In a previous post, I attempted to work through an unlikely dialectic of pride and guilt when it comes my own defiance of the enduring stereotype of male comic book readers; somehow, and for whatever reason, it turns out that I read more monthly titles starring female superheroes than male. So pride because there are some really strong books right now, and many of these characters have rich histories and devoted creators despite the constant threat of cancellation due to poor sales. (Just this week, best-selling author Marjorie Liu’s brilliant run on the Marvel series X-23 ended after only 21 issues.) And guilt because these characters tend to be dressed in costumes that I’m sure Rush Limbaugh would have a choice word or two to describe. But we’ve been over this, and you can read the whole thing here. The conclusion is that the best part of superheroines like Power Girl is the way that they actively resist and subvert the male gaze, turning the target audience – men, basically, who are just too easily titillated – into the worst villains with whom they will have to contend.
This, of course, is all very serious stuff, and so I would like to follow up that discussion with the work of two creators whose satirical versions of comics’s most enduring female superhero, Wonder Woman, challenge our principal assumptions about the character: her historically fierce compassion and overall, um, niceness. Wonder Woman is a character who has had innumerable incarnations and iterations – the subject of an excellent recent retrospective on io9 – and as a result remains elusive despite her seeming ubiquity. For all of her alternate origin stories and shifting set of powers, she nevertheless signifies a kind of permanent strength that has withstood an often uncertain role in the shared DC Comics Universe and a rotating roster of creators who have different interpretations and agendas. Also, there was the whole pants or no pants debate.
Wonder Woman is in a lot of ways what is best about superheroes in that she is both strong and symbolic, dissatisfied and driven. The failure of “man’s world” to ever be at peace is her ironic call to arms, although she is not quite immune to a love of battle and the lure of brutality. And yet, somehow she’s still totally nice, of which Steve Rude’s Rockwell-esque portrait is a not uncommon representation.
What one finds in parodies of the character, therefore, is a kind of world-weariness and existential I-simply-refuse-to-keep-caring that is likely the result of having been so widely and wildly interpreted. Kate Beaton’s parodic appropriation of the feminist icon is the result of the character being so routinely misunderstood, as Beaton said in an interview with Comics Alliance:
She’s just a bit more complicated than everybody else. I mean, how many dudes are going to write her and get her right? I just think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I think it’s a real shame people haven’t figured her out…. I guess the Wonder Woman that I draw is kind of sick of everyone not understanding her.
As a member of the pantheon of historical figures that comprise her brilliant webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton’s version of Wonder Woman smokes unrepentantly, disdains children, and is as unwilling to indulge the praise of her fans as she is the prattle of her super-peers. In one of Beaton’s strips, even the most seemingly effortless feat of super-heroism – getting a cat out of a tree – becomes a study in super-annoyance.
Although it is not commonly known (or even always the case – depending, again, on who is writing her), one of Wonder Woman’s abilities is that she can talk to animals. Really. It is precisely this protean set of powers that makes her such a fascinating source of humor for Justin Pierce, the creator of The Nonadventures of Wonderella, whose parodic title character is a snarky, misanthropic, and generally pretty surly version of a Wonder Woman. Justin was kind enough to speak with Humor in America about why the best parodies of Wonder Woman – such as his own, I’d argue – present a woman who can no longer carry the weight of her inherent contradictions:
She’s an Amazonian warrior, but also the princess of a longstanding dynasty. Earth is her home, but it’s a disconnected, time-lost part of Earth that still makes her seem alien. She’s a demigod who somehow needs bulletproof bracelets. Her powers are a grab bag: sometimes she can fly, sometimes she can talk to animals, sometimes she’s telepathic. Plus, in the real world, she’s been a standard-bearer for powerful women, a definition which has evolved an awful lot since 1941. Every legacy superhero has to keep pace with the age we read them, but I’d argue that Wonder Woman’s had far more varied path than Batman or Superman.
Unlike the brooding paranoia of Batman that satire can therefore take to an extreme (plus, he’s kind of a hoarder) or Superman’s unflagging conscience which can be critiqued as hyperbolic and/or easily flipped to make him an unstoppable and unconscionable villain, it seems like the funniest way to make fun of Wonder Woman is to strip her of her sympathy and replace it with the bitterness of someone who has simply become exhausted by the day-to-day tedium that superheroes should be able to transcend. From an overbearing mother to an underwhelming sidekick to inept villains who never seem to step up their game, Wonderella is like the stubborn young mother to a world that is in a constant state of tantrum: because it will just tire itself out eventually, why not have a cocktail in the meantime?
What also seems to come out in Justin Pierce’s work – that is, what Wonderella retroactively reveals about Wonder Woman – is that she is often a whole lot smarter than everyone else. This is often downplayed in mainstream comics, which seem loath to let us forget that Batman is the “master strategist” and so on. Accordingly, there seems to be a very “yeah, obviously” tone to much of Wonderella’s dialogue – which resonates with the real Wonder Woman, who usually seems to know the score, even if her voice is subordinate to the male leaders of whatever team she is on. (In one issue of the newly relaunched Justice League book, for example, Wonder Woman had literally one line of dialogue, which was something like “Let’s fight!”) Wonderella, on the other hand, has little time for anything less than the reality of having to do it all.
This is not to say that the current monthly Wonder Woman book isn’t more engaging, good-looking, and popular than it has been in years. Written by Brian Azzarello with art by Cliff Chiang, it is one of strongest titles to come out of the company-wide relaunch of DC Comics. As in, so really strong that you should be really reading it. I’ve found that it is still important to keep up with The Nonadventures of Wonderella as a necessary counterpoint, though, in that it reminds us not to take mainstream comics too seriously while simultaneously riffing, revising, improvising, and occasionally even improving on a character who has been too “good” for too long.