Monday, March 03, 2008

Reinventing Females in the DCU

First, a disclaimer. This is a somewhat rambling, unedited essay I threw together over a week or so, with thoughts I've been having about Wonder Woman and her place in the DCU, in light of the new weekly series, Trinity, scheduled to start in June that will focus on her, Batman, and Superman. And when I think of Wonder Woman, I can't help but think of that other iconic female DC character, Supergirl.

Not quite retconning, revamping tired characters is nothing new. Akin to putting a fresh coat of paint on an old house, it's the sort of thing every new creative team engages in when they take over a book, whether the ideas are theirs or dictated by the editor(s). Sometimes, it involves characters that headline many books. The decree will be that Batman stories in Detective will focus on his detecting skills while his stories in Batman will focus on his going head to head or fist to face with larger than life villains.

Other times, things are more drastic. The reworking of the Golden Age characters of DC to the Silver Age, for example, along with creating new versions of old characters (Flash, Green Lantern), dusted off and polished up others (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman). And then there's the outright retconning, changing origins, revamping the universe after such events as Crisis on Infinite Earths, and so on.

There's been a lot of blogging recently about the old which is better, Marvel or DC? And much discussion of how DC treats females and minorities in its comics. And in general, I think DC has done a decent job, once the inequities have been pointed out to them, oft-times with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but still, they do seem to try. While infrequently creating new minority or female characters that stand alone, when it comes to legacy characters, more and more, a female or a minority group has a fair chance of being included. So, after a white male replaced a white male Atom, we now have an Asian in that role. Along with the white Green Lanterns, we also have a black male. And of course, there are GLs of all alien colors and cultures. Other planets have been better represented for years in comics than the diversity here on Earth.

There is, however, still room for improvement. While DC has many strong, female characters, they seem to have a spotty record when it comes to creating a solid identity for them. And it's two of the iconic female characters who seem to have been revamped more than any other, female or male. They're Wonder Woman and Supergirl.

I understand that there was a time that female characters were treated less seriously than the males. Growing up, I wasn't all that bothered by Wonder Woman or Supergirl facing less than all-powerful enemies or worrying about their hairdos and outfits or whether the guy of their dreams will notice them. Those were things I was worrying or wondering about, too, so it seemed perfectly normal. And meanwhile, they were kicking butt. Even Lois Lane got to shine, especially in her own book, and she didn't have powers. But looking back, I can see that no one could ever decide what the essence of these characters are. It isn't so much as focusing on one aspect of a character, the way Batman's detective skills might be emphasized or Superman's inner goodness. At least with them, the rest of their traits were included, if not in a given story, than in others. And they headlined more than one book, so they could have a different focus in each. Batman had Batman and Detective. Superman had Superman and Action. And for a long while, they shared World's Finest. Supergirl got stories in other books, before finally getting her own. And Wonder Woman had just the one title.

Let's look at some of the revamping by character.

CAREER of Secret Identity

Superman: Newspaper reporter. For a while, tv reporting was part of the mix. With all the changes in his life over the years, the Clark Kent identity has been very stable, other than his adopted parents being brought back from the dead during one of the reboots (the time period I wasn't reading comics, so I'm fuzzy on the details).

Batman: Rich person, philanthropist, runs Wayne Enterprises. For a time, the business end was featured, with Lucius Fox (a character I really liked, and a minority, at that) introduced. He ran the everyday operations. While Batman has had his darker, brooding side emphasized some years and his lighter, detective side emphasized in others, Bruce has remained essentially a rich ladies man.

Wonder Woman: She's been in the military, lost her powers and became an adventurer (with I Ching and Patrick McGuire as her helpers; I think of this as her Modesty Blaise phase), and somewhere along the line got her powers back and the focus at times has been on Diana the Amazon Princess and ambassador from Paradise Island to "Man's World." I missed some versions of her during my boycott of comics in the '80s. And now, Diana Prince works for the Department of Metahuman Affairs. Her love life has been a mess, not that Batman's has been much better, but at least, his affairs have the feel of reality while hers barely rise over schoolgirl crushes in tone and treatment.

Supergirl: High school student, college student (a nice, natural progression I liked), reporter (upon graduation, also nice because she was actually growing up), then back to college as an advisor because it was decided she worked better in an academic setting. Then she got killed off. And we've had varied versions of a Supergirl til Kara was brought back a few years ago and she has no secret identity to speak of and every writer on the book has been emphasizing a different aspect of her to the point she's undergone personality transplants. She's younger than she's been since the original graduated high school. And while I don't expect her to be the sweet, innocent character she was way back when, I would like some consistency. Today, Kara has been a different character depending on who's writing her.

Note that there has been far more changed about the 2 best known female characters than the 2 best known males.

And then I got to thinking about some major plot developments for the two main males during my comics boycott/hiatus. Batman had his back broken and was replaced for a while. And Superman died, but he came back and after some nonsense, he was still Superman. The major change in his life was marrying Lois and it was about time. That was such a natural progression for his character that I would have been disappointed if they hadn't gotten married.

But the thing that stands out for me, the impression I get, is that when things are written to shake up Superman and Batman, it's out of a writing perspective, the thrill and challenge of doing something interesting with them, the chance to have circumstances screw up their lives and with them in character, act upon whatever, cope, even die as the hero they are if need be.

I don't get that sense from the changes in Wonder Woman's various iterations and especially not with Supergirl. With them, I sense a bit of desperation beneath the chance to do something new. And the something new doesn't seem a natural outgrowth of the characters. Even when Diana renounced her powers and became human, I still got the sense back then that it was a plot device and Diana was coping as best she could. The only male character I read regularly who'd had circumstances thrust on him for editorial reasons that changed his very nature was Oliver Queen. But since the new Green Arrow was so much more interesting and sexier than the old version, I quickly forgave the powers that be and would never want to go back to the old, boring Ollie.

I even forgive the silliness of the '60s. The male characters weren't immune to it, but it was the females and their silly pursuits of the male of the species (or sometimes, humanoid aliens), in stories full of stereotypes, that suffered more indignity and faced a greater risk of becoming irrelevant.

Killing Supergirl and keeping Power Girl after Crisis on Infinite Earths made some sort of sense, I guess, because PG had her own look and a strong personality, a good female role model for the '80s and '90s. Bringing in a new version of the old Supergirl would've cheapened the original's sacrifice and would have complicated things unnecessarily. And when the need to keep the Supergirl name active, I suppose, a new character was created. I read a few of those issues and couldn't get into them. I couldn't see why she had to be Supergirl. She could have had her own name and identity. And when Kara finally came back, in the previous Supergirl book, she retained enough of the original's sweetness to bring cheer to my heart. And then, she's taken away, a new version shows up, and things just get ugly.

It could have been great. The potential was there. I was ready to love her. But the writing wasn't up to the challenge and Kara came across like a spoiled brat. As her youth on Krypton came to light, things just got uglier. And every writer since then has tried to "fix" her and has done little more than confuse and complicate what should be one of the most basic characters to write. A super-powered teen who shares a bloodline with the greatest hero in the galaxy: Superman.

After some similarly muddy attempts to revive Wonder Woman's iconic status, Gail Simone has taken over and in her first story arc has done what I was starting to think was impossible, though I had faith she could do it. After all, she elevated Birds of Prey to a must-read. Gail writes Wonder Woman and Diana as capable women, each with a role to play. She's deepened the character's background without negating anything, has made everything she's written come naturally and out of Diana's personality and place in the DCU. Nothing seems forced or imposed on the character for plot purposes. Finally, Wonder Woman is being treated as a true member of the Trinity and not as a character who needs to be fixed.

I'm still waiting for someone to do that with Supergirl. Someone who won't keep trying to reinvent her and will simply enrich her background and character (without resorting to silly implanted crystals and himbo would-be boyfriends). Oddly enough, the most endearing scenes in the book have been between Kara and Boomer. One thing the book needs is a set of supporting characters who would have a natural place in Kara's life who are not Superman or Batman or characters who live in other books. Diana has her Department of Meta Human Affairs colleagues and the Amazons. Who does Kara have? In the old version, it was her adopted family and school friends (well, mainly Dick Malverne), plus Streaky and Comet. They chose to not go the adoption route, but she's not working, either. She has no other identity. And that has hurt the character and the book because it forces everything to be about the powers and not the person. And that identity doesn't have to be a traditional secret ID. It can simply be a life out of the spotlight that isn't about sitting home and moping about what happens every time she goes out. Yes, we've seen how Kara is dealing with those powers and the responsibility that comes with them, but still, everything seems to start with the powers.

Let me repeat that.

Kara has no other identity. And that has hurt the character and the book because it forces everything to be about the powers and not the person.

When was the last time -- and has there ever really been a time? -- when we said that about Superman?


  1. I posted a follow-up on my blog, but I guess I don't have the hang of that whole "create a link" thing yet. You can read it here.

  2. I've always had the impression, that Comicbook creators just didn't really know WHAT to do with female characters a lot of the time, and certainly back in the day.

    Wonder Woman, although going through all sorts of revamps, at least had a decent origin. And now of course, Gail Simone has worked her magic, and I am as happy as a clam at high tide.

    I've never really been able to "get into" Supergirl. From the old Silver Age stuff, where Superman basically kept her penned up in an orphanage, to the modern BRATZ version. I like Power Girl a heck of a lot better.

    Still...some progress has been made. There was nothing more dreary than a Stan Lee Girl, back in the 60's, when all the Invisible Girl or the Scarlet Witch did, was stand around and wring her hands and wait to be rescued. Nowadays they are falling out of their costumes, but at least they don't have to be rescued anymore.

  3. I'll take a look, Rob. :)

    Sally, Supergirl and I kind of grew up together, although she needed more years than I did. ;) But being born in the early-'50s and growing up in the '60s, I wasn't exactly liberated, but my parents didn't try to program me into settling for a stereotypical life, either. Supergirl back then was just a teenaged girl who happened to have super powers. Except for the powers I wished I had, I could relate.

    I read one Fantastic Four comic back then. It didn't impress me -- I didn't like the art. But the females didn't matter to me because I always preferred to read about male characters. Supergirl, Lois Lane, and Wonder Woman were the exceptions and I didn't really start to love Wonder Woman til she gave up her powers. She got more realistic then.

    Looking back, it is interesting that it was Sue Storm who was invisible and her brother Johnny who got to flame on and not the other way around.

  4. Blogger SallyP said...

    I've always had the impression, that Comicbook creators just didn't really know WHAT to do with female characters a lot of the time, and certainly back in the day.

    You know, I meant to say something about that in my own post and then completely forgot. I think you're right. Often, male writers in general and male comic book writers in particular just don't have a great grasp of how to write female characters.

    They end up victims or characters in need of rescue or dominatrices or sex objects or just exactly like the male characters, only drawn differently. I'm not being hyper-critical here. I think it's more or less a function of how we write. It's easy to write about characters like ourselves and it's easy to write about characters who are wish-fulfillment versions of ourselves. And it's pretty easy to write about characters whose main purpose is to react to or interact with the "me" character. It's more difficult to write fully realized characters who are none of these things.

    I agree with you that progress has been made in this regard.

  5. I'd meant to discuss that issue, too, re: creators not knowing how to write females, and was thinking of a follow-up post. It seems women have traditionally done a better job writing male characters than men writing females. Think of all the science fiction writers who were female and using male pen names or ones ambiguous enough to fool people and most men never had a clue, never thought the male characters seemed "off" or stereotypical.

    Yet it seems so much more difficult for men to write diverse female characters. The most obvious way to get better female characters is for more women to be writing them, not just at independent comics companies, but at Marvel and DC.

    Next comes trying to educate the current crop of male writers. Some get it and write females well. Others, not so much or not at all.

  6. Speaking somewhat tangetially, did you ever notice back in the 60's, that ALL the blondes were "good" and ALL the brunettes were "bad"? Well, not ALL of them, but mostly. It was practically a code for the writers and readers.

  7. I don't know if i would consider supergirl as a major female character in the dcu. she is a legacy hero and she shares her name with the boy scout. i think in terms of popularity she's more recognizable to the genral public than let's say black canary. but she's not at least for me and my perception the pinnacle of feminity in the dcu.

  8. Well, there were Lois and Wonder Woman. And Black Canary is a natural brunette who wore a blonde wig back then. And there were brunette females in the Legion. Hmmmm.... maybe we should do a survey on this. heh

  9. I agree, Stephen, that SG is more a legacy character, but in the world at large, she's better known than say, Donna Troy. She had her own movie, even if it mostly sucked. She had her own book a few times. So while not a top tier character, she was a major character to those of us growing up in the '60s.

    We didn't have too many role models in DC at the time, and I think of her as a bigger character than Batgirl (the original) and Batwoman. I can't write about female characters and DC without considering SG.

  10. Anonymous7:24 PM EST

    Steven, I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with your assessment of Supergirl. Merely her immediate recognition outside of comic book circles has secured the character's place as a MAJOR female superhero icon. For example, stack SG up against ANY of Marvel's superheroines and I think she's still way more identifiable.

    However, I don't think DC has ever given much priority (if EVER) to the idea of "pinnacle of femininity" outside of Wonder Woman in recent years. Pretty much ALL the other DCU superfemmes these days are being treated as interchangeable, and even DISPOSABLE whenever that's needed.

    What Supergirl suffers from MOST as a character these days is that blood connection to Superman, as many creators and fans continuously marginalize her conception down to "just another Superman accessory" instead of focusing on an individual personality for her. Heck, she can't even get away from Superman IN HER OWN SOLO BOOK anymore.

  11. Thanks for your comments, Anon. I think in the last decade, DC's females are getting more and more distinguishable. Black Canary, Wonder Woman, Power Girl, Stargirl, Huntress, and Manhunter are not interchangeable. Zinda in BoP is in a class of her own, as is Oracle.

    I got Nightwing today and was reminded that some male characters have suffered similar treatment, at least when it comes to their personal lives. Dick Grayson has had a number of jobs in his current book, more than makes sense, though the core character remains the same. But his loss of confidence from Devin Grayson's run, through Bruce Jones' run went on way too long.

    So far, I'm impressed with the current team, but it seems there are just some characters who get treated poorly by the creators and most of them are female.

  12. Anonymous10:13 PM EST

    Shelley, I think most of the developed personalities in DC female characters you've cited can be attributable to a VERY small handful of creators who DON'T treat them with typical interchangeability. Gail Simone has been pretty responsible for most of these characters' development at different intervals, and Geoff Johns has indeed made some inroads with Stargirl (although he also loses points for devolving the formerly self-assertive Wonder Girl into a long-dead male character's whiney lost appendage).

    However, as soon as these characters leave the stable of that creator's influence, they run the risk of suddenly reverting back into one-dimensional cardboard cutouts all over again, or even worse. Right after Gail left BOP, Knockout and Big Barda became 'event' cannon fodder. And Black Canary and Power Girl's current leadership of their respective super-teams seems more like abject tokenism (and perhaps a DC swipe at Ms. Marvel's position within Mighty Avengers). There's still JUST NOT ENOUGH female character CONSISTANCY at DC right now to make me believe that things have been changing for the better. I shudder to think what might happen to several of those super-femmes Gail helped develop if she ever decides to bolt from DC.

  13. No matter who was writing BoP, Knockout and Barda were doomed due to the New Gods storyline in Countdown.

    There are a number of writers who can write strong females and while I think more women writers will help, it's not a guarantee. Devin Grayson has her strong points, but her females were no better than most of the other writers.

    I love how Pfeifer writes Catwoman, but not so much how he wrote Wonder Woman and the Amazons. Writers tend to have affinity for some characters and not others and there are some they should not write.

    I think McKeever's doing a good job on BoP, but he's leaving. But his Huntress and Zinda are strong and individual and fun to read.

    Adam Beechen in Countdown to Adventure is doing a great job with Kory, Ellen Baker, and Alanna. All three women are individual and interesting and strong in their own ways.

    I think similar arguments can be made for the male writers and the male characters. We finally have good writing on Nightwing. Devin wore out her welcome, Jones sucked, and even Marv Wolfman couldn't make Dick relevant again. Tomasi is doing a great job so far.

    One problem is that many male writers who want to write strong female characters and avoid stereotypes have no clue how to do it, so they write female versions of the males or concentrate so much on the kickass aspect that they neglect the whole personality/human aspect. When many men think female, they think frilly and vulnerable and nurturing, so to break that stereotype, they go too far to the other end and create a whole new stereotype, that of females who have only their breasts to differentiate them from the males. They forget to make them individuals.

    Which is why Manhunter was so good. Andreyko got it right. Kate Spencer has plenty of warts.

    Even Xena, as kickass as they come, had a human side. Modesty Blaise had a human side. Both kicked ass, but they'd never be mistaken for each other.

    But the point is that when male characters are mistreated, they remain in general, true to an inner core, even Green Arrow, when writers took his political activism and self-righteousness to extremes in the '70s and made him pompous. He was still Ollie, just a poorly written Ollie.

    When female characters get treated poorly or revamped, they don't show that inner core that makes them who they are. They almost become new characters or pale imitations of themselves, til the next writer comes along who might or might not be better.

    The males are written inconsistently, too, but the nature of it is very different. The writers at least grasp who those characters are inside. They don't always for the females.

  14. I think you're right about what you say. DC have failed to stay true to the core of their female characters. Despite changing times and changing creators, Superman, Batman and most of the other male characters have remained the same at their core. Take a story from each decade of his existence and the core elements of Superman remain the same and recognisable. Try that with Wonder Woman or, even worse, Supergirl and the stories could easily be about different characters who share a name and nothing else.

    I don't know what the answer is, perhaps it's heirarchical. If Wonder Woman and Supergirl had been the first heroes to finacially benefit DC things would be different. The revamps would have been truer to the characters and the writers would have treated them betteer.

  15. Thanks for your comments, Peter. I'm hopeful for Wonder Woman now that Gail Simone is putting her stamp on the character. So far, she's kept Diana Prince in the Dept of Metahuman Affairs, but brought in Etta Candy, an old character with a new feel to her. She's also enhanced Diana's origin without contradicting it or reinventing it.

    Go back a few decades and you'll see other characters revamped and not for the better, even the men. There was a much ignored attempt to make Krypton's destruction sabotage, to make the lightning strike that caused Barry Allen to become Flash to not be an accident, and the whole mess Hawkman's life became til it got straightened out. And yet, none of that equals the mess of Donna Troy's origin, which is now explained by her having lived many lives or some similar nonsense.

    So when it comes to the lower tier characters, male or female, it's pretty equal in revamp problems. But for the top 3, only Wonder Woman has had real problems with revamps, and I hope that will now be changed thanks to what Gail Simone's been writing.

  16. Anonymous4:46 AM EST

    I'm surprised no one mentioned Batgirl here. She's a pretty big DC female hero having most non-comic readers know of her due to the 60's Batman series and the Batman cartoons/movies.

    On that same note, I wonder what DC was thinking when they decided to reinvent the LAST Batgirl TOO by turning her into a Dragon Lady type villainess.

    Cass fans were NOT appreciative of the changes. (and we're also NOT appreciative of having the writer who screwed her up in the first place, getting to write her again in her upcoming mini...)

  17. I didn't include Batgirl because she didn't have that much of an impact on my life, and because there have been 3 of them. The Batgirl I first knew was the original, with Batwoman. And because Batgirl never had her own book the way Wonder Woman and Supergirl have. Barbara Gordon has been written fairly consistently, possibly because she was mostly a supporting character and fewer people got to write her, certainly not in much depth.

    I read the newer Batgirl's book for a while, but I'm really not into the character and know very little about how she was screwed up.

  18. I suppose the WW event comparable to Bruce's broken back or Kal's death would be Diana's death, when she was a goddess of truth for a while. I wasn't reading them, however, so I didn't get to read it. For the lack of coverage of the time period on the internet, I have to assume it was pretty bad, though.

    Some of the fun of getting my longboxes organized is seeing the history of the perception of women in society, through the pages of Wonder Woman and her nearly infinite re-vamps.

    At least with all of her different secret identities jobs and experiences, we can explain it away some as her wanting to experience the wide and varied culture of Patriarch's world.

    Great piece...insightful on the subject of Kara...would love to see them focus more on who she is as a person...

    Are Roy and Danette Thomas writing anything these days? They always seemed to make the women in their pages real people.

  19. Thanks, Greg. I haven't seen Roy Thomas' name mentioned in a long time.

    And I hadn't known of that Wonder Woman as a goddess of truth. Talk about getting away from a character's core. I'm glad I missed it.

  20. Anonymous9:36 PM EDT

    3-18-2008. At the risk of repeating what others so rightly have said I'll give my 2 cents (because I like this blog so much, hehe). I think as others have mentioned that the DC most iconic females: Supergirl and WW should be better written, and a first step to that is to find a core to them, with the other 2 big guns it's easy, Superman: the boy scout, always good no matter what. Batman: the vengeful tragic hero with a rational mind. The secret identites? they are also easily described: the mild mannered reporter and the rich guy/ladies man. But what about WW? what about SG? they can't be easily described, which is, I think, part of the hardness to find them as characters, Wonder Woman should be like the Alpha Female, strong, driven, like a business woman and with SG it should be your sweet girl next door, an example of America's decent teenagers, a role model for girls, but DC just can't nail it and it's annoying, because as time goes by you realize they don't respect the characters, maybe their creation was due to the wrong reasons, maybe the motives have to be fixed, but WW and SG need a defining core personality and not personality transplants with each writer as it has been said. If supergirl was written as a real teenage girl, with real friends (not the meta kind) and real problems, problems that her powers can't help her get out of and she has to use her integrity (like her cousin) to figure it out, that would be a book worth reading. If WW was written as an example of how women can be strong without letting the feminity go out the window, if she was really fighting "Man's World" in the sense of men's preconceptions to women, the sexism and all that, she could work, but I've always gotten the impression that they tip-toe around the real issue: they don't know what to do! with the female heroes, they have to find a personality and stick to it no matter what, boy scout? ok! cycnical? fine, sweet girl? you bet, but be true to it, consistently.
    -Bruce W.

  21. Thanks for your comments, Bruce. I think Gail Simone is addressing the core issues of WW. So far, that's come from building up more backstory to her origin, but Gail's record on BoP speaks to her ability to define characters and make them individuals, so I'm hopeful she'll define WW that way and not just provide another personality transplant. Oddly enough, my favorite WW characterization in recent years was her guest turn in Manhunter.

    As for SG, yeah, exactly. Which is why I think she needs a secret identity again, so she can deal with life as a teen and not just as a super-teen.

  22. Shelly, this was rather a long post so I've kept it "new" in my blog reader for a few weeks until I had time to it justice - which was today.

    I'm not a big DC reader (just Bats and Supes) and not a woman either, which I guess is why I like reading your blog - your perspective is so different.

    I may be wrong (I'm not a woman, remember) but I think that Marvel has handled most of its main female characters well, I'm thinking of Storm, Invisible Girl/Woman, Marvel Girl/Phoenix and Scarlet Witch but none of these has carried more than a limited series.

    The female books that I have read an enjoyed in the past include Ms Marvel, Spider Woman and She Hulk but that was some years ago and now they are better known as members of The Avengers. I'm not sure if that is a better fate than being messed around in your own title.

  23. Matthew, I've read few Marvels over the years, mainly Howard the Duck, Wolverine for a while, the recent White Tiger mini, which I enjoyed. I tried Fantastic Four when I was a kid, but much preferred the DCU. Marvel might do a better job, but things I read on blogs that covered the Civil War storyline didn't make me think Sue was handled all that well.

    My main problem is the iconic DC females. The ones that haven't had their own books or were created more recently and given their own books seem to have faired better. Some older characters like Black Canary and Catwoman have been reimagined or reinvented and yet have retained their history to great effect. Manhunter, a new character who started in her own book, was handled beautifully.

    I think because Wonder Woman and Supergirl have been around for so long and the times were much different then, they've suffered the most inconsistencies.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comments. And I'm glad you enjoy my blog. :)