The latest in DC’s line of out-of-main-continuity graphic novels, Wonder Woman: Earth One harkens back to Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston’s original vision for the character, replete with bondage fetishes, quasi-feminist themes, and warrior women riding on top of kangaroos. It’s written by Grant Morrison (of course) with art by Yanick Paquette. Is it good?
Wonder Woman: Earth One (DC Comics)
I suspect that this comic will be at least somewhat divisive and controversial. Already, there’s been at least one outraged reader (beware of spoilers in the link), and a whole slew of people in the comments trying to attack or defend this comic that they’ve never read. But I read this comic long before “Anne” posted her scathing review on Goodreads (which has since been taken down), and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this comic.
See, here’s the thing. I’m a straight, white, cisgender man. That makes me a little uncomfortable trying to make definitive claims about what is or is not sexist. Yet as a critic, I can’t be too wishy-washy about how I feel about a particular book. So I’m going to try my best to review this comic, because I can’t allow my fear of falling on the wrong side of a controversy prevent me from giving an honest assessment of this comic.
From the first page, Wonder Woman: Earth One is probably going to divide readers. “Queen of the Amazons! HAHAHAHA,” says Hercules as he holds Hippolyta, Wonder Woman’s mother, by a chain leash around her neck. “To heel, bitch of Hercules!”
Now, I can see why people would have strong reactions to that at first glance—as they should. However, it’s important to ask what Morrison is trying to accomplish here. Throughout this scene that takes up the first few pages of the book, Morrison and Paquette are showing, in the bluntest way possible, the oppression of the patriarchy.
Yes, I loved Disney’s kidified version of Hercules as much as the next person, but one must admit that if you’re looking for a symbol of masculinity and brute strength in the most classical sense, the first figure that comes to mind is Hercules. And who better to represent the other side of that coin than the queen of the amazons, a race of warrior women from the same canon that are known for strength, wisdom, and beauty, running a pure matriarchy that is completely sufficient without men?
And so, in classic Morrisonian fashion, the events that follow make abundantly clear what this book is about, as Hippolyta strangles Hercules with the chains that were binding her, breaks out of them, and leads a rebellion against Hercules’ soldiers, thus shoehorning in a new era of peace and prosperity in Paradise Island, free from the influence of “Man’s World.” We’re only a few pages in, Wonder Woman hasn’t even shown up yet, and already we have a “mission statement” of sorts.
It’s a scene that should be familiar to Star Wars fans, actually, and therein lies the problem. Anyone who saw Return of the Jedi surely can’t forget that famous scene in which Princess Leia, clad in a metal bikini and forced to be Jabba the Hutt’s slave after being kidnapped by his henchmen, chokes the disgusting slug creature with the chains that bound her. You can say all you want about how that scene represents a rebellion against the patriarchy, and it very well may, but there’s no getting around how problematic it is that she is wearing an exploitative costume that directly appeals to the male gaze, even if part of the point was to show that she was being exploited.
Even though Hippolyta isn’t showing quite as much skin in this opening scene as Leia was showing in that scene, Hippolyta still looks just as beautiful as ever even as she’s being abused. You may even go so far as to call her sexy. There is legitimate criticism to be lodged at Yanick Paquette for not making this scene as ugly as it should be.
But then, I don’t know if Paquette is capable of such a thing, and I don’t even know if that’s much of a criticism. Part of what works about this book is that there are few characters that aren’t drawn to be beautiful in some way, regardless of sex, race, or body type. So can you blame an artist for keeping a consistent style? Maybe. Even as I write this review, I still don’t know what to think of this.
What I can tell you, though, is that reactions like Anne’s—of which I’m sure there will be more once the book gets released—kind of miss the point. To assume that Morrison is some sort of insensitive pervert just because he writes a scene that is unsettling and uncomfortable grossly misses the point. There are absolutely writers and artists who unnecessarily and crassly bring sexual violence into their stories just to get a rise out of their audience, show how “mature” they are, or motivate the male hero. I have read enough of Morrison’s work to know that he’s not that kind of writer, though, but just a close reading of this one comic should be enough to realize that it doesn’t deserve such knee jerk reactions.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero comic before that was this overtly feminist. That’s not to say that other comics haven’t tackled feminism better, but one of the things that I love about Morrison is how well he can prove the claim that I’ve long been making that a lack of subtlety doesn’t necessarily equate to a lack of nuance.
That said, this may be the first time that I’ve felt like Morrison got so caught up in symbols and themes that the comic felt less like a story and more like a thesis. Still, the core narrative is solid. It’s essentially a retelling of the original Wonder Woman origin story by Marston, but that doesn’t mean its not oozing with modernity and originality. Wonder Woman is essentially put on trial for going to the outside world and exposing Paradise Island to “Man’s World.” It’s almost like a fantastical courtroom drama, with different characters telling their sides of the story, with flashbacks to go along with it.
Throughout the comic, there are numerous callbacks to Diana’s Golden Age adventures. American military pilot Steve Trevor is here, but this time, interestingly, as a black man. It’s not an arbitrary change; Morrison makes it work well within the context of the story, playing into the classic Wonder Woman theme of equality. Etta Candy makes a triumphant return, too, and she’s much more than the fat joke that lesser storytellers would reduce her to.
Just as themes of truth and justice are integral to a good Wonder Woman story, you can’t really go back to the character’s roots as Morrison does without getting into sexual themes, particularly with regards to bondage and submission. It’s great when people try to make Wonder Woman a more palatable character for young girls (because we need that just as much as we need kid-friendly Batman and Superman for young boys), but William Moulton Marston was a pretty kinky dude. The earliest Wonder Woman stories were influenced by that, and Morrison and Paquette make no attempts to dance around it.
Seriously, when you’re done reading this review, read up on Marston. He was a fascinating man, from his progressive views on sex to his invention of, appropriately, one of the first lie detector tests. It should also be noted that he wasn’t really a feminist, in that he didn’t see women as equal to men. He thought they were better than men, and that they should be ruling the world through a benevolent matriarchy.
Anyway, there’s a lot of imagery here of Wonder Women in chains, a lot of talk about “loving submission,” and yet it never feels skeevy. It’s integral to the story and its themes. This isn’t afraid to be a sexy book, and it gets away with it because of how smart and progressive it is. I’ve seen people accuse this book’s detractors of “kink-shaming,” and while I wouldn’t ascribe that to everyone who doesn’t like the book, I do agree that there isn’t anything wrong with sexy storytelling when it’s done right.
A great deal of credit for this must go to Yanick Paquette. I can’t emphasize enough just how gorgeous he makes all of his characters look. They’re more than just “sexy” or “hot.” They’re beautiful in ways that are completely dreamy yet still grounded enough in appropriate proportions and correct anatomy to avoid the stereotypes of impossible standards that comics of a certain genre are known for. His layouts are detailed and inventive, the kind that have so many layers and details that one could spend hours admiring the art without even reading the words. He’s an excellent inker, too, with clean lines and well-placed shadows.
Nathan Fairbairn does his part by using every shade of every color of the rainbow to his advantage, and Todd Klein’s lettering goes without saying. He’s won what, 11 Eisners at this point? You don’t need me to tell you that he’s great.
Still, for all my talk about how progressive and feminist this book is, there’s one problem I didn’t address: the creative team. Granted, every person on this team is immensely talented. Grant Morrison is one of my favorite writers, Yanick Paquette’s artwork is mouth-watering, Nathan Fairbairn is one of the best colorists out there, and there’s no doubt that Todd Klein belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of comic book letterers. So what’s the problem?
None of them are women.
Not even anyone on the editorial side of things is lacking a Y chromosome.
I’m not saying that men can’t create great Wonder Woman comics. As someone that would love to write a Wonder Woman story of his own someday, I would certainly hope not. But if this book is an attempt to create a singular, definitive take on Wonder Woman, and there are no women involved, I can’t help but feel like something is missing.
Still, perhaps part of my problem is that I was hoping for an All-Star Superman equivalent of a Wonder Woman story, one that encapsulates everything that the character stands for and distilling it into one perfect story. This is not All-Star Wonder Woman. But it is a good Wonder Woman story, and as we wait for a truly great Wonder Woman story, we could do a lot worse than Wonder Woman: Earth One.
Is It Good?
Wonder Woman: Earth One is a sexy, daring take on the character that brings Diana back to her roots while giving her a breath of fresh air. It’s problematic, to be sure, but I admire it for taking risks.
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