What an embarrassment of funnybook riches last week: Grant Morrison’s long-awaited Wonder Woman: Earth One, the comics debut of journalist Ta-Nehesi Coates on Black Panther, and the latest issue of Alan Moore’s Providence. So… That’s a comic about a feminist icon, a comic about the first black super hero, and a comic about a massively influential horror author who never wrote about women and was a noted racist. Sometimes, these things just write themselves…
Wonder Woman: Earth One
by Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette
This book is just…
What Morrison and Paquette have pulled off here is kind of astounding. Not only have they come up with the freshest modern take on Wonder Woman I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen most of them), they’ve done it by putting the character’s built-in feminism front and center, embracing her creator’s bondage fetish, and maybe most refreshingly by bringing a sense of fun to the whole thing that the character hasn’t enjoyed since William Moulton Marston died. But I think Etta Candy puts it best:
Heh. I suppose I should properly call her BETH Candy, since that’s how Morrison has renamed this 21st Century version of Wonder Woman’s oldest supporting character. But (the obvious joke notwithstanding) Etta’s such a great name that I’m going to have a hard time remembering the change.
Anyway. Yes. Science fiction lesbians. With a side of bondage. That’s as good a description of the Amazons as you’re going to get. It’s a bit sensationalist, perhaps, and might seem at odds with Wonder Woman’s deeply feminist roots. To understand why Morrison would take that tack, you have to look back to the Golden Age of comics, and Wonder Woman’s creator, the aforementioned William Moulton Marston.
Marston was a fascinating figure, well-worth reading about in his own right (the Wikipedia is, as always, a good place to start: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Moulton_Marston). What you need to understand about him for our purposes here, though, is that he was heavily into bondage. But this wasn’t just some kind of fantasy kink for him. Domination and submission were central to his overall philosophy of life. Basically, he believed that the world would never know peace until everyone learned to enjoy submission as much as they enjoyed the domination that most people seek over their lives. He also believed that women were morally superior to men, and thus the proper masters of society.
Wonder Woman was a four-color expression of those ideas, a woman of such obvious moral and physical strength that any man who wasn’t completely deluded would have to admit to her superiority. She also expressed Marston’s philosophy directly, explaining it in a tone so matter-of-fact that it seemed like a commonly-held view, rather than a radical restructuring of traditional sexual dynamics.
Of course, Wonder Woman also got tied up a lot, and talked about how the Amazons tied each other up for fun, so yeah. It’s complicated. Morrison and Paquette embrace those complications, though, developing an Amazon society built on principles of love, truth, feminine superiority, and bondage without shame. Submitting to a “loving authority” is considered strength in Amazon society, an admission of truth that recognizes someone as a true superior when it’s warranted. And that superior, in turn, is bound by this trust to accept it, honor it, and not take advantage of it (thus the loving authority, rather than the cruel martinet).
This superior person must also, naturally, be a woman. The Amazons removed themselves from the corruption of “Man’s World” 3000 years ago, and for the most part haven’t looked back. Men are at best considered inferior, but mostly they’re just despised. Therefore, Amazon society is built on entirely feminine principles, reflected even in their architecture, with buildings constructed around curves and arches and breast-like domes.
Their technology is designed along similar, though slightly more gynecological, lines. The seats on the Amazon’s rocket bikes, for instance (because, yes, the Amazons have rocket bikes), have a sort of oblong, vaginal shape to them. Even Wonder Woman’s invisible jet is designed so that the central body of the plane is surrounded on either side by graceful flowing wings that look as much like labia as the swan’s wings they’re supposed to represent.
They’ve externalized the bondage stuff, too, making it a part of their relationships and sex play. We get hints of this in a few places, but the least spoilery of those is maybe the Festival of Diana. This is a giant Amazon party in honor of the goddess of the hunt (and Wonder Woman’s namesake), and it’s a wild time. There’s jousting and hunting and all manner of decadent stuff going on.
Which brings us to the whole “sci-fi lesbians” thing. Morrison, while not making a big deal out of it, also doesn’t shy away from the idea that the Amazons have sex with each other. Because of course they do. They’ve isolated themselves from men completely, and three thousand years is a long time. People have needs. So, being a tribe of eternally youthful warrior women made into super model geniuses through advanced science, they fulfill those needs in style.
And with a certain fetishistic glee. Because in addition to all the fightin’ and lovin’, there are Amazons running around in deer costumes, who are presumably hunted and caught, then strung up to be “skinned” by having their costumes removed with what I can only assume is languorous care. Most of that takes place in the background, but a couple of the deer women are still bound and in costume the next morning, when they’re all lying around basking in the afterglow:
But enough salacious details. This is an overwhelmingly positive updating of Marston’s vision for Wonder Woman, capturing the character’s original innocence, power, and fun. Because fun was always a huge part of Marston’s Wonder Woman tales. They’re simple stories for children, and often crudely-executed. But they’re also wildly entertaining, inventive, and anarchic. I can’t read many of them in a row, but taken in small doses, they’re great. There’s blood in them, a vitality that I don’t think the strip has had since.
Until now. This is definitely a vital Wonder Woman, a full-blooded Wonder Woman, and a Wonder Woman who is enormously fun to read about. She’s simultaneously feisty and loving, angry and hopeful. She loves Amazon society, but also chafes against her role in it. All great contradictions that render her human, on top of being an icon. We’ve had a bit too much of the icon in modern takes, I think, with writers putting her up on one pedestal or another, a lofty ideal that can’t be touched. Brian Azzarello’s take on her with the New 52 relaunch was an exception to that rule, certainly, but I liked his run more in concept than execution.
Morrison and Paquette pull it off better, giving her human foibles, like her well-meaning but utterly misjudged attempt to engage in a little Amazon play-time with Steve Trevor…
…but also scattering stars across the page whenever she does something awesome:
Such a fun detail. But the book is full of fun details. I mean, Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls are in this thing, for god’s sake! And Etta’s the best, a thoroughly modern body-positive plus-size young lady, full of sass and bisexual, to boot.
Morrison’s even resurrected her Golden Age catch-phrase of “Woo Woo!” Which… Good lord. She absolutely shouldn’t work. Seriously, that character should get on my last nerve. But somehow, she doesn’t. Part of it’s the attitude, I think…
…but part of it’s also the fact that Wonder Woman Earth One is such a great ride. It stumbles a bit in the early going, with some awkward storytelling in a few places. But somewhere along the way (I couldn’t tell you exactly when) all that smooths out, and this thing turns into a freight train of a reading experience. The more stuff I recognized from Marston, the more I realized how far Morrison was going to take the feminism and the kink, the more layers he added to what seemed far simpler characters and situations, the more I got into it. The what-the-fuckness of it all gave way to admiration and, yes, wonder, and somewhere in there I realized that I was along for the ride. Wherever it took me.
Whew. Even after all that, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the stuff going on in this book. Morrison has long had a knack for defining characters and situations with single lines of dialogue, and that skill is on display in full force here. To really unpack this thing and delve into all the interesting permutations of it would take far more space than I have room for here. And would spoil a good read, to boot. So we’ll leave it at this: Wonder Woman Earth One is the best Wonder Woman story I’ve ever read. It was the best comic released last week, and if your local funnybook store still has copies, you should pick one up for yourself. As a hardcover OGN, it’s a little expensive. But, seriously. This is the goods.
Well, that was a fun column this week, and– Oh, hell. I’ve still got the black hero and the racist to deal with…
Black Panther 1
by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze
The Black Panther is, I think, a tough character to write, and for much the same reason Wonder Woman’s hard to write: he’s an icon. A character that means an awful lot to an awful lot of people. Because he’s not just the first black super hero. He’s also the king of an African nation. And Wakanda is not just any African nation, either. It’s an African nation that is the oldest and most technologically-advanced nation on Earth, a four-color Afrofuturist dream.
That’s a lot of weight to put on any character, even one as inherently cool as the Panther. And, holy crap, is he ever cool. I first ran across him as a kid, when he was a member of the Avengers, and dug him immediately. Cool name, cool mask, cool black-on-black costume… And he was as good a fighter as Captain America, but with claws built into his gloves! Freaking awesome! He made such an impression on me, in fact, that in later years, I remembered him being a permanent fixture on the Avengers team, even though he wasn’t actually in most of the Avengers stories I read as a child. That’s how large he loomed in my mind.
But for some reason, I’ve never really followed his solo series. I’ve sampled it, but never stuck with it. For one reason or another, it’s never quite grabbed me the way I wanted it to. The stories often seemed very focused on the importance of his role as king, and on the importance of Wakanda as a nation. Which is fine as an introduction, but… I’m a big “show me don’t tell me” guy. I’d rather have Wakanda’s importance proven to me in stories that were compelling in their own right. Make it an amazing place that anyone would want to live, instead of yelling at me about how amazing it is.
Which brings us, at last, to the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is the primary reason I picked this comic up. Coates is a respected journalist and cultural commentator, a writer on the African-American experience whose work has seen print in some of the most prestigious publications in America. He is a Really Big Deal, the kind of guy you do not expect to see writing a funnybook. I’m not sure he’s ever even written fiction before. But he’s a comics fan. This is something he’s always wanted to do. And his reputation is such that I had to see how the book turned out.
“Pretty good,” is my initial impression. There is a little of the stuff about the importance of Wakanda, and the Panther’s role as king, but it works more as backdrop, important context for the story Coates wants to tell. And that story is, potentially, really interesting. Ever the journalist, Coates is placing Wakanda in a situation many real-world African nations face every day: the threat of insurgency, and civil war. That seems like an odd threat for an Afrofuturist utopia, but the groundwork for it was laid before Coates ever came on the scene. The last few years of Black Panther stories have involved war between kings, as the Panther, Namor, and Dr. Doom have battled to the ruination of their respective kingdoms.
So Wakanda’s in bad shape, and a psychic insurgent is taking advantage of it. Coates has only just gotten the ball rolling in his first issue, but already we see unrest inside Wakanda, and an army massing at the border. He’s even broached the issue of why Wakanda needs a king at all, when so much of the world has embraced democracy. Interesting concepts to dig into with this character, concepts that allow Coates to concentrate on the Black Panther as an icon, but to also tell a compelling story with him.
Coates is ably assisted in that by Brian Stelfreeze, an experienced comics artist who is, reportedly, helping Coates learn the art of visual storytelling. Stelfreeze is also helping bring out the cool side of the Panther, subtly redesigning the mask to give it a more predatory profile, and having some fun with the character’s super-science side at the same time. He’s wisely left the suit’s simple elegance alone, but I particularly like how the mask forms around his head when activated…
…and the symbols that appear on him when he activates different powers are pretty cool, too:
So it’s a good start. But there are still some rough spots. The dialogue, for instance. Due to the character’s regal bearing, his language has always been a bit elevated. But everybody in this book talks like that, and after awhile it gets to be a bit much. And maybe because of that dialogue, I found that I didn’t connect to the characters as well as I think I was supposed to.
There’s a sequence with one of the Panther’s elite guard, who’s going to be put to death not because she did something bad, but because she over-stepped her authority in doing something good. It speaks to the rigid culture of Wakanda, and plays into the questions about the validity of having a king. But I don’t really feel for that character, even when her lover violates her own oath to rescue her, because they both talk like characters out of a bad fantasy novel. Not that I expect them to speak jive or anything (that would be far worse), but there’s got to be a balance in there somewhere, and Coates hasn’t found it yet.
The concepts are compelling, though, and I think he’s heading in the right direction. I’m still undecided if I’m going to stick with this incarnation of Black Panther, but I’m certainly tempted. Mind you, if every issue costs five dollars like this one did, I’ll be giving it a miss. It’s interesting, but it ain’t that interesting.
by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
It’s a rarity that I don’t lead a column off with this book. It’s so very good, and deals in subject matter I find so very fascinating, that I feel compelled to feature it front and center. But this week, for reasons that should be obvious by this point, it has to come last.
I’ve spoken often in the past of my love for the work of HP Lovecraft. I find his concepts of cosmic dread compelling and his devotion to the weird delightful. His uniquely strange creations speak to me in ways more conventional horror writing often doesn’t. He was a true original in a field that produces far too many imitators, and for that I will always love him.
His politics, however, I’m not so keen on.
To take the easier topic first, Lovecraft did not, near as I can tell, hate women. In fact, he seems to have thought rather highly of the ones he knew. But he wasn’t very good with women, it seems, and that lead him to believe that he couldn’t write one very convincingly. So he generally didn’t write about them at all. But there doesn’t seem to have been any sexism or hate behind it. More, it was an admission of a deficiency in himself. Something I’m sure Wonder Woman would approve of.
I can’t say the same for how the Black Panther might feel about his racism. This is an issue any fan of Lovecraft’s work has to wrestle with eventually: the man was a racist, plain and simple. It’s not a big part of his writing. I might even argue that if you read only his major works, the stuff that’s really worth reading for people who aren’t (like me) obsessed with him, you might not twig to it at all. But if you hit the right stories… hoo boy. There’s some pretty odious stuff in there. I won’t run down a litany of his offenses, but “The Horror at Red Hook” is probably your go-to for racist Lovecraft stories (hint: the horror of the title is really the horror of miscegenation!).
I don’t defend this stuff. It’s indefensible. I won’t even say that he was a product of his times. We have it on good authority from friends that Lovecraft’s racist tendencies were a bit extreme, even for the early 20th Century. And he didn’t just hate black people, oh no. He hated Asians, Italians, Arabs, Eskimos… He even hated other white people. He despised the Irish. He looked askance at the Russians. And he especially hated the Jews (even though he married one). He hated anyone, in short, who wasn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Person like himself.
This hatred was irrational, of course (most racism is), and was born primarily of xenophobia. That xenophobia informed his writing, but thankfully the racism that came with it mostly didn’t. Which is why I remain such a huge fan. Sometimes you have to separate the art from the artist, and that is something I do with Lovecraft. He had a great many good ideas, alongside the bad ones.
None of which has anything at all to do with this issue of Providence. No, this issue is devoted to Lovecraft’s least xenophobic piece of writing: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, an extremely whimsical and metaphorical work in which (among a good many other strange happenings) a bunch of cats fly the protagonist to the moon. Alan Moore has, amazingly, recreated that scene here (though he stops short of Lovecraft’s detailing of cat military rankings).
It makes for an utterly charming issue for the most part, even though it does feature the fulfillment of the ominous prophesy surrounding Our Hero Mr. Black and HP Lovecraft himself. Moore writes Lovecraft marvelously, capturing both his formal, antiquated way of speaking and the wry humor that comes out in his correspondence. It’s a brief scene, and an ominous one in many ways. But I’m running extremely long here, so maybe I should save my analysis of that meeting for another time.