I received Wonder Woman: The True Amazon by Jill Thompson for Christmas, but with a TBR list longer than Batman v. Superman, I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until this week, when, filled with Wonder Woman-y vigor, I shifted it to the top of my pile.
Wonder Woman: The True Amazon offers an alternative origin story for our favorite princess from Themyscira, but not one that is particularly inspiring or heroic. Ultimately, the real Greek tragedy here is twofold: one, my mom spent real dollars buying this off my Amazon wishlist, and two, I spent forty-five minutes reading it that I can never get back.
Wonder Woman: The True Amazon begins with a history of the Amazons more based on Greek myth than comics canon. The Amazons flee Man’s world after Herakles, aided by Zeus, who lusts after Hippolyta, nearly defeats them. Thankfully, Hera intervenes to rescue Hippolyta from her adulterous rapist of a husband. With Hera and Poseidon’s help, the Amazons sail to Themyscira, where they are free from the problems of Man’s world but where everyone, to a woman, is sad that they can’t have a child. (Insert eyeroll.) Hippolyta is the most pathetic of these, wandering the beach nightly to shape a baby from sand and sing to it. When the gods hear her song, they’re moved to tears, and these divine tears fall on the sand-baby and bring it to life.
This baby grows into a Diana who seems an entirely different character from any other portrayal I’ve ever seen. In this imagining, growing up as the doted-upon daughter of an entire island, Diana is brilliant and talented but also selfish and terribly spoiled. She terrorizes her tutors and mentors and thrives on the glory she receives from defeating the monsters who live in Themyscira’s dark caverns and secret places. There is only one Amazon who does not seem ready to forgive her faults: the stable master Alethea. Desperate to win the attention (and, it’s vaguely implied, the affections) of Alethea, Diana begins to work in the stables and attempts to understand what Alethea values in a person: traits like humility, altruism, and kindness. However, when the Amazons’ yearly contests of skill and strength come around, Diana gets it into her head that winning the day in this competition will prove that she is a true Amazon, and Alethea will have to like her.
The competitors all perform masked, so Diana has no idea which of her fellow Amazons have become her challengers. However, as the day progresses, Diana wins again and again as each skill is tested. The last event is a chariot race, and when her chariot falls behind, Diana uses her serpent horn to summon a bunch of monsters to distract the other racers so she can win. She runs to claim the winner’s crown, and only then turns to help her sisters defeat the creatures she called forth. In the ensuing battle, one Amazon is horribly scarred, one is paralyzed, one suffers brain damage, and one is killed. The last is, of course, revealed to be Alethea. Horrified, Diana is finally forced to see the fruits of her selfishness, and she mourns deeply. Hippolyta is incredibly disappointed in her daughter, whose self-centeredness has caused so many of her subjects to feel loss. She sends Diana forth in exile as punishment, wearing Alethea’s armor and the winner’s crown she had so coveted, to go out into the world and atone for her wrongdoing by learning to be a true Amazon like Alethea was.
So, right away, you can see why I’m troubled by this story, right? While it removes the Steve Trevor-shaped motivation from Diana’s voyage into the outside world, it downright assassinates her character while doing so. Instead of a young woman who typifies a Christ figure, whose parent knows the world needs her goodness but certainly does not deserve it, we’re given a brat whose hubris leads to the death of an innocent and the maiming of several others, and who’s sent into Man’s world as punishment rather than salvation. Instead of being gifted with tools and armor that underscore the sacredness of her mission, these items instead are meant as shackles to torment her. There’s nothing empowering about this story; far from the thrilling power of movie Diana ascending the ladder from the trenches to cross No-Man’s-Land and liberate an enslaved village, the only fights this comic’s Diana gets into are either to clean up her own messes or make herself look good.
Nor are the rest of the women save Alethea particularly noteworthy. Hippolyta’s main character traits are her desperation to have a child and her strange obliviousness toward said child’s bad side. The Amazon who was scarred in the battle becomes bitterly hateful toward Diana because she’s lost her beauty, but her vanity seems out of place on an island that’s populated entirely by warrior women, who ought to understand that looks are not the measure of a person and who might even value scars as proof that one survived a battle. At the end of the comic, this woman and the rest who survived Diana’s catastrophic monster summoning viciously demand that Diana be punished in equal measure for her crimes until the island’s oracle intervenes. And even then, the oracle doesn’t prophesy that Diana will atone and do great things; her only counsel is a “hasn’t there been enough blood?” plea, with which Hippolyta agrees, hence the exile.
Even from a representation front, this comic is a pretty abject failure While the Wonder Woman movie at least paid lip service to the idea of a racially diverse Themyscira, I can count the number of non-white people in backgrounds on one hand, and the only one who had a speaking line was a governess. Diana’s obsession with winning Alethea’s favor seems vaguely queer-coded, but is only vaguely framed in that way after Alethea has died, when a grieving Diana kisses the dead Alethea on the lips as her body lay in state. It’s hinted that Alethea eventually looks forward to seeing Diana in the stables, but only after Diana has really kind of bullied her way into Alethea’s space. Diana’s behavior in a male character would be cause for immediate alarm, as she’s pushy, prideful, doesn’t really try to understand the woman she’s pursuing, and slowly wears her down by making herself unavoidable. This kind of harassment isn’t more forgivable just because Diana is female. And even if this Diana is genuinely queer, is this the kind of representation we need?
All in all, I’m really surprised that DC even allowed this story to be published. What is the value in putting out a book that totally undermines one of your flagship characters, turning her into the kind of person who calls a female-coded monster an “evil bitch” and has to be exiled from her homeland to learn to be good? This isn’t a Thor origin story, and maybe it’s societal conditioning to forgive this behavior more in men than women, but hubris and all, I enjoyed the first Thor movie a great deal more than this book. Thankfully, a new issue of Wonder Woman Rebirth will be out next week, so I can rinse this badness out of my brain and replace it with the far superior version.
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