NOTE: There will be some more graphic images/descriptions in this piece as it will be briefly covering violence towards women in comics.
So, if anyone’s been reading DC Comic’s New 52 Justice League, they may have noticed this cover. That’s right! Superman and Wonder Woman are together. Isn’t it just great? At least in this moment, earth’s most powerful man and woman finding love in the only other person on the planet who truly understands what it is to be them.
[Edit: I totally forgot to mention there is an upcoming Superman/Wonder Woman series coming out.]
I hate this pairing.
“You hate this pairing?” you say, dear Readers, “But you just wrote a post all about the good things that come from shipping! Why can’t I ship Kal and Diana if I want to?”
Well, you adorable little scamp, I don’t so much mind you shipping them or other people seeing the potential for romance between these two. My problem is mostly with how this relationship tends to be portrayed in comics for what it does to Lois Lane, Wonder Woman, and Superman.
First, there’s poor Lois. Lois Lane was in the very first comic featuring Superman, and the two characters are hard to separate in the cultural consciousness. They have been separated and Lois has been able to make an identity for her self outside of “Superman’s girlfriend” in the comics, but I think the popular consciousness will forever see the two as linked. Therefore, for Wonder Woman and Superman to get together, writers need to find some way to get Lois out of the picture. The New 52 imprint has done this by simply re-writing decades of character development to erase the relationship from existence. In JLA: Act of God Lois inexplicably breaks off her marriage to Clark when all the superheroes lose their powers, as that author mistakenly seemed to believe Lois was only in love with Superman. While I can see how he’d come to that conclusion based on some of the representations of the relationship in TV and movies, if you’re writing a comic, you should probably realize there’s a reason Lois married CLARK not Superman.
Most versions of the stories that involve Clark losing Lois, however, choose a somewhat different route. Lois seems to be every comic writer’s and video game designer’s (looking at you Injustice) convenient plot device. When writers want Superman to go to the dark side, either as a brooding Batman wannabe or all out dictator, Lois tends to end up horribly murdered. This happened in Kingdom Come by Alex Ross and Mark Waid, Injustice: Gods Among Us, and the Superman: The Animated Series episode “Brave New Metropolis.” (It should be noted that, “Brave New Metropolis” didn’t include Superman and Wonder Woman getting together. Bruce Timm’s Diana prefers her men dark and brooding…and dressed like a bat.)
Now, I’m not saying this is necessarily a herald of a badly written story. Kingdom Come is a beautiful and thoughtful mini-series, and perhaps uses the combination of horrific Lois death and Superman/Wonder Woman pairing most effectively. In the actual mini-series, Lois’s death isn’t shown in graphic detail. That scene is instead portrayed in one of the tie-in comics, the Justice Society of America‘s “Kingdom Come Superman Special.” Lois, like in the new Injustice game, is murdered in this story by Joker. The two deaths themselves are very different as Injustice involves the Joker manipulating Superman into killing is own wife by throwing her into space. In Kingdom Come, Lois’s death is perhaps not as twisted, but pretty brutal as (Excuse the graphic description, but it goes towards the point I’m making) the Joker physically killed her by crushing her skull with a paperweight.
The shock value of Lois’s death in both these stories is pretty intense. Superman needs to be pushed as far as he can be, which means Lois can’t just die. She has to die brutally in a way that will emotionally scar her husband enough to force him to abandon or distort his established principles.
There is a concept in comics known as “Women in Refrigerators.”
The term “Women in Refrigerators” was coined by writer Gail Simone as a name for the website in early 1999 during on-line discussions about comic books with friends. It refers to an incident in Green Lantern #54 (1994), written by Ron Marz, in which Kyle Rayner, the title hero, comes home to his apartment to find that his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, had been killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed in arefrigerator.
Simone and her friends then developed a list of fictional characters, superheroines who had been “[raped,] killed, maimed or depowered.”
Not only are female characters often abused physically, sexually, and mentally in comics to a more devastating level than many male characters, but their suffering and/or deaths were often used for the express purpose of furthering the story lines of male characters. One infamous instance of this was the crippling of Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, which is a beloved one-shot that features (you guessed it) the Joker shooting Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) in the spine to try to force her father, Commissioner Gordon, to go insane.
Barbara wasn’t wounded in action, or even because she was Batgirl, something Joker didn’t know when he shot her. She was brutally attacked because it would hurt her father and Batman. Now, fortunately, some great writers, Kim Yale and John Ostrander (husband and wife) decided to reinvent Barbara as a new hero, Oracle, who is able to make the world a better place while confined to a wheelchair. Now, Barbara’s been retconned back to Batgirl, which has actually caused outcry from people who loved and grew up with Oracle as well as advocates for people with disabilities. I imagine I’ll address that sometime in the future, but Babs is going to have to wait for now.
Lois may not be a superheroine by most people’s standards, but, throughout much of her existence, she has been a strong, smart character able to do heroic deeds without a cape and cowl. I wonder if writers think they’re somehow honoring Lois by making her the sacrifice paid or the victim of an inherently unjust, cruel world that she’s just too good for.
Lois dies, too fragile and good to live in a world of hatred and death, leaving the hardened warrior, Diana to take help Superman through his pain. Unlike Lois, Diana is strong enough to withstand the cruelties of the world, thereby providing Kal El with not only a superheroine shoulder to lean on, but also, in several stories, progeny, something Lois is unable to do, or doesn’t have the chance to do before her death.
Of course, women don’t need to die to lose their power. Giving her a boyfriend can also serve that purpose.
So, let’s talk about Wonder Woman AKA Princess Diana of the Amazons. I’ve talked about her several times before, but I’ll sum her up again.
Wonder Woman is the most famous superheroine. She stars in over 600 issues of her own comic series dating back to the 1940s, and is part of DC Comic’s “Trinity” with Batman and Superman. As the champion of the Amazons who stands toe-to-toe with the Greek gods themselves, Princess Diana is a force to be reckoned with. However, she’s not just a physical powerhouse; she’s also a paragon of wisdom and compassion, the Spirit of Truth.
Unfortunately for Diana, people have an odd obsession over potential power couples. Now, I’m not saying there’s something inherently wrong with these couples, and there are many interesting angles that an author could take with Superman and Wonder Woman getting together.
The problem is that, too often, the angle involves Wonder Woman needing Superman to teach her a lesson, that she’s leading him down the wrong path, or that she is follows him as his faithful lieutenant. Kingdom Come perhaps manages this character demotion the best. In that storyline, Wonder Woman has been banished because the Amazons have decided she failed at her mission to improve man’s world. The pain of that action has pushed Wonder Woman down a darker path of more extreme measures. For a while, she pulls Superman with her, but he is able to maintain at least some perspective.
The reason I think this mostly works is that I can see Diana being pushed beyond her usual personality by the abandonment of her people. (I do think Hippolyta, her mother, seems a little out of character in this scenario, but her characterizations are all over the place in comics) Superman is still stronger physically, mentally, and morally than Wonder Woman.
Still, at least she’s not horrifically out of character. I go to Frank Miller for that.
One brief example of this relationship dynamic is from the hilariously bad All Star Batman and Robin comic which takes time from Batman being a kidnapping, cop-killing maniac to introduce other characters from the Justice League.
Apparently Frank Miller’s Wonder woman is an evil clone or an incredibly unfunny parody. Unlike the Kingdom Come Wonder Woman who has been deeply scarred by what her people dub to be her complete failure to complete her mission, this Wonder Woman just hates men because…that’s what the Amazons do, right? For whatever reason she’s angry, she’s clearly deeply flawed and in need of a serious attitude adjustment. How does the comic accomplish this?
This seems to be the theme the New 52 super couple is flirting with (Ha! Get it?) based on these panels from the most recent Justice League.
I’d like to note that, unlike Batman and Superman, Wonder Woman doesn’t have an ultimatum against killing. However, she doesn’t do this lightly. Or at least she didn’t. For some reasons, writers think the best way to update Wonder Woman or make her relevant to modern audiences is to make her angry and violent. Who wants to read about some ambassador who wrote a book on philosophy? Make her impulsive, violent, and angry!
There’s also this from Justice League 20 when Batman’s explaining his concerns over Superman and Wonder Woman’s relationship.
The thing is, when Wonder Woman and Superman get together, Wonder Woman is almost always demoted to a supporting character or is shown to be the more flawed hero in comparison to Superman (and Batman who makes an awkward third wheel in some of these romances). To me, the trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman should represent three equally important elements in the search for truth, justice, and a better world (and the American way I guess). Wonder Woman shouldn’t just be the tagalong.
So, you might have noticed I’ve been purposefully avoiding referring to “Clark and Diana,” choosing instead to talk about “Kal and Diana” or “Superman and Wonder Woman.” I did, however, talk about “Clark and Lois” (or Clois). This is my final issue with depictions of the Superman/Wonder Woman romance.
While Batman usually calls Superman by his human name, Clark, Diana usually uses his Kryptonian name, Kal. I must admit, I don’t know if there’s a plot point explaining this, but I do think it’s an important issue in the Superman/Wonder Woman relationship.
Going back to Lois’s death in the Kingdom Come storyline, these are Lois’s last words to her husband:
Unfortunately, Wonder Woman’s primary relationship hasn’t been with Clark Kent. It’s with Superman or Kal. It’s with the alien god and savior of humanity.
Before the New 52, they were good friends, but their relationship lacked that sense of decent normalcy that Clark Kent craves. And it’s not that Diana couldn’t live in the real world with him; she spent some time working at a mexican fast food place when she was classified dead by the Justice League and needed another source of income, but Clark was the true heart of Superman, and Clark loved Lois.
Of course, the New 52 seems to be changing this, or, at least Justice League is. This is the conversation that lead to Superman and Wonder Woman joining forces, so to speak.
The Kents are dead and Clark just keeps the name out of convenience. This new comic, like the movie Man of Steel emphasizes Clark’s alienation (ha, another pun!) from humanity in a way that frankly grates on me. In fact, that’s how the comic gets Superman and Wonder Woman together. They connect over how alone they are as these powerful gods among us mere mortals.
There are other aliens in the DC universe who are detached and distant from society. What makes Superman special is his deep connection to the human race. He’s that kid from Kansas more than he is the alien from Krypton. It’s his humanity that makes his demonstrations of power meaningful. The morbid responsibility and martyr complex are Batman’s gig.
Clark Kent loves humanity, and there’s no better demonstration of that love than his love for Lois Lane.