Every day, people come up to me on the street and ask the same question: ‘I know Superman came to Earth in a rocketship and Batman saw his parents shot, but what’s the origin of Wonder Woman?’
In the past, I’ve explained that she was a clay baby given life by the gods after her Amazon queen mother prayed for a child. The questioner looks blank, and tells me they just don’t understand a word I’ve said, and therefore can never, ever try a Wonder Woman comic.
With the coming of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s version
of the Amazon, I can tell them: ‘Daughter of a god.’ Immediately, they subscribe.
Why am I making this rubbish up? Because of the interview
that the writer and artist of the relaunched Wonder Woman gave to Hero Complex this week. In it, they explain why Wonder Woman’s origin – the same since 1941 – has been changed:
Azzarello says: ‘We’re kind of forging our own trail right now. We’ve cleaned her up. You can describe who she is now. She’s got the specific description now just like Batman or Superman. She’s the daughter of a god. It’s weird, through the years people don’t have a strong grasp of her. In the general popular culture, she’s huge, not that anybody really knows anything about her. I’ve asked people –what do you know about Wonder Woman and they say, ‘The Amazon, right?’ And that’s about as far as it goes. They don’t know what her origin is. The idea of the character is bigger than the character herself. She’s recognizable but not known. And when that happens they go to the side stuff, they talk about [the accessories] like the lasso and the bracelets.’
Right. The one thing stopping Diana winning the hearts and minds of non-comics readers is the fact that they don’t know her origin. How about this for a radical thought – try telling them it.
Worried that they may think the clay baby bit a tad silly? It’s no sillier than an ordinary man dressed as a bat who takes serious blows every night of his life and doesn’t wind up in a wheelchair after a month. Or a hero who goes maskless but isn’t recognised by the reporters he gives interviews to regularly.
Or Marvel’s legion of irradiated humans who gain powers rather than die horribly. Or talking ducks with girlfriends. Fantasising beagles.
Let’s not underestimate the willingness of the public to go along with an idea if there’s something compelling to grab on to. And with Batman, Superman, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Donald Duck and Snoopy, there’s a great visual and there are compelling stories.
Wonder Woman has the great visual. Certainly, the traditional star-spangled ‘bathing costume’ look is a mite outlandish outside of the comic strip context, but it’s memorable. And Lynda Carter showed, in the Seventies live action TV show, that it can work on an actual human being. I don’t recall the programme suffering in popularity because it didn’t decide that Diana was the daughter of a god. She was a magic Amazon – it’s loony, but delightfully so, and certainly no loonier than anything else.
No one is confused by Diana’s origin. Comic readers know it. Non-comic readers who don’t … can you actually be confused by a knowledge vacuum? Surely it’s bonkers to care about people not having information they’ll never need? Somehow, I get by without knowing how to re-inflate a hot air balloon, or the GDP of Peru. What does it matter if people who aren’t comic readers don’t know the ins and outs of Wonder Woman’s background? If they’re interested, they can look the origin up online in ten seconds flat.
‘The Amazon, right?’ That’s really all you have to know about Wonder Woman to begin reading her adventures. Newcomers will learn the origin as soon as it’s relevant to the story. It’s up to Azzarello and Chiang to make the stories rip-roaring and original enough to keep new readers around long enough to learn.
If not knowing really is stopping anyone reading a Wonder Woman comic, DC have the perfect entry point – The Circle storyline by Gail Simone, Terry and Rachel Dodson, handily collected in an affordable package. It takes the clay baby anecdote and expands it into a dark, compelling look at the Amazons of Wonder Woman’s homeland, Themiscyra. It’s a superbly scripted, beautifully drawn tale of passion – Queen Hippolyte’s desire for a child, and the jealousy felt by some Amazons at Diana’s existence – and good old superheroics.
I recommend it wholeheartedly. I don’t, though, think it’s a vital read. The person in the street isn’t itching to know Diana’s back story – they know as much about her as they do about Batman and Superman. She’s an Amazon who comes to America to fight for peace. There you have it, in a single line. The concept has been presented in the aforementioned live action TV show, years worth of Justice League cartoons, a recent full-length animation and, more importantly, thousands of comic book stories. Anyone who reads US comics knows Diana, princess of the Amazons, we’ve grown up with her. Little boys may snub her title, but they definitely recognise her; how else would they know she’s (eurgh!) soppy?
As for ‘… they go to the side stuff, they talk about [the accessories] like the lasso and the bracelets‘ – well, a magic lariat and bullet-deflecting bracelets are indeed part of Diana’s bag of tricks. What’s actually wrong with that? They’re unique, they’re cool.
The genie is out of the bottle. Azzarello and Chiang have already put the idea that Diana is the daughter of Zeus out there, in their eminently readable Wonder Woman revamp. Can we expect DC to fund a massive ad campaign telling the world, hey, she’s a demigod, it’s safe to read her book? Because otherwise, the average person’s perception of Diana isn’t going to change one jot.
I’m actually fine with the demigod bit, it’s a tweak that could bring some fascinating stories. And it’s a change that decades of comics reading tell me will be gone within a few years – in superhero lore, the classic version always comes back. Always. So make your change, and I’ll give it a chance.
But don’t tell me it’s necessary.