Category Archives: Graphic Mythology

Recovering Ideals (6)

The fifth segment of DC Comics’ The World’s Greatest Superheroes by Alex Ross and Paul Dini starts with a section titled, Justice League of America: Secret Origins, which provides backstories for additional members of the Justice League. Besides Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (who have already been introduced), we are also presented with The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Hawkman, The Atom, and Plastic Man.

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On an additional two-page spread, some additional characters with more minor roles are shown. These include Adam Strange, Zatanna, Metamorpho, Elongated Man, Phantom Stranger, and The Red Tornado.

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Once we’ve gotten the band back together, Liberty and Justice, a story involving the Justice League, follows. Along with some good action scenes…

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… there is the main story line, which deals with how the Justice League deals with the outbreak of a mysterious extraterrestrial virus which immobilizes its victims without killing them.

jla 4This daunting challenge is worsened by widespread panic, military over-reaction, looting, and other forms of criminal activity.

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The JLA must provide crowd control in addition to their efforts at finding and administering a cure for the disease.

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The artwork is beautiful (what else?) and the pacing and style differ from those of the previous four stories. There is more dialogue, and there is less narrative. The plot is necessarily more cluttered due to the number of outstanding characters.

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This was a fun, visually satisfying read. I liked the ethics of the story as exemplified by two ideas. One is the value of family and personal relationships in providing the basis for heroism. As I’ve said before, you can’t truly care about the masses without caring for individuals. Relationships with spouses, children, and friends indicate who we are. How can we truly be  heroes when neglecting or abusing those closest to us? The second idea is the recurring theme of superheroes becoming most effective if they work with, rather than above, ordinary human beings. It affords them their greatest power (political leaders, take note). This reminds me of the recognition in Christian doctrine of God placing the limitation on himself that human beings must cooperate with him voluntarily.

Next week: back to the modern pantheon of cinema.

Recovering Ideals (5)

The fourth story in DC Comics’ The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes by Alex Ross and Paul Dini is Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth. The plot follows the pattern of giving the backstory first. In this case it is the founding of Themyscira by the Amazons on Paradise Island followed by the creation of Diana from clay by her mother, Hippolyta, the Amazon queen who has been empowered by the goddess, Aphrodite. Continuing the pattern, the story moves on to the recurring theme of the series.

As is probably evident by now, the recurring theme in this collection is the difficulty that superheroes have in dealing with the attitudes of the people they are trying to serve. This goes beyond getting human beings to behave. It is impossible to over-ride free will and force people to receive the right help in the right way. Our species can be funny that way.

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Although there are plenty of instances where Wonder Woman can do her normal superhero thing, there are others in which her efforts are not well-received.

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Take, for instance, this sequence where she prevents a tank from crushing a girl. The recipient of her heroism runs away from her in fear.

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Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)

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As another example, a Muslim crowd takes offense at her appearance and looks upon her activity as meddling by a cultural outsider. Instead of a hero’s welcome, she is greeted by a hail of thrown rocks.

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Humbled and frustrated by these incidents, she (as Diana Prince) confers with Superman (as Clark Kent). I think their appearance here in their “secret identities” is effective because it reinforces the advice he gives her. Having been humbled himself in the first story, he mentions that it would be more effective to work beside people rather than above them. In other words, identification helps bridge the gap in perception between ordinary individuals and those who are extraordinary.

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There are some interesting portrayals of Wonder Woman trying to become more involved with humanity by working in war zones as an explosives remover and (as in the illustration below) a nurse.

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The following sequence in which she prevents the use of women as a human shield is perhaps one of the better known from this story.

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I really liked the approach of inserting this character into real world situations (of which I have shown only a few). I also liked the idea of a nearly perfect character of mythological origin concealing her supernatural ability in an effort to communicate more effectively with people.

Next week: the final story of this excellent graphic novel.

Recovering Ideals (4)

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The third and fourth stories from DC Comics’ The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes have the most mythological themes. This week, we’ll take a look at Shazam! Power of Hope by Alex Ross and Paul Dini. This features a mistreated boy named Billy Batson who can transform to an adult superhero by pronouncing the name of a wizard.

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You want mythology? This story has it. The wizard’s name is Shazam, an acronym derived from the names of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. Billy becomes Captain Marvel, “earth’s mightiest mortal”, whenever he says this name. Since he exists alternately as a boy and a supernatural man, he has the characteristics of both. Even as an adult, Captain Marvel shows childlike sensitivity.

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There are plenty of action sequences, but what affected me the most was the theme of Captain Marvel interacting with children in a hospital. The captain is advised by Shazam, the wizard, before embarking on this mission.

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After he has been at the hospital for a while, there is a charming sequence showing the response given by the soul of a boy in the body of a man when he finds himself in a more adult situation: that of being affectionately thanked by the pediatric doctor of the children’s ward. It is innocently nuanced.

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Well, I might as well admit it. The following sequence made me tear up (that’s masculine for “cry a little”). My wife is a school nurse, and this reminded me of a story she told me about one of her students.

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The theme that I found the most powerful is that sometimes Captain Marvel isn’t enough, and it takes an ordinary boy like Billy to solve a serious problem.

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It takes a human being to reach other human beings. In this sense, the incarnation in Christian doctrine makes sense to me. One of our greatest superpowers is that of being a friend.

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Recovering Ideals (3)

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The second story in DC Comics’ The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes is Batman: War on Crime by Alex Ross and Paul Dini. My next few paragraphs might strike you as an odd way to introduce this comic, but I had the idea of referring to a personal experience and decided to go with it.

Last week, I mentioned that I had been jumped and that, in the process, my jaw had  been broken. Six individuals were responsible, and I could have been even more seriously hurt if one of my friends (who had some martial arts training) hadn’t pushed them off of me. That was on the second to the last day of the spring semester during my freshman year in high school. I spent the first six weeks of that summer sucking baby food through a straw since my jaw was wired shut. Almost two years later, I was jumped again, but the consequences weren’t as serious on that occasion. Someone approached me in the school restroom and hit me in the forehead, just above one of my eyes. He then grabbed a janitor’s drum and threw it at me. He was shorter than I was, and I blocked it back over his head, whereupon he ran out the door. As in the first case my assailant was not from my high school. He had entered the building without a visitor’s pass.

Without prolonging the story with unnecessary details, the identity of my attacker was discovered, and he was turned over to the juvenile authorities. My father was a state legislator, and he accompanied me to the hearing where I was asked to testify briefly. I was looking face-to-face at the young man who had accosted me without provocation. The questioning board was familiar with him to the point of addressing him on a first name basis.

Something bothered me about the hearing. Although I hadn’t been seriously hurt, he could have done serious damage to someone smaller. What bothered me wasn’t that I shouldn’t have pressed charges. It was that, in a situation where it was my word against his, there was no other evidence. I’m white (at the time, politically connected because of my father), and he was black. Since the board was already familiar with him, and since I was unlikely to have known him due to the fact that we went to different schools, I seriously doubt that the authorities in this case were racist. I know juveniles are handled differently by the legal system, but at the age of sixteen, I was asking myself about the precedent of someone being found guilty on nothing but the testimony of one witness.

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This was my most intimate exposure to our system of criminal justice, and it gave me a hint of the enormity of the problem. Let me make an awkward attempt at a transition here. Although a skilled and highly-trained man instead of an all-powerful being, Batman’s challenge is similar to the one faced by Superman in the previous story about which I posted. He can only save individuals. There are too many individuals to control and protect, and it would be totalitarian to attempt controlling all individuals. This thoughtful character is studious, dedicated, and astute, but he can only do so much. His efforts have left him baring scars, more so than gratitude, for his efforts at intervention.

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After a back story which includes the murder of his parents, we find him during a regular visit to their place of burial. I found this imagery compelling. The picture I found was of a French translation, but the original is obviously in English.

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This treatment of Bruce Wayne/Batman strikes a good balance between the original character as created by Bob Kane in the Golden Age of Comics, the version with which I grew up during the Silver Age of Comics, and the more currently pervasive approach of The Dark Night Returns by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson.

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There is one sequence which shows Batman attempting to talk a young man out of pursuing the wrong path. I found the monologue a bit stilted and unlikely, but I am reminded that I have thought from time to time about the seven guys (six first, one two years later) who jumped me. Are they still alive? Did anyone reach them before it was too late?

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I think it is appropriate to end with the following image of Batman surveying Gotham below him. Not only is it a beautiful illustration – it also conveys the magnitude of what he faces.

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Recovering Ideals (2)

Immature idealism, while not without value, has some problems. Perhaps greatest of these is that it is self-aggrandizing. The immature often turn their ideals back toward a pride in themselves. As an example, helping others can be done with the aim of seeing oneself as one who helps others rather than out of a genuine concern for others. Many who claim to love the masses do not love the individuals of whom the masses are composed.

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Consider the following quote from The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis:

“She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expression.”

It’s not until we get to know individuals and connect names with faces that we can experience a more genuine compassion. Superman: Peace on Earth, the first story from The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes (DC Comics) by Alex Ross and Paul Dini,  begins in this way when Superman rescues a starving girl and delivers her to a shelter where she can receive food.

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This leads him, as Clark Kent, to do some personal research into the problem of world hunger and its causes. Based on his recent experience, he is particularly moved by photographs of starving individuals, particularly children, and, as Superman, he becomes motivated to seek world-wide cooperation in gathering food and solving the problem.

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Initially, his efforts are gratifying.

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One panel that impressed me shows him descending past Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor), the huge Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro, with a large container of food held above his head.

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A second problem with immature idealism is impatience. This often stems from pride and the related desire for the singular, heroic act which, in turn, feeds that pride. Within the one day that Superman set aside for his task, he realizes that it will not be enough. The problem he is attempting to solve is simply too great.

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Even he can’t be everywhere at once, day after day. He discovers the host of complications which frustrate efforts at charity in the real world: fear and suspicion among intended recipients, bottlenecks imposed by corrupt governments (some of which use starvation as a tool for controlling their populaces), and the unwillingness of those who are capable of lending assistance. It had been his hope that the world would follow his example, but much of the food goes to waste.

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A powerful being can control humanity about as effectively as a human can control ants. They just don’t follow orders very well. Should one leave the ants to work out their own issues or choose to crush them? This hints at the difficulty absolute power might face in persuading people to receive help and to stop harming and exploiting each other. This reminds me of when I was in track practice at my high school and saw a friend of mine being jumped. This had happened to me one year earlier, and I had ended up with my jawbone being kicked into three pieces (prior to having it wired shut by an oral surgeon). A teammate and I rushed to break it up, and we were joined by a star player from our state-ranked basketball team. The three of us had a devil of a time getting the attackers to stay off of their intended victim. We simply didn’t have enough hands, and they kept going around us. To use our fists would have been to become what we were fighting. A passing motorist even tried to help us, and we eventually succeeded. My teammate and I were not small, but I remember feeling inadequate despite our superior size and strength (one of the young thugs only came up to my shoulder). I wonder what God must think whenever we act out. I’m glad he doesn’t just crush us.

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Solving human problems requires the coordinated and persistent effort of other human beings: human beings with ideals, the courage and commitment to act in accordance with them, and patience for the long haul. Even at that, we can only help and influence those we can, and some still might not respond. Using this as a major component of a superhero story is a challenging approach because it puts responsibility right back on us, including those of us who believe in, and pray to, God.

Recovering Ideals (1)

I’d like to expound on the DC Comics Universe of my childhood. I realize that we all have different perspectives and that reality as any one of us sees it is not necessarily reality as it is.  At the age of ten, my friends and I were idealistic. Police and soldiers were good people who protected us and only used violence when justified. Authority figures were also good and acted in our best interests. We read DC Comics, especially Superman but also Batman and Wonder Woman. Back then, heroes were heroes, and we believed in “truth, justice, and the American way.”

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We were children of the Silver Age of Comics. For capes, my friends and I wore towels either tucked into our tee shirts or carefully safety-pinned around our necks, and we argued about who got to be the real Superman. Well, yeah, sometimes we squabbled or even fought, but we were good kids. My best friend and I volunteered to be traffic safety crossing guards (the diagonal belt and badge were cool), and our group in general befriended and stuck up for the little guys and the outcasts. One of our friends was so overweight he looked round, but we never made fun of him. We defended him when others picked on him. We had empathy and conscience, and our pre-adolescent society was one of inclusion and safety.

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Then came junior high school, high school, and increasing social pressure with its trademark betrayals and altered values. We became overshadowed by an awareness of racism, riots, the protests against the war in Viet Nam, abuses of power by our government, and the Kent State shootings. Resistance to the status quo became the new coin of the social realm. Some of my friends’ parents started getting divorces. With this greater awareness and disillusionment, we lost a good many of our childhood ideals.

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Even now, society tends toward the sarcastic and the cynical. We’ve been let down so many times that our first reaction is often skepticism when we are confronted by something good. I have noticed a trend in which people discard ideals on the basis of other people failing to live up to them. Very recently, I have had to remind myself that the ideal society of my youth never really existed, but that isn’t the whole story. I knew people, including my own parents, who truly lived by their ideals, and there were enough of them that they made the world better. The value in an ideal is that when people reach for it, society is better off. When a good ideal is discarded, too many people stop trying.

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Getting back to my DC aspirations of the Silver Age, I recently purchased and read a graphic novel that brought all of it back. The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes by Paul Dini and Alex Ross does a masterful job of combining the historical ideals of perhaps the most iconic superheroes in comic book history with a modern awareness that the world we live in is indeed a very flawed place. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel are featured in narratives which apply their virtues to real world problems with understandably mixed results. What I like about these stories is that they use fictional characters to focus our attention on the potential hero within each of us and that they do this without being heavy-handed.

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This is one of my favorite graphic novels, right up there with Kingdom Come and Marvels (my opinion, of course). And guess who the illustrator for both of those was? The panels are visually satisfying, the writing for the most part substantial, and the stories entertaining. In upcoming posts, I will examine some of the individual stories in this impressive collection.

Oh, and fifty-three years later, my buddies and I are still close.

The Pressure Of Being Wonder Woman

One of my daughters once played the part of Wonder Woman in a humorous skit put on by our church youth group. This same daughter got on well with the popular girls in her middle school, and she relayed to me a revealing conversation she had with a couple of them. The word they used was “horrible” when they described the pressure of keeping up the right appearance – pressure to have their hair just right, their clothes just right, their conversation just right, their facial expressions, their skin… I think you get the idea.

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Artist: Adam Hughes

You might wonder why I would choose this as a way to begin a post about the depiction of Wonder Woman by Adam Hughes. I think this will become evident later. Let me first say that I in no way mean to denigrate the work of this very talented illustrator. Here, for example, is his rendition of the first Wonder Woman cover ever done:

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This is obviously clever and well executed, as are the following:

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Here is a self portrait of the man himself.

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In regard to my first paragraph, some of his images somehow strike me as glossier and perhaps more sexually overt than the work of Alex Ross. I won’t go so far as to call them objectionable because I respect the skill and imagination of the artist, and I like his work. But they do remind me more of the cultural stereotypes to which women are often pressured to conform in modern society.

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By the way, and for those of you who were not aware, adherence to modern standards of appearance places a considerable amount of pressure on men to measure up as well. Stereotypes of attractiveness for men and women often distort the expectations of both sexes. This can have the effect of erecting barriers to healthier relationships, and I describe our current situation as isolation within association. We as individuals can choose to adopt more natural social standards that leave us and others feeling less threatened.

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Without walking into the minefield of what is or is not appropriate when it comes to clothing, let me say that I do not criticize women who choose to conform to modern standards of appearance as long as this is what they genuinely like to do. Nothing else should be read into them at first glance. Rather, people should make the effort to get to know one another and to be more accepting. Reputations, good or bad, should be earned rather than conferred on the basis of surface impressions.

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As a type of footnote to what I have said this week, consider the Venus de Milo:

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For millenia, this was a standard for feminine beauty in western culture. I think a good many women resemble this sculpture in one way or another while feeling negatively self-conscious about how they look. I think we need to expand our definitions of beauty.

Looking Like Wonder Woman

So you’ve no doubt heard the criticism that Gal Gadot doesn’t look like Wonder Woman. Okay, let’s get something out in the open before going any further. As a general rule, the DC cinematic universe has made some questionable choices as to the visual appearance of its characters. Many of them strike me as a cross between oversized plastic toys and clothing models despite the enlistment of some good actors to play them.  Marvel Studios, on the other hand, knows their product as well as their demographic, and they usually get their visuals right. Let me add that these are my impressions as a viewer and that I don’t mean to be critical in a negative way. I just think DC can do better than they’ve done so far.

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Having said this, I don’t think Gal Gadot is a bad choice to play Wonder Woman. She has been criticized as being a former model with too delicate an appearance, but she was in the Israeli military. During her term of service, she completed a rigorous course of physical training, evidently in impressive fashion. On that count, let’s not be too quick to judge on the basis of appearance. Let’s see how the movie turns out.

So, in response to the statement that Gal Gadot doesn’t look like Wonder Woman, I must ask an obvious question. What does Wonder Woman look like? I’m trying to limit my pictures to faces as much as I can. Here’s her original conception (enlarged from the first cover, even) by H. G. Peter:

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Her likeness was allegedly based on that of Olive Byrne, the mistress of Wonder Woman creator William Molton Marston…

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… but she could just as easily be said to resemble Jane Russell (top) or Rosalind Russell (bottom), who were actresses from that era.

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If you look at enough panels of the original issues, I think you will notice that Wonder Woman’s physique was far less muscular than in modern portrayals.

Here’s a panel by George Perez…

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… one by Adam Hughes…

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… and one , if your mind is not sufficiently stretched by now, by Darwyn Cooke:

Does Linda Carter look like Wonder Woman, or (perhaps more appropriately) do we think of Wonder Woman as looking like Linda Carter?

Wonder Woman Complete Series DVD UK Box Set Lynda Carter (Pictures by dvdbash.wordpress.com)

Was Alex Ross thus influenced? Well, yes. He admitted as much, but even he has portrayed this character with slight variations.

Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)

So does Gal Gadot look like Wonder Woman? Well, I’m beginning to think that  Wonder Woman doesn’t look like Wonder Woman. Provided this more recent actress is given a decent script, I’m willing to leave a little room for creative adaptation.

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Portraits of a Lady

I  did more than my average amount of writing in last week’s post. This week, I’ve decided to be lazy and rely on eye candy. I will simply say that I don’t think anyone has portrayed Wonder Woman with as much dignity and respect as Alex Ross. Consider some of the evidence:

Wonder Woman by Alex Ross
Wonder Woman by Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
At the door to the invisible plane...
At the door to the invisible plane…

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Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)

You may have some other favorite artist(s) and therefore beg to differ, but I think these images are the most eloquent statement of my case. I find the artistic representations of Wonder Woman by Alex Ross to be the most commendable from a standpoint of feminism and stimulating our imaginations for expanding the roles of women in society.

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Graphic Mythology: Wonder Woman Revisited

It has been over six months since I have discussed this character from comics/graphic novels, and I have had sufficient time to reflect on comments made by my readers back then. A mainstay of DC Comics, Wonder Woman is truly iconic and immediately recognizable. In trying to come to grips with her true significance, I have found the task more difficult than I originally imagined.

Wonder Woman by Alex Ross
Wonder Woman by Alex Ross

Her history is nuanced in that she has been given very admirable qualities along with what I consider some serious flaws. All of this, of course, indicates the mindsets of her original and subsequent creators. First conceived by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist with fetishes for bondage and spanking, she was often used to portray and legitimize his obsessions. Since then, I would have to say that her various representations have covered the range from heroic dignity to sexual exploitation. All image credits go to DC Comics.

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Were she, in all her manifestations, a real woman, I would say that she has a history of repeated abuse. She has been spanked and debased, allegedly playfully.

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She has been bound repeatedly. The following image particularly concerns me because it represents a real danger of asphyxiation for anyone foolish enough to participate in imitating it.

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She has been physically assaulted as a matter of routine, although one could argue that this is an expected consequence of being a superhero who combats villains. Some of the more recent imagery, however, makes me wince despite the fact that the associated story lines attempt to justify it in context, especially in the case of superheroes fighting one another. By the way, I have noticed some disturbing comments on-line which indicate unquestioning approval of the violence portrayed in some of the following  pictures. I know, I know… there are plenty of frames which show her dishing it out as well as taking it, but these  images collectively show an underlying motive which I will address a little later in this post.

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To date, she has not been sexually assaulted in any DC issues (although a story involving this very topic was once in the planning stages by one of their writers), but what do  illustrations such as the following suggest nonetheless? Visuals can easily overpower accompanying words.

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It is in no way inaccurate to say that all of the imagery to which I have objected was designed to arouse male readers. So, in a sense, those entrusted with the representation of this female character have repeatedly pimped her out for several decades. The use of feminist rhetoric to prop up this kind of imagery strikes me as rather flimsy.

Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross

A woman’s body is not a piece of candy. It sweats, bleeds, and eliminates. It suffers through sickness and injury. It gets pregnant and gives birth. But much of the imagery I have included in this post is the candy, a sugar-coated version of violence and exploitation which lessens the severity of such treatment in the minds of less discriminating readers by not adequately showing its consequences. We live in a society which has a widespread problem with the negative acculturation of boys and young men, and I see this as a driving factor in the rape culture which plagues college campuses and other settings as well.

Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross

I know I have said much of this before, but I don’t think that repetition of criticisms and warnings in this area is unjustified. In summary, I regard Wonder Woman as a character with a nuanced history of publication. As such, she has served as a lightning rod for discussions about feminism. Due to her importance in popular culture, I think she deserves better treatment than she often has received. I have included the panels by Alex Ross as evidence of how this can be done without mitigating the impact of this character. If anything, these examples have just the opposite effect.

Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross