I picked up the first issue of the Heinberg-Dodson run of Wonder Woman, not because I was a fan of the character or those creators, but to give the character a shot. I was, to put it nicely, decidedly underwhelmed, and I was not surprised when I heard Heinberg was getting yanked from the book.
What did surprise me– and excite my interest– was the announcement that novelist Jodi Picoult was going to be writing it. She’s a very popular writer and, from what little I’ve read, very good with complex issues of identity and morality. She’s lauded for her convincing female characters, and so I thought I’d give it a try.
As always with Wonder Woman, I found myself once again underwhelmed.
There’s no deep morality here, no real character work. The plot is pedestrian and not in a fun way. What we have instead is meta-fiction:
Meta-Fiction is fiction that is about itself: fiction that is aware of the devices of fiction, fiction that explores the relationship between authors, works, and their audience, fiction that comments on itself and its genre.
It’s one of– if not the– hallmark of Post-Modernism. Some people will tell you that post-modernism is a mark of maturity or intelligence. What post-modernism usually means is that the author has no idea how to tell an actual story about actual characters, so instead they write about themselves writing.
I don’t hate meta-fiction, or even post-modernism– I’m just wary of it as an end in and of itself. As a means, though– as an ingredient and a storytelling device, it can add depth and context.
The best example I can think of is, of course, Astro City. In Astro City, Busiek gives us well-plotted, introspective stories with deft, multivariate characterizations that support human, moral themes– themes of love, failure, redemption, identity. In addition to all this, he comments on the history of the superhero genre and its defining trends. He shows us archetypes and investigates their usefulness.
As others have noted, Busiek does (at times) fall into the trap of the epiphany-type story. But, especially in his longer stories, he provides work that not only stands on its own, but is deepened by the meta-themes.
But in the case of Wonder Woman number 6, Picoult’s story is not deepened by her meta approach, because there’s really nothing there beyond the meta. Instead of a story, we have an argument: that Wonder Woman is just as cool as her male cohorts.
But the logic at play here– that Wonder Woman is cool because she saves the world– fails to see the fundamental flaw in Wonder Woman, one which Your Friend and Mine, The Amazing Alan Kistler has pointed out in his excellent profile-in-progress: Wonder Woman has no core identity: she’s gone from bondage-chick to spy to goddess; she’s all over the map. Or, at least, her core is not one that’s conducive to good storytelling.
As my wife pointed out to me this afternoon (hi Mary!), Batman is a character who is defined by his origin. His parents are murdered before his eyes; he is motivated by grief and rage to fight crime. Superman is the last surviving son of an advanced race and is given a strong moral upbringing by kindly farm folk; he is Good and Inspiring. Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben is murdered, a death that Spider-Man could prevent; the twin themes of responsibility and maturity have defined Spider-Man.
Wonder Woman is sent by Amazons to engender peace and justice. It’s such a hazy origin, and it tells us nothing about her personality. In the case of the Big Three (Spidey, Supes, and Bats), their origin stories speak volumes about who they are.
The reason why Wonder Woman doesn’t sell as well as the others– the reason why she’s not as “cool”– is because she lacks a real viable core.
Now, she has had a core in the past– two of them, in fact. But the first one– Moulton’s original bondage-object philosophizer– is diametrically opposed to the second:
The problem with this characterization (Wonder Woman as Feminist Icon), which has defined the character for so long, is that it lacks real definition and real conflict. It’s a Sidney Poitier characterization: a minority character who is perfect and good and without flaw or equal.
And, y’know, that’s fine, to a point: there was a need for that kind of characterization, and it helped overcome years of stereotyping. But it is not a viable, long-term option for serial fiction.
And so, without a real story to tell, Picoult has fallen on a meta-fictional approach: she’s trying to validate Wonder Woman in fictional form, which is doomed to failure because the answers for which she is searching are not present.
The best way to show a character is cool is to tell good, interesting stories about that character, which is diametrically opposed to a post-modernist, meta-fictional approach.
You know who should write Wonder Woman? You know which “hot” novelist not only routinely tells good, interesting stories about actual people, but also understands the fundamental differences between men and women? Joyce Carol Oates.
If Joyce Carol Oates wrote Wonder Woman, you can bet your ass this shallow, limiting “feminist symbol” iconography would be replaced by an actual character. That the conflicts would be interesting, that the stories would affect you, that they would hurt you and you would like it.
That would be a Wonder Woman worth reading. As it stands, I can’t recommend this one anymore than Heinberg’s.