As legions already know, the 2017 Wonder Woman film is a worldwide phenomenon, having broken a number of records and becoming the top grossing live action film globally to be directed by a woman—in this case Patty Jenkins, known for the acclaimed indie work Monster. WW is also about to be the top grossing installment domestically in the DC Extended Universe thus far, outperforming the likes of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, and will be the third top grossing DC Comics film adaptation of all time in North America, not adjusting for ticket price inflation.
In a previous interview and on social media, Jenkins has cited illustrator/writer George Pérez as one of the primary comic book influences on her film, citing his take on the pantheon of Greek deities involved in the origins of title character Diana, her mother Hippolyta and the rest of the Amazons. Sure enough, his 1980s vision for the series centered around an intricate tapestry of mythological figures while also following the travails of our star, raised on the idyllic Themyscira, as she becomes acclimated to man’s world.
One of my all-time favorite artists, Pérez had become renowned during the 1980s for his work with writer Marv Wolfman on the popular New Teen Titans, where he first worked with Greek myth, as well as Crisis on Infinite Earths. The latter project aimed to streamline decades of DC Comics continuity into a more manageable unit and ended with Diana being devolved into clay. (For more information on the Crisis series and the concept of a multiverse, check out a recent Studio 360 story.) Giving the main character a revamped origin, Pérez worked on WW from 1987-92, going from artist and plotter with scripter Len Wein to primary writer, earning critical acclaim as the series became a commercially formidable entity.
In later interviews, Pérez stated that he took on work for the book because he was concerned about the book relaunch falling through the cracks in contrast to the care given to Superman and the Dark Knight after their post-Crisis reboots. Pérez’s artwork has historically showcased a love affair with the human form, with figures in the WW comic clearly patterned after classic Greek and Roman statuary. M.C. Escher was another obvious influence as seen via the halls of Mt. Olympus, bestowed with floor-as-wall architecture that defied standard physics. As the series progressed, Pérez was able to fulfill his dream of creating a multi-part Ray Harryhausen type odyssey known as the Challenge of the Gods.
Perez’s work has been collected in trade paperback editions as well as omnibuses and serves as a study in how a male writer—strongly guided by editor Karen Berger—shaped a series that explored the depth and breadth of women’s humanity. Pérez’s work in WW and other ventures has involved the objectification of the female body, yet I’m still struck by how much of the content he shaped for the relaunch is about women as full-fledged, powerful people. They are sisters, mothers, daughters, warriors, friends, ambassadors, sages, scholars, queens, aviators, executives, officers . . . Interestingly and perhaps controversially, I found the role of being a lover generally took secondary placement to these modes of existence, with the idea presented that one needs to first find oneself before having healthy relationships.
In this run, Colonel Steve Trevor is given a big brother/father figure role, contrasting with the title’s historical romance as seen onscreen between actors Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. In one story line, Diana and Kal-El, aka Superman, are positioned as potential lovers only for the two to realize they are better suited as allies and platonic friends. The peace-seeking Diana is in fact quietly put off that the Kryptonian relishes his role as “enforcer.” And throughout the series we witness the arrested development of silver-haired Zeus, a louse who eventually sees the Amazons as his sexual playthings, echoed by the barbaric acts of his son Heracles in plot threads detailing the deep, horrifying trauma of sexual violence. This women, having been reborn from previous lives of trauma, realize they deities whom they worship don’t always have their well-being in mind.
In a nutshell, what might be called the traditional male gaze wasn’t placed on a pedestal by a male writer, an occurrence not mirrored in the movie production world with interpretation after interpretation of Batman and Superman appearing on the big screen for decades. The comic industry itself is notoriously known for being a boys’ club, with only some women creators here and there helming books for comicdom’s most iconic female hero, that list including Trina Robbins, Colleen Doran, Jill Thompson, Shea Fontaine and Mirka Andolfo, among others. Diversity was there in other ways with the Pérez run, which also marked the first time I encountered the concept of Amazons who could be of African, Asian/Pacific Islander and/or indigenous descent, echoing a dynamic introduced in the 1970s.
(It’s important to note that the depiction of brown people in the first Wonder Woman comic book, released in 1942, written by creator William Moulton Marston and drawn by Harry G. Peter, is tremendously racist. Fast forward to the new millennium and Diana briefly has a black love interest, Trevor Barnes, created by writer/artist Phil Jimenez, who talked about his take on the series in a thoughtful 2014 interview. Steve Trevor is also later depicted as African-American in a Grant Morrison/Yanick Paquette 2016 one-off.)
Pérez, a Puerto Rican illustrator and writer at the height of his career took on a project focusing on a sisterhood of actualized, transcendent women from Greek mythology. Amid layered circumstances, I see the work as an exercise in empathy, serving as a call for men to step beyond how we’ve been taught to behave and sit in the experiences of another gender. Pérez didn’t only present standard superhero fare but also devoted entire issues to characters adjusting to the changing circumstances of life, a heartening decision considering the title’s positioning towards young people. One issue showcased written entries from four different characters—three career-oriented women and one teenage girl—revolving around Diana becoming known to the larger world, with a later story detailing her visit to modern Greece and the original land of her ancestors. Another narrative presented in an annual showcased the life of Diana’s publicist, who was revealed to be devoted to her conservative family yet shunned along with her gay brother for living out of the box. And another plot thread dealt with the main youngster of the series, Vanessa Kapatelis, coping with a friend’s suicide.
Contemporary takes on Wonder Woman have been built upon progressive themes, yet Pérez’s relaunch stands out for treating the series like serious literature with a humanistic vision. He has later said women were surprised to find out a man had written this particular WW run. The legacy of his work asserts that male creators can immerse themselves in women’s lives, create layered narratives where women are center and then get out of the way.
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