|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.