Monday, April 05, 2010

The Comics Page #25: The Wonder Woman Chronicles, Vol. 1

Wonder Woman Chronicles cover and Amazon link
I’d been waiting a long time for DC to give Wonder Woman the CHRONICLES treatment. The character’s original Golden Age stories, written by William Moulton Marston (under the not-quite-a-psuedonym Charles Moulston) and illustrated by Harry G. Peter, are the subject now of a lot of disdain and misunderstanding, most of it down to the creator’s fondness for bondage and how thinly this was disguised in early renderings. Comicdom’s first female superhero has a lot of baggage attached to her, but in my view it’s the unusual and problematic aspects of the character’s history that make her enduring. Contrary to Jules Pfeiffer’s assertion that Wonder Woman felt like a corporate attempt at a lady superhero, the early Wonder Woman stories have the feel of authentic fantasy to them. They’re the singular vision of someone who had a genuinely unusual way of looking at the world, and though the stories collected here are hardly masterpieces, there’s an energy and enthusiasm to them that gives this collection more than just historical value.

Diana is the princess of Paradise Island, a mystical Mediterranean realm that is home to the Amazons, a society of warrior women sworn, thanks to past treachery, never to consort with the male of the species. This poses a problem when American pilot Steve Trevor crash lands on the island in an attempt to stop Axis saboteurs; nursing him to health, Diana falls for him and wishes to accompany him back to “man’s world”. Her mother Hippolyta initially forbids it, but when Diana secretly wins a contest to become champion of the Amazons for this important task, she is given leave to travel to the outside world as Wonder Woman, superpowered defender of righteousness. Through an unlikely coincidence Wondy also ends up taking the identity and nurse’s credentials of Diana Prince, and in her secret identity she becomes privy to many ofthe problems Trevor faces wrestling with Nazis and fifth columnists. Inevitably these problems require the intervention of a superstrong woman with a magic lasso and bracers that can deflect bullets; in a pinch, Wonder Woman calls upon her rotund friend Etta Candy and the girls of a local academy to run interference.

From the start, WONDER WOMAN blends ancient fantasy, science fiction (the Amazons have much advanced technology, most notably a telepathic communicator), and anti-fascist action, the results having the feel of contemporary serials and pulp adventure. If there’s one thing that I dislike about the subsequent Iron Age reboot, it’s that it focused on the Greek myth element to the minimalization of these other aspects, in the name of thematic coherence; what we get here may be a little bit slapdash, but it also feels organic and original.

Now, for the most part, the weirdness that many remark on with the old school WW stories is restrained in this volume; I have a feeling Marston wanted to make sure the character was a mainstream comics success, and so for a start sticks mostly to reasonably straightforward stories involving Axis spies in weird environments. A story set at the circus, and another in the wild west, are marred in modern eyes by old school Golden Age racism, though both have odd enough plotlines that they’re memorable otherwise. There’s also an interesting trip into Superman-esque social commentary in a story where Wonder Woman confronts a cartel driving up the price of milk, which turns out to be another Nazi plot to weaken America’s youth by depriving them of healthy teeth and bones. What I’ve seen in various comms has led me to believe that Marston eventually threw in some weirder adversaries, but for the first few issues it’s all WWII stuff.

Harry G. Peter’s art has the crudeness common to Golden Age illustration, a problem with the early comics industry being a blotter hungry for ink. Quality control pretty much gave way completely to having 64 pages done in time no matter what, but though there are some odd expressions and muscle contortions here and there, the art has a pleasingly rounded, almost classical look. It’s pleasant, though Wondy herself has a tendency to look a little stoned.

The major criticism one sees of these early stories is that Marston’s interest in bondage colors the action more than it should. You’ve got the lasso, which Wonder Woman uses to put bad guys under her power, you’ve got several sequences in which she herself is captured, her magic bracers are the reminders of a brief period in which the Amazons were enslaved due to Hippolyta’s carelessness, etc. For some this taints the feminist ideals of the character, but I honestly don’t see it as that great of a conflict. Bondage and fetishism in general are not incompatible with a belief in female equality, or even the female supremacy that Marston apparently espoused. The bondage elements- muted enough that anything sexual would easily go over the heads of the children reading- make the story a bit stranger than your traditional girl-power narrative, but I’m almost inclined to put that in the plus column. It makes the subtext something that’s genuinely transgressive, both then and now (albeit for different reasons.)

The flip side of Marston’s slightly demented dream is the presence of a lot of downright whimsical elements. The concept of Wonder Woman being helped by an entire sorority is downright charming, and though Etta Candy is the target of many, many, many fat jokes, this somehow does not prevent her from kicking ass when called upon to do so. She’s actually a lot more tolerable than most sidekicks of the era, mainly because once the jokes are over she can actually do things. Then there are the giant kangaroos of Paradise Island, the purple healing ray, and of course, the invisible plane, which would be explained at some point in the Silver Age but here is just another incongruous example of Amazon technology. Marston was willing to put in some things that didn’t immediately make sense, or couldn’t be explained by the story’s main conceit, and I think that’s the mark of true fantastic worldbuilding.

I can’t help but think that something was lost when Wonder Woman’s backstory was cleaned up and reshaped; some of the changes were welcome (Etta Candy is now a government agent without any obvious chocolate addiction), and arguably the whole thing was necessary, but a certain subversive magic runs through the original stories in all their goofiness. In fact, looking at the old stories suggests why so many writers since Marston have struggled with the character. It may just be that you have to be a little crazy, a little willing to embrace fantastic whimsy and AVENGERS-esque sexual undertones (Emma Peel, not Janet van Dyne), to do Wonder Woman justice. Maybe that’s why I’ve enjoyed Gail Simone’s run so much, and though J. Michael Strayczinski is a talented comic writer I’m not sure he has the right touch. I hope he proves me wrong. In the meantime, it’s good to have the classics in an affordable collection, and I eagerly await future volumes.

Grade: B+

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