Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Past and Present: Pre-Crisis Wayne vs New 52 Wayne: Diverse Representation

The Bronze Age was one of the more progressive eras of DC Comics. In addition to pushing for more sophisticated storytelling and racial diversity, DC was also advocating for more female visibility at that time. The creation of Helena Wayne pre-Crisis fell into the latter initiative.

As stated in the inception post, the concept of Helena Wayne as the Huntress began with the idea of adding a Bat woman to the Justice Society, and alleviating Power Girl of her 'only woman on the team' status. To alleviate the character of Helena from tokenism, the character's co-creator, Paul Levitz, promised in 1977 that there were plans to develop the character beyond just being the dark knight daughter detective on the Justice Society. There were plans to actually develop her character, her supporting cast, and narrative. He actually kept his word!

Prior to Huntress and Power Girl's creation in the late 1970s, female characters rarely existed as heroes, let alone as equal partners to their male counterparts. Aside from the fact that there were more male superheroes than there were female, women that appeared in superhero comics were often pigeonholed into the roles of the love interest, the femme fatale, the damsel in distress, or the incompetent wannabe superhero who always ended up getting rescued by the male hero. There were exceptions like Wonder Woman, Black Canary, Zatanna, and Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, but that was the thing: they were the exceptions, not the norm. Not only did the creations of Huntress and Power Girl help to normalise women as competent superheroes by increasing their visibility, but they also challenged many stereotypes that existed about women in the genre. In the same way that Power Girl was characterised as openly feminist and by choosing an identity that was independent of that of her cousin's, the Huntress soon followed with a similar premise.

In her original incarnation, Helena Wayne was given many of the same character developments that were often afforded to male characters. Like the modern male superhero, she was given a tragic origin story that set her off on her path to becoming a 'costumed type,' but she was also established as wealthy and successful. In addition to inheriting the Wayne family fortune, Helena also earned her own living. She was a well educated woman, having attended the best schools in the country, including Harvard University where she graduated valedictorian and acquired her law degree. She established her own law firm with Cranston, Grayson, and Wayne, and had a reputation for being one of Gotham's best attorneys.

When the pre-Crisis Helena wasn't jailing criminals in court, she was capturing them at night as the Huntress. As the Huntress, she was very stealthy, meticulous, and never treated any small detail as insignificant. She was proficient in examining evidence and was skilled at forensics, having learned to use a chemistry set as a young child. She also rarely resorted to employing deadly force, often preferring to incapacitate enemies with tranquilliser darts. She did not believe in killing her enemies except under extreme circumstances where the life of an innocent was at stake. Even then, she was often reluctant to fully go forward with it.

Despite the pre-Crisis Helena coming off as completely infallible, she was not actually characterised as such. As I mentioned in the previous posts, she did make mistakes starting out as a superhero, and she did reach a point later in her crimefighting career where she stopped being sympathetic towards criminals, and started employing more harmful ways of getting them to talk. She was also at times impulsive and a little bit arrogant. She wasn't always thoughtful about the things that she said, and there were times where she failed to examine her privilege, most notably where age was concerned. Despite being really good at her day job, Helena was also notoriously late to work most of the time, and whenever she was captured by foes, she didn't show up to work at all. That especially reflected badly on her when she failed to show up in court for a really important case she was working on because she had been captured by an enemy.

On the front of female representation alone, the pre-Crisis Helena Wayne was a well-developed, life-like character. She had her strengths and she had her weaknesses, and she was written with care and respect. As such, she accomplished DC's goal of strong diverse representation. But aside from giving women better representation, did she also achieve diversity in any other areas? On the front of racial diversity, Helena Wayne was very much anglo-saxon, with no other ethnicities established as part of her genetic makeup. She also fully able-bodied and considered one of the most athletic superheroes on Earth-2.

On the front of sexuality, she was largely characterised as heterosexual, and was rarely placed in situations that hinted otherwise, most likely due to the existence of the Comics Code of Authority at the time. At best, whenever she was written as taking Kara out to lunch, she was always well dressed, and even paid the cheque for both of them. There was at least one instance of lesbian subtext between them in All-Star Comics #74, where Helena took Kara to one of her favourite expensive restaurants, complete with flowers on the table, lots of love gazing on Helena's part, and a very shy Kara Zor-L in her presence. There was even one panel that showed their JSA alert buzzers buzzing in their purses, and a clear shot of their hips next to each other. But outside of optics of queerness, a romantic attraction between Kara and Helena was never acknowledged pre-Crisis, and they were--for the most part--written as 'gals being pals.' While Helena gets +2 for strong female representation, she doesn't get any additional points for other forms of diverse representation.

Without the Comics Code of Authority in modern times to regulate comic book content, the New 52 Helena Wayne could've had tremendous advantage over her pre-Crisis counterpart on the front of diverse representation. In addition to all of the progressive developments she already had pre-Crisis, a lot more could've been done with her character in the current continuity.

One way that the New 52 Helena differed from her previous incarnation is that she was a lot closer to her mother and considered the most influential person in her life than her father. This is quite significant because in most narratives, more importance is placed on a child's relationship with their father who is often positioned as the most inspiring figure. Mothers are often relegated to the background and treated with peripheral importance. The fact that Helena's relationship to her mother challenged this trend in storytelling is in itself groundbreaking, and worthy of a +1 on the front of female representation.

Additionally, since Selina Kyle was established as half Latina in the pre-Flashpoint continuity, had that development been acknowledged in the New 52 continuity (especially on Earth-2), the current version of Helena Wayne could've achieved racial diversity by being a quarter Latina on her mother's side. One thing that was notable with the New 52 Helena since her debut in the current continuity, is that she was often drawn by her earlier artists (most notably Marcus To and George Pérez) as having a more Latina appearance. In George Pérez' case, the Latina look was deliberate because he openly modelled the New 52 Helena after his friend Margie Vizcarra Cox, a Latina woman. In Marcus To's case, it was because he was originally slated to draw Helena Bertinelli before plans were changed to reintroduce Helena Wayne as the mainstream Huntress instead.

Whether or not the New 52 Helena is meant to be Latina given her mother's past developments in the previous continuity, and Helena's more ethnic appearance in the current one, is unknown. Huntress co-creator and writer Paul Levitz never actually took the time to further flesh out Helena's origins for the current continuity, and tended to focus more on the 'Huntress' side of the character far more than the 'Helena Wayne' side. As such, the New 52 Helena only gets +1 for achieving the optics of a more diverse ethnicity, but doesn't get an additional point for seeing that development further explored.

On the subject of the 'Helena Wayne' side of the character, the New 52 version of Helena falls regrettably short on this front compared to her pre-Crisis incarnation. Whereas the pre-Crisis Helena was a more established individual who led a more complete life, the New 52 Helena seems to have no life outside of being a superhero. At best, we know that the New 52 Helena was thoroughly educated growing up, but had limited access to educational institutions outside of her own home, and had limited interaction with other children her age. She additionally never attended a university nor bothered to pursue a higher level education, let alone a career, which has been a major regression for the character.

At best, the New 52 Helena rebuilt Gotham City after Earth-2 was destroyed by Darkseid in the Earth-2: Society series, and is even the CEO of the newly established Wayne Corp. But! She's hardly being written as the most important figure in both her own city and her own legacy as a Wayne. Those developments have instead been going to usurper 'Batmen' in the current continuity, which is not a progressive change on the front of female representation. In fact, the existence of usurper Batmen at all in the current Earth-2 narrative BETRAYS everything that the pre-Crisis Helena Wayne accomplished on this front. Given the very real problems with misogyny and sexism inside the editorial office behind the New 52 Earth-2 (and the creative decisions those problems influenced), the current version of Helena Wayne unfortunately meets her predecessor only halfway on strong female representation, and fails to exceed the original in any meaningful way. As such, the New 52 Helena only gets +1 for this section.

The last area where the New 52 Helena appears to be more progressive than the pre-Crisis original is on the front of sexuality. Whereas the pre-Crisis Helena was written as explicitly attracted to men with rare lesbian subtext, the New 52 Helena is more ambiguous on this front. From what has been established of the character in the last four years, she's okay with exploiting her sexuality to both men and women as a way of advancing a case she's working on. In the first issue of the Huntress: Crossbow at the Crossroads miniseries, she presented herself as gay to an Italian bellboy in order to get in contact with a female sex slave as part of her plan to bust a sex trafficking ring. In that same miniseries, she flirted with a male henchman as a way of getting information, and even briefly flirted with her two reporters Alessandro and Christina.

Throughout the Worlds' Finest series (and to a lesser extent, the main Earth-2 series), her interactions with her best friend, Kara Zor-L, were often presented with lesbian subtext. This often ranged from the way Kara held Helena when they flew together, to the way Helena showed Kara affection. There were times when Helena even outright told Kara that she was the most important person in her life, and that she wanted nothing else in life except for her. She even went as far as to say Kara was the only family she needed when she met her grandfather for the first time upon returning to Earth-2. The way physical intimacy was depicted between Kara and Helena in the New 52 also exceeds what you would expect from two women who are best friends, with Helena often being the first to hold Kara's hand or even cuddle with her. As far as men were concerned, Helena has (at best) admitted that she didn't date guys growing up because she didn't trust her father would give her any privacy if she did. She also never actively pursued a relationship with a man as an adult, though she did at times did flirt with them. Whether or not Helena never pursuing a relationship with a man is consequential of her 'only wanting Kara' status is unknown.

Given these numerous developments to the character these past four years, there is enough evidence to suggest the New 52 Helena Wayne is bisexual. But without developing her sexuality in a way at explicitly acknowledges this, she has only achieved the optics of bisexuality. Throw in the fact that writer Paul Levitz often denied (either in narrative or through interview) that both Kara and Helena were anything but best friends also puts the character in the position of queerbaiting. While definitely not too late for a future writer to rectify that latter issue, the fact is the New 52 Helena's sexuality is currently in 'the middle of the road' on the front of queer representation. There's only just enough character development for readers to decide if she's bisexual, but without any explicit confirmation on DC's part on the character's sexuality, Helena as a queer character only goes halfway. As such, she only gets +1 for this section.

At face value, the New 52 Helena Wayne appears to be a more diverse character than her pre-Crisis predecessor, but fails to fully realise her potential on this front. At best, the New 52 Helena acquired the optics of diverse ethnic representation by making her look more Latina in appearance, and she also achieved the optics of bisexual representation by being characterised in ways that present her as someone who flirts with both men and women, most notably Kara. However, without any explicit acknowledgement of the character's ethnic background, and repeat reminders from the writer that 'no, no, Kara and Helena are best friends,' the optics alone don't lead to full representation. Additionally, while the New 52 Helena does have some progressive developments that were not present with the pre-Crisis original, she still failed to fully realise her potential on the front of stronger female representation as a consequence of institutional sexism, most notably at the editorial level.

Could the problems described above possibly change in the future? Absolutely. After all, the New 52 continuity is somewhat still in its infancy. Assuming that another Crisis on Infinite Earths style reboot is not in the near future with the goal of regressing characters (yet again), it can still be achieved. But until then, the New 52 Helena only gets +2 for meeting good female representation halfway, +1 for meeting queer representation halfway, and +1 for meeting ethnic representation halfway, leading to a total of +4 for this section. This actually brings her up to speed with her pre-Crisis predecessor, who was previously leading this post by a large margin.

Final Score

Pre-Crisis Helena Wayne: 9+2 = 11
New 52 Helena Wayne: 6+4 = 10

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