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Get in our invisible plane, losers - it's time for a Lady Business theme week.

Over the next seven days, we'll be presenting a host of posts about Super Women & Comics from a team of smart, persuasive readers and comics enthusiasts. And what better way to kick off the week than with words from Wonder Woman superfan, chaila?

chaila has previously written posts about awesome action stars Sarah Connor and Mako Mori for Lady Business. Now she's back to convince you that Diana of Themyscira is essential to your life. You can try to resist her but, frankly, I don't like your chances.

Wonder Woman might be the most famous superhero that people know the least about. Before I started reading Wonder Woman comics just over a year ago, I thought I knew enough to know I wasn’t interested. I knew something about an island of women, and something about bracelets that stop bullets. She seemed to be associated with a kind of “empowerment” feminism that didn’t seem very complex. I wondered why she couldn't wear pants. Mostly, I knew her as a vintage pin-up: a face on a t-shirt, symbol of superficial girl power, mostly devoid of content or context, who perhaps had been relevant thirty years ago and but didn’t really seem so today.

Oh how much I was missing!

Wonder Woman blocking arrows with her bracelets

Diana of Themyscira, or Wonder Woman, has been continuously published in comics since the 1940s, so she has a rich, complicated, diverse history. Here’s a brief overview, if you need a primer. Diana is a warrior princess of the Amazons, a race of women who have lived on an island isolated from the world, usually due to war and/or various forms of gender-based violence. In their isolation on Themyscira (aka Paradise Island), the Amazons have created their own advanced society and culture, including progressive ideas of justice and equality. In different versions of the story, Diana is created from clay by her mother, Hippolyta, and given life and superpowers by the gods, or is the secret daughter of an affair between Hippolyta and Zeus and gains her powers from her demigod status. She was created with a purposefully progressive, feminist ideology, and fights for truth, equality and justice. In addition to her superpowers, including strength, speed, flight, and wisdom, she wears bracelets that can stop bullets and other weapons, and carries an indestructible lasso which compels anyone touching it to tell the truth.

Here’s the main thing: Diana is amazing. She is strong and powerful, brilliant and brave, loving and kind, committed to peace but capable of necessary violence. She is a warrior, a scholar, a diplomat, a mentor, a sister, a daughter, a leader, and a teammate. Her principles and her status as an ambassador from an all-female race of warriors have always kept her closely tied to feminism. Over the years she has become, layer by layer, beautifully and sometimes frustratingly complex. For audiences, she can often be a mirror for the conflicts of changing feminism and social justice movements, a symbol that reflects us back to ourselves, with all the accompanying discomfort and fragility inherent in loving a character like that.

A gif of Diana doing something tricky with a rope

With over seventy years of history, this post cannot be anywhere near comprehensive. But here are a few things I didn’t know about Wonder Woman a year ago, and wish I had.


She's a warrior.

Diana dressed in armor and holding a sword and shield

As an Amazon, Diana is above all else, a warrior. The Amazons are typically represented as a martial culture, skilled and trained in war, weapons and combat. Diana has superpowers, including superior strength and speed, but she’s also trained by her fellow Amazons in all types of combat and battle strategy, which is a formidable combination.

Diana preparing for battle with the text ‘Keep faith.Trust to love. Fight with honor. But fight to win.’

Diana is trained for war, but is also deeply committed to peace, which is probably the best example of how Diana negotiates and reconciles apparent contradictions, in her beliefs, her actions and in her best stories. She believes there is good in all people, and she will make every attempt to find that good, to convince with words and reason, before resorting to force. She will show mercy wherever possible. But she will resort to violence when it’s necessary and justified. She is not opposed to killing in all circumstances, which sets her apart from many of the other superheroes in her universe. She is both tough and incredibly warm. She is a character who encompasses both light and shadow, and her understanding of war and its sacrifices is as integral to her character as her compassion and fairness.

Diana holding out her hand to an opponent

When she’s written well, you feel how her ideals have been forged and tested by war, violence and loss. Her wisdom, compassion and diplomacy, as well as her strength and prowess on the battlefield, are all tools she uses to protect and further justice and peace.


She's an ambassador.

Diana and her fellow Amazons in formal dress at a state dinner

In the traditional story about Diana, she leaves Themyscira for “the patriarch’s world” to spread Amazon ideals of justice and equality. Sometimes she is a formal ambassador who has diplomatic status and an official embassy, and sometimes her role is informally being an example to the world through her work. While she has incredible physical powers, a lot of her power--or a lot of the power she chooses to use whenever she can--is soft power, the power of persuasion and truth. She must deal with delicate situations, when punching opponents in the face is not the best option.

Comics panel of Diana watching a crowd protest her book

Diana is always a representative of her woman-centric culture, unfamiliar and thus often misunderstood and feared by the rest of the world. Unlike many superheroes, she often has no secret identity. She has to deal with being a public figure, with politics and perception, and with backlash to her progressive principles, which very often allows her to deal, in-story, with the exact same things that the character faces externally. This can lead to powerful commentary on real life politics and culture, particularly as it relates to women and being female or progressive in the public arena.


She’s powerful.

Diana lifting up a military tank

This one may seem obvious since she is, after all, a superhero. I underestimated how I would feel seeing a female superhero, indestructible, physically strong, in control, and always ultimately winning. It is a very satisfying thing to see.

Diana fighting Green Lantern, saying ‘This gives me no pleasure. But I’m sure you’ve heard that before.’
Diana kicking Superman into a car

But she’s powerful in other, more meta ways too. She is astoundingly narratively powerful. In her own comic, Diana is always the most vibrant, most important thing in the story. Every story for 70 years has been built around her character, and her choices and actions. There have been dozens of takes on her, by many writers and artists with their own version, building on or interpreting what came before or taking her in a totally different direction. And of course, every fan has their own version of the character.

Diana advancing on an opponent with an axDiana surrounded by actual kittens

As is true of all myths, this multiplicity of interpretations ultimately makes her a stronger and more resilient character. Throughout decades of writing of varying quality and contradictory ideas about who she is and what she does, spread across hundreds of comics in multitudes of stories, she has a core self that has endured and that transcends those things. She will always be negotiating the line between war and peace, violence and diplomacy; she will always use her power in defense of those who don’t have it; she will never shrink from the truth, no matter how damaging or painful, or allow others to do so; she will always have faith in good; she will always be full of love; she will always be inspiring.

Comics panel of Diana saying ‘We are never everything we wish to be, Kal-El, and rarely everything we appear to be.’ Superman replies: ‘You are.’

Diana is typically a member of the Justice League, and is one of its so-called Trinity, along with Superman and Batman. These three are the leaders of the Justice League, and of superheroes in the DC universe. In terms of physical strength and power, Diana can keep up with or outstrip both Superman and Batman. When decisions need to get made, it’s the three of them who do it. They typically have different but equally valid worldviews, which often clash, and Diana’s always has equal weight. I never get tired of seeing Diana as one of the three pillars of this longstanding comics universe, alongside two of the most famous superheroes ever.

Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman, with the text ‘Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman? Wonder Woman, obviously’
(source)


She’s explicitly feminist.

Diana facepalming, saying ‘Why is it that people feel a belief in women equals a hatred of men?’

There is no easy way to talk about Wonder Woman and feminism, I think because there is no easy way to talk about feminism. As the daughter and ambassador of female warriors, as the most iconic female superhero and as a superhero who expressly fights for truth and equality, Diana is inextricably connected to feminism. While I love this aspect of her character, it also means that she has to carry the often leaden baggage of everyone’s contradictory and divergent expectations of what a feminist hero should be or do, or what a feminist story should contain.

Diana facing off with a male warrior who has called her a gendered slur, saying ‘Odd how limited men’s vocabularies become when faced with a woman who is their better.’

Throughout the years, the effectiveness and complexity of the feminist elements of Diana’s stories vary greatly. At various times, her stories include superficial but satisfying triumphs over evil and misogyny, genuine thoughtful engagement with ideas of justice and heroism, uncomfortable intersections with gender and identity, and outrage-inspiring elements I wish I could forget.

She encounters and fights sexism directed against herself and other women. She helps victims of domestic violence. She prevents and resolves war. She holds tightly to love, mercy, and compassion. She addresses poverty and discrimination. She argues passionately against regressive ideologies. And of course, sometimes she just punches villains into a car or stands on Batman’s head.

Diana standing over Batman with a boot on his face, saying ‘Don’t get up.’

But there are always questionable elements in her stories too. The threatened “subduing” of the Amazons, and of Diana, reappears often in her plots and mythology. Characters endlessly reference Diana’s beauty and physical attractiveness to men and forget all her other characteristics, and boobs and butt poses are frustratingly inescapable in many comics. Amazonian feminism is easily and repeatedly confused with hating men, and there are stories about Diana learning the important lesson that Not All Men are bad. Either that, or Diana’s feminism is defanged and reduced to simplistic platitudes, robbing her of her complex contradictions.

Diana looking angry, saying ‘I am Wonder Woman, and you’ve managed to make me slightly peeved.’

It’s never difficult to apply a feminist lens and find something worthy of criticism in a Wonder Woman comic. Often a single run by one writer will contain both enraging things and amazing things, all at the same time. You often have to take the good with the bad, or get nothing at all.

Wonder Woman’s engagement with feminism also means that sometimes audiences hold her to impossible standards that she cannot possibly meet, because there are too many disparate ideas of feminism. Some fans are invested in her commitment to peace and non-violence whenever possible and recoil at the idea that she would carry a sword or kill. Other fans are invested in how her willingness to slay a monster when she sees no other choice raises complex questions about justice and how to achieve it. Some fans are invested in the inherent subtextual queerness of her Amazon clay origin story, and are angry that she has a father now, which subverts that queerness. Other fans are invested in how the change to make Zeus her father makes her a demigod, with different kinds of power and relationships to explore. I could write a whole separate post on what different fans think about her revealing uniform and whether or how it should be changed, or whether her new romance with Superman puts her in a new position of narrative power or completely undermines her status within the DC Comics universe. These fans are all coming from a feminist perspective, and yet they have divergent, often irreconcilable views.

Wonder Woman is so iconic and such an enduring symbol to female and feminist fans, that I do think that many feel important ownership of her and her symbolism, and feel like she needs to embody certain, specific feminist ideals all of the time. But while she’s an established feminist icon, Diana is also a character in continuing stories, who has to continue to grow and change. All of this can be a very difficult negotiation, between the writers and the character, and in particular, between a feminist audience and Diana.

Wonder Woman is a powerful idea, an aspirational ideal of feminism and justice, heroism and equality, and the power of world-changing ideas. But built into the very concept of being aspirational is failure: reaching for the ideal, but forever falling short.

Diana kneeling down with a little girl

At the same time, I do think there’s a powerful element of feminist fans wanting to love her so much, because she’s Wonder Woman. What she means and what she does can be breathtaking. She shows up to save the day, to stand up for women and the oppressed and powerless, to take a stand against virulent, reactionary beliefs in order to advance real principles of justice. More than seventy years after her debut, I still don’t think there’s any other character quite like that.


She’s surrounded by amazing women.

Diana’s comics are full of other awesome women, who support her, love her or challenge her. Her mother, Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, is as fierce and wise as Diana, and a formidable political leader and warrior in her own right. She is often dealing with the ramifications of her daughter leaving home to forge her own path in the world. It’s not new territory for hero fiction, but it’s not often applied to a heroic mother and daughter.

Hippolyta in battle dress, praying to Athena

Diana’s family is typically rounded out with Cassandra Sandsmark, Wonder Girl, and Donna Troy, Diana’s sister (it’s complicated) and a former Wonder Girl, and the three of them consider each other sisters.

Diana, Cassie and Donna in epic armor, with the text ‘Will wonders never cease?’

The Amazons are varied and complex, when done well. There are women of color, women skilled in combat, women scholars and teachers, diplomats and politicians. Diana is typically treated by the Amazons as all of their daughter, though there are divergent perspectives among them about Diana’s role in the world and about Diana herself. Different individual Amazons show up in different stories, from Artemis, a sometimes antagonist and challenger to Diana, Phillipus, Captain of the Royal Guard and the queen’s closest advisor, Io, master of arms who loves Diana dearly, to Hessia in the most recent comics, exiled Amazon, healer and friend to Diana.
Diana as a child learning swordfighting with an Amazon, with the text ‘All the Amazons became her mother, as one. She brought us hope, and love. She saved us, Captain.’

There are supporting characters, such as Julia Kapatelis, a badass archaeologist who befriends and mentors Diana when she first comes to “man’s world,” and her daughter Vanessa, who looks up to Diana as a girl and then develops a more complicated relationship with her as she gets older. There are women everywhere, women Diana works with, women who oppose her, and women she protects. Female gods, like Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera, often play major roles, as antagonists or allies or both, and while Diana’s relationship with them changes in different runs, it’s often conflicted and complex.

Diana is an amazing female character surrounded by other awesome women, which can be a rare thing anywhere in media, but especially in comics.


She’s worth it.

Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN

Being a Wonder Woman fan is by turns full of joy and incredibly frustrating. Diana has gone through a lot of changes, in the past few years, which has resulted in a lot of her fanbase within geek feminism circles being unhappy with her stories. Most cultural discussions about her tend to revolve around what she should wear or--at least up until the very recent announcement of a Wonder Woman movie in 2017!--why she doesn’t have her own blockbuster movie. In the wider media landscape, her complexity often gets lost in a tendency to try to reduce her to something easily described, easily bounded and understood, and too often a bland, unchallenging symbol of girl power.

Diana surrounded by opponents, saying ‘It’s me you want. Here I am.’

And of course, often I love her in spite of constant failings in the writing of her. Sometimes writers have her say and do things that I don’t think she would do. Sometimes her stories just don’t engage with the complicated ideas that I think give her power. There are times when I hate what’s on the page, when I find what some writer has written or some artist has drawn to be incompatible with “my” Diana, or with a feminist Diana. This happens with any fiction, but because she is so inextricably bound up with feminist ideals, even small points of disagreement or disappointment can take on a much greater weight and significance. The big things can feel catastrophic. It hurts more when it’s Diana.

Two little girls imitating a poster of Diana flexing her considerable muscles

It can occasionally be difficult to continue to care and to engage with the character amidst all this complexity. But it’s worth it. Wonder Woman is an iconic character who has existed for 75 years, and somehow through everything, all the plot weirdness and reboots, through all the conflicting demands of audiences who love her and all the changing writers, artists, and executives, somehow she is still a true, coherent character, capable of inspiring joy and awe.

Perhaps characters who engender less complicated reactions in us are easier to celebrate, and they’re important too. But I so hope we don’t avoid or abandon Wonder Woman because she does inspire such complex feelings.

Diana dressed in epic armor, striding forward, with the text ‘Let it come.’


A necessarily limited and subjective list of a few significant Wonder Woman stories

There are 75 years’ worth of Wonder Woman comics of divergent quality. Every fan will give you a different list, but here are some of the stories I recommend!

Eyes of the Gorgon by Greg Rucka (collects Wonder Woman volume 2, issues 206-213). Read for: The breathtaking scope of Diana’s bravery; making choices with eyes wide open and living with them. I don’t even know how to talk about it. Just read it. I love the art too.

Mission’s End by Greg Rucka (collects Wonder Woman volume 2, issues 218-226). Read for: A deconstruction of Diana’s identity and myth-making, and the resoluteness of her principles and commitment.

The Circle by Gail Simone (collects Wonder Woman volume 3, issues 14-19). Read for: A mother’s quest to have a daughter, a daughter’s quest to save her mother, and a telling of Diana’s classic origin story that’s truly mythic, dramatic and compelling.

Blood by Brian Azzarello (collects Wonder Woman volume 4, issues 1-6). Read for: Complicated feelings? This one is, to say the least, controversial. It’s quite different from previous Wonder Woman stories, in some ways that have angered many Wonder Woman fans, including an origin story change that makes Zeus Diana’s father. I can’t even talk about what it does to the Amazons. It does, however, have a compelling sense of drama and mythic scope, and it is ultimately a story about Diana wielding her own power, in her own way. If nothing else, check it out for Cliff Chiang’s gorgeous art of Diana, always strong, imposing and powerful.

Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia by Greg Rucka. Read for: A standalone graphic novel, including competing ideals of justice and Diana standing on Batman’s head.

➝ Most of the above stories are smaller parts of longer arcs with more issues by the same writer. If you’re inspired to start from a beginning point, here’s a post I previously wrote about some good places to start, though of course pretty much everyone will have a different opinion on that too.

➝ The current Wonder Woman title is getting a new writer and artist as of November 2014, which is likely to be an easy entry point to the comics that are currently being published. Diana is also currently in Sensation Comics, a weekly digital anthology that has so far been a ton of fun, and Superman/Wonder Woman, a comic about the new romance and teamups between the two titular characters.

Go forth, try a Wonder Woman comic! You won’t regret it.

Date: 2014-11-10 02:15 pm (UTC)
goodbyebird: Comics: Wonder Woman rises from the water, fists raised. (C ∞ Diana)
From: [personal profile] goodbyebird
Such a good recruiter article! ♥

Date: 2014-11-11 04:08 am (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (wonder woman - warrior princess)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Mwahahaha there is no escaping the Diana feelings! <3

Date: 2014-11-10 03:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] susanhatedliterature.net
That's a lot of information :)
I've always been aware of Wonder Woman, and thought she was quite awesome, but I've never read a comic about her, or watched any of the tv show. I mean, I know I must have seen bits and pieces of it, but I don't remember ever actually *watching* it.

Maybe 2015 is time for me to rectify that gap in my pop culture knowledge

Date: 2014-11-11 04:14 am (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (wonder woman - bulletproof)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Haha, that is an understatement. :) The hazards of having decades of comics! Also my wordy brain.

The TV show is quite a different animal than the comics! (At least, the more recent comics). The word used most often to describe it is "campy," though I think that's part of its charm. I actually have never seen an entire episode of the show myself, though I know people who love it a lot. And of course, I support getting familiar with Wonder Woman in any medium!

Date: 2014-11-10 05:04 pm (UTC)
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
From: [personal profile] sanguinity
Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman? WONDER WOMAN, THAT'S WHO. And she would, too. She totally totally would. I could go for hours about why.

JUST standing on Batman's head? Tsk, chaila. There was far, far, faaaaaaaaar more going on there than that, and you know it.

And Kal-El looks up to Diana! He thinks she does transcend failure! *bawls*

This was a lovely post. But how could it not be? It is you writing about Diana!

Date: 2014-11-11 04:21 am (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (Default)
From: [personal profile] chaila
I could go for hours about why.

I invite you to explain your clearly correct choice of Wonder Woman in two hours or less. Diagrams optional, but strongly encouraged.

Ha, yes I know there's more going on in that panel, but I didn't think anyone needed an extra 1,000 words on how I feel about justice and vengeance, and Batman kneeling at Diana's feet and hugging her knees. Maybe next time.

"You are."

*wails*

*ships them*

I am glad you liked the post! It's just. Diana. <3

Date: 2014-11-10 09:29 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Thank you for writing this awesome primer - it was exactly what I wanted to read after the Jill Lepore book :D

Date: 2014-11-11 04:22 am (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (wonder woman - fight)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Thanks for inviting me! I have not yet read the Jill Lepore book and am very much looking forward to your review!

Date: 2014-11-11 11:49 am (UTC)
beccatoria: (diana of themiscyra)
From: [personal profile] beccatoria
AAAAAAAH.

I keep wanting to pick out bits to talk about but then I'd never stop. Just all of it. All of it. She's so expansive and huge and wonderful and complicated and her history reflects all of it, good and bad, like...so beautiful and even the places where there's scar tissue is proof of live.

♥ ♥ forever.

Date: 2014-11-11 11:25 pm (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (wonder woman - bulletproof)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Yes, I have now come out on the other side of my personal Wonder Woman Wars believing that the complications are a strength. A lesser character could not have survived so much bullshit, and continue to survive and surpass so much bullshit. Whether that's true, or whether I've talked myself into it, who knows. :)


But Dianaaaaaaaa. I think that about covers it. ♥

Date: 2014-11-11 04:08 pm (UTC)
likeadeuce: (Default)
From: [personal profile] likeadeuce
"These fans are all coming from a feminist perspective, and yet they have divergent, often irreconcilable views."

This is so smart, yet it's something we can easily lose sight of. Thanks!

Date: 2014-11-11 11:28 pm (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (wonder woman - manpain)
From: [personal profile] chaila
It is very easy to lose sight of, and it gets so easily buried in complicated discussions. I may paste it to my refrigerator. :)

Date: 2014-11-11 05:54 pm (UTC)
thistlerose: by <lj user="mairbh"> (Wonder Woman)
From: [personal profile] thistlerose
I've loved Wonder Woman since I was a small child, watching reruns of the Lynda Carter series, but I only recently started reading the comics. Sometimes I feel like I love the idea of Diana more than I actually love Diana as she's presented in the comics. But she's an idea I aspire to, and your post hit on pretty much all my reasons for doing so. (And reminded me that I still need to check out Sensation Comics.)

Date: 2014-11-11 11:37 pm (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (wonder woman - fight)
From: [personal profile] chaila
I think the idea of Diana is definitely something that is larger than the sum of its parts, something that can encompass TV show Wonder Woman, decades of different comics, animated series and movies, etc., all of which have a different take on her. And it's a huge thing that I'm not sure could be lived up to in any continuing way, because it's just....too much?

I definitely feel like I love the idea of Diana more too, sometimes, when the comics aren't living up to the character. But sometimes, every once in awhile, the comics get her right, and she's everything she should be, and it's so amazing. So I definitely feel like I read the comics waiting for those moments. And they don't come often enough, but when they do, it's pretty great.

Sensation Comics is too short to be everything I want, but it has a bunch of short, cute stories, which is all I want from it!

Date: 2014-11-15 01:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
YES! This hits everything that makes Diana so wonderful as a character. Especially how her compassion, her love, and her willingness to use force when necessary combine.

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