Books, Comics, Music Culture wars

The Wonder of It All

Wonder Woman contemplates the war of the sexes.
Wonder Woman contemplates the war of the sexes.

When Gloria Steinem needed a powerful feminine icon to put on the cover of her new magazine for and about self-empowered women, she chose Wonder Woman. The first Ms. Magazine even published a companion volume of WW stories from her Golden Age, when she often lectured young girls about the importance of letting no man get the upper hand. These were eight or so stories, carefully chosen for one important reason: Wonder Woman, invented by feminist psychologist William Moulton Marston, and modeled after his assistant/companion Olive Byrne, was like her creator, a bit of a freak, and WAY into bondage. Steinem wanted a figure that fit neatly into her narrative of empowered womanhood, and wanted no part of the bondage.

Wonder Woman’s star spangled hot pants, magic lasso (more bondage!) and surprising feminist history- Olive Byrne’s aunt was none other than birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, her mother, suffragist Ethel Higgins Bryne- make her fascinating. Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor Jill LePore’s Secret History of Wonder Woman tells the tale well, with detailed research and tempered language, despite the story’s more sensationalistic elements. Comics don’t always get respectful treatment when they step into the reflected glare of the ivory tower. And it’s no different here. LePore approaches the tale from the perspective of “first wave” feminism’s long transition into “second wave”, and is clearly out of her element in the subject of comics history-as a later foray into comics and feminism proves. More on that later. But in trying to place Wonder Woman within the context of a medium that once featured plenty of female characters and creators, then suddenly didn’t- as my previous post outlines- I sought out two other books from a growing list of critical literature about comics.

Wonder Woman was born of feminism and fetish. Her creator, a relentlessly self-promoting psychologist with three Harvard degrees and four kids by two different women, had a belief in women’s superiority as civilizing leaders, and a fondness for the trappings of kink. He lived and raised children with both his legal wife, also a dedicated feminist, and Byrne, who wore cuff-like bracelets similar to Wonder Woman’s. The language of bondage and submission infused the comic, where women including Wonder Woman often fell into heavy bondage as a reminder of the folly of letting men rule them. Lepore treats this quirky history somewhat dispassionately though she sniffs prudishly at WW’s “kinky boots”. And she never really explains how Wonder Woman links first- and second wave feminism, though WW’s ignominious descent into a domesticated limbo during the repressive 50’s exactly mirrors feminism’s disappearance from the front pages.

Bondage remains the unspoken 800 pound gorilla in the room, in all of these books. LePore and Trina Robbins (see last post) ignore it as much as possible, reporting, but not analyzing it. Steinem tiptoed around it. Daniels gives an excellent history of reactions to it, and DC’s struggle to reel it under control while not upsetting the applecart- WW was selling well, even better than Superman and Batman some months. Tim Hanley, in Wonder Woman Unbound cooly quantifies it, counting and graphing each panel to prove that, yes, the least kinky WW comic had more bondage scenes than the most kinky of any other comic. Only Hanley passes any sort of judgement: the bondage, especially in concert with Marston’s strongly feminist rhetoric, was “problematic.” He confronts the controversy: where some have maintained that her (Marston’s) fetish imagery disqualifies her as a feminist icon, Hanley concludes “Wonder Woman was both feminist and fetishist.”

After Marston’s early death in 1949, DC , the company that bullied Siegel and Schuster into giving up the rights to Superman, showed Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Hollaway Marston the door, despite their role as Marston’s assistants, and took the opportunity to reconfigure the character. Les Daniels tells this story without sugar coating in A Complete History of Wonder Woman. Robert Kanigher presumably had a mandate to eliminate the problematic bondage and submission elements as the censorship movement gathered steam. He never had any affection for the character (He is known mainly for his work on DCs iconic war comics, many images from which were swiped by Roy Lichtenstein for such irony laden pop art masterpieces as “Blam!”, which I credit with starting two complex conversations- about both appropriation in art and creator’s rights in comics, here.)

His work on WW however can best be described as Comics Code Authoity- era hack work, and under him the character sank into complete irrelevance, even as the girls who’d loved her during Marston’s didactic feminism grew up to initiate second-wave feminism.

The CCA was created by scared publishers, seeking not to protect creative expression from censorship, but to protect corporate profits from Wertham style crusades. It, along with the general paranoia of conformist, 50’s America, led to a period in comics when crime must not pay, and a bland, stereotyped vision of family life as the ultimate good must always triumph. Since superheroes, the dominant genre in comic books, were usually lone, pulp-style vigilantes written by lone, underpaid hacks as the censorship shrank the industry, the family narrative was difficult to fit in. This led to a bizarre phenomenon in 50’s and 60’s DC comics, noted in Hanley and others, which can be described as the pseudo, or faux family. Thus did Batman and Robin, after insinuations about their sexuality arose acquire a rival/wife/mom figure, Batwoman; and Wonder Woman, in Kanigher’s ad hoc style, become a mother figure to her own teen and toddler selves (through time travel). She also allowed puppy-like Steve Trevor  to turn the tables, in direct disobedience to the Amazon code- she was now pathetically desperate to marry him. This was a bondage of a far different, and more insidious sort.

Worse was to come, as in the late 60s, post Kanigher, DC sought to revamp the character. They chose a stylish yet retrograde solution, given the times: WW was stripped of her powers and her mythological roots and became a swinging London clothes horse.

Enter Gloria Steinem. Steinem, a reader of WW as a girl, was a friend of Warner’s Steve Ross, who’d just bought DC. Steinem was outraged that WW had been stripped of her powers. As abruptly as it appeared, the new WW was gone, and the old appeared on the cover of (the Steve Ross-supported) first issue of Ms. Magazine. It was a return, of sorts to her feminist roots, though DC was very slow to catch up. A plan to install one of Marston’s assistants as editor of the character in the heyday of second-wave feminism fizzled, even as the ERA itself died. The always available, ever-hackneyed Kanigher was brought back. The character drifted through different iterations, retcons and reboots, never re-finding her feminist soul, even as the role of women in comics, as outlined in Mike Madrid’s useful Supergirls, slowly grew. Meanwhile, A radical backlash led by Ellen Wills against Steinem’s self-improvement-as-empowerment style of rhetoric led to Steinem’s bizarrely being accused of working for the CIA.

Since then, both Wonder Woman and feminism have struggled to define themselves. WW has haltingly revisited her mythological roots in the 80s George Perez era, and after a detour as a well-hootered sword and sorcery hero during the 90’s “Bad Girl” style that fueled the fanboy/ speculator boom, has returned to it, as well as the idea of family in a recent Brian Azzarello/Cliff Chiang epic as she protects an earthling’s child by Zeus . It was a refreshing take, though Azzarello was not able to add much of the Greek Canon’s characteristic sexual tension because Wonder Woman had already hooked up with Superman in another book, and DC’s marketing strategy, as always, trumped the esthetic requirements of graphic art.

WW is now being authored by a husband and wife team in the stereotypically boob-a-licious DC house style. There will soon be a movie released, though fanboys on the web were quick to criticise the lead actor, Gal Gadot for being “too skinny”, fanboy code-speak for too flat chested. Whatever the proper bust metrics the character requires, there is a lot riding on this movie. the big screen has a tendency to define a character, for better or worse.

Wonder Woman’s relation to family, men, and her role as a feminist icon have never been resolved to this day, and like feminism itself, hasn’t resolved a role for men in the ongoing struggle for equality, yet hasn’t really defined women’s role either.

LePore got herself dragged into this ongoing schism when the New Yorker, having apparently decided she was now the resident comics expert at the magazine, handed her a copy of A-Force, an alternate universe tale of an all female superhero team written by the well-regarded G. Willow Wilson, who’d gained a name for herself in feminist circles of the comics blogosphere for Ms. Marvel, a fresh superhero tale featuring a teenaged girl superhero who also dealt with the uncertainties that teen aged girlhood entails, as well as being a Muslim in Tea Bag America.

Abandoning the assiduous research and restrained, non-sensationalistic narrative of Wonder Woman for the arch flippancy of the New Yorker’s lead-off commentary section, LePore promptly handed it off to her pre-adolescent sons, an odd and somewhat stereotyped choice, given that mainstream comics haven’t primarily targeted children in well over 40 years, when the direct market took over from corner drug store newsstands. Predictably, Lepore reports the youngsters loved it, because… boobs. However, LePore again sniffed at the “pervy” costumes. But A-Force, when I checked, was fairly restrained in its costuming by comic book, or even athletic wear, standards. “If Dr. Lepore is categorically opposed to latex, she should consider trolling a different genre.”G Willow sensibly advises.

Wilson posted a very passionate response (here) to LePore’s “perplexingly shallow, even snarky” non-review, and the internets had a good larf about a comic book writer taking on the imperviously high brow New Yorker’s Midtown snark. But in fact, G. Willow, (who has, after all, been herself published in The Atlantic and in the New York Times Magazine) lands not a few haymakers. She closes:

“I imagine Dr. Lepore and I want the same thing: better, more nuanced portrayals of women in pop culture. What I don’t understand is why someone in her position would, from her perch a thousand feet up in the ivory tower, take pot shots at those of us who are in the trenches, doing exactly that.”

And neither do I.

What the perpetually marginalized medium of comics has to say about feminism, what feminism says about comics may not be of import to Jill Lepore. But it has become a force in pop culture is where society’s murmurings become custom. WW is bound (heh) in various author attitudes toward women and family and has never developed a clear voice of her own. Rebels, lovers and hacks created her, their vision shifting like mis-registered color on a comic page. Now their their creation hits the big screen. What tales they might tell if bound in her wondrous magic lasso and forced to confess the truth: unsure of their own direction, they created a character both supremely powerful yet oddly powerless, dreaming a kaleidoscopic picture of the perfect woman. She floats, star spangled golden, bound in our hopes and dreams.

Books, Comics, Music Culture wars

Women and Comics: Coming in from the Cold

Pop culture is often where small battles play out in the larger culture war. Libraries have discovered comics -as a way to spur reading in young people and English second language readers- but so have the censors who see not a revival of creativity, but a challenge to the established bland infantility of the 50’s. Comics are often attacked, even some of the ones mentioned here, where I’ve tried to pick out the most progressive titles.

Comics are the offspring of a rapacious corporate culture and a free wheeling creative spirit. Their vitality continues to appeal to the marginalized in society despite, or perhaps because of, their function as a platform for marginal imaginings. Like weeds, they have found a way into the light.

Academics and pop historians have discovered this subject. I’ve especially been looking forward to The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by a top rank cultural historian, Jill LePore. After spending quite a while on the DPL waiting list to receive a copy, I’ve read her book. But I’ve discovered one thing while waiting: the subject is too large for one book. Delving into the history of women in comics led to a surprising amount of reading. LePore is actually weak in the history of comics; she limits her scope to a feminist history that includes WW. It’s a compelling tale, but all of the surprisingly large literature of comics history is needed to fill in a complete picture. It IS 70 years of pop culture history, after all.

I like posting about comics here for a few different reasons:

It allows me to post regularly about something not related to me and my own work, so there are usually more regular posts.

It taps me into a larger conversation about pop culture which is related to the culture wars, and thus to my experience in art.

It allows me to “think out loud” about the things I’m reading, which in turn helps me to process them.

And it forces me to get better at writerly skills such as citation, summarization, finding and organizing different sources, and editing.

It’s fun, of course- a nice escape from reading academic art theory and history, which I enjoy, but which is often intended for other academics, and clotted with jargon. I want to remain topical. Comics and graphics are related to the history of printmaking. Here’s some of what I’ve been reading about the medium’s history:

Comic Books and America, 1945-54, William W. Savage, Jr, University of Oklahoma Press. This is a lively academic reading of comics’ treatment of race, gender, and war in the cold war era, including the censorship movement. America’s paranoid, conformist post-war years are a watershed in every aspect of comics history: censorship movements infantilized comics and reinforced the cultural pressure on women to adopt “traditional” consumerist housewife roles that had, in fact, never existed before. Mighty Wonder Woman stopped fighting for democracy and women’s superiority, and was shoehorned into a bizarre pseudo-family. Only Little Lulu fought back.

From Girls to Grrrlz, and Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists, 1896-2013, Trina Robbins, Chronicle Books and Fantagraphics: Curious hybrids that double as coffee table surveys and memoirs of Robbins’ own story of her role in the 2nd wave feminist efforts in comics’ underground/small press alternative publishing era in the 70’s and 80’s. There’s a nice overview of women’s long history both on and off the page, starting with the sentimental humor of turn of the century newspaper strips, then the sassy flapper era and war era adventures of female characters and their creators ( Pretty), and in her discussion of the teen and romance comics boom of the post war era ( Grrrlz), the inevitable domestication of women and their characters. Interestingly, this is about the time that women disappeared from the mainstream comics “bullpen”.

This is wrapped around a personal memoir of Robbins’ role in the alternative/underground comics movement of the 70’s-80’s. She played a significant role in the dawning of comics as a vehicle for personal/political expression for women (as they were for gays and other groups as well). It’s a good story, which she tells in both books, using many of the same examples. But Robbins is not big on interpretation; she lumps the giants who challenged assigned roles both on and off the page-Such as Tarpe Mills and Lily Renee-in with commercially successful, but ultimately sentimental figures as Grace Drayton. She also tends to ignore the mainstream houses after 1970. It lends the impression that the alternative comics are the apotheosis of the medium, a pretty thought- the alternatives certainly played a large role in opening up mainstream comics for different types of expression and creators beyond the usual adolescent power fantasy superhero tale told in the DC or Marvel house style. Their influence is celebrated in many posts here, and I made the same transition Robbins does as a reader. But given the small print runs, they don’t have much impact in the public at large, thus marring Robbins’ value as historical survey.

To get that story, one must refer to others, such as Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls. Madrid provides the only overview of women creators and characters from beginning to end in comic book history, centering mostly on mainstream publishers. While LePore and others focus on Wonder Woman’s roots in feminism, and Robbins on the feminist self-publishing and mini-comics of the underground/alternative years, only he links them all together, both on and off the pages. There is the excruciating, slow movement of the mass market comic book publishers toward less sexist characters, and more diverse creative teams, complete with much backsliding, e.g. the 90’s “bad girl” era of violent but hooter-licious superheroines intended for fan-boys, which even subsumed ( originally feminist) Wonder Woman.

These dark years also included the practice of “fridging”, or disposing of strong central female characters, often WAGs of central male characters, in a violent manner to facilitate cheap drama and plot transition. This is named after writer Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators blog which asked questions about “violence against fictional females” of male-dominated publishers and editorial teams for this heinous and sleazy fabulism. I happened across an interview of Simone in an old copy of The Comics Journal. It covered WIR, as well as her work as one of the first female writers at Marvel and DC, where she wrote iconic characters such as Wonder Woman and Superman.

Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, Les Daniels, Bonanza. Helpful for his very hard hitting assessment of the Wertham anti-comics crusade that led to the mainstream publishers’ rather craven and mercenary establishment of the Comics Code Authority censorship program. This, and one presumes, the sudden absence of women in the creative sphere, led to a bizarre phenomenon in which characters became grouped into pseudo-families to alleviate the censorship pressures. Superman acquired a cousin/daughter figure in Supergirl, who had a super cat as well, and Wonder Woman bizarrely acted as mother/sister/grandmother to her OWN younger selves during the Kanigher years after her creator, feminist William Moulton Marston died. Her teen and toddler selves were transported through time to provide domestic plot ideas when popping bad guys, enjoying bondage and dominating her simpering boy friend, Steve, was no longer considered a good marketing strategy by DC.

Superman’s rather sadistic habit of “teaching” the nuptially-obsessed Lois Lane “a lesson” by humiliating her with elaborate ruses to counteract her even more elaborate ruses to prove her marriageability were mentioned by multiple authors here. His icy Closet- er, Fortress of Solitude predated Simone’s refrigerator as a way of dealing with inconvenient female characters. And Wertham noted that Batman, in order to “protect his secret identity”, lived only with his athletic young ward Robin.

Eventually, through the efforts of Robbins, Simone and many others, and in concert with the fresh ideas and greater creative power that the direct market brought to the industry, women have found an increasingly prominent place in comics. Alison Bechdel’s and Marianne Satrapi’s tales of personal struggles were a big part of comics’ entry into the bookstore market. This, and creator-owned publishers such as Image Comics has opened opportunities for female (and male) creators in the mainstream. I’ve reviewed comics here by fresh faces such as Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios. I’ve also pointed out female characters, such as She Hulk, once slut-shamed mercilessly by her own writers, that transcend the super-babe-waiting-to-be-stuffed-into-a-refrigerator model.

 Many women (and men) in the burgeoning comics blogosphere have called out the industry on these issues. Here’s a  writer who challenges the long held assumptions about comics.   Gloria Steinem thought enough of her girlhood memories reading Wonder Woman to put her on the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine.

I mentioned Jill LePore’s take on that iconic character I’ll post a second part of this piece separately.  The record-setting cinematic releases of iconic characters indicates they are relevant to our cultural narrative. It’s time to take the other half of these dreams and visions out of the deep freeze.