Thursday, July 01, 2010

Wonder Wardrobe

Everyone was wearing fingerless gloves...Wonder Woman's getting a temporary new costume and backstory. There's a lot of brouhaha about it, and quite a bit of counter-brouhaha as well. "The costume is ugly, the story is stupid" say one crowd; "it's not like it's permanent or anything, costume changes and retcons are status quo for comics" sneer the other1.

Frankly, I don't care for it. The whole outfit looks way too much like what Sersi wore in the '90s, it recalls unpleasantly the Messner-Loebs/Deodato biker shorts outfit, and the combination of jacket and gold spangly bracelets make it look like it'd fit better on Gypsy. Its heart is certainly in the right place, giving Wonder Woman pants and something a little more practical than a strapless bustier (though a spaghetti-strap top with no apparent armoring is only very slightly more practical), but it's way too stuck in the '90s with its senseless jacket, choker, and fingerless gloves (in fact, if you popped a couple of loose-hanging hip belts on there, you'd basically have a color-rearranged version of Superboy's original costume). I dislike making the tiara into something purely decorative, and the general shrinking of Wonder Woman's recognizable accessories and emblems. Plus, isn't black-with-dark-blue kind of a fashion no-no? At the very least, I'd want to see the pants and jacket colors swapped. I think Jamie McKelvie's redesign is a much better way of accomplishing the same basic idea, but I'd like to see the black and white swapped out for dark blue and gold.

My problem is not really with the costume and story. As the counter-brouhahaers say, it's just a temporary thing, probably only lasting as long as JMS's run. And they're right; this won't stick around. It's the Electric Superman costume/powers, it's AzBats, it's even more temporary than most things in comics, and it's certainly not intended to be permanent. Same with the rebooted history thing, not a permanent change.

And really, that's the problem. As Ragnell notes quite brilliantly, Wonder Woman needs a new costume and an origin reboot. JMS talks (bizarrely) about how rich supporting casts are apparently a sign of weak protagonists and how one needs to take a weed whacker to "overgrown" mythology and casts.

Well, he's partially right. How you can look at a character whose powers come from Greek goddesses and think they have too much mythology is beyond me, but it's true that Wonder Woman has had some serious supporting cast issues. The problem is basically the one I mentioned recently as endemic to comics in general, but with Diana it's been an off-and-on issue since the Perez revamp. Wonder Woman isn't blessed with an iconic and well-known supporting cast; the only character who has really made any impression on the public consciousness is Steve Trevor, and one could argue for Etta Candy, Hippolyta, and maybe Donna Troy, by virtue of history and closeness to Diana. Unfortunately, the Perez revamp made Steve and Etta non-contemporaries of Diana, which removed the civilian characters that anyone knew and cared about from her close circle.

There are characters who can function with a small supporting cast, or one made of mostly superheroes. Batman's a good example; depending on the writer and era, the only civilians you're likely to find in a Batman story are Alfred, who almost doesn't count, and Commissioner Gordon. The thing about Batman, the thing that helps make that situation tenable, is that his city is so distinctive as to be almost a character unto itself, and he also has a fantastic cast of colorful, interesting, rich villains. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, has one of the worst rogues galleries in comics. Sure, Dr. Psycho is awesome, and Circe is interesting. Ares is generally good for a big story, but what's left? Cheetah? Wonder Woman runs out of good villains faster than Superman.

So thanks to the Perez reboot's virtual sidelining of Steve and Etta, and thanks to Wonder Woman's crappy rogues gallery, Wonder Woman's creative teams have worked quite hard to give Diana a distinct personality, an interesting status quo, and a rich supporting cast. We've had Julia Kapatelis, the Sandsmarks, Trevor Barnes and Ferdinand, and most recently Nemesis and Tolifhar. Each attempt was good (some--like the most recent sets of casts--better than others), but each attempt was a fairly clean break from the previous attempt, so there's been little chance for continuous development. And JMS is just continuing the trend, and somehow thinking that he's a better writer for it. I've only been reading Wonder Woman regularly (this time around--I read a bunch of Byrne's run) since Jimenez was on, and the title's seen at least two full cast and circumstance changes in that time. Wonder Woman isn't like Superman, where you can at least count on the Daily Planet cast to stay constant and keep the book grounded; with Steve and Etta reduced to bit players, her cast is almost completely unrooted.

Which is only part of why she's in desperate need of a reboot. The other part is, as Ragnell mentioned, the misogyny that resulted from trying to make the Amazons' origins meaningful and relevant. Casting all the Amazons as the reincarnated souls of abuse victims, making Hercules a's really a black mark in their backstory, and it's well past time to change that (I mean, Superman's had three or four origin reboots since then, why not give Diana one?).

She could also use a costume update, which is considerably harder to do, for two big reasons. The first is brand recognition; Wonder Woman's costume has remained relatively unchanged (except for temporary stunts like this one, and the mod era) for almost seventy years, showing up in every major multimedia presentation. That's a lot of cultural inertia to overcome for any length of time, which is why Wonder Woman's costume changes for the last twenty years or more have mostly been minor cosmetic tweaks. I'd like to see something more dramatic, and something done with the intention of being permanent, but this clearly isn't it, tied to an alternate timeline story and lacking the basic components of brand recognition.

The other big problem in giving Wonder Woman a new costume is that, while her costume hasn't changed much, her legacy characters, particularly Donna Troy, have gone through a wide variety of different costumes, running much of the gamut available to red-gold-and-blue-with-stars costumes. Donna's gone mostly red, stars and armor, and her more recent starfield and silver number. If you're looking for the more casual/street style that Jim Lee seems to be going for in this rendition, Cassie has that well and truly covered. With all those designs, it must be difficult to give Wonder Woman a decent looking Wonder Woman costume that doesn't look derivative of one of her sidekicks. Difficult, but not necessarily impossible, and I don't think Lee's version is that good an attempt.

Wonder Woman deserves pants, and she deserves to have the abuse and victimization excised from her backstory. For that matter, she deserves to have Hercules as a rival or ally (or both), not her uncomfortable equivalent of the Comedian. But this story isn't going to give her either (for any length of time). If it does well, it'll likely just lead to a restoration of the status quo once it runs its course. If it does poorly, editors will conclude that people don't want Wonder Woman to have a new costume or revamped origin, even if they just don't want Straczynski's inept attempt to turn her into a '90s-costumed Superman clone.

The best thing that could come out of this, as far as I'm concerned, is what Wonder Woman should have gotten long before the Flash did: a Secret Origin miniseries, establishing her with a rebooted backstory and a costume that perhaps combines the best aspects of this one and her classic outfit (or better yet, let's establish her as someone who has more than one available costume, some of which are more than underwear). Unfortunately, the only two people I'd trust to write such a thing are either taking a break from comics (Greg Rucka) or recently removed from the Wonder Woman title (Gail Simone). Or maybe Phil Jimenez. Sadly, it'd almost certainly be done by Geoff Johns, and I can't imagine that having less gratuitous victimization and unnecessary culling of the supporting cast.

So I can't speak for everyone who dislikes this change, but my biggest problem with it isn't aesthetic or plot-based, but it's that I think this makes real changes less likely to happen and/or stick. And Wonder Woman is a character in need of real change, not just a change of clothes.

1. Comments, of course, boiled down to remove any nuance2.

2. "Nuance" is used broadly here, as it must always be when describing fan-fights.


Erin Palette said...

I disagree; while she sorely needs a new costume, pants aren't necessarily the answer. I would prefer an outfit that better hews to the traditions of her mythology; perhaps a skirt and breastplate of studded leather, with bronze helmet, greaves, and vambraces, like actual Athenian warriors would wear.

Or her Kingdom Come ensemble. That kicked ALL kinds of ass.

SallyP said...

Erin, her Kingdom Come outfit IS one of my favorites. It is certainly more akin to her mythology.

But well said, Tom! It's true that there is more wrong than just the outfit. But JMS's wholesale tossing of all of her recent...and not so recent continuity just seems so...arbitrary.