provides an odd sort of counterpoint to this. And this is not even the first lengthy block of text in the Wonder Woman story. The first page contains a typically enthused description of Wonder Woman’s might and power (“As lovely as Aphrodite - as wise as Athena - with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules - she is known only as Wonder Woman, but who she is, or whence she came, nobody knows!”). The first sentence of this exultation sets the tone for the later and larger text piece, describing “a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men” and how, at last, there “appears a woman to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play!”

The larger text piece expands upon this idea, describing how Hercules tricked Queen Hippolyte and stole her Magic Girdle, thus enslaving the Amazons and angering Aphrodite, who had given Hippolyte the girdle. Eventually Hippolyte declares that her submission to men is intolerable, and manages to beg Aphrodite into helping her steal the girdle back. With the girdle, Hippolyte defeats Hercules and his army to, on Aphrodite’s orders, leave the world of men for their own world.

Marston then describes the culture of the Amazons, which is defined first and foremost by the need to remain distant from men, which they all wear the bracelets they had worn as slaves to remind them of. Their culture is overtly utopian - free of disease, war, and death so long as Hippolyte retains the Magic Girdle and is not “again beguiled by men!” Hippolyte explains that, with the Magic Sphere given to her by Athena (the sphere, curiously, appears to be a disc) she can see any event in history or any place in the world, and, in some cases, predict the future, and that she has used this to advance Amazonian technology well ahead that of “so-called manmade civilization.”

To call the sexual implications of this story a subtext would be an excessive understatement. The fact that Hercules specifically tricks Hippolyte out of a magical undergarment and that this appears to take place outside of combat strongly hints that he stole it during a night of passion, and that the beguilement of men is specifically sexual. This is supported by the way in which the Amazons react to Steve Trevor’s presence. It is not the fact that there is a man on the island that is objectionable. Indeed, the Amazons act as though they have a duty to help Trevor. No - the thing that makes Trevor dangerous is fairly explicitly the possibility that one of the Amazons will fall in love with him, and that is what would risk losing Aphrodite’s favor. Which is a relatively shocking conclusion given that Aphrodite is the goddess of love. We’ll develop this theme in later chapters, but suffice it to say that Marston is gesturing towards a very, very unusual conception of love here.

The third section of the story, which, at three pages, is both the longest section and fully a third of the story, focuses on the origin of Steve Trevor and is little more than a generic military action story. It serves mostly to reinforce the point we have already made - that Trevor is a traditional male action hero. But we ought remember that these three pages are supposed to be what the Amazons are watching on the Magic Sphere. For these three pages, in other words, the Amazons are effectively reading a standard-issue American comic book.

This is made even more explicit in the final two pages of the story, which open with Hippolyte consulting Aphrodite and Athena for advice on what to do. Aphrodite informs her that she must help Trevor get back to America, while Athena informs her that she “must send with him your strongest and wisest Amazon - the finest of your wonder women! For America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women, needs your help!” Although this sounds like standard-issue jingoistic patriotism of the sort common in comics of the era, focusing on that misses the fact that this jingoistic portrayal of America is being explicitly depicted as in crisis and in need of intervention from these female utopians.

This, in other words, is where the divine half of the Christ imagery comes in. On the one hand, Wonder Woman is cast into the degrading materialism of Man’s World. On the other, she is explicitly bringing the power of Athena and Aphrodite - two goddesses - to save Man’s world. But, of course, it’s also important, obvious as it might be, how much she cuts against the Christ narrative. She is a pagan figure, explicitly libidinal, resists any personal relationship with the reader, expressly militaristic, and, perhaps most obviously and significant, a woman. (The real and obvious source myth here is the descent of Ishtar, Babylonian goddess of love and war, and thus a fusion, of sorts, of Aphrodite and Athena, into the underworld)

The remainder of the story is straightforward. In order to find the best Amazon Hippolyte organizes a competition, forbidding her daughter to participate. When the competition takes place, a masked figure who looks and dresses exactly like her daughter shows up and, to the surprise of absolutely nobody who has ever read this comic, wins the competition and turns out to in fact be her daughter. At this point Hippolyte gives her daughter a name (which she had apparently lacked before), Diana - explicitly naming her after the lunar goddess, who is also said to be her godmother, and gives her the familiar Wonder Woman costume before sending her down to Man’s World.

And that’s it. A not-particularly-remarkably plotted story painting the character’s origin and plugging her next appearance in Sensation Comics #1. It is not an inauspicious beginning by any measure, nor is it a triumphant clarion call of feminism.

And yet here is where it begins. A barely believable epic of feminism and sexuality, and one of the most radically left-wing agendas ever to be catapulted into the American mainstream. In nine pages we see a towering goddess descending down into the ugly viscera of our world - into the crassly commercial and blithely jingoistic world of American superhero comics, in all their macho and violent glory.

Now for her seventy year ascent.

5 comments:

  1. "Hercules specifically tricks Hippolyte out of a magical undergarment"

    In the context of Hippolyta's story, "girdle" has its original meaning of a belt, not an undergarment. (Admittedly, readers of the original comic might have taken it as a reference to the like-named undergarment.)

    "It is not an inauspicious beginning"

    One negation too many.

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  2. One thing I think about superheroines that I was kicking around in relation to Power Girl awhile back is how they represent a weird hybrid version of the Leading Man: The Lead tends to be an inherently masculine figure and, as we talked about in relation to Jon Pertwee, the most disposable and consumable role in the narrative thanks to their charisma. So in many ways female action heroes tend to be Female Leading Men instead of Feminist Leads and, as a result, still have the logic of consumption as intrinsic to who they are, but even more so as they're women and are still subject to the Male Gaze and generations of anti-feminine discrimination.

    Long story short I think Power Girl eventually came to subvert this problem, just as she got wiped from continuity. I'm not sure if this is the direction you were thinking of going with Wondy or if you think that's a part of who she is even at this early stage of her life, but I just thought it'd be interesting to toss out especially as you spent so much time talking about similar lines of thought over the summer. I'm positive I'm not the first person to make this connection, but I couldn't give you references off the top of my head. You're probably in a better position than I at the moment.

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  3. Largely unrelated, but ...

    When the original (1939) Sandman character first appeared, he was given a female partner, Dian Belmont, who was (mostly) his equal rather than a mere rescue object. But then a couple of years later, coiciding with Sandman's switch to a more typically superhero-type costume, Dian was dropped (killed off, in fact) in favour of a Robin/Bucky-style boy sidekick. (Simon & Kirby sometimes get the blame/credit for these retoolings, but in fact they inherited them.)

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  4. Alarmingly few of your regular commenters seem to be making the most salient point here:

    "K-chink."

    Consider yourself kick-started.

    Personally, I love Wonder Woman, and always have since I was a little boy. But as I grew to be a critical adult, found the nature of her as a "masculinsed woman" and not a powerful woman to be a bit of a problem for my fannish like.

    BUT - along comes you, and with your tendency to re-interpret and re-imagine the best picture of a piece through Anarcho-Marxist-Alchemy, and suddenly there is hope in my heart that perhaps I wasn't just ogling Diana all this time.

    I can't wait to read your book!

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  5. BerserkRL:
    "When the original (1939) Sandman character first appeared, he was given a female partner, Dian Belmont, who was (mostly) his equal rather than a mere rescue object. But then a couple of years later, coiciding with Sandman's switch to a more typically superhero-type costume, Dian was dropped (killed off, in fact) in favour of a Robin/Bucky-style boy sidekick. (Simon & Kirby sometimes get the blame/credit for these retoolings, but in fact they inherited them.)"

    I haven't been able to read most of the originals yet, however... I believe Dian simply disappeared between episodes. Roy Thomas, eternal Golden Age Fanboy, wrote a story in SECRET ORIGINS in the late 80's in which Dian was killed. And then, some years later, another story was written elsewhere which totally invalidated it. Because Dian lived to a ripe old age.

    SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE, a series in the 90's, told stories that, presumably, all took place before the original comics. For the longest time, it was uncertain whether it was supposed to be the "same" character who later joined the JSA, or not. Later, after the book ended, we found out-- he WAS. But the writers who worked on SMT may not have intended this, or else, were simply having "fun" at readers' expense. (Similarly, Frank Miller's BATMAN: YEAR ONE had Jim Gordon with a son, not a daughter, and Selina Kyle as a hooker. Both of which have been "explained" away in later stories by other writers. (One can almost imagine what went on behind the scenes... "HE's not like that-- he's like THIS!" "Oh yeah? Well I'll show YOU...!" All the while readers get only more confused.)

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