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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Comics Rainbow - Amazons

Today is the 75th anniversary of Wonder Woman, THE premiere female character in the biggest genre on the planet right now.  That’s a pretty big milestone and an aptly timed one at that.  After decades trying to reclaim the place in the public eye she enjoyed during her hit ‘70s TV show’s run, Wonder Woman is finally returning to the public eye thanks to the premiere of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in this year’s Batman v. Superman.  

Now Dawn of Justice was a travesty but Wonder Woman was actually a good part of it and Gadot’s upcoming Wonder Woman solo film is shaping up to be a major blast, so to celebrate this milestone I thought we’d get the full spectrum on the various Amazonian heroes and characters’ that’ve peppered DC’s history. 

I’d like to reiterate here that the red slot of Comics Rainbow isn’t meant to be a character that’s actually bad just the one that’s least cared for by the most people and in the case of Amazons that kind of has to be Donna Troy.  Donna Troy is such a weird character I’m not sure I even have the space to explain why she’s so looked down on.  She was a character created by accident and it shows.  At her best she works well as a teen/young adult version of Wonder Woman, powerful while also caring and decidedly kick-ass.  However, Donna’s best is in short supply as somewhere around 70% of her stories are devoted solely to explaining her origin.

That’s the big reason Donna has never found traction as a character, no one can decide where she came from.  The original character of Wonder Girl popped up when Bob Haney mistook a younger version of Wonder Woman for a different character and so dropped her into his Teen Titans comic.  Since then Donna’s origin has ranged from space homunculus, to long lost sister, to alternate dimension, to who knows what else and none of it has stuck because none of it is interesting. 

Donna Troy is a textbook example of how superhero obsession with origin stories can strangle a character’s potential.  As I said, when Donna is allowed to just exist and do her superhero thing she can be really great and is one of the cooler members of the Teen Titans but those moments are so brief it’s downright tragic.  Maybe somewhere down the line someone will come up with a Donna Troy origin that’s actual satisfactory but really it doesn’t matter where she came from, she’s here now and that’s the thing authors should focus on. 

There are a lot of reasons Grace is my favorite Amazon, not the least of which is how diverse a character she is.  I’ve stated previously that I’m thoroughly in favor of diverse representation in media for a lot of reasons but the biggest one has always been that recycling the same characters over and over again is ungodly dull.  Giving us characters that break the white straight male monolith is a great way to force a work into a more creative place and Grace is a pretty good example of that.  She’s an Asian American lesbian Amazon ass-kicker and one of the coolest superheroes there is.  She first popped up in the mid-2000s as part of the revamped Outsiders, back when the team became a sort of Teen Titans 2.0 type group.  At the time she was just a super strong, super durable bad ass who acted the team’s muscle as no one really knew her origins.

Unlike Donna Troy, however, there was an origin story already worked out for Grace.  It turned out she was descendant from a lost tribe of Amazons known as the Bana-Mighdall. The Bana-Mighdall Amazons were fierce warriors but unlike the Amazons of Paradise Island they were more inclined to deal with man’s world and had complex technology augmented with magic.  It was a neat idea and the Amazon edition only served to make Grace a more interesting character as she now was a daughter of 3 competing heritages. 

The big reason Grace is my favorite Amazon though is how graceless she actually is.  Unlike all the other Amazons in comics Grace has always been loud and angry and destructive, she’s basically DC’s She-Hulk.  Women heroes who are super strong is rare but ones who are aggressive and destructive with their strength is even rare so I always tend to gravitate towards those characters.  Admittedly, the school of thinking is that Grace is adopting a traditionally male role to increase her power but no less subversive to that tradition.  Also the fact that Grace could beat up Superman and laugh about it is pretty cool. 

Oh boy, I’m not going to win any friends with this choice.  So, might as well get this out of the way at the upfront: I don’t really like the Teen Titans, the comics, or Young Justice the TV show.  I know that it’s the trendy thing to jump on Young Justice because it was a hit animated superhero show with girls and that’s amazing but I just never cared for and a lot of that is the characters.  Some of them are okay individually but some of them I just can’t stand and Wonder Girl is the epitome of that dislike.  But hey, this wouldn’t be the “everyone likes them but me” category if this was a popular opinion. 

`It’s a little hard to describe my dislike for Wonder Girl but a lot of it has to do with just how poorly DC was dealing with teen girls at the time she emerged as a character.  Her history is a weird cluster in its own right but I was most exposed to her character during the mid-2000s when she was one of the main heroes of the Teen Titans.  This was the same time DC was running Supergirl right into the ground with a terrible combination of confusing continuity twists, character indecision, and tiring romantic entanglements.  The Wonder Girl writers took one look at this and decided they could do the same thing only much worse.

Seriously, so much of Wonder Girl’s prime years is marred by her being a background player on her own team, lacking any personality beyond being really mad all the time, and constantly being dragged down through her romance to Super Boy.  It could just be that I’ve always been reflexively allergic to Super Boy and Wonder Girl is now tainted by association but whatever the reason I just can’t get past that era for the character, maybe it’s just me. 

Obviously it Wonder Woman is the objective best Amazon, how could she not be?  Wonder Woman is the most recognizable woman superhero of all time, she stands tall alongside Batman and Superman as the core 3 fundamental superheroes, the American myth made reality.  She’s been a Goddess of Truth and a Taco Bell employee and found the honor and nobility in both.  She turns enemies into allies and allies into friends and wields the great weapons of truth and kindness with incredible skill.  I’m hard pressed to think of a character that greater embodies the idea of God-like perfection and power wielded in such a personal and intimate nature. 

What’s impressive about Wonder Woman, and a big reason why I did this Comics Rainbow about Amazons as a whole rather than just her, is that despite passing through various incarnations she’s always remained very true to her core identity.  Through her initial Golden Age weirdness, her time without powers in the Bronze age, the John Byrne era in which she lost the mantel of Wonder Woman, or Gail Simone’s dynamite run on the character the core of Wonder Woman has always persisted.  

Unlike so many other characters who morph and bend through multiple adaptations Wonder Woman remains the same.  Her sense of self and core characterization is so strong that no amount of reworking can rip away her basic identity.  More than Batman, more than Captain America, Wonder Woman IS. 

So, remember how I mentioned just a paragraph ago that Wonder Woman briefly lost her mantel of Wonder Woman?  Well, during that time the mantel of Wonder Woman passed to another Amazonian, the runner up that Diana beat in the initial trials to see who would take the role named Artemis.  From there, Artemis became a pretty major part of the Wonder Woman mythos, popping up whenever someone wanted to portray Paradise Island and needed an Amazonian to hold down the fort who wasn’t Wonder Woman’s mom.  Despite that prevalence most folks now have turned their backs on Artemis and I really don’t see why.

The big take away I get from most folks is that Artemis is a second string Amazon, which strikes me as utterly unfair.  I don’t blame people for not loving the Wonder Woman books where Artemis first came up and Wonder Woman adopted her bizarre combination of hot pants and jean jacket but Artemis herself was badass in those comics.  She didn’t represent the same values as Wonder Woman but she also wasn’t meant to.  

Like many hero replacement stories the entire point of her taking over the role was to show us a different take on Wonder Woman, one that was meant as an exploration of a Wonder Woman who was every bit as blood thirsty as a lot of folks seem to wish Wonder Woman was.  Artemis was a powerful warrior with no mercy and deadly accuracy, none of which really screams Wonder Woman because that’s not who Artemis is. 

So this is a pretty weird one but bear with me.  It’s fairly well established that Wonder Woman really doesn’t have a rogues gallery but rather a handful of reoccurring bad guys.  Most folks could probably name Cheetah as her primary antagonist or Ares if they were being pressed.  Cersi is the closest thing Wonder Woman has to a third archenemy after those two.  

She’s was originally introduced in the background of some Justice League adventure as the Cersi of myth that stranded Odysseus before morphing into a reoccurring Wonder Woman baddy.  She’s not particularly well liked or prevalent but she’s been around long enough to be considered among the premiere Wonder Woman foes over folks like Dr. Poison or Giganta. 

That audience ambivalence is what’s left Cersi stranded in this part of the list despite how cool she could be as an antagonist.  The problem with Cersi is that creators always seem to be reticent to actually make her the kind of big, all-powerful, ego-maniacal bad guy that a hero of Wonder Woman’s stature really demands.  

This is one of the weird things about woman super villains, they tend to be relegated to villainous femme fatales or anti-villains, very rarely are they allowed to just be big powerful foes obsessed with world domination.  If Cersi was more in that particular vein she may not be as big as folks like Luthor or Ras Al Ghul but she’d certainly stand out more as a Wonder Woman villain and could be a serious force to consider rather than a reoccurring footnote. 

If you’ve never heard of her before, Hippolyta is Wonder Woman’s mom and queen of the Amazons.  What’s more, she was also Wonder Woman herself for two separate eras of the character’s history.  When Hippolyta was first introduced, part of the idea of her character was that she was the version of Wonder Woman who fought the Nazis in the 1940s.  That idea has stuck around till modern times pretty much, with Hippolyta filling the role of the original Wonder Woman and often taking the place of Wonder Woman on the Justice Society.  Later, she filled in for her daughter as Wonder Woman on the JLA while Diana was occupied being the goddess of truth.  She’s one of the coolest and most proactive moms in comics and a rare example of a superhero parent.

Honestly I think Hippolyta’s role as a parent is key to why she’s as popular as she is.  Comics tend to run off of very isolated relationships, without much in the way of literal family.  There are families to be sure but they’re usually surrogate in nature, the way Batman or the Flash surround themselves with a surrogate family to replace the one they lost.  Actual family relationships between superheroes are very rare and aside from Superman and Supergirl, Hippolyta and Wonder Woman is the most high profile example of this. 

The added lens of royalty and mythic weight that informs their relationship creates infinitely more unique dimensions to build off of.  The way Wonder Woman picks up her mother’s mantel, even defying her mother’s wishes in some iterations, is the stuff of legends and the whole thing lends Wonder Woman an emphasis on mother/daughter relationships that’s often missing in male dominated superhero media.

Ah N’ubia, the really cool black Amazon that everyone likes to forget exists.  In fairness, N’ubia is a pretty obscure character, appearing in only a handful of actual comics and sporadically at that.  Her most popular appearance recently has been in Grant Morrison’s multiverse work as a resident of Earth-23, where she is Wonder Woman.  Still, every time she shows up she manages to be awesome and every time audiences remember she exists people get really exited about her.  It’s easy to see why too. 

N’ubia is a lot like Artemis or Grace Choi in that she’s an embodiment of a lot of the warlike elements of the Amazons that people really respond to.  A lot of that comes with the subgenre of fantasy the Amazons inhabit.  So many people are used to sword and sandal fantasy, fantasy inspired by Greco-roman myth, to reflect blood and gore and crazy fighting that characters like Wonder Woman or Hippolyta, who embody compassion, throw them off.  So, when people get a hold of bad ass warrior women like N’ubia people really gravitate towards them. 

What’s more, N’ubia’s place as a woman of color in the Wonder Woman mythos is a pretty big deal.  Wonder Woman is the standard barer of female power and equality within the ranks of comics so the fact her own collection of characters has always lacked for racial diversity is a big black mark on that claim.  Someone like N’ubia who’s every bit as cool and powerful and competent as Wonder Woman while also black is a pretty major deal. 

Okay, this is a bit of a cheat but I don’t care, it’s my list and I’m going to include who I like.  Generally I try not to use Comics Rainbow to dive into non-continuity characters or folks from parallel universes because this is a series meant to introduce people to characters and their mythos rather than confuse them about it.  However, when it comes to Amazon I’m willing to suspend that rule because she’s just so damn cool.  Amazon, a gestalt combination of Storm, of the X-Men, and Wonder Woman was created during one of the greatest events of all time: Amalgam Comics. 

I’ll probably devote more time to Amalgam Comics down the line but for now here’s what you need to know.  Amalgam Comics was a weird collection of one-shot comics that featured mashed-up DC and Marvel heroes.  Captain America combined with Superman to become Super Soldier, Batman combined with Wolverine to become Dark Claw, and Wonder Woman combined with Storm to become Amazon.  I cannot think of a better combination than Storm and Wonder Woman.  I’ve already discussed all the amazing reasons Wonder Woman is at the forefront of women in comics but Storm stands equally tall as the first word on women of color in comics.  

She’s a powerful Goddess in her own right that speaks to strength and beauty for women of color, a true titan of the medium. 

What’s more, both characters manage to transcend their own incredible powers through the depths of their compassion.   The love and connection these two women have to their friends and comrade as well as the natural world is staggering and truly defines them as unique heroes, symbols of both power and the strength to use that power with compassion. 
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