Her creator envisioned her as an antidote to the "blood-curdling masculinity" of comic books. But her modern-day reboot embraces the gore and crude sexuality she was originally supposed to avoid.
"It seemed to me, from a psychological angle, that the comics' worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity," William Marston a 1944 essay for The American Scholar. Marston was a psychologist—and also a sometime soft-core pulp novelist, a polyamorist, an early experimenter with lie-detector technology, and a shameless self-promoter. But more than that, he was the creator of the ultimate antidote to comic-book masculinity...Wonder Woman!
Marston's original comics, created with artist Harry Peter, are largely unknown by mainstream audiences today. In the 1940s, though, Marston's Wonder Woman comics were hugely popular—and this was at a time when comics could sell hundreds of thousands of copies per issue.
Wonder Woman's popularity was attained, as Marston promised, largely by eschewing blood-curdling masculinity. Wonder Woman would occasionally hit the bad guys—but more often, she would capture them in her golden lasso, which compelled them to obey and submit (later writers would downgrade the lasso of obedience to a much less useful lasso of truth). Wonder Woman's allies included the Holliday girls, a group of sorority sisters who fought villains by dancing with them or, occasionally, by ritually paddling them. And, while Marston did not include in his comics the magical kitties so popular in contemporary girl's adventure fiction like Sailor Moon, he did provide his Amazons with giant, space-traveling kangaroos—which is surely almost as good.
There are no space kangaroos or sorority girls in Wonder Woman: Guts, the second volume of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang's Wonder Woman reboot, released last month. There is, however, a fair amount of blood-curdling masculinity. The book collects issues #7 to12 of the series, and Chiang's interior cover for issue #8 shows Wonder Woman leaping from the side, shooting two golden pistols while discarded golden shell cases rain down around her—the insufficiently swaggering golden lasso nowhere in sight. Elsewhere in the series, we get to see Wonder Woman shot in the chest; a woman displaying her gashed open and bleeding arms, a giant devouring monster zombie creature, and another interior cover showing Wonder Woman with a death's head toting those cool golden guns again.
There's no particular mystery about what's going on here. Marston and Peter were creating comics for a (large) audience of mixed-gender children. Azzarello/Chiang, on the other hand, are creating comics for a (much smaller) audience of (mostly) men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Kids may like giant space kangaroos, but adult males as a demographic tend to prefer guns and blood and zombies.
Azzarello's guns and blood and zombies aren't just pandering, though; they're also an ideological statement. In issue #7, the first one collected in the volume, Wonder Woman learns that Paradise Island, where she grew up among her Amazon sisters, is not quite the Paradise she had assumed. Wonder Woman had thought the Amazons simply reproduced by the grace of the Gods. In reality, it turns out, they maintain their society by boarding passing ships and having sex with the (apparently willing) men. They then murder their partners, raise any girl children as their own—and trade away the males to the god Hephaestus, to work in his forge.
Marston claimed that comics were too blood-curdlingly masculine; Azzarello, in contrast, seems to be saying that comics—or at least Marston's comics—are not blood-curdling enough. The Amazon sisterhood in which Wonder Woman believed is a lie built on sexualized violence and death. The magic lasso, which settles conflict non-violently, is exchanged for those golden guns. The fact that the guns belong to the god Eros, and shoot bullets of violent infatuation just emphasizes that, for Azzarello, even love is a blood-curdling business best expressed through phallic firepower. Space kangaroos are not the truth; you, Wonder Woman fans, are not ready for the truth.
The eagerness to demonstrate the adultness of the adult content perhaps explains in part why Wonder Woman herself becomes such a minor part of Azzarello's story. In the first volume of the series, Azzarello revealed that Wonder Woman was the daughter of Zeus—and in general throughout the series he seems less interested in his heroine per se than in her patriarchal heritage, and the divine family that goes along with it.
Rather than flying off to Venus or Saturn or Pluto to save the world on, as she does in Marston's comics, Wonder Woman's storyline turns inward to explore the intricacies of dynastic family intrigue. She spends the series defending Zola, a woman who slept with Zeus and now bears Wonder Woman's half-sibling. We are, though, constantly pointed away from this central storyline to other members of the pantheon. Thus, the most sympathetic and nuanced portrait in the book is not of Wonder Woman or Zola, but instead of Hades, the God of the Underworld whose abuse of women is supposed to highlight his tragic lack of self-love, setting up the inevitable resolution of banal self-actualization.
Most of the gods aren't there to self-actualize, though. Instead, each one is rolled out to demonstrate their cool-as-shit, bad-ass powers and complicated dynastic motivations. Everybody—Hades, Wonder Woman, everyone—bargains and schemes and betrays and manipulates everyone else. It's a god-eat-god world out there—and one built, in every way, on blood.
That blood is supposed to be the guarantor of sophistication and knowledge; it's the sign of adulthood and, not coincidentally, of masculinity. And yet, is Azzarello/Chiang really more sophisticated than Marston/Peters? After all, a golden love gun isn't really any less ridiculous than a golden lasso of compulsion. And as far as that iconic measure of adulthood known as sex goes, Marston seems a lot more adventurous than his successor. The original Wonder Woman comics included page after page of bondage imagery, scads of cross-dressing villains, and really remarkably unrepressed lesbian eroticism. The best Azzarello/Chiang can do, in contrast, is to have their Amazons pose like Playboy models while Eros makes sophomoric cracks about the quest for seminal mortal vessels.
Azzarello's comics, then, are for older readers, and they fairly consciously embrace the blood-curdling masculinity that Marston decried. But that doesn't mean that blood-curdling masculinity is more adult than the alternative. It simply means that blood-curdling masculinity in this case—and not just in this case—justifies itself ideologically through appeals to maturity and realism. But making Wonder Woman more violent doesn't make her more mature or more real. It just makes her more conventional.