DC 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."
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.