Happy 80th birthday Wonder Woman

Today is the 80th birthday of Wonder Woman, who was created by writer William Moulton Marston & artist H.G. Peter . The character made her debut on October 21, 1941 in the pages of All-Star Comics #8, published by DC Comics with a Dec 1941 / Jan 1942 cover date. The next month Sensation Comics #1 was published with Wonder Woman as the starring cover feature. Six months later, in the summer of 1942, Wonder Woman gained hew own solo comic book series.

I imagine that, as with many who were born in the mid 1970s, my first exposure to the character of Wonder Woman was the Super Friends animated series and the live action Wonder Woman television series starring Lynda Carter that originally aired from 1975 to 1979.

To this day I agree with the sentiment that Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman / Diana Prince remains one of the most brilliant casting decisions in any live action adaptation of a comic book property. About a decade ago I bought the entire series on DVD, and it definitely still holds up, in large part due to Carter’s warm, empathetic, strong performance.

The first time I ever read the actual Wonder Woman comic book series was in 1991, towards the tail end of George Perez’s groundbreaking run. In retrospect this was probably not an ideal time to get into the series, as this was right at the start of the convoluted War of the Gods crossover. However, several months later, in early 1992, there came a perfect jumping-on point, when William Messner-Loebs took over as writer on Wonder Woman. I know some fans feel there was a decline in quality under Loebs. Nevertheless, it was the ideal entry for a brand-new reader such as myself who was unfamiliar with the character. Plus the stunningly beautiful cover artwork by Brian Bolland made Wonder Woman a must-buy each month.

In the early 1990s I did pick up a number of the earlier Perez issues at comic conventions, and I agree that they were extremely good. To this day Perez’s work on the character remains among the strongest in her 80 year history.

I followed the Wonder Woman series for the next seven years, for the entirety of Loebs’ run, and then for writer-artist John Byrne’s stint on the series. Although I stopped picking up the book regularly in late 1998, in the years since I’ve periodically returned to Wonder Woman on several different occasions.

I especially enjoyed the short six issue run by Walter Simonson & Jerry Ordway in 2003, the New 52 Wonder Woman by writer Brian Azzarello & artist Cliff Chiang that began in 2011, and the 17 issue revival of Sensation Comics featuring a variety of creative teams bringing their different approaches to the character that ran from 2014 to 2016. Most recently I’ve been enjoying the Sensational Wonder Woman series, which also features different creative line-ups each issue.

Without a doubt I can say that Princess Diana of Themyscira remains one of my favorite comic book characters.

William Moulton Marston was an outspoken feminist, and he created Wonder Woman to be a symbol of female strength & empowerment. Over the last eight decades the character has certainly served as a source of inspiration to many female readers, and to female audiences who have seen her adapted to television, animation and motion pictures.

Female Furies: feminism vs fascism

I recently had the opportunity to pick up the trade paperback collection of the six issue Female Furies miniseries DC Comics published in 2019. Cecil Castellucci’s story re-imagines Jack Kirby’s New Gods characters from a feminist perspective, and reads very much as a response to the Trump administration. Sadly the main aspects of Castellucci’s story are still all-too-relevant, as the blatant sexism & misogyny that Trump helped to once again make socially acceptable still linger on strongly in conservative circles, and the GOP continues its war on women’s rights.

I had never considered Darkseid and his dystopian hellhole of a planet Apokolips to be suffused with toxic masculinity. Nevertheless, the “Fourth World” stories written & drawn by Kirby were highly political, with Richard Nixon serving as one of the main inspirations for the arch-villain Darkseid, a character who was the literal embodiment of fascism, and one of his lieutenants, the propagandist Glorious Godfrey, being directly based on evangelist Billy Graham.

And, whether he specifically intended it or not, when Kirby introduced Big Barda in Mister Miracle #4 (cover date Sept 1971) he was making an advancement in the depiction of women in American superhero comic books. There had certainly been strong, powerful women in comics before, most notably Wonder Woman. Big Barda, however, was among the first occasions when a male superhero’s love interest was shown to be an equal partner, as well as his physical superior. There really had not been a relationship like Scott Free & Big Barda in superhero comics up to that point. And to then reveal there were numerous other powerful women on Apokolips who were Barda’s peers… that was certainly highly unconventional for the early 1970s.

Whatever the case, I think it speaks to the strength & flexibility of the characters & stories that Kirby created fifty years ago that Castellucci can so effectively utilize them to craft a feminist parable that is relevant to 21st century American society.

I would prefer not to describe the plot of Female Furies in detail, as I highly recommend picking up the collected edition, and I do not want to spoil the specifics. In short, the miniseries depicts how Barda and the other Female Furies struggle to gain acceptance by Darkseid and his male lieutenants, all of whom believe women to be naturally inferior to man. The Furies are subjected to discrimination & sexual harassment by the patriarchy of Apokolips in their struggle for equality.

An interesting aspect of the story is how Castellucci demonstrates that a patriarchy often turns women against one another, making them their own worst enemies. When their teammate Aurelie is selected for “special training” with Darkseid’s lieutenant Willik, the other Furies assume that Auralie is sleeping her way to the top. In actuality Willik wants to “train” Auralie so that he can get her alone with him to force her to have sex with him. When Auralie attempts to explain to her sisters what is happening, they accuse her of lying.

The brutal drill sergeant Granny Goodness, the Furies matron, is shown to be politically ambitious, craving to hold the same high rank as Darkseid’s other, male lieutenants. She will do anything to achieve this, including throw her charges to the wolves. When the Furies protest against their treatment by the men of Apokolips, Goodness basically tells them to grin & bear it. She pushes them to succeed in the field so that their successes will reflect well on her, enabling her to amass personal power.

In the end, Barda realizes that the women of Apokolips must work together if they are ever to overcome their oppression:

“Apart? We are held back from our true potential. United? We’re unstoppable.”

I do think the one area where Castellucci’s message falls short is with Heggra, the former Queen of Apokolips, and Darkseid’s mother. Heggra is one of those people who, regardless of gender, comes across at thoroughly rotten & irredeemable. Heggra was the one who ordered the murder of her son’s first wife, the sorceress Suli, solely because Heggra disapproved of their marriage and believed that Suli would make Darkseid too weak and empathetic. If Darkseid is a monster, then it is at least partially due to the machinations of his mother. When the emotionally hardened Darkseid later orders his own mother’s murder, it is difficult not to feel that Heggra has reaped what she has sewn.

I did appreciate that Castellucci gave Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People a central role in the story. Beautiful Dreamer is a character who seldom receives any sort of spotlight or development. I liked how Castellucci showed Dreamer’s telepathic, hallucinogenic powers as playing a part in opening the Furies’ minds, and her faith & kindness demonstrates to them that there is another path for them to walk aside from the cold, totalitarian one of Apokolips.

Castellucci also presents an interesting characterization of Darkseid. Eschewing the terrifying cosmic menace that too many later writers have advanced, Castellucci returns to Kirby’s original conception of the lord of Apokolips. At heart, for all his incredible power, Darkseid is a coward, a miserable & unhappy being, and it is his own fears & insecurities that drive him to try to control & manipulate others.

At times Castellucci’s writing is bluntly unsubtle and her dialogue idiosyncratic. Perhaps on another project this might have been a defect. But the original Kirby stories were frequently operatic and allegorical, his scripting containing a particularly offbeat cadence. So Castellucci’s work here feels rather akin to Kirby’s own.  Perhaps the plot of Female Furies does not hold together as strongly as it could, at time meandering, but it is nevertheless a very passionate story in delivering its message.

The artwork on Female Furies is by Adriana Melo. She is a very talented illustrator & storyteller. Her previous work includes Star Wars, Birds of Prey, Ms. Marvel and Doctor Who. I’ve always appreciated how Melo has rendered female characters. She draws them as beautiful & sexy without ever making them exploitative. As I have observed before, I feel that women often excel at drawing female characters, because they understand the anatomy from firsthand experience, and know how women should stand and move. Melo’s work on this miniseries is very expressive, emotional and dynamic.

I also imagine it is no accident that Willik, a character originally introduced by Kirby, is redesigned in this minsieries by Melo to have a more-than-passing resemblance to the Disgraced Former Occupant.

The lettering is by Sal Cipriano & Carlos M. Manhual, and the coloring by Hi-Fi. The extremely striking cover artwork to the collected edition, originally used for issue #6 of the miniseries, is by line artist Joelle Jones & colorist Laura Allred.

The trade paperback also reprints Mister Miracle #9 (August 1972) by Jack Kirby & Mike Royer. It’s one of Kirby’s strongest Mister Miracle stories, as well as one of the main inspiration for the Female Furies miniseries by Castellucci & Melo. Half a century later Kirby’s work still holds up absolutely, demonstrating what a brilliant & groundbreaking creator he truly was.

The Four Faces of Typhoid Mary

Writer Ann Nocenti, during her time on Daredevil from late 1986 to early 1991, told many unconventional stories that addressed a number of controversial topics.  One of her vehicles for exploring certain issues was the character of Typhoid Mary who she co-created with artist John Romita Jr.

Marvel Comics Presents 150 cover

Typhoid Mary is definitely one of Nocenti’s most memorable creations.  Mary Walker is telepathic, telekinetic and pyrokinetic.  She also suffers from multiple personality disorder, switching between the sweet, innocent, naïve Mary and the sadistic, domineering, seductive Typhoid.  This transformation is not merely mental but also physical, with her pulse rate & temperature changing.

After Nocenti’s departure from Daredevil, she continued to develop Typhoid Mary in a pair of serials that ran in the biweekly anthology Marvel Comics Presents.  Working with artist Steve Lightle, she teamed up Typhoid first with Wolverine and then with Ghost Rider.  The arcs of these two serials culminated in the full-length two-part story “Bloody Mary: A Battle of the Sexes” that appeared in Marvel Comics Presents #150-151, published in early 1994.  The artwork was by Lightle and Fred Harper.

MCP #150 opens with Typhoid ostensibly in the care of psychiatrist Doctor Hunt.  Unfortunately Hunt is badly in need of a refresher course on professional ethics, as he believes he has fallen in love with Mary, and their “sessions” involve having sex with her.  Hunt is supposedly planning to integrate Mary’s personalities together, although more than one character suspects that what he really intends to do is obliterate the kindly Mary persona so that he will have the kinky Typhoid all to himself.

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Wolverine removes Mary from Hunt’s care, not only because he can see that the psychiatrist is a quack, but also because he requires Typhoid’s help.  A young mutant empath & chameleon named Jessie has been abducted by the Fortress, one of those innumerable nefarious scientific conspiracies that populate the Marvel universe.  Wolverine needs Typhoid to infiltrate the Fortress and extricate Jessie.  He is able to sell this mission to Mary by explaining that if Jessie is not rescued she will be subjected to unscrupulous experiments, much as the two of them also have been.

Typhoid’s rescue attempt goes awry and she is captured by the Fortress.  She unconsciously sends out a telepathic SOS to not just Wolverine, but to her old paramour / adversary Daredevil and to Ghost Rider… although at this point in time the flaming-skulled cyclist is dead (well, deader than usual) and the mayday is received by his replacement Vengeance.

The imprisoned Typhoid is probed by the Fortress scientists, which results in a third personality bursting forth.  Bloody Mary is a ruthless man-hater who vows to avenge the crimes “the patriarch” has inflicted upon women.  She brutally decimates the Fortress personnel and departs with Jessie.

Later, arriving at a woman’s shelter, Bloody Mary is shocked to discover that Jessie is, in fact, a boy; his empathic abilities had previously caused him to mimic first Steel Raven, the female mercenary who brought him to the Fortress, and then Mary.  Now, though, he is reverting to his true gender.  Bloody Mary is furious.  Calling Jessie a “filthy liar,” she violently slaps the teenager.  Stealing the shelter’s files on battered women, Mary flees, intending to avenge them.

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Bloody Mary embarks upon her mission of retribution, brutalizing the husbands and boyfriends of the women in the shelter, inflicting upon them the exact injuries they gave their victims.  Attempting to track her down are Wolverine, Daredevil and Vengeance, who each have their own ideas about how to deal with Bloody Mary.  The three vigilantes at odds with one another, as they argue over whether Mary deserves psychiatric help, imprisonment, or death.

Added to the mix is Steel Raven, dispatched by the Fortress to retrieve Jessie.  Raven is beginning to have second thoughts about her employers, though, unsettled by their experiments on children.  When Raven catches up to Bloody Mary, she finds that she is in agreement with her quest for retribution against abusive men.  The mercenary holds off Vengeance and Wolverine so that Mary can continue on her mission.

Vacillating back and forth between her three personalities, Mary once again encounters Jessie, who has been looking for her.  The empathic teen begins to copy each of Mary’s personas in rapid succession…

Mary: Look at you, my multiple personalities, they’re contagious. Look at you. You echo all I am. Stay away. I can’t be responsible!

Jessie: I want to be with you, Mary. I want to help you.

Mary: How did you manage to trick me, make me think you were a girl?

Jessie: Because I am a girl. I’m just trapped in this boy’s body. I want to be like you.

Mary: Oh, yeah? Which me? Who shall I be for you?

Jessie: That Wolverine man was right. There’s one more in there. One more that’s the best of all. Don’t you feel it?

Prompted by Jessie, Mary looks within herself, and uncovers a fourth personality, a woman who refers to herself as “Walker.”  This identity shares certain aspects of the other three.  Walker is kind but assertive.  She is not abusive, nor will she allow herself to be abused.

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Walker reflects upon her various natures…

“I began to hate all the shrinks and doctors, all the men, and I divided myself into four parts: one helpless before men, one using them, one hating them… and now me, indifferent to them. Beyond them.”

Walker returns to the hospital where she was being treated and confronts Hunt on his unethical, criminal behavior, and then exposes what he did to her.  As he is being led away by the police, she turns to address the reporters on the scene.  Walker vows to continue Bloody Mary’s quest to avenge women, but it is apparent she will be doing so a more rational manner.  And with that she departs, Jessie accompanying her.

The first time I read “Bloody Mary: A Battle of the Sexes” I was 18 years old.  I found it incredibly thought-provoking.  It raised so many questions that I had never really considered previously, about women’s roles in society and how these are often imposed upon them by men, about homosexuality & gender identity, about crime & punishment.  Two decades later, re-reading it, Nocenti’s story still stirred a great deal of contemplation.

Interviewed in October 1998 by the Daredevil fan site Man Without Fear, Nocenti explained the creation of Typhoid Mary…

“As for where Typhoid came from, you’ll have to ask the shrink I’ve as yet never gone to. I think I wanted to shatter the female stereotypes–virgin, whore, bitch, ditz, feminist, girl scout, all-suffering mother, et al.–into tiny fragments and yet keep all the pieces in the same little female bundle.”

Through her character Nocenti addresses the identities that men often assign to women.  Typhoid Mary is a challenge to the Virgin-Whore Complex, the idea often perpetuated by male-dominant cultures that a woman is either a virtuous, chaste innocent or a sinful, promiscuous seductress, with no middle ground in-between.  Mary is the “virgin” and Typhoid is the “whore,” and neither of them is healthy.  These two halves are the result of fission of personality.  The splitting of an atom initially results in tremendous energy but ultimately leads to radioactive decay.  Likewise, Mary Walker’s personality split to protect her from trauma, but over time this became detrimental, with neither aspect able to function as a whole individual.

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Mary by herself is kind and caring, but also helpless and unsophisticated, unprepared to cope with the complexities of the world.  Typhoid, on the other hand, protects herself from harm by acting as the aggressor and manipulating others, but this renders her incapable of forming real friendships and relationships with others.  Both Mary and Typhoid possess attributes that, if united, would make them a strong, independent, healthy person.

Bloody Mary is another unbalanced splinter of Mary Walker’s personality.  Nocenti casts Bloody Mary as an embodiment of the stereotype of the militant feminist, what some derogatorily refer to as a “Feminazi.”  Bloody Mary views the conflict between men and women in absolutes, declaring that “All women are political prisoners.”  She regards all men as victimizers, not realizing that she is guilty of the same broad judgments as those she opposes.

If, however, the determination and convictions of Bloody Mary were united with the qualities of Mary Walker and Typhoid Mary, once again you would have an individual who is secure and balanced.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I think that all of us, men and women, are incredibly complex.  At different times in our lives, in different setting among different people, we play different roles, we assume different identities, emphasize different parts of our personalities.  Sometimes we have trouble deciding exactly who we are.

Even with someone such as Hunt, Nocenti demonstrates that people are complicated.  For all his sins, at one point the psychiatrist does express self-doubt and begins to question his objectivity.  Ultimately, though, Hunt pushes aside his uncertainty.  He attempts to rationalize his actions to Walker with a misogynist rant about how all women are seductive manipulators.  Sometimes, when you get right down to it, people really are jerks.

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Jessie is an interesting figure.  Through him/her, Nocenti touches upon the question of what determines sexual orientation and gender identity.  How much of it is conscious individual choice, how much is a result of socialization, and how much of it is biological?

When I was in my teens I was still trying to make up my mind about homosexuality.  I will admit at one point I knew very little about the subject and the thought of people of the same gender having sex seemed really weird.  Then in the early 1990s I read newspaper articles about how homosexuality was likely determined by genetics.  At that point I must have started to understand that if sexual orientation was something that a person was born with, just like skin color or eye color or height or being left-handed, then it was unjust to discriminate against someone on that basis.

As for the transgender aspect of Jessie’s character, two decades later sex change remains even more controversial than homosexuality.  It still seems a bit odd to me.  The concept of a person’s psychological gender identity being different from their physical one is difficult for me to understand.  But just because something is beyond my conception doesn’t make it wrong.  It is important to keep an open mind.  And I recognize that it is crucial for people to be comfortable in their own skin, to be happy with who they are.

“Bloody Mary” is a good story, although not without its flaws.  Perhaps Nocenti’s plot is overly ambitious, attempting to fit in its in-depth exploration of Typhoid Mary, appearances by Wolverine, Daredevil and Vengeance, and the introductions of Steel Raven, Jessie and the Fortress.

There may have been certain editorial directives at work that Nocenti had to work within, such as the use of Vengeance.  It would have made more sense to have Ghost Rider appear but, again, the character was (temporarily) deceased, and so Vengeance was slotted in even though he’d never met Typhoid before.   He doesn’t have much to do in this story.  Daredevil also seems to be fighting for space.  Halfway through MCP #151 he rather abruptly agrees to just let Wolverine handle Typhoid, and then vanishes from the story.

The division of artwork between Steve Lightle and Fred Harper isn’t ideal.  Both Lightle and Harper are very talented artists, but they have extremely different styles.  Consequently the two halves of this story are visually quite different.

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Lightle’s detailed artwork on the first half of “Bloody Mary” is amazing.  I have been a fan of his since I first saw his covers for Classic X-Men in 1989.  So I was happy his work began appearing regularly in MCP starting in 1992.

Lightle works in tangent with colorist Maryann Lightle who, as you can probably guess by that last name, is his wife.  It seems likely that her familiarity with her husband’s work enabled Maryann Lightle to do an extremely effective job coloring his art on this issue.

I especially liked Lightle’s design for Wolverine’s stealth uniform.  Lightle also designed the Steel Raven character, and co-plotted the first half of the story with Nocenti.

It appears that Lightle was originally intended to illustrate the entire story.  In late 1993 I met MCP editor Richard Ashford at a store signing.  He had preview artwork for upcoming issues including this story, which he stated was going to run in #149-150.  Fast forward to early 1994 and MCP #149 came out with no sign of Typhoid Mary but instead four stand-alone eight page stories.  “Bloody Mary” by Nocenti & Lightle did begin in the next issue, but the letter column announced that the artist on second part would be Harper.

I don’t know if there were deadline problems and work on this story was running late (hence the story being moved back an issue), or if Ashford was worried that it would come in behind schedule, but whatever the case he assigned the second half to Harper, who was a regular contributor to MCP.  Lightle did illustrate to cover for #151, though.

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On the second half of “Bloody Mary,” Harper does very solid work.  His layouts and storytelling on many of his pages are dramatic and inventive.  As I said, Harper’s art is very unlike Lightle’s, but judged on its own merits it is good.

Regrettably sometimes the coloring doesn’t do Harper too many favors.  I don’t blame colorist Joe Andreani, who did quite a bit of work at Marvel in the 1990s.  Apparently MCP didn’t get the best color reproduction that was available at the time.  Or perhaps it is just that Harper’s style with its heavy use of blacks is better-suited to appearing in black & white.  I’ve seen a number of his original pages from MCP and they look so much more impressive in person, revealing a lot of detail that was unclear or obscured when they were printed.

In any case, despite certain problems, Marvel Comics Presents #150-151 are still a strong pair of issues.  Ann Nocenti’s writing on “Bloody Mary: A Battle of the Sexes” it thoughtful and intelligent.  Nocenti does an excellent job continuing to develop her creation Typhoid Mary, and through her addresses a number of controversial topics while crafting an entertaining story.

UPDATE: I was just notified by Steve Andreski, via the Back Issue Magazine group on Facebook, that there is an upcoming trade paperback from Marvel collecting the Typhoid Mary serials from MCP including “Bloody Mary,” as well as several other excellent stories featuring the character written by Ann Nocenti.  Here’s the info…

Typhoid's Kiss TPB solicitation

I highly recommend purchasing a copy of the Daredevil: Typhoid’s Kiss trade paperback when it comes out.  There are some really great stories that are going to be contained in this volume.  Thanks for the info, Steve!