Saturday, July 24, 2010

How Does She Fight in That Thing?

There are so many ways Wonder Woman is being fucked up, that it seems irrelevant to point them out. But that is not the point of this rant of mine.

Sure, the new costume is awful, but I don’t feel too threatened (or worried) about it. This latest reboot has “to be retconned” printed all over it in large capitals. And I don’t believe Straczynski and Jim Lee aren’t aware of this simple fact, considering the central gimmick they chose to launch it. Come on, after such a major event as BLACKEST NIGHT, one would expect any reboot of WONDER WOMAN to be tightly linked with it or BRIGHTEST DAY. Instead we get a silly, overused and deeply contrived alternative reality plot-device that either a) throws all these last 70 years of continuity down the drain; or b) is destined to be just a footnote in the DCU. My bet is on the later.

However, there’s one thing, I think, that merit a few comments, and that is the excuses presented for such a radical redesign of Wonder Woman’s classic outfit. And, in brief, there’s two of them: a) A higher level of realism (the so called “How does she fight in that thing?”), and b) the felt necessity to bring the character up to date with a new readership. I don’t buy either of them, although I believe the second one is meant to hide the truth.

So, how does she fight in that thing? Considering the following images, scanned from Wonder Woman, Vol.3 #1 and Wonder Woman #600, apparently not bad at all, irrespective of what she’s wearing.

But I guess that wasn’t the point of Mr. Strackzynski (although, that’s where the hub lies). What Mr.S. seems concerned with, probably in an attempt to please the feminists that constantly deride the sexualized representations of super-heroines, is that Wonder Woman should not have to look sexy (although she does, even in this new outfit, with ample bosom and skintight trousers (view images above). The contention here seems to be that the star spangled shorts and bustier exist solely to please the ominous “male gaze” of WW’s main readership.

In this view, Wonder Woman’s traditional costume is an instrument of titillation, forever drawing the eye to the breasts, buttocks and naked legs of the Amazon Princess, the reader’s imagination constantly fired up by the dynamism of the fights. Consider, for instance, the following panel from Guy Gardner #20:

Beaten and defeated, she seems about to fall out of her bustier; the reader expects at any moment a glimpse of a nipple, the promise of a naked breast. But, alas, not so. Because the only answer to the “how does she fight in that thing?” is just the same as it would be to “How does Supergirl land without flashing her panties?” or “How does Superman change direction so swiftly in flight without being affected by inertia and centrifugal force?”. And the answer is, obviously, because in the specific rules of the rich fantasy world that is made up by the DCU or the Marvel Universe, the reader is willing to suspend his disbelief as to such clamoring violations of the rules of logic.

And being so, super-hero costumes go beyond the simple function of clothing and its practical considerations, to reach into that of symbols and identifiers. That’s why Batgirl could fight so well in high-heels or Wonder Woman in such a skimpy outfit without causing the reader’s eyebrows to lift an inch. Because in the specific logic of mainstream comic-books, particularly issuing from the main houses, the universe is mainly asexual. I don’t intend to mean that super-beings don’t have sex-lives: they do, although, it seems, only by force of habit and to satisfy reader’s expectations. If Superman is married to Lois, it is natural to expect they should have a sex life. But in the larger scope – that of the so-called “realism” that Mr. Strackzynski seems to be purporting – the universe is devoid of a sex drive. You could pitch Superman at the core of a nuclear explosion that his uniform would come out with only a few tears, none of them indecent; you could pitch Wonder Woman against Wolverine’s adamantium claws and yet be sure that as torn as her (skimpy) costume could get there would be no show of nipple or pubic hair. And as dastardly and villainous the super-villains may be one can rest assured that they would never, ever, think of molesting or raping any of their captive super-heroines. And it is this asexuality, this sexlessness of the universe(*) that allows Wonder Woman (or any other super-heroine) to wear such a skimpy outfit and never to show more than decency allows, even in the fiercest of battles. That’s why superheroes wear capes and underpants above their trousers, without any loss of “realism”. That is also the reason why some comics – and I am thinking of IDENTITY CRISIS, or THE EVIL THAT MEN DO – cause such an uproar: because in such examoples, this asexuality is being broken and the comic universe becomes, simply put, too real.

If we accept this, at least I some degree, it becomes obvious that a character’s costume is more than mere accoutrement; it is an essential part of the character’s being and personality. In fact, due to the particular nature of the comic book’s medium, it is to a strong degree the character’s identity. It’s the identification of the character with its uniform, both diegetically and non-diegetically, that allows for the workings of the so called secret identity. It is because of the costume’s significance that we pretend to believe that a pair of glasses can transform Superman’s face into that of Clark Kent. Otherwise, how could one explain that when both Superman and Clark allowed their hair to grow to fashion in the early nineties, nobody ever suspected the coincidence? And the same fact accounts for the universal dislike for Wonder Woman’s 60s mod run: the character was the same, ditto her personality; but not the costume. And that made all the difference.

And that is something neither Mr. Strackzynski, nor Mr. Lee understood. In Behind the Scenes: The New Costume (Wonder Woman #600)Strackzynski says that “While other characters, from Batman to Superman and others throughout the DC Universe, have undergone substantial changes over the years, Wonder Woman has remained pretty much the same in appearance.” Well, one has just to look at Action Comics #1 or Detective Comics #27 to confirm that both Superman and Batman look pretty much the same as well. Sure, there have been minor changes, more like minute refinements of their costumes, a process of natural evolution throughout the decades, but they remain perfectly identifiable. And if both Superman and Batman went through strange costumes in the post-Superman’s Death period (oh, those dreaded nineties), they quickly reverted to the familiar look. Because their look, as well as that of Wonder Woman, have universal appeal. That’s why in Wonder Woman, Vol.3, #1, after the reader is treated to the appearance of several “avatars” of Wonder Woman, all of them seeming real, all of them familiar from prior adventures, this image hits the reader like a punch:

That’s why this reboot will fail and Wonder Woman will revert into her old outfit as soon as Strackzynski’s run is over, if not sooner. The only way to achieve a different result would be for the writing to be of such a high quality that allowed the reader to shift his identification from classic Wonder Woman to this new undistinguished look. And that, I’m afraid, is not in the grasp of Mr. Strackzynski’s talent, if this first taste of the new WW is something to go by.

But I’ve said this last point was meant to hide the truth, and the truth is simple; acording to Mr. Strackzynski, on creating the new looks for Wonder Woman, this was the question they were trying to tackle: “If we were to design her today, without any prior history… What would she look like?” Well, one thing is certain: she wouldn’t look like Wonder Woman… because she wouldn’t be Wonder Woman.

(*) I guess a Freudian would say that the constant frustration that such a scenario provokes makes all the titillation even more sexual, and I sure wouldn’t disagree with that; but in no way that invalidates the lack of “realism” of the diegesis.


  1. Yeah, I definitely agree on the ugliness of the costume. On THE BEAT I said I could live with it if it meant never having to again hear the refrain about the sexism of the star-spangled bikini, but I'm sure you're right that the jacket-costume will go away and we'll be pretty much back where we started. I considered buying #601 but I found the art pretty dull and couldn't even get into it for historical considerations.

    Yeah, I've seen those arguments about how "disavowal" is a potent erotic stimulus, in which the reader gets off on never seeing the forbidden fruit, but I think it's oversimple. For one thing, I recall hearing an interview with a high-fashion photographer who claimed that partially-clothed was always sexier than just plain nude, and I would tend to agree. I think Caroline Munro said something similar when asked why she didn't do explicit nude scenes, even within mainstream cinema.

  2. Honestly, I don't mind the new costume as much as everybody else seems to. Granted, its a bit 80s but I like seeing Wonder Woman updated a bit and not as just another hypersexualized super-heroine (I'm looking at you, Emma Frost and Power Girl).