Slammed, Ergo, a Teaser
|New Wave Superfriends, by Butcher Billy|
The wedding last weekend has me a day behind on all my writing, and I’m stuck with two or three extra projects this week as well, so I’ve just been slammed busy this week and haven’t had time to bash out even a little bit extra to post. At some point I suppose I’ll have to master the art of conversational chattiness. Or linkblogging. That’s what people do these days, isn’t it. Link blog. So I guess I could link to this interview with Jaron Lanier, which raises various troubling questions about the economy I’m making money in now and the like. That said, I cannot shake the sense that Lanier is just a really crappy futurist.
In any case, and more extensively, I figured I’d share the introduction to the eventually forthcoming Wonder Woman book. Still no release date yet, but I know it’s been clanking about for a while, so I figure I should show something.
Nobody indulges in utopian visions anymore. On the rare occasions when people do – the playing at classless society offered by the Occupy movements in late 2011, for instance – the general reaction is, at best, one of condescending pity. Utopians, in our culture, aspire towards harmlessness. The best of them are charmingly naive people you might want to invite over for dinner, but would never actually want to put in charge of anything. More often, though, utopianism is viewed as outwardly sinister. You can see it in the line of political attack taken against Barack Obama. Not just the outright false claim that he’s a socialist (a political view that has produced a disproportionate amount of utopian literature), but the basic claim that he wants to transform America. That this is prima facie a bad thing – that the desire to engage in radical change to improve things is self-evidently terrible and evil – shows just how far utopianism has fallen.
On the rare occasions we do allow ourselves to dabble in the utopian, our visions are almost exclusively eschatological. If there is to be a utopia it can only come after a cathartic purging of society, whether at the hands of the gods or at the hands of humanity’s own folly run amok at last. Some better world may follow from the ashes of this one, but the idea of transforming this world into a better one, as opposed to simply leveling it and starting over, is all but completely gone.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. Our cultural landscape is littered with the debris of abandoned utopias. Many, though not all, emerged from the years following World War II, a golden age of utopian thinking. These were the days of gleaming space colonies and cute robotic servants that allowed everyone a life of perpetual leisure. Entire popular genres emerged from these dreams, only to, starting in the late 1970s, find themselves shell-shocked survivors: a set of images without a purpose. The idea that, in 2012, we’d not have colonized Mars, little yet that we wouldn’t even have a clear vision of how we were getting there someday, would be unthinkable to the world of the 1960s.
Some years ago, there was a briefly popular book called Where’s My Jetpack? that mused on the various futuristic technologies that never arrived. Implicit in the book is a sort of jaded longing – a sense that the future we were promised never arrived. This is, on the face of it, strange. The machine I’m writing this on is more advanced and sophisticated than the wildest dreams of post-War science fiction. I carry a telephone around with me that outdoes anything Star Trek imagined for the 23rd century. Clearly the future arrived, and from a purely technological standpoint, while markedly different from what post-war futurists imagined, it’s pretty impressive. But it’s not utopian. The longing for the jetpack is less a longing for individual human flight as for the lost utopian vision it was a part of.
Wonder Woman was not the last of the utopian visions that followed the Second World War. If anything she was one of the first, created during the war itself to serve both as an anti-German propaganda tool and as a vision of what post-war society might look like. But she is the last one standing. The reasons why aren’t terribly complex: she always avoided the most common utopian iconography. Her utopianism was not one of rocket ships and gleaming cities, and so when the steam went out both of those technologies and of utopia she was not as straightforwardly discredited. She escaped the purge of utopias by disguising herself as a silly superhero comic.
In another sense, however, she survived because her utopia was discredited so early on that it never had time to negatively impact the character. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, envisioned her as the avatar for a sexually liberated female supremacist utopia so lacking in any real-world credibility that it was unceremoniously abandoned before the end of Wonder Woman’s first decade. Having learned to suppress her utopian zeal early, Wonder Woman had fewer problems enduring the wave of cynicism that felled her utopian contemporaries. She was already used to playing down her own radicalism.
Either way, she survived. And while there are only a handful of moments in her history where she’s been prone to laying out an explicitly utopian manifesto, she’s survived as an essentially utopian character in a world that has little, if any, use for utopianism. This has, unsurprisingly, not always been a smooth ride. Wonder Woman is a character who is extremely well-known and well-liked, but with only a few exceptions her comics have sold at best mediocrely, and she’s never done as well as Superman and Batman when adapted into other media. She is at once a universally recognized media icon and an arcane, niche character.
It also means that her history does not track well with any larger political movement. It would be convenient if a history of Wonder Woman paralleled a history of feminism neatly, but it doesn’t. At her debut she was far more radical than the feminism of the time. But at the political height of feminism in the late 1960s/early 1970s came at a moment where feminism and Wonder Woman were cast on opposite sides of a debate, and even though Wonder Woman adorned the first issue of Ms., Gloria Steinem’s feminist magazine, the actual relationship between the two was fraught at best. In the early 2000s she was ahead of the curve in terms of the emerging strands of feminist geek/sci-fi fandom, but in the present day, when that fandom is considerably more advanced, she’s suffered more than a few setbacks.
But equally, it would be foolish to suggest that Wonder Woman’s history is somehow insulated from larger social movements. Wonder Woman has changed with the times. But her relationship with social change is neither to follow the trends nor to establish them. Rather, she is something else – a persistent thorn in the side of cultural progress. She is the ghost of abandoned and “childish” utopianism stubbornly refusing to sit quietly in the corner while the grown-ups are talking.
As such, her history is a strange one. She frequently finds herself marginalized and silenced, often by her almost exclusively male collection of writers and artists, many of whom are clearly openly hostile to what she represents. Equally, she often finds odd perspectives on the margins that subvert and undermine assumptions, giving a voice to viewpoints that would otherwise be completely overlooked. Often, in fact, she does both at once, her basic concept finding odd ways to reassert itself in the face of overt attempts to diminish both it and her.
This book traces that history, telling the story of Wonder Woman’s evolution in her primary medium: the comic books published by DC Comics since 1941. Though her comic book appearances form the main spine of the book, there are frequent excursions into her appearances in other media, and into the larger context in which the comics exist. The book does not endeavor to explain the plots of every Wonder Woman comic that it covers; it is not a guide to her continuity or character history, but rather to the history of her publication and the approaches taken to her.
That said, it is not written with the assumption that the reader will have read all of, or indeed any of the comics discussed. I’ve tried to provide enough context to follow the argument, although anyone seeking to consult the original comics will no doubt find plenty of surprises and details that I’ve not mentioned. Many, though not all or even most of the comics discussed have been reprinted by DC in various collections, and I recommend those. For the ones that are not in print, Chris Hayes has a phenomenally detailed website called the Amazon Archives available at amazonarchives.com, which provides rough summaries of most of Wonder Woman, and which was an invaluable aid in jogging my memory over the course of this project as I forgot which of the hundreds of issues of Wonder Woman comics I read a given story appeared in. Also essential is the Grand Comics Database at comics.org, which provides detailed information not only on Wonder Woman comics but on nearly a million different comics.
This thorough and completist approach to Wonder Woman’s history, by its nature, risks losing the forest for the trees. I have generally speaking spent more time on those periods that were historically important, but the nature of Wonder Woman’s history is that it is messy and disorganized.She is the product of dozens of writers and artists over the course of nearly seventy-five years of history, and her history is not the product of any ordered or organized process. Consequentially, substantial focus is given over to periods of Wonder Woman’s history that have had little influence on the whole. In many cases it is precisely this lack of influence that is interesting, as it reveals the various secret histories and alternative visions of what Wonder Woman could have been.
More to the point, however, the messiness this approach engenders is well-suited to the project. When it comes to Wonder Woman, the idiosyncrasies of the trees are more interesting than the homogeny of the forest. Various themes and motifs will recur throughout the history, but they do not do so in an orderly way that progresses towards some grand and unifying conclusion. Nor could they possibly, given that Wonder Woman’s history is ongoing and this book will be outdated by the time it is in your hands. But this is appropriate. But more to the point, this messy and unfinished process is, I think, an accurate account of what material social progress looks like.
Wonder Woman’s history is the history of a discredited utopia that refused to lie down or go away. It is neither a triumphant nor a tragic story. But it is, I think, the story of how the determination to make the world a better place plays out in that world. And in that regard it is, at least, a story brimming with wonder.
May 15, 2013 @ 11:31 pm
Jeeze. I love you, man.
It feels like you've really questioned the legitimacy of what you're doing to wihin an inch of it's life and found that, yes, in fact this is worth doing, this is actually USEFUL, that there's a region of the cultural map that's been overlooked for exploration and there's gold in them thar hills.
Can't wait for this.
May 16, 2013 @ 1:09 am
I look forward to this. I've always found Wonder Woman a character I 'want' to like but who in practice proves elusive. As you point out – 'Wonder Woman is a character who is extremely well-known and well-liked, but with only a few exceptions her comics have sold at best mediocrely, and she’s never done as well as Superman and Batman when adapted into other media. She is at once a universally recognized media icon and an arcane, niche character.' It's fascinating to observe how well recognised she is as a Pop Art Art signifier whilst at the same time most people would be hard pressed to describe any of her adventures or even her origin and mise en scene. Will this be published here as blog entries or solely as a book?
May 16, 2013 @ 1:46 am
I have virtually no interest in Wonder Woman. So why do I now feel compelled to buy the book when it appears? That's down to you.
I aspire to be a socialist, except when I'm aspiring to be an anarchist – I have yet to figure out how to marry the two aspirations. What I am in reality, though, is a fat white male capitalist consumer who indulges in idle dreams of a better world (and occasionally takes tiny steps towards changing things). So, utopianism, then? I'm in.
May 16, 2013 @ 2:35 am
"Utopians, in our culture, aspire towards harmlessness." A very Zizekian observation. And, sadly, very true. That's why I try to make a point of doing things like shoving my admiration for Bolshevism into people's faces. I aspire to be non-harmless. This is one of the tasks facing what remains of the Left: to overcome the desire to apologise and swear good behaviour.
I too have little knowledge of Wonder Woman, yet now feel an intense desire to read your book about her. So, job done.
May 16, 2013 @ 3:45 am
"Utopians, in our culture, aspire towards harmlessness."
I used to see utopians as being essentially harmless idiots, because obviously the long arc of the universe bends toward death and all progress is local and short-lived.
It's been a long road, but I'm slowly, bit by bit finding a glimmer of utopian impulse in myself, due basically to the combined influence of TARDIS Eruditorum and Friendship Is Magic. And it's actually really hard not to squelch that impulse, because it's dangerous to not be harmless.
May 16, 2013 @ 4:27 am
I've never found Wonder Woman interesting, but I suspect that will change after I've read your book.
May 16, 2013 @ 4:31 am
I cannot shake the sense that Lanier is just a really crappy futurist.
He does have a habit of being wrong about everything.
May 16, 2013 @ 7:35 am
I love Golden Age Wonder Woman. All that stuff about submission to loving authority is so fascinating.
May 16, 2013 @ 10:23 am
I'm really looking forward to this project and hope you can hammer out a release date soon. I was never much of a superhero fan as a kid, but I did enjoy Wonder Woman and became really interested in her history from an academic standpoint when I got older.
Also, I love how upfront you are in this introduction about looking at how utopianism has fallen out of vogue and perhaps redeeming it to an extent. I've been thinking along similar lines for my current projects: I think there's a great deal of value in idealism and a wholehearted rejection of the concept hasn't been entirely for good.
Ideals are philosophical role models; things to strive for. Rejecting them would seem to be a rejection of the idea material social progress is possible: An embrace of nihilism, eschatology and complacency.
May 16, 2013 @ 11:57 am
I'm looking forward to reading this too. Wonder Woman is a fascinating character, not least because nobody in comics quite knows what to do with her. The most successful incarnation, I think, was George Pérez's reboot in the late '80s, when he matched her feminist idealism with a fish-out-of-water story, and put it all against the original character's Greek mythology background, which had never really been developed.
I've stopped reading comics, and have no idea what's going on in the current "New 52" incarnation (although I hear WW and Superman are dating?), but it seems that most contemporary comics can't make Wonder Woman strong without making her mean. Which, I think, says a lot about how female power is viewed in our society.
May 16, 2013 @ 12:42 pm
I have the same problem, over the years I've kept trying Wonder Woman comics (generally acclaimed runs) and they never do anything for me.
May 16, 2013 @ 12:52 pm
I'm enjoying the current 'New 52' version of WW. I've been picking it up from the relaunch and this must be the longest consecutive run of Wonder Woman comics I've ever read. Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang are exploring a more mythic and magic realist take on the character both in the writing and the impressively expressionistic art.
May 16, 2013 @ 2:07 pm
There's an excluded middle there.You don't need to define an ideal society to make material social progress: you just have to be able to say that some small change would make society slightly better than it is now. Then make that small, positive change and iterate.
This has two advantages over step-changes driven by utopian idealism:
1. It's easier to get a majority of public opinion in favour of a small, incremental change than a large leap forward. The people who voted in favour of gay marriage, for example, would have had very diverse ideas about the ideal society, but were able to agree that this one step would be a good thing.
2. On the whole, not so many piles of skulls.
May 16, 2013 @ 3:11 pm
I'm not even talking about defining an ideal society, I'm talking about making idealistic characters or simply saying things like "women should be treated as equals to men and are equally human". That's an ideal. In that regard I try to distinguish between "idealism" and "utopianism": I'm usually more in favour of the former than the latter.
May 16, 2013 @ 4:08 pm
Some years ago, as an aside from an attempt to explain what was wrong with the 2009 revival of Knight Rider, I hit upon the idea that we've had a hard time culturally with coming up with compelling visions of the future since the end of the cold war. We basically spent the 1980s assuming that there would be no future, due to the impending doom of nuclear war, and when that didn't happen, we were collectively so surprised that, what with current rate of societal change, we're entirely at a loss to imagine how the future could be anything other than "This, only moreso"
(How does this all tie in to why Knight Rider 2009 didn't work? Because in 1982, the "Super-Car of the Future!" was made of an indestructable super-alloy, could talk, drive itself, and jump over things. In 2009, it's a car with a built-in iPhone whose big selling points were "It gets about 200 miles to the gallon," (Yes. Gasoline. They even badmouth the idea of making a super-car run on alternative fuels) and "Can change color by setting the desktop theme")
May 16, 2013 @ 9:58 pm
Reading this, I was reminded of the (awful) unaired 2011 pilot for a rebooted Wonder Woman TV series. We're given a character that is devoid of all utopian vision, replaced with a head of a corporation who uses her image as a platform for selling merchandise to fund her crime-fighting exploits, which seem to consist of her brutally beating up lower level thugs in the employ of her evil rival company. Also, the lasso of truth is framed twice as a torture device, but the torture is implicitly justified. It's a reminder of how incompatible Wonder Woman is with the 'gritty reboot' aesthetic.
May 17, 2013 @ 1:30 am
Normal, everyday capitalism – run by moderate, mainstream centrists – generates piles and piles of skulls. We hear a lot about the dangers of the extremes, left and/or right. But the world as run by the centrists is deformed by poverty for billions, obscene inequality, ruthless imperialism, war, racism, endemic rape culture and encroaching environmental catastrophe. I wonder why we never hear anything about the horrific dangers of the extreme centre. Actually, no, I don't wonder that at all.
May 17, 2013 @ 2:28 am
Needs more Byrne bashing…
May 17, 2013 @ 5:55 pm
I did find his bemoaning that successful people on YouTube only make it to be about millionaires to be one of the most searingly weird bits of privilege blindness I've seen in a while. His completely unexamined concern that what's happened to the creative classes will happen to nurses also struck me as a bit poor.
I mean, for my part I'm pretty sure my career is only possible because of the Internet.
May 18, 2013 @ 12:39 am
I have to say Phil – you had me at the Siouxsie & the Banshees cover art!
May 18, 2013 @ 2:23 am
Oh gods. I haven't seen the pilot itself, but I've seen the TGWTG riffing of it, and the awfulness of the underlying pilot definitely bleeds through. It's inexpressibly awful.
May 18, 2013 @ 7:10 pm
Oh, I wish that were the cover. I mean, I'm sure it'll have a great cover. But that's just part of a series of New Wave band images of superheroes – the caption links to the full set. I stumbled upon it earlier in the day, and loved it, so figured it was the obvious image to use.
May 18, 2013 @ 7:10 pm
There's a whole chapter. Actually, wait. I think I merged that chapter with two others. But there's still a lot.
May 19, 2013 @ 11:48 pm
You were kind enough to send me an earlier form of that chapter, actually. I'm glad it's made it in some form into the book, even if the reasons you bash Byrne are slightly different to the reasons I bash him. It's not like there isn't plenty of room in that tent…
May 21, 2013 @ 3:16 pm
but were able to agree that this one step would be a good thing
Won't that lead to problems in the future, though, when you get to the point that their ideas diverge?
(More to the point, it's wrong to use that as evidence that 'You don't need to define an ideal society': rather, it means that each one of those people has, more or less vaguely, defined an ideal society, at least inasmuch as in a direction from 'here'. So you do need to define, not just one, but lots of 'ideal societies'; and if more people at a given moment think the ideal society lies to the east than the west (we'll gloss over for the moment whether this 'wisdom of crowds' must necessarily coincide with what is 'really' more ideal), then society takes a step east. But, 'it would be better if we were more eastwards' is still a definition of an ideal, just a vague one.)
May 27, 2013 @ 10:54 am
I'll definitely be interested in this. About ten years ago, I suddenly realised that at some point the consensus view of the DCU writers as to who Diana was had become radically out of sync with mine. Actually, I liked what Rucka was doing in her own book, showing her as an idealist actively working to make her ideals a reality, it was just the way this seemed to get interpreted in the other comics, from Johns's Flash dismissing her as "Wonder Woman preaches to everyone" to the (admittedly parodic) Formerly Known As The Justice League, where she's incredibly condescending and assumes the female characters should like her automatically. Like you said, the 21st century is not a good time for utopians.
(During a casting game on rec.arts.dc.universe, someone said Wonder Woman was Diane from Cheers, and I thought, "Yes, but she shouldn't be.")
And then we got The Max Lord Thing and Amazons Attack!, and I just gave up for the first time since the Byrne years.
To be honest, I gave up on the current run as well. A year into the New 52, I looked at all the comics I was buying and asked myself if I desperately needed to buy this comic. And with Wonder Woman, the fatal question was "Do I agree with Azzarello's take on the character?" And the answer was that after 12 issues, I had no idea what Azzarello's take on the character was. The book's take on Greek gods as borderline-Lovecraftian entities was interesting, but as far as I could see Diana's role had simply been to react to them. (Also, I'm of the opinion that you can overuse Greek myth in WW stories. Not all Superman villains have to be aliens, after all.)