It’s November 3rd 2013. Rihanna poses as Medusa on the cover of GQ. Thor: The Dark World, the second movie about Marvel’s mythological superhero, tops the UK movie charts with Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa also doing well. Barnes and Noble have just announced the Nook GlowLight. The clocks have just gone back.
This means that it was the perfect time for Phil Sandifer to release his book A Golden Thread, a history of the DC Comics – formerly National – superhero character Wonder Woman. I say ‘superhero’ knowing that Wonder Woman identifies as female, and this is the crux of Sandifer’s argument. Wonder Woman is a problem character, a proto-feminist who lived through the rise and fall of the feminist movement while somehow managing to almost always never intersect with it. Comics is a medium, and genre, which has always been carefully gendered – there were comics for boys and other comics for girls – but Wonder Woman has always sat oddly in this. She was created by a man, the comics have almost always been aimed at men, for much of that time she has literally been the ambassador for women in the DC Universe. She’s an extremely well-known character, consistently in print every month for nearly seventy-five years, but she’s rarely shifted that many comics.
Sandifer identifies the issue that while it’s easy to imagine Wonder Woman is ‘feminist’, and she has been around as the role of women in society and the workplace has radically changed, the character herself has evolved, but not always in the same way feminism has. She was created as an ‘issues’ character, but this survived about as long as Superman’s fighting for the blue collar guys or Batman carrying a gun. The utopia she hails from has dated even more badly than most. And, of course, whenever comics try to do ‘issues’ if the creators care about the cause being espoused the result is often mawkish and blunt, but if they’re just hacking it out, the best case scenario is that it’ll be a bit of cosmetic work on a standard action story. Despite comics being one of most immediate, id-driven media (whatever else they were, the comics that reacted to 9-11 got out there before novels, TV and movie drama had barely got their boots on, they were on the stands before many news magazines), however sympathetic creators were to hippies, to environmentalists or to Occupy, whenever superheroes do ‘issues’, however young and hip or weird the comics creators are, it always feels like watching your parents dancing. The Lynda Carter TV series works precisely because it’s playful and knowing at the same time. It’s fun to watch, it’s shows you a strong female protagonist, and part of that strength is that she doesn’t have to be solemn or chiding.
Sandifer surveys the history of the character, exposes how odd it is that there are very few periods of stability, that for basically the whole time, DC and its creators have struggled to make the character work, that the most common mode for Wonder Woman’s creative team is ‘frantically trying to fix the mess the last creative team left behind, often just by ignoring it’. It’s a good, thoughtful book that lays out the phases of the history of a problematic character. Like Sandifer, and I suspect a lot of DC creators over the years, I think Wonder Woman’s a character who’s tantalising. Someone built from equal parts Greek myth, bondage cheesecake and political utopianism ought to be an open goal, ought to be easy, ought to be the most popular and accessible superhero out there, someone – to paraphrase Fry and Laurie – who half the population want to be and the other half would like to go to bed with. So why has no one ever got it right? Why have the vast majority not even got close? A Golden Thread is a good stab at laying out the problem.