Thursday, 14 September 2017

Helena Wayne 40th Anniversary: Wonder Woman #291 Review

Title: Wonder Woman #291
Story: Book One: Judgement in Infinity
Characters: Wonder Woman (Diana Prince), Zatanna, Etta Candy
Creators: Paul Levitz (writer), Roy Thomas (writer), Gene Colan (artist)
Publication Date: 30 April 1982
Available In: Digital

Summary: A new extraterrestrial being has arrived on Earth-1's Washington DC, but he is not here to go on a tour of America's Capitol Hill. Instead, he is evaluating the Earth and all of its citizens. He wants to know if this planet (as well as its parallel counterparts) that is thriving with intelligent life and advanced civilisations is worth saving by unleashing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse throughout the multiverse.

Wonder Woman is the first to respond to the emergency and learns a very disturbing truth about her new foe: this isn't the first time the extraterrestrial being known as the Adjudicator has attacked a planet thriving with intelligent life and advanced civilisations. He has a history of destroying such planets that have failed his test of "worthiness" and planet Earth is next. Wonder Woman realises she cannot fight this powerful villain alone and recruits not only the help of the Justice League, but also that of the Earth-2 Justice Society and any other heroes in the known multiverse!

Review: This was a comic I originally reviewed and posted on St. Patrick's Day earlier this year as part of a series of reviews for Women's History Month. As some may recall, I originally centred discussion in this review on DC's awareness of sexism in comics and how this particular story sought to combat many negative stereotypes about women by subverting various gendered tropes. This story still does that, but what unfortunately halted conversation on this topic back in March was co-writer Roy Thomas' comments that same month on his highly controversial creation Iron Fist for cultural appropriation.

Though his comments on the Iron Fist controversy had nothing to do with this particular story, his response to a very legitimate criticism still demonstrated a profound lack of understanding for why thoughtful representation is important to marginalised communities, and at worst, was appallingly arrogant and condescending to the affected community who criticised this intellectual property (Asian-Americans). Given the nature of his comments, it changed the conversation for this story significantly. How do you still talk about Roy Thomas' awareness of sexism in media when he doesn't possess that awareness to start with? He more than demonstrated in that interview that he really doesn't get it, so that brought us back to Square 01.

In the past five months I thought about what would be the best way to revisit this comic. I thought about how I would talk about the things it does right and the things that could've been done better without centring conversation on Thomas' awareness (or lack thereof) of sexism, even if Paul Levitz co-plotted. I ultimately decided to revisit this story for Helena Wayne's 40th anniversary and centre my discussion on this miniseries as being one of Helena's best stories from the Bronze Age.

It is also worth noting that this miniseries was also edited by Len Wein in 1982 who passed away this past Sunday at the age of 69, leaving behind a lengthy legacy at DC Comics. While I have my fair share of reservations about some of Wein's contributions to DC as well, this Wonder Woman crossover miniseries isn't one of them and it is a work I would describe as one of his best contributions to the company. Given all that, without further foreword, I give you my repost of Part 01 of this Wonder Woman multiversal crossover with minimal edits, with Parts 02 and 03 scheduled to be posted in the next two weeks.

This story opens up with an extraterrestrial entity randomly showing up on the Earth, and upon Wonder Woman's investigation of the threat, she learns that the alien is a lot more dangerous than he appears as he has a history of destroying worlds populated by highly intelligent life. Though she arranges an emergency Justice League meeting (and her male comrades go out to help her investigate things further), it is actually Zatanna and Diana who take centre stage in this first chapter.

This is a very significant first chapter for various reasons. The first is that it presents its two leading women like living, breathing, functional human beings and not as caricatures or stereotypes of women. Here, Wonder Woman is presented as intelligent and meticulous, but she isn't presented as perfect or flawless. She's presented as having god-like levels of strength and power, but she isn't presented as invincible and can still be challenged. This allows her to demonstrate her problem solving skills, which is one of the strengths of this story. It's a strong point given the temptation many writers have to rely more on a superhero's unique abilities and powers to resolve a conflict over having them think things through and strategise. At best, this skill tends to be an afterthought in superhero storytelling, so it is always refreshing when this skill is actually presented at the forefront like it is here.

Another thing that is very significant about this first chapter is the depiction of women as team players and friends. This is admittedly further explored in the chapters that follow this one, but we do get a taste of it here with Zatanna and Diana who investigate the story's villain (identified here as Adjudicator) together. Not only do they learn how powerful this villain is, what he's capable of, and how he tests worlds to decide whether or not they are worthy of salvation, but they even come up with a plan to defeat him. Even when they do fail, they still continue to think their way out of bad situations, but they never do it alone. Diana has Zatanna's back and Zatanna has hers like real comrades.

One last thing I like about this chapter is the Adjudicator himself, namely because he's so mysterious as a villain. Where does he come from and why does he take it upon himself to judge worlds as "worthy" or "unworthy?" What does he personally get out of it and why does he wait "aeons" to return to see if these civilisations have done themselves in? Why is that important to him? These are the kinds of questions this first chapter succinctly sets up, which helps to build mystery around the character. As a reader, it keeps me interested in seeing where this will go and whether or not this will lead to an interesting revelation of sorts. I'm especially interested in seeing how this villain is going to affect the heroines' perception of reality and what this encounter will make them realise about themselves or the worlds they inhabit.

In addition to these high points in this story, there are also some noticeable flaws as well. One of the first ones that occurred earlier in the story was depicting Diana as being aware of her own internalised sexism and the normalisation of the male gender, which doesn't really make sense for her character. While it would make sense for other DC heroines like Zatanna and Black Canary to be aware of this internalised sexism due to having been born and raised in patriarchal societies, the same is not true for Diana who spent most of her life living in a matriarchy. From her point of view, the female gender is normative and sexism stands out as exclusively unique to Man's World.

It can be argued that Diana's time living on Man's World could've caused her to internalise sexism to some extent, but it still would not be second nature to her for the same reason that people being aware of sexism would not make feminism second nature to them. Becoming aware of existing problems doesn't necessarily lead to a change in a person's mind-map as real life often times shows us. More often than not, old habits die hard, and in Diana's case, she would always see the female gender as normative because that is the context with which she was raised and lived in most of her life.

Another major flaw of this story is the depiction of Indians (from India) as stereotypically poor and starving in one of India's most prosperous cities, Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). This can be attributed to ignorance and a lack of access to resources to properly research living conditions in Kolkata in a decade that didn't have Google, and American media often depicting the Indian slums as the "true face" of India (something that still happens today). Nevertheless, I still found this bit discomforting to see, especially since I'm reviewing this comic in an era where there is greater awareness of Indian living conditions thanks to globalisation, and especially greater awareness of the white saviour trope, which is what this part of the story also perpetuates.

On that note, I found it equally odd to see Diana tell Famine that the people of India needed to "get back to the business of survival" when it is literally her job as a superhero to help improve the lives of vulnerable people by holding those in positions of power accountable for their actions. In fact, that is literally the reason she decided not to return Paradise Island because she clearly saw that there was a lot of work to be done on Man's World. Diana's whole raison d'ĂȘtre as a heroine is centred on bringing truth and equality to a world that is both dishonest and cruel to the point of systemic inequality. That is what she seeks to challenge, so seeing her say "let them resume their fight for survival" is weird in every respect for her character. It would not have been quite as weird for Zatanna to say that because her raison d'ĂȘtre isn't centred on challenging patriarchy and uses her skills differently from Diana and for different reasons.

While this chapter is a bit of a mixed bag of hits and misses, I still consider this to be a very strong first chapter to a rather exciting multiverse-hopping crossover. It sets up an interesting premise for an all female superhero team-up that puts them up against a powerful villain that's out to destroy planets with advanced civilisations for reasons that remain ambiguous. We know how he sets out to destroy them, but not why, which is the mystery DC's heroines (including our girl, Helena Wayne) need resolve in the next two instalments of the crossover.

★★★★☆

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