frederick wertham

OK, it’s bugging me, because I need to talk about Grant Morrison vs Original Wonder Woman and how Morrison failed at homaging it. 

It ties into stuff that’s been discussed elsewhere, like with the Star Trek reboot- if you really want to capture the spirit of something that was socially challenging 40 or 70 years ago, you can’t just reproduce that thing. Because what was groundbreaking or shocking 40-70 years ago isn’t socially groundbreaking now. Instead, you’ve got to look at what IS groundbreaking in today’s society and go with that. 

Wonder Woman was genuinely controversial when it came out in the 40s.Some parts of it were standard for it’s day- the jingoism and racism was typical bigoted white guy bullshit that dominated most of media- but the core message of it was genuinely shocking. Emphasized over and over again was this idea women are just as good as men but society was holding them back, that women can break free of that and be strong if the help each other, that they don’t have to aspire to being submissive to a man, that they can be dominant. It depicted marriage as a form of oppression, it has a main character whose WORST NIGHTMARE was being married to a man, if was dripping with so many queer implications Frederick Wertham declared it the spawn of Satan and the worst of all comics.

The bondage stuff was also genuinely pushing the envelope as far as controversy goes, people were very upset about it and believed it would encourage perversion. Sex wasn’t talked about openly back then. But the feminism and gay panic were just as huge. Marston would explain the deep (and often bullshit) psychological reasoning behind all his decisions with the utmost sincerity. He truly believed the bondage thing was essential  

Letters came pouring in. Professionals denounced it. The editor was constantly frantic and concerned, he kept talking to psychologists to make sure this was okay. He friggin’ interviewed Lauretta Bender, the head child psychologist at Bellevue hospital, who was so impressed by the feminist aspect she didn’t even mind the bondage aspect and espoused the then-radical idea that kids can’t
“learn” to be kinky or “perverted” from media, it just makes them aware of desires they already had. If they aren’t actually interested in bondage, this comic will not awaken that interest and they likely wouldn’t even really notice the bondage. What was more important to her was that the comic taught kids women and men should be equal, since she did very passionately believe comics could educate, comfort children and teach morality.

In contrast, another women thought the sex stuff was unforgivable and the feminism aspect was uncomfortable. But note how women were consulted about this. Note how Alice Marble, a female editor, was bought in, and it was her idea to do a back-up that highlighted “Wonder Women of History” which gave information about badass historical ladies to further inspire girls and impress on boys women have always been awesome (there is even a later story where a young boy complains to Wonder Woman he hates studying women in history because “girls are sissies”, so she makes him time travel with her and introduces him to all the amazing, overlooked things women have done, at which point he changes his mind and becomes interested in women’s history).  

So let me say it first- if Morrison really wants to reproduce the feel of 1940s Wonder Woman, he has to involve women in the process somewhere, because even in the 19-fucking-40s a woman was involved with producing Wonder Woman. He also would have to tie his comic deeply with the modern feminist movement. Stuff in Wonder Woman was deliberately evocative of first wave feminism and tackled first wave feminist issues. But those issues aren’t as relevant today. You can’t just have a stereotypical gross guy make some sexist comments and have Wonder Woman throw him to the ground and be like “there i’ve addressed feminism just like Marston did”. It has to be GENUINELY CONTROVERSIAL FEMINISM. For today, that would mean weaving in commentary about abortion, about toxic masculinity, about rape culture, trans issues- being blatantly opinionated about stuff that’s genuinely controversial.

Depicting bondage isn’t controversial in modern day comics. it’s been done. Writers have put their kinks blatantly on display for quite a while. Depicting two women kissing in a super sexualized way isn’t controversial or pushing any envelope, we see it all the fucking time. Having the heroine ditch her girlfriend and literally stomp her in the dirt so she can mack a dude is not controversial either. Nothing in Wonder Woman: Year One by Grant Morrison is genuinely controversial. Women will be groaning about it because they’ve seen this bullshit so much, not because it’s new and shocking. It isn’t pushing any envelope.

If Morrison wanted to be genuinely controversial and groundbreaking, he could have had trans amazons. He could have had Wonder Woman take her girlfriend with her on her adventure and tell Steve she was going to have to accept she was polyamourous and her gf wasn’t going anywhere if he wanted a relationship. He should have done a story full of political commentary. He could have hired an artist who was involved in doing pro-feminist cartoons, because Harry Peter, the original Wonder Woman artist, caught Marston’s attention because of his pro-suffrage cartoons. He shouldn’t have hired someone who draws women like they’re constantly orgasming. 

No stereotypical cis straight male is gonna read WW Year One by Morrison and feel threatened. They may feel pretty turned on by it, but it’s gonna be another in the pile of comics they masturbate too, no big deal. 

And you know why they won’t feel challenged? Because Morrison doesn’t sincerely believe that people can find freedom through loving submission and bondage is the key of happiness, he doesn’t genuinely believe women should take over the world and also sexually dominate men, he isn’t a person with a lot of connections to the feminist movement and he doesn’t publish controversial opinions about queerness.

Marston once published an book that claimed “homosexuality” shouldn’t be treated as abnormal and being “perverse” was healthy. That was genuinely a huge, unusual, shocking opinion to have in the 1940s. Marston took a risk in publishing it. Has Morrison done anything like that? Is he living an “alternative sexual lifestyle?” No. 

Morrison doesn’t actually buy Marston’s politics, which could be said of most people today and is largely a good thing because they’re deeply flawed even if they were groundbreaking in their day in some ways. Yet he still tried to reproduce them beat for beat and it resulted in a garbage precisely because he wasn’t sincere. He doesn’t actually believe in this shit. Marston’s sincerity is what made Wonder Woman groundbreaking, but it isn’t present in WW Year One.

Instead, he amps up the fetishy aspect, throws queerness in there solely for titillation, show a women being chained up and threatened with rape as sexy and alluring and there is no substance to any of it. It’s a shallow, rote recreation of the 1940′s comics with none of the good elements of it present, because the guy behind it doesn’t understand he has to be sincere for this to work. 

You want to know how badly Morrison missed the point and doesn’t get what the original comics were doing? He states that he thinks it’s boring the relationships between the women in the original comics were so supportive, so he’s going to add in some antagonism.

 Despite the fact “women supporting each other brings out their truth strength and if they do that they can overthrow patriarchal society” was THE MAIN POLITICAL MESSAGE of the original comics and is STILL so controversial today that every single adaptation really downplays it and tries to present the Amazons as “bad” for relying on each other instead of men. Even the movie drastically downplayed that aspect by having Diana mostly only interact and form bonds with men after leaving the island, with Etta getting only a bit role. It’s also why the “daughter of Zeus” thing has replaced her original origin, even modern day people cannot fucking stand the idea of a woman who doesn’t need a man to be involved in her life and to be the source of her power. 

But no, Morrison thinks that part is bullshit and wants to depict women as holding each other back.He thinks “female oppression” should be depicted as some random woman being put on a leash by a guy as she sexily eats from a dog bowl with her ass on full display, and it shouldn’t get more nuanced than that.

If you really want to pay homage to Marston and reproduce what Wonder Woman means, you have to take risks. You have to trumpet a feminist idealogy you SINCERELY BELIEVE IN. You have to tie it deeply into the modern feminist struggle. 

Morrison did not do any of that, and that is precisely why his comic failed at paying any kind of meaningful tribute to Wonder Woman and is instead an offensive mess.

What if the Comics Code Authority never existed?

This question was put forth on Reddit. Here’s my response: 

OK, since the CCA was put in place as a self-censoring body by publishers we’ve got to wonder what other options they had. Let’s say they did the opposite and fought back against Wertham with all they had.

This was McCarthy era US. The Beat Movement was happening at the same time as all this was going down so a they could have likely gotten support there considering their common subversive streaks. I figure the publishers might skew more conservative in general, but the writers and artists, without a Code to keep them in check, would not only have continued to work in all genres, but eventually gone even more provocative. The medium might even embrace the Civil Rights and Anti-War causes when those topics came around, which might bring them to the attention of young readers.

Most publishers would likely drop the more provocative cartoonists, but they’d naturally begin self-publishing, beginning an underground comics movement with at least three major differences from ours:

1) It’d begin almost a decade earlier.

2) It’d be less aggresively adult. Our comix were like a rubber band snapping back against the push of super heroes and funny animals, whereas this timeline wouldn’t have those hyper family friendly genres to unite against.

3) The publisher-driven system we have would be replaced by a focus on celebrity cartoonists (like Crumb, Moebius, or Tezuka).

Decades down the line we’d likely have an enormous variety of comics available, with large numbers of them devoted to horror, politics, counter culture, and fantasy/science fiction. The juvenile stigma attached to the artform/industry for so long would likely not have existed and it would be seen as an artistic medium, just like theater, prose, film, etc.