Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Amazon Princess’s New Clothes

People where I work don't know what to do with the fact that I am a comics guy. It's becoming kinda mainstream for speculative fiction fans here, especially since I work at a software development company, but comics still hang out at the border between geek and accepted. Mostly, the topic doesn't come up in conversation except when there's some big blockbuster movie based on comics coming out; at those times, the break room banter revolves around my feelings about the upcoming movie and the comic it is based upon. When Watchmen came out, people wanted my opinion of the comic and the movie as well as clarification about what exactly was going on in some scenes.

But I'm more sought for my opinions when comic companies make the mainstream news. I mentioned earlier that I was queried several times for my opinion of Disney's purchase of Marvel. Recently, the big story that got people's attention and had them seeking my opinion was the press release for Wonder Woman's new costume (http://dcu.blog.dccomics.com/2010/06/29/unveiling-wonder-woman%E2%80%99s-new-costume-direction/). It was interesting to see people forming such hard opinions about Diana Prince, mostly based on gut feelings in comparing it to her traditional costume. Current writer J. Michael Straczynski claimed that the change, in part, was due to a practical dislike for the costume everyone knows best (http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=26929):

I also wanted it functional. As so many female fans have said over the years, "How does she fight in that without all her parts popping out? Where does she keep stuff?" She can keep or shed the jacket, there are pockets, it's tough and serious looking while still attractive. It's a Wonder Woman designed for the 21st century. Not to get all "Project Runway" on this, but what woman wears the same outfit for 60 years without at least accessorizing?

It's a remarkable position to take, at once both feminist and condescending.

There was a moderate internet uproar over the change, in part because conservative bloggers picked up the change and saw it as yet another liberal attempt at changing the status quo. Few people outside the industry and its fans actually read deeply enough to determine that the costume change was due to a story arc that redefined Wonder Woman's origins: Paradise Island has been destroyed and Wonder Woman is an exile in hiding, working the mean streets to find the man responsible for the destruction of her homeland, the death of her mother, and the dispersal of the Amazons. There was some interesting critique from old school Wonder Woman supporter, Gloria Steinem, who pondered why Wonder Woman now had the same origin as Superman (http://blastr.com/2010/07/gloria-steinem-why-did-dc.php).

But to me, it was all a tempest in a teapot, primarily because all the most reported opinions came from people who had pretty much no background in comics—either as readers or insiders—and so missed two really important bits of information, not really discussed explicitly, but implicit in the way the industry works.

First, the change in costume serves as much as promotion as it does plot device. Perhaps when Straczynski was writing the story, he didn't think of it as a way to push sales of the Wonder Woman comic, but as soon as he mentioned it to someone, you can bet the marketing folks grabbed on to it. Even though the news was posted on DC's own Web site in the form of a blog entry, it was also a press release given to many mainstream sources of "news." And Wonder Woman needed promotion—despite the solid writing of fan favorite (and self-proclaimed Wonder Woman fan) Gail Simone, Wonder Woman's sales were languishing. In May of 2010, Wonder Woman was ranked #82 in terms of issues sold and #97 for the dollar value of the quantity sold. In the previous four months, the sales ranks were 78, 71, 85, and 78. To get a feel for how low this is, some of the titles that ranked higher in May included such traditional favorites as Doomwar (#72 in quantity and #66 in dollars), iZombie (#60 in sales), and Sentry (#20 in sales). Given that Wonder Woman is considered one of the DC's Big Three (along with Superman and Batman), and that much of the DC continuity flows through and around her—and especially given that she remains one of the few superheroes instantly recognizable by mainstream audiences)—those numbers are dismal. But in June, given the outpouring of reaction to the costume change, the next issue of Wonder Woman, featuring an eight-page story starting off the new arc, rose to #24 in sales and #7 in dollars (due also in part to the increase in price for the special issue). And in July, the first full issue of Wonder Woman with the new costume was ranked #38 in sales and #55 in dollars. So, in the short term, the publicity angle and the reaction fabricated to it succeeded in pushing up the sales numbers for a low-selling product for DC. Imagine that, a publicity stunt worked.

Secondly, what regular comics readers know and mainstream audiences don't, and have no reason to know, is that no change is permanent for Marvel and DC. The two biggest companies with the longest history of publishing comics have to do a strange little dance with the continuity of their products—readers want new ideas, but they don't want the ongoing continuity of their characters changed to unrecognizability. Bold new directions for characters are generally only short-term changes, with very few permanent upheavals. It is axiomatic in comics that when a main character dies, there was never a body found, leaving the door open for their eventual return. Comics geeks used to be able to count on three fingers the deaths in the biggest two continuities that were irreversible plot elements: Uncle Ben's death in Spiderman, Gwen Stacy's death in Spiderman, and the death of the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen. And yet in the last couple of years, both Gwen Stacy and Barry Allen have been resurrected, supposedly in part because fans wanted it, but also because that kind of gimmick sells comics. The biggest two comic events in the past few years for mainstream audiences was the death of Captain America and the death of Bruce Wayne. And yet in about two years each, both those characters have or will return (DC plans for Bruce Wayne to return this October).

This same axiom is playing out in Wonder Woman too. What commentators on the press release didn't see or understand is that Wonder Woman is now on a different Earth, having travelled their by some sort of magic or intercession by the gods. She is not in the primary continuity any longer, but exploring some issues that may affect the main continuity, and will return. Not eventually return, but is planned to return at the end of this story arc. So all this noise about Wonder Woman changing her origin and costume is based on a single story line that will merge back into the one that everyone knows about.

So, when people asked me my opinion of the "new" Wonder Woman, my best reaction was simply to shrug and point out that it would all get "fixed." To me, the most interesting thing about the temporary change was the reaction that it received from anyone who read the story. Given that strong, solid storytelling clearly doesn't sell comics while gimmicks like this do, why shouldn't the companies continue to rely on the gimmicks? And if they continue to use the gimmicks, how will the comics companies ever escape from the stereotype of their being a medium for kids?

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