As was recently announced in the New York Times, DC Comics is rebooting Wonder Woman, with a new costume, new back story, and new “urban” attitude. This is only the latest chapter in the company’s long history of trying to figure out exactly what to do with one of their flagship characters, and seems to me like a profoundly missed opportunity, since the potential for Wonder Woman could be better now than at any time since her creation.
When William Moulton Marston first sold Max Gains on the idea of Wonder Woman, it was as a character who would be for girls what Superman was for boys. Of course, the argument can be made that what she really was was the projection of Marston’s fantasies, as much as Superman was the projection of Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster’s. And Marston’s stories certainly were bizarre; with their themes of dominance and submission, combined with H. G. Peter’s quasi Art Nouveau illustrations, they never quite fit into the same world as Superman, Batman, and the rest of what was to become the DC universe.
Wonder Woman’s place in DC’s “trinity” of iconic superheroes largely comes from the fact that she, along with Superman and Batman, had an uninterrupted publication history across the Golden Age/Silver Age divide. But the postwar years were a tough time for superheroes and for feminism, and after Marston’s death in the 1947 the personal subtext he brought to the book essentially disappeared, and Wonder Woman became little more than DC’s token female superhero (there are rumors that the book was only saved from cancellation because the rights would have reverted to Marston’s estate).
In 1968 Mike Sekowsky introduced the first attempt to remake Wonder Woman for a contemporary audience, stripping her of her costume, her powers, and her supporting cast, and turning her into an Emma Peel-style secret agent. Although short lived, it did establish the pattern of successive reinvention followed by reversion that has continued up to this day. Steve Trevor has been killed off and revived (several times), Diana has been replaced as Wonder Woman (several times), her costume and powers have been modified (several times), etc. DC keeps trying to make Wonder Woman “work” in their shared universe, sometimes with a degree of success (notably George Perez’s late 80’s run), but there’s something in the DNA of the character that keeps her from being as popular among comics fans as she “should” be. The superhero fanbase is overwhelmingly male and increasingly aging, and seems more interested in Wonder Woman as a subject for pin-ups than for stories. Meanwhile, the girls that Marston originally wanted to reach are reading more comics than they have in generations. But not Wonder Woman.
What those girls are reading is manga, and the manga they read has some remarkable similarities to Marston’s original Wonder Woman. It freely mixes genres, combining adventure, fantasy, science fiction, and romance, and often doesn’t shy away from psychosexual subtext. I’m certainly not suggesting that DC should make a giant-eyed, button-nosed, “manga-style” Wonder Woman (oog!), but they are missing the opportunity to expand into an audience that might have some appreciation of the underlying themes of the character. Instead, they seem to be doubling down on their core market, offering a return to 90’s grim-and-gritty, complete with Members Only jacket. They’ve certainly bought themselves a news cycle’s worth of free publicity (plus another one when the original suit and status quo are inevitably restored), but, I expect, to little long-term benefit. I won’t be reading the book, but that doesn’t really matter. I’m not the target audience. But I have a fourteen-year-old daughter who won’t be, either. And that’s a shame.
Tristan Elwell is an illustrator in New York’s Hudson Valley. He is old enough to remember the first Wonder Woman reboot.