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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Wonder Woman

Last month I looked at LGBTQ characters in the early comics years. There were very few and most were negative. Starting in the 90s, that all changes.

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Publishing in DC’s non-Code Vertigo imprint, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman introduced comics’ first overt and non-fantastical trans characters in 1991, another “Wanda,” who Shawn McManus renders with awkwardly masculine features. Within Code-approved comics, scripter William Messner-Loebs revealed the first openly gay character, the Pied Piper, in Flash #53 the same year. Flash asks whether the Joker is gay and the former 60s supervillain answers: “He’s a sadist and a psychopath … I doubt he has real feelings of any kind… He’s not gay, Wally. In fact, I can’t think of any super-villain who is … Well, except me of course” (Messner-Lobes & LaRocque 1991).

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Marvel now allowed Scott Lobdell to script Northstar’s declaration in the 1992 Alpha Flight #106: “For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their business – I am gay!” (Lobdell & Pacella 1992). Mark Pacella’s cover features a close-up of Northstar’s shouting, eye-clenched face and the header: “NORTHSTAR AS YOU’VE NEVER KNOWN HIM BEFORE!” Pacella also renders him in the hyper-muscular style that was standard for male superheroes in the 90s. His costume, the same worn by all Alpha Flight members, is non-symmetrical and so metaphorically a rejection of simple binaries.

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Four months later at DC, Legion of Super-Heroes writers Mary and Tom Bierbaum revealed that Element Lad’s long-time girlfriend had been born in a male body and was transforming it with the fantastical drug Profin. The two continue their previously heterosexual relationship now as male lovers: “it doesn’t matter,” says Element Lad, “You just have to understand – this is not what’s changed between us […] anything we shared physically … it was in spite of the Profin, not because of it!” (Bierbaum et al 1992). The relationship echoes Tristan and Isolde of a decade earlier, only now with a gender-fluid character accepting a male sex identity through the resolution of a same-sex male romance. Male homosexuality had entered superhero masculinity.

In 1993, the year President Clinton signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into military policy, Milestone Comics’ Blood Syndicate #1 introduced scripters Dwayne McDuffie and Ivan Velez, Jr’s Masquerade, a black trans man who assumes a male form as a shapeshifter. The same year, DC’s Vertigo published two limited series featuring gay superheroes as title characters: Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Sebastian O and Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s The Enigma, which included an image of a gay kiss and a full-page image of the naked lovers entwined in bed after sex: “two men redrawing the maps of themselves.”

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In 1994, David Peter scripted the Pantheon superhero Hector as gay in Incredible Hulk. In 1997, Supergirl featured the shapeshifter Comet who alternates between a female human identity and a male centaur. In 1998 James Robinson’s Starman #48 featured the title character kissing his boyfriend. Alan Moore included a trans woman incarnation of the female superhero Promethea in 1999. In 2001, Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Force #118 included a kiss between two male superheroes, and the following year in The Authority #29 Mark Millar and Gary Erskine married superheroes Apollo and Midnighter, whom creator Warren Ellis had established as openly gay in 1999. Writer Judd Winick introduced the openly gay character Terry Berg to Green Lantern in 2001, and the 2002 #154-5 “Hate Crime” plot portrays his brutal beating and Green Lantern’s near deadly retaliation—reversing the 1980 and 1988 portrayals of gay men as violent predators.

21st-century comics continued the expansion of LGBTQ representation, including John Constantine in Hellblazer (2002), Moondragon and Marlo Chandler-Jones in Captain Marvel (2002), Renee Montoya in Gotham Central (2003), Xavin and Karolina in Runaways (2003), Miss Masque in Terra Obscura (2003), the rebooted Rawhide Kid in Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather (2003), Hulking and Wiccan in Young Avengers (2005), Freedom Ring in Marvel Team-Up (2006), Erik Storn as Amazing Woman in Infinity Inc. (2007), Daken in Wolverine Origins (2007), Loki in Thor (2008), Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer in Batwoman (2011), Bunker in Teen Titans (2011), Miss America Chavez in Vengeance (2011), Northstar’s marriage in Astonishing X-Men (2012), Alan Scott Green Lantern in Earth Two (2012), Hercules and Wolverine in X-Treme X-Men (2013), and Alysia Yeoh in Batgirl (2013). 2015 alone includes Iceman in Uncanny X-Men, Sera and Angela in Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, Catman in Secret Six, Alpha Centurian in Doomed, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy in Harley Quinn, Batwoman in DC Comics Bombshells, and Catwoman. Probably the most prominent challenge to the superhero’s traditional gender binaries is Deadpool, who in the opening pages of the 2016 Spider-Man/Deadpool #1 “Isn’t it Bromantic?” Joe Kelly and Ed McGuiness depict in an explicitly sexual conversation with Spider-Man as the two are tied together and about to be killed by a demon horde as they hang upside down.

DEADPOOL: I have to tell you one last thing that is, in my humble opinion, the single most important thing you need to know in the whole universe right at this second … If you don’t stop squirming, I am totally going to “unsheathe my katana” all up against your “spider eggs.” And by “katana” I mean –

SPIDER-MAN: What is wrong with you?

DEADPOOL: What?! I’m a red-blooded Canadian male! It’s friction and junk-biology and spandex grinding on leather and just please stop wiggling your webbing –

SPIDER-MAN: Would you just shut up so I can think!

DEADPOOL: Don’t yell at me … that’s totally one of my turn-ons. (2016: 1-3).

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The 2015 film Deadpool also alluded to the character’s pansexuality—a stark contrast to the contractual agreement between Sony and Marvel requiring that Peter Parker be “Caucasian and heterosexual” (Biddle). Finally, new Wonder Woman writer Greg Rucka stated in an interview that Wonder Woman’s home island “is a queer culture” and that Wonder Woman “has been in love and had relationships with other women,” facts he hopes to “show” rather than “tell” in future episodes (Santori-Griffith 2016).

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Visually and narratively, however, LGBTQ superheroes are often little different from heterosexual, cisgender superheroes. “Though demarcated by an explicit declaration of their same-sex object choice,” writes Panuska, “it is often difficult to otherwise cordon … ‘gay’ superheroes from their heterosexual counterparts” because they still conform “to the traditions of a nearly 80-year-old genre” and so do not “stray from traditional associations” (2013: 25). While female and LGBTQ superheroes have significantly challenged the traditional superhero formula, Michael A. Chaney in the Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender still concludes that the genre affirms “the fantasy of a masculine universe” in which “the objectifying conventions of superhero illustration disrupt the very forays into progressive gender politics (cyborg sexuality, transgender, nongender, etc.) that superhero stories increasingly undertake” (2007).

John G. Cawalti, writing in 1976 while black superheroes embodied racist stereotypes and LGBTQ superheroes were non-existent, analyzed the relationship between formula literature, such as superhero comics, and the culture that produces it, arguing that such “stories affirm existing interests and attitudes by presenting an imaginary world that is aligned with these interests and attitudes” and so “help to maintain a culture’s ongoing consensus” by “confirming some strongly held conventional view” (1976: 35). The comic book superhero—white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, and non-disabled—has served this function since its conception. But, as Cawalti also argues, popular fiction formulas also “assist in the process of assimilating changes in values to traditional imaginative constructs” and so “ease the transition between old and new ways of expressing things and thus contribute to cultural continuity” (36). The comic book superhero, a continuous cultural construct since 1938, demonstrates this capacity by evolving in response to larger social attitudes, reflecting progressive shifts within conservative norms. The history of black and LGBTQ superheroes demonstrates that superhero comics are rarely agents of cultural change, but that once a social attitude has shifted, comics quickly follow and so reinforce the new status quo.

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Gal Gadot

I’m tired of reading excuses from Warner Bros. and DC about how hard it is to adapt Wonder Woman to screen. Now that Gal Gadot has been cast to play the character in the 2015 Batman vs. Superman movie, surely her own feature is in the works? It’s not a hard movie to make. Here’s how you do it.

The first obstacle is generic. Most superhero movies are two stories: the origin and a monster-of-the-week. The hero completes his identity arc with the arrival of a new menace in act two, and so defeating the menace in act three completes that act two plot while ignoring act one. What, for example, does a lizard-man menacing New York have to do with a radioactive spider bite? Batman Begins solves the problem by linking the defeat of the act three menace to the act one origin: Liam Neeson trains and then battles Christian Bale.

This challenge is bigger for Wonder Woman because the origin and the menace are already linked. Nazi Germany is her reason to be, but punching out Adolf in his act three bunker is a lousy ending. Her American flag of a costume deepens the World War II link, making an origin update clumsy. And yet you need her in our current time period by the end of the film or no Justice League tie-in. Captain America presented the same problem, so Marvel threw in a suspended animation twist in the framing scenes. They also replaced Adolf with the Red Skull and inserted him into the origin story as a fellow super soldier, solving the monster-of-the-week problem too.

Wonder Woman needs to land in the 21st century as well, but better to make that leap a plot point rather than an epilogue. That means the origin-triggering menace needs to time travel too. That would be hard except that Wonder Woman’s Amazonian home provides the ready-made solution. Paradise Island is hidden in the Bermuda Triangle, a location legendary for such unexplained phenomenon as disappearances and time anomalies.

I recommend a plane carrying a German A-bomb.

Begin with Wonder Woman’s future love interest, Captain Steve Trevor, stowed inside one of two Nazi bombers on their way to incinerate New York. Steve overpowers the crew, seizes control of the plane, and exchanges fire with the other bomber, sending both tailspinning into the mysterious storm clouds of the Bermuda Triangle. When he comes to, he’s on Paradise Island—where he spends the rest of act one until he and Wonder Woman fly off in her magic plane (it starts out a chariot and winged horses before taking the form of the downed bomber). Meanwhile, modern day scuba divers discover the remains of the second bomber and the still functional A-bomb inside. As a result, when Wonder Woman and Steve emerge from the protective clouds surrounding Paradise Island, they’re not in 1944 anymore. The Triangle (or possibly unseen Hera?) has flung them forward in time to continue Steve’s mission—because the terrorists of your choice (I’m picturing an American-grown Aryan militia) now has its hands on that A-bomb.

But back to the problematic Wonder Woman costume. Why exactly is an Amazonian princess of Greek antiquity dolled up in the American flag? That’s easy. Back in scene one, after a pan of the menacing A-bomb inside the first plane, a German soldier pauses to look down at something he’s stepped on: an American girlie magazine open to a centerfold. As he picks it up and rotates the page, Trevor clocks him over the head from behind, step one in his seizing the plane. It’s a quick gag that will appear to stand-alone—until the Amazonian Queen produces the magazine after agreeing to aid him. They have studied it in order to tailor an outfit that will allow Wonder Woman to blend. In she steps wearing the pin-up girl’s bustier, micro-skirt, and stiletto boots—only in the colors of the flag Steve said represented his cherished homeland. (His subsequent protests go unheeded.)

I’m skipping over much of the fun of act one (Steve among those wacky Amazons), as well as act two (Wonder Woman and Steve among those wacky 21st century Americans), to focus on a bigger problem. Wonder Woman is aloof and off-putting. No other superhero is quite so alien. Not only is she an immortal demigoddess princess, but her mother sculpted her out of magic clay. Even Superman, an actual alien, is a homegrown farm boy at heart. Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, they all have flavors of relatable humanness. Thor is the closest equivalent, but he’s male. A majority of the superhero ticket-buying demographic already think women are alien. Wonder Woman is alien squared.

So embrace that weirdness. Make it her character arc. She starts out a bit like Data on Stark Trek—powerful, brilliant, yet oddly clueless too. She’d never seen a man before, and now that she has, she’s not particularly impressed. But she’s curious and comically off-putting in her attempts to interact—all obstacles to overcome in the inevitable marriage plot of act two. Once thrown into the mutually alien territory of 21st century America, she and Steve only have each other. By the time they’ve thwarted the A-bombing Aryans in act three, they’ll have earned their falling action kiss, possibly more.

The story is her growing humanity. Maybe some of that aloofness was an act. She’s seen men before. And her mother didn’t really mold her from magic clay—her mother escaped pregnant from the war lord who enslaved her. As far as that island of theirs, it’s not Paradise. It’s just the one rock on the planet where no woman has ever been raped. Of course she was aloof. And that makes her closure of her own marriage plot all the more pleasurable.

The magic lasso has potential too. If Wonder Woman ties Steve up to test the truth of his plea for aid in act one, reverse the situation in act three (a trick James Cameron pulled in both True Lies and The Abyss). But please no bondage references. She strings the lasso around herself to prove a point, to answer a question Steve would never have asked on his own. (Does she love him? She says no. But, he wonders afterwards, does the lasso even work on her?)

There’s tons more, but those are the basics. Plus one warning: Do NOT begin with a voiced-over montage of Amazonian history. It’s boring and distracts from the real story. Anything important we have to pick up with Steve on the island.

Diane Nelson, president of DC Comics, said back in July that Wonder Woman “has been, since I started, one of the top three priorities for DC and for Warner Bros. We are still trying right now, but she’s tricky.” Greg Silverman, Warner Bros.’ president of creative development and worldwide production, was even more vague in October, boldly declaring that “We have been doing a lot of thinking for years” and “everything that has been speculated are things that we’ve thought about.”

With Gadot officially cast, let’s hope they can move past all the tricky speculations and make an actual movie now.

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I fully acknowledge that The Avengers might suck. Anyone who’s seen Joss Whedon’s two half-seasons of Dollhouse understands that. (Though if you also saw the original pilot, which Fox never aired, you also understand how a network can thwart even the best of visions.)

I’m pretty sure when Alex Pappademas wrote last year in The New York Times Magazine that the superhero industry should be handed over to film auteurs, he didn’t have Joss Whedon in mind. Unless Pappadmas had also watched seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, four seasons of the network-jumping spin-off Angel, and, my favorite, the brilliant half-season of Firefly followed by its equally brilliant if franchise-ending feature film, Serenity. (Again, I hold Fox responsible for grounding Whedon’s original Firefly pilot, not aired until after the show was cancelled.)

I’ve never read Whedon’s Wonder Woman screenplay (as far as I know, no one’s ever leaked it to the internet), but when both he and the project got the axe, I figured my favorite TV writer-director was down for the count. When I heard Marvel was handing him The Avengers, I cringe-laughed. As Whedon put it, his and Silver Pictures’ Wonder Woman visions were “non-sympatico.” That literally goes double for Fox. So it was simply a question of how long he would last before Marvel pulled his plug.

Of course I braced the same way when Marvel cast my favorite actor, rehab-rebounder Robert Downey, Jr., in Iron Man. The guy had compelled me to watch an entire season of Ally BcBeal, only to have him flame-out before the finale. This was also before the Sherlock Holmes franchise reboot, so people forget just how toxic Downey was even five years ago. Marvel actually made him AUDITION for the part.

So Whedon isn’t the first Fox discard Marvel has gambled on. Certainly Kenneth Branagh looked like the safer and more eye-catching choice for last year’s Thor. Sadly, it seems the Shakespearean auteur did most of his directing from the bed in his trailer. The best thing about Thor is the review it trigged from A. O. Scott. The poor guy was thrown into existential crisis by the film’s intentional mediocrity.

Which is also the likeliest outcome for The Avengers. Corporations are not auteurs. Either they broke Whedon, or Whedon broke them. Or, the least likely outcome, the two found a way to combine vision and finance to craft something that’s both intelligent and money-making. (Hey, I can dream.)

But even if The Avengers does suck, I’m still giving Marvel Entertainment some credit. Film series number in the hundreds, if not thousands, and spin-offs, while rarer, are nothing new. But no company’s produced an interlaced web of parallel films before. The Avengers is both the first in a series (The Avengers 2 is already slated for a 2014 release) and the sequel to not one but four simultaneous franchises: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk.

You can even count Hulk twice if you include the Ang Lee film, which nobody is. (And allow me a moment now to lament the firing of Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. I’m not sure if Whedon or Marvel is primarily responsible, but Norton is another of my favorite actors. Though largely because his kid sister was a student at my university. Ed even took her as his date to the Oscars. How cool a brother is that! Plus he only plays Jekyll/Hyde parts—Fight Club, Primal Fear, The Incredible Hulk. As far as I’m concerned Norton should star in ALL superhero movies.)

Anyway, the interconnections between the six Marvel titles is what made the original Avengers so much fun in comic book form. Stan Lee, unlike his competitors at DC, wasn’t interested in stand-alone heroes adventuring each in their private universe. The original 1940 Justice Society of America wasn’t a team, it was a marketing gimmick for a reprint omnibus of each character’s individual episodes. Things had changed by the time DC rebooted them as the Justice League in 1960, but it’s Marvel that invented “continuity.” Stan Lee actually included footnotes in his panels. Readers were reminded not only of previous events within a series but events from ongoing parallel titles, complete with issue numbers. The result was an interlocking web and the sense of an entire world in constant, interactive motion.

Pretty much what Marvel is doing now on screen.

One last side note: The Avengers is not the first Avenger film. That credit goes to Zorro. His team of masked caballeros dubbed themselves the Avengers in Johnston McCulley’s 1919 novel. When Douglass Fairbanks stared in The Mark of Zorro the following year, he made what is arguably the most influential superhero film in history. Without Zorro’s Avengers, I doubt Marvel’s would have ever been written.

That’s a high bar for The Avengers to match, but I’m looking forward to the attempt. I hear it opens next Friday.

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“I am one of those odd, perhaps unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl, chained or bound, or masked, or wearing extreme high-heels or high-laced boots . . . Your tales of Wonder Woman have fascinated me on account of this queer ‘twist’ in my psychological make-up. . . . if you have experienced the same sensation as I have from actually applying such [implements of confinement] to a beautiful girl, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.”

This is one of Wonder Woman’s first fan letters. It was written by an American infantryman in September 1943, ten months after Wonder Woman premiered. But DC insisted there was nothing erotic about their Amazon. Company policy forbade it:

“The use of chains, whips, or other such devices is forbidden. Anything having a sexual or sadistic implication is forbidden. The kidnaping of women is discouraged, and must never have any sexual implication.”

William Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, never got the memo.

The Harvard-trained psychologist, like his overseas fan, was a bondage enthusiast. In fact, the doctor believed sexual bondage could save the world. And he invented Wonder Woman to prove it.

“Without a sound foundation in ‘sex love,’” Marston wrote in 1939, “no human being of either sex can possibly submit to any social control and like it.”

Sexual submission was his answer to war and crime: “erotic love is the emotional source of that all-important social trait, willing submission to other people, to their needs, their opinions, their manner of living and submission also to the leaders who govern the social group.”

For Marston, there’s only one difference between a criminal and a good citizen: “the lawbreaker is a social rebel who cannot enjoy the experience of yielding his own will to someone else’s, while the law-abiding citizen is a socially minded individual who enjoys submitting to others on a majority of occasions.”

People obey laws because it feels good. Really good.  Criminals just need some “emotional re-education.”

After developing and publishing his psychological theories in the 20’s and 30’s, Marston decided it was time to apply his sound foundation in sex love to the children’s market. He had already publicly praised Superman, so he approached DC with his idea for “Suprema, the Wonder Woman.” His editors trimmed her name but not her message.

When Wonder Woman defeats a group of invaders from Saturn, she takes them to “Transformation Island” where they must wear “Venus girdles.”

“What does the beautiful gold girdle do to a prisoner?”

“It is magic metal from Venus—it removes all desire to do evil and compels complete authority to loving obedience.”

When the not-yet-reformed Saturn women break out, many of the other prisoners refuse to join them, even after removing their bonds:

“Without the girdle I feel dominant—invincible! But I don’t feel cruel and wicked as I used to—the Amazons transformed me! I love Wonder Woman and Queen Hippolyte—I can’t bear to have them hurt—I must save them!”

But the fan with the “queer twist” wasn’t the only reader who missed the moral. Where Marston saw loving submission, others, including members of DC’s own editorial advisory board, saw sado-masochistic torture. Marston was told to cut the chains.

But he refused to submit. Not only were “harmless erotic fantasies . . . good for people,” his were “the one truly great contribution of [his] Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound—enjoy submission to kind authority.”

Fellow psychologist Frederic Wertham missed the message too. He considered Wonder Woman “one of the most harmful” crime comics and the character “a horror type. She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.”

Marston’s sales figures told him another story. He believed the young male readers of Wonder Woman were shouting: “We love a girl who is stronger than men, who uses her strength to help others and who allures us with the love appeal of a true woman!”

I don’t need to imagine Marston’s bedroom practices. Though he encouraged wives to become “love leaders,” his own home operated on a different principle:

Polygamy.

After marrying a fellow psychologist and law student, Elizabeth Holloway, Marston began an affair with his research assistant, Olive Byrne. Holloway did not object. Byrne moved in with them, and Marston fathered four children, two with each mother. Byrne took the role of stay-at-home mom, while Hollway became the family bread-winner. Marston landed a job at Family Circle magazine, but I doubt his employers were aware of the geometry of their psychologist’s own family.

I also doubt their household was a paradise, but it was an island of social rebels hidden far beyond laws of convention. It was Holloway who told Marston that his comic book character needed to be a woman. She was a bit of an Amazon herself, living 99 years and, more wondrously, supporting all four children and Byrne after Marston’s death in 1947.

The tale of Venus girdles and Transformation Island was one of Marston’s last, published a year after his death. As the first widely popular comic book superheroine, Wonder Woman defined the character type. Soon the Phantom Lady and other scantily costumed heroines were getting themselves tied up too.

Despite Marston’s edifying intentions, the erotic effect of his creation never progressed much past the “queer twist” stage. An internet search today shows how little has changed since 1943. Marston’s infantryman would have a wide range of softporn superheroine sites to peruse. Some find a disturbing thrill in seeing their wonder women defeated:

“What is it about superheroines that is so fascinating? For one they are sexy and we guess it’s the skin-tight costume, leotard, tights, mask, cape and the fact that the ladies are seemingly invincible. Since they are ‘super’ they should easily dispose of any villains. So, the fascinating part comes about when the tables turn and one sees these women get challenged physically and mentally and placed in perilous erotic situations.”

There’s a word for “perilous erotic situations.” Rape.

That’s been the not-particularly-veiled subtext of the superheroine since the Domino Lady started flirting with perilous erotic situations in the 30’s. Whatever Marston’s stated intentions, most of Wonder Woman’s bondage escapades are at the hands of her male adversaries. That’s not loving submission.

I don’t know if he was lying to his editors or himself, but you don’t need a magic lasso to get the truth out of his scripts. Marston ties up his heroine far more often than she ties up anyone else.

And she has remained tied down by her origins for decades. When Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz planned a reinterpretation of the Amazon in the eighties, their working title was Wonder Woman: Bondage. Sienkiewicz’ test sketches removed any ambiguity from Marston’s subtext. No more Venus girdles. This was S&M.

Which is why I’m relieved to see that Brian Azzaarello’s newly rebooted Wonder Woman does not submit to her history. Although this Amazon is still battling villainy in a strapless bathing suit, Cliff Chiang’s art, while visually explosive, avoids erotics. Compare her to Guillem March’s oversexed Catwoman, and the new Wonder Woman is downright wholesome. (If you don’t object to a dismembered centaur or two.)

Best of all, she’s not the kind of beautiful girl who’s going to let either a well-meaning psychologist or a twisted G.I. tie her up.

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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of Uni-Watch.com. A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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