I’m getting ready to move all of my fall classes online, and starting in August, I’m teaching a course called American Dreams. In my attempts to make pop culture a little more literary, and make literature a little more attractive to my students, I have opted to include a couple of graphic novels in the course. One of the novels is New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke, largely because I am drawn to the portrayal of Wonder Woman in the novel. Cooke pares away a lot of the soft Western feminization of the character and truly gets down to a character, who, when push comes to shove, reacts very much like an Amazon warrior.
I haven’t written any academic papers on Wonder Woman, let’s be clear about that. But that said, Wonder Woman was my first comic book hero. My parents brought me home a giant Wonder Woman comic from the grocery store when I was about 8. I kept hoping through my early childhood for anything Wonder Woman. I read ridiculous stories about how she got her shoes, her earrings, how she mastered kanga riding and won a tournament in a mask to come to man’s world to fight in the war against her mother’s wishes. I read a lot of really dopey portrayals of Wonder Woman as she was jealous of her Diana Prince alter ego and puzzled how to get Steve Trevor to marry her. I was saddened by the Kathy Lee Crosby Wonder Woman pilot, and ecstatic as Lynda Carter brought the character to life in a way an 11-year-old could really get behind.
I can go on and on in this vein, talking about the George Perez reboot which started strong and finished weak, or gush about Gal Gadot and mourn how Covid-19 is keeping us from seeing Patty Jenkins’ newest installment in the legitimization of both DC heroes and the mighty Amazon on the big screen. As a costumer, I have dressed as Wonder Woman not once, but twice, both traditional and vintage. And recently, I was even Wonder Woman’s mom.
As I have been wrapping my teacher brain about how to present the superheroes of New Frontier to my student, my mind goes back to the interesting history and origins of many of these heroes. I don’t know how many of you have read about Wonder Woman, but if you’ve read any introductory texts about her, say The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, you’ll know all about Marston’s ideas of how a woman superhero would fight for peace and love, rather than dominance. Marston had some interesting ideas about submission and bondage, and…well, all sorts of things, but what happened as Marston created his heroine was that Wonder Woman became a heroine unlike the other heroes of her time. After Marston was done with the book, Wonder Woman was essentially made to conform to a more feminine standard after the war. Wonder Woman: The Complete History traces the heroine through her “housewification” of the 50s, her transformation to groovy martial artist (think Emma Peel) in the 60s, and back to the reclamation of her legacy as a hero in the 70s. Like many comics characters, Wonder Woman has reflected the times in which she was written, as well as the cultural mores surrounding women. She has always been problematic in a world which, unlike Marston’s original conceptualization, was not willing to accept an unapologetically strong woman.
In my course, I’m going to be talking about all of the heroes in Cooke’s New Frontier, but Wonder Woman will especially attract some notice, because she is a character in this book, set in the early 60s, that does NOT conform to the Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat standard. Her worldview is very different than many of the characters, and it seems to me that young men and women need to be thinking about what history says about their gender roles, specifically as we move forward into a brave new pandemic world, with many changes about assumptions from the past to be considered. I didn’t know this would be the case when I picked New Frontier, but often scholarly inspiration can be fortuitous.
And Wonder Woman herself? We’ve already seen some ground gained as the mighty Amazon has been brought to the screen in Greek armor, rather than the Playboy bunny suit her armor evolved into. We’ve seen her muscles swell, and her strength and compassion return. If American society can return Wonder Woman to an ideal of strength, of standing against war, of supporting mankind’s better sense of morality, AND if Wonder Woman is indicative of the shifts of our culture, perhaps our world isn’t as bleak as it currently seems.