REVIEWS

Wonder Woman: Earth One

wwe1coverDC Comics’ long awaited Wonder Woman: Earth One graphic novel, written by Grant Morrison with art by Yanick Paquette, opens with a triumphant Hercules standing over a kneeling Queen Hippolyta, bound in chains, as he exults, “Queen of the Amazons! To heel, bitch of Hercules!” It’s a beginning that some may find off-putting, and understandably so; the queen’s degradation goes on for several pages before she exacts her revenge. But it’s a scene that’s true to the metaphors and imagery that Morrison and Paquette borrow heavily from throughout the book.

Wonder Woman: Earth One
is steeped in the work of Wonder Woman’s creators, William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter, and a 21st century update of the character’s simultaneously feminist and fetishist Golden Age origins. Marston’s critique of patriarchy and the damaging effects of letting men have power over women was a key component of Wonder Woman’s 1940s adventures, and Morrison and Paquette tread similar ground as they start the book. While Paquette’s art is far more visceral than Peter’s quaint renderings, the scene is a modern recreation of Hippolyta and Hercules’ confrontation in Wonder Woman #1 from nearly 75 years ago, down to the costumes and the bondage.

Marston was a psychologist who believed that women were superior to men and would soon take over the world, and he created Wonder Woman so that young readers, especially boys, could get used to the idea of powerful women and prepare to submit to the loving authority of the coming matriarchy. He and Peter used bondage as the central metaphor for his theories. There was a definite aspect of kinky fetishism therein, but the metaphor largely holds. Among the Amazons, with women in charge, bondage was fun and pleasant for all involved, but when men were in charge, whether it was Hercules, Axis soldiers, or Dr. Psycho, bondage was unpleasant and often rendered women powerless. Morrison was inspired by this unconventional approach, and has been talking about bondage and sexuality in the original Wonder Woman comics in nearly every interview in which he’s discussed Wonder Woman: Earth One over the past several years.

Morrison and Paquette continue their critique of patriarchal society when Wonder Woman first arrives in the outside world. She’s appalled by everything about modern society, no more so than when she sees elderly women in the palliative care ward of a hospital and exclaims, “Our sisters, dying? Their lives, their wisdom — lost forever, unrecorded? What world is this where women perish alone… afraid…” It’s a powerful scene, and the military hounding her and clearly having designs on the mysteries of Amazonia further underscores the critique of our society.

The book delves into the utopian side of Marston’s beliefs as well with the advanced matriarchal society of the Amazons. Their home is beautifully illustrated by Paquette, a dazzling city of unique architecture and advanced technology that marries the classical and the futuristic wonderfully. They live in peace there, jousting on kangas and riding flying motorcycles for fun with no disease or death because of their purple healing ray, an invention of Marston and Peter. Without men to get in their way, the Amazons have created a paradise.

Morrison and Paquette also show the pleasant side of bondage there. The importance of submitting to the loving authority of women is mentioned repeatedly throughout the book, and it’s the core of the Amazon culture. They celebrate with bondage games, and a scene showing their Festival of Diana, in which Amazons dressed as deer are hunted, captured, and bound by their sisters is a direct reference to a Golden Age tale in Wonder Woman #3. Bondage is also key to romance. As Diana explained to Beth Candy, a renamed update of Etta Candy, during her visit to America, “On Amazonia we pledge our bond with collar, bracelet and chains.”

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Wonder Woman: Earth One embraces the lesbianism among the Amazons that Marston and Peter could only slyly hint at. Marston was a strong advocate of what he called “female love relationships,” believing that women had so much love to go around that it was only natural that they share it with each other. He also thought that bondage was an excellent avenue for sharing said love. But it was the 1940s and Wonder Woman was a comic for children, so one had to be familiar with his psychological work to see the sexual subtext that permeated each issue. Morrison and Paquette turn this subtext into text. Amazonia is awash with lesbian relationships, including Diana and her lover Mala, a Golden Age character re-imagined as the Amazons’ champion before Diana wins the title from her.

All of the elements that Morrison and Paquette have recreated, from the bondage to the utopian lesbian society to the critique of patriarchy, were the pillars of Wonder Woman’s initial stories and, for Marston, were all rooted in his belief that women were the more loving, superior gender. His Amazons embodied the strength and wisdom of women, and a hope for a better society. So it’s somewhat confounding that in Wonder Woman: Earth One the Amazons are awful people who essentially serve as the villains of the piece.

First, they’re elitist. It’s a trait that’s sort of inherent in claiming you live in a superior society, but these Amazons are particularly unpleasant about it. They revel in their festivals and tournaments without a care for the outside world. Hippolyta has a mirror that shows her glimpses of the world of men, but she dismissively calls it “the wasteland beyond our perfect shores.” Her attitude is one of contempt instead of pity, and she doesn’t even have concern for the billions of women her advanced technology could help, much less the men.

And when the Amazons do meet the women of the outside world, it’s a body shaming bonanza. The Amazon’s chief physician Althea, another Marston/Peter character, is shocked when she first sees the full-figured Beth Candy and declares, “This girl is sick — her body mass grotesquely distorted.” Mala is no kinder when she meets Beth and her friends, noting their many shapes and sneering, “These are women of man’s world? Deformed, shrunken, bloated — domesticated cattle.” The statuesque Amazons see themselves as ideal, and are cruel to any women who doesn’t meet their standards.

Anger seemed to be their dominant emotion. Despite all the talk of loving submission, the Amazons exhibit none of the trust that should come with it. When Diana wants to leave Amazonia to return crashed American pilot Steve Trevor to his home, they lash out instead of supporting her. Mala is stung by her betrayal, and leads the search party that chases her down in America. Hippolyta is furious as well, so much so that she unleashes a gorgon, a snake-haired creature who turns all who look at her to stone, to kill Steve and everyone else who gets in her way.

Hippolyta also makes a point of consulting with the goddesses Aphrodite and Athena before deciding to free this “mother of monsters.” The goddesses were the chief deities of the Amazons during Marston and Peter’s tenure, representatives of the love and wisdom that guided the Amazons. Here, it seems that they are fine with Hippolyta sending out a gorgon to wreak havoc, despite it being a reaction that is clearly neither kind nor smart.

The queen is a troubling character throughout Wonder Woman: Earth One. Initially, she babies her “poppet” Diana, the special child she’d crafted from clay. Later, while bound in the lasso of truth, Hippolyta reveals that the classic clay origin was all a lie, and that she’d made Diana from her egg and Hercules’ seed, creating her “to be my weapon against man’s world […] a scourge, a destroyer.” This is followed by a tearful admission of love and guilt, then her abdication, but it’s all just manipulation; Hippolyta steps down so that Diana will have to become queen and remain in Amazonia. While the ploy doesn’t work, it’s indicative of the deceit that characterizes the queen throughout the book.

Diana’s not all that different from her fellow Amazons, either. She ditches her girlfriend after taking her title, leaving her behind and coldly telling her, “I am the Princess Diana. You must acquiesce to my will.” Upon first meeting Beth and her friends, she’s taken aback and asks, “Oh — what has man’s world done to your bodies?” When meeting military leaders, she arrogantly declared, “This broken man’s world must submit to the merciful authority of the wonder women of Amazonia. Then all will be well. Trust me.”

Beth Candy is the only woman in the book who’s not a jerk. She loves her body, and takes no guff from the Amazons, confidently stating, “I happen to think my body’s the best it’s ever been.” When the Amazons put Diana on trial, she comes to Amazonia and wholeheartedly defends her new friend, even though she’s only known her for a day or two, proving herself more loyal to Diana than the women who have lived alongside her for centuries. Beth also dispels the Amazons’ negative view of the outside world and the women therein, telling them, “It’s not just man’s world out there […] Sure, the patriarchy sucks, but we ain’t shy about telling ’em!” This isn’t a woman who needs the Amazons and their supposedly superior way of life to come save her. She’s taking excellent care of herself.

Even after meeting Beth and experiencing the outside world, as well as returning to Amazonia and seeing Hippolyta’s hypocrisy in full force, Wonder Woman still believes “that it’s our duty to improve the lives of women everywhere. That the time has come for us to share our great culture with the world.” The book ends with her returning to America and declaring, “HOLA! ‘Man’s world’! It’s time we had a talk.” But what are they going to talk about? The Amazons have some interesting technology to share, but morally and socially the Amazons spent the entire book proving that there’s nothing superior about their way of life.

Morrison and Paquette’s depiction of the Amazons undermines the feminism at the heart of the character’s Golden Age origins. The classic Wonder Woman was the parthenogenetic product of an all-female utopia, an exemplar of the many powers women possessed, sent to a world that was calling out for her help and guidance. In Wonder Woman: Earth One, she’s the product of a deceptive, dysfunctional society, the daughter of an untrustworthy queen and the ancient defiler of the Amazons, sent to a world that doesn’t particularly need her. It would be simplistic to paint the Amazons as perfect these days; it’s not the Golden Age anymore, and audiences expect more nuance. But for decades, the Amazons have been a bastion of female strength and nobility in a male-dominated superhero industry. Turning them into villains is unnecessary, and upturns the entire mythos.

Moreover, it makes the book’s structure and aesthetic fall apart. So much of the graphic novel is derived from the classic comics, but everything that Marston and Peter did was rooted in Marston’s theories about female superiority and matriarchy. All of the weird and fascinating art, metaphors, and stories of the Golden Age Wonder Woman grew from there, like branches on the trunk of a matriarchal tree. Morrison and Paquette worked backwards, starting with the branches by duplicating the look and secondary aspects of the Marston/Peter era, but they got rid of the trunk, leaving the branches with nothing to attach to. Their choices don’t make a lot of sense without anything to tie them all together. It’s a pastiche of the Golden Age Wonder Woman that misses the core of what those comics were actually about.

The Marston/Peter comics sprung from one man’s unique, passionately held view of what the future of the world could be. Perhaps rather than aping the imagery of this era, Morrison and Paquette could have better captured the spirit of the original Wonder Woman by delving deep into what feminism and the strength of women means to them and seeing what kind of style, world, and kinks came from that exploration. Marston and Peter’s work is compelling in its totality, the bizarre way all of the pieces work and flow together. By leaving out the biggest piece, Morrison and Paquette’s take on Wonder Woman’s origins, while at times interesting and visually striking, ultimately feels a bit hollow.

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5 Responses to Wonder Woman: Earth One

  1. Frank says:

    This review gave me some food for thought, mostly scattered:

    Throughout the book, I read the amazons to be in an adversarial position to Diana, rather than straight-up be her villains; I thought that was a point that the book was making. (On the other hand, they do unleash Medusa to hunt her, which ends in a bunch of people being turned into stone; so, grain of salt.)

    I recall last year, when Mad Max: Fury Road was being touted as a feminist action movie; and I don’t disagree that it was, but I argued that it didn’t go as far in that direction as it could. For that, both of its main heroes should be women, its villains should be women, and maybe have the hostages / victims / more passive characters be mostly (or all) men, and have the dynamics of the story itself be headed by female characters. Not only show that they’re powerful women, but that they’re powerful in different roles, that there’s a wide array of positons and views. And I do think that’s what WW: Earth One does; what’s more debatable is if making the female villains be the amazons is the way to go.

    The problem for me it’s not so much that Hippolyta shows contempt for the outside world or even her elitism (it fits this take of being a ruler that willingly isolates her culture from the World), but that its the general acepted outlook of all amazons; and that, as you pointed out, Diana herself exhibits some of those attitudes as well. Which, OK, makes sense considering that she was raised by this version of Hippolyta; in a similar way, I assume the idea was that the amazons hold such views of the outside world out of their past and history of isolation; and their reaction to female bodies different to theirs, out of culture shock and ignorance. But if that’s true, then it makes me wonder, why Diana shows mercy to Steve? I guess that’s why the book has to show Diana doubting and starting to rebel to her mother’s views beforehand; and that expresses itself, among other ways, in being the first amazon to think that killing any man that just happens to wash onto the island might not be all that loving a submission.

    But, if amazon culture is ultimately not all that great here, Diana saying at the end that they have to “share their great culture with the world”, means she’s still more or less drinking the amazon kool-aid. I can only guess that Beth Candy and her friends will serve as a catalyst for Diana, and maybe the rest of the amazons, in the upcoming books. If that’s the case, I don’t know how that inversion will be played, having a woman used to how “man’s world” works school the amazons.

    I’m still thinking about her origin here. On one hand, its a million times better than Azarello’s New 52 take, of having her be the daughter of Zeus, as it makes her the product of the will of the ultimate patriarcal figure; in Morrison’s take, it was Hippolyta’s will to have a child, not Hercules’. On the other, I think I just prefer it to the original of having her being made out of clay; it’s a more purely a product of her mother’s will; plus WW is rooted in mythology, there’s no need to go “Made out of clay? Nah, that’s silly, this is what *really* happened”, there.

    I think some of these problems may stem from Morrison’s combination of one of his own ususal themes to Marston’s: The generational “old/status quo vs. young/rebellion”. Diana’s arc here is pretty much the same as the one Jack Frost had in the Invisibles. By making Diana, the heroine of the book, the “young rebel”, he has to make the status quo of Amazonia as, if not evil, at least somewhat undesirable.

    As a side note, Morrison returns here to the idea of rebelling against a status quo by assimilating its enemies, by making Diana wear Hercules’ lion head. Compare that to Mr. Six initially posing as a mild-mannered professor in Invisibles, or Quentin Quire wearing the uniform based on that old “mutant overlords” illustration made by mutant-haters. Also, in the Final Crisis sketchbook, even though they ended up not appearing in the story itself, he had the young Forever People wearing dark clothes with images Darkseid.

  2. Kyle Pinion says:

    While I think there’s something worth discussing in the idea that Hippolyta represents second-wave feminism in a broad sense, particularly when faced with the inherent intersectionality that exists among them in Beth and Steve’s presence, and Diana approximates a more third-wave line of thinking; the one thing that doesn’t quite sit as true with me is the idea that Hippolyta (and the rest of the Amazons) wouldn’t change their outlook somehow over 3000 years.

    Consider how we as humans with average lives change our own prediclictions and biases and interests over the course of 60-100 years. It seems difficult for me to swallow the idea that a population of women who have lived thousands upon thousands of years worth of life wouldn’t do the same multiple times over.

    The architecture, technology, and general design work is all there, and I really enjoyed Morrison and Paquette’s speculative take. But, for some reason the characters themselves seemed trapped in amber, to my chagrin.

  3. David Fairbanks says:

    A 2,000 word review where the only mention of Nathan Fairbairn is on the cover image? And even though Yanick Paquette is the only person credited as an artist, the only discussion of the actual art in this comic seems to be this sentence, which says a whole lot of nothing: “Their home is beautifully illustrated by Paquette, a dazzling city of unique architecture and advanced technology that marries the classical and the futuristic wonderfully.”

    I guess my sporadic visits to TCJ should become more sporadic if a “review” of a comic is going to spend of 95% of the time talking about the writing (and that’s being generous, much of that is plot summary) and historical context, paying no mind to the artists.

  4. Navid Haider says:

    There are some aspects of this review that I have to disagree with, but that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from thinking I appreciate the review any less. When the review concludes with “The book ends with her returning to America and declaring, “HOLA! ‘Man’s world’! It’s time we had a talk.” But what are they going to talk about? The Amazons have some interesting technology to share, but morally and socially the Amazons spent the entire book proving that there’s nothing superior about their way of life.” I can’t help but applause. That’s been the problem with almost all of Morrison’s best works — he is a beautiful writer, but something just doesn’t click.

    However, I think there’s definitely a place for his take on Wonder Woman and I am glad that such a book is written by someone as popular and mythopoeic as Morrison is in the industry. It not only elevates Wonder Woman as a character, making the most of “provoking” in what can be a “thought provoking story,” but it also gives us a glimpse as to what kind of Wonder Woman stories can be told. The most beautiful thing about it is that it doesn’t have a traditional superhero fight scene — the built-up confrontation with Medusa ends, and despite that the novel still has its narrative climax. But that isn’t enough.

    One of the posters here said that a true feminist story would’ve had all-female heroes and villains, that is not true. A true feminist story would have patriarchy as the villain. Here, Morrison gave us, as antagonistic figures, the matriarch as the primary antagonist (while patriarchy is more of a catalyst to Diana’s rebellion).

    Secondly, I agree with idea that the book misses the essence of Marston’s Golden Age comics by trying to deconstruct them. This goes back to Grant Morrison’s neo-silver age leaning, which among comic-writers seem to have become a political movement by now. Beth Candy calls Diana’s Amazonia a “lesbian science-fiction paradise,” only it wasn’t science-fiction — it was fantasy, pure and simple. Marston’s role as a psychologist added psychology and mythology, but the purely science-fictional aspects of those stories were “flavour of the week” stuff.

    I get that Morrison was giving us what he thought was a third-wave feminist novel, so yeah Hippolyta’s radicalism would’ve been seen as antagonistic; I also understand how the entire “tone” is if nothing else, “COY” and that’s a pretty good way to write feminist satire. Only that’s it isn’t it? This is a Wonder Woman satire, albeit a very well written, thought-out one.

    Unfortunately by race-bending Trevor, making Diana an angry child of Hercules’ rape-play, and reducing “Paradise Island” to misguided feminazis, Morrison’s book comes off as rushed. He has a lot more to give to this character than a mere satirical deconstruction in 2016.

  5. Navid Haider says:

    As for the artist, I will say that it felt weird to see Diana at parts looking like a more beefed-up version of Kiera Knightley (any mention of ‘poppet’ and ‘acquiesce to your demand’ only sends me back to the Caribbean) and at times a taller version of Sasha Grey. I loved the details of the Amazonian architecture and science, but the artwork on the characters could’ve been less obvious.

    I loved the layout of the panels, however, as they truly felt inspired.

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