Sunday, March 04, 2007

On dying Amazons

With Amazons Attack! just around the corner, I can’t help but find myself thinking back across their Post Crisis history, specifically in terms of their interactions with the rest of the DCU, but also in terms of their more significant storylines within the Wonder Woman title. Wherever the Amazons have appeared in significant numbers in the past, it has been in the context of war, of suffering, of tragedy, and predictably with a high body count. I don’t mean that to sound flippant, in fact I find it disturbing just how often in the past we have been treated to images of hundreds of dignified, strong, intelligent and noble women being slaughtered either by each other or at the hands of the villains of the day. When I see this, it is compounded by the nameless way they have are treated, and also by the way the story of their tragedy has been extended to include yet another degradation. It begs me to ponder; do the Amazons have to die to be interesting? Do they have to die in order to appear outside of the Wonder Woman title, and what does that say for their comparative relationship with ‘Man’s World’? What does this all indicate for representations of women in comic books (when whole nations of them have to die frequently, gratuitously, and sometimes without any particular reason in order to be included in a major storyline)? And perhaps most importantly, will Amazons Attack! carry on that trend? Back when I was a frequent poster on the DC Message Boards there was always frequent discussion on just how many times you can massacre a race of women that has never numbered over more than a few thousand, and still justify that it isn’t gratuitous. Lets have a bit of a history lesson to assess why that discussion has occurred.

Back in War of the Gods, one of the few company crossovers to feature the Amazons to any significant degree, Hippolyta takes a delegation of Amazons on a world tour; their first exchange with the outside world in centuries. During the storyline Circe manages to manipulate their rivals, the Bana Mighdall Amazons into framing the Themyscirans for murder, and also turns Hippolyta into Shim’Tar. During the crossover, a few Amazons die during the conflict, and their relationship with the outside world is damaged by the incident. At the time I remember being irked by the whole thing, most particularly because of the tragic resonance it achieved in the context of their historical suffering at the hands of Herakles. Were I to know it would only be the beginning of a trend, I may have despaired even more.

Before appearing outside of the Wonder Woman title again, the Amazons went through a number of internal conflicts, struggles and invasions, in the space of only a few years at a time. In one of them, Circe yet again decided to manipulate the Bana Mighdall Amazons by sending them to Themyscira to claim the island as their own and then transporting all of the Amazons to a demon dimension where they were forced to band together in their struggle to survive.

It intrigues me here that not only are the Amazons subject to more suffering, but that Circe becomes the symbol of that suffering. I wonder to what extent this trend of tragedy might have been more noticeable had she been a male villain. In fact, during their tenure, other significant Amazon storylines involve them being manipulated by female powers, including Eris and Ariadne. Does the fact that the villains are women make the Amazons’ gratuitous miseries any less so? And do so many really have to die to get panel time?

In their next significant appearance, the Amazons are invaded by Darkseid who invades them purely as an aside in his quest for Godly power. Even the resolution of the conflict revolves around Diana’s persuading him to leave. This is another unfortunate aside in the situation of the Amazons; that they fail to appear in a context outside of Diana, and act as a blank slate for her suffering as well as their own. The body count at the end of this event is incredible, if we’re to go by the art.

Contextually, this particular event is quintessential for what makes me uncomfortable about the kinds of stories the Amazons are included in. It is John Byrne’s introductory arc, and so anything that plays out here is marred by the fact that it is important for him to make a big impression. Indeed, what makes a bigger impression than killing lots of Amazons in a conflict that has nothing to do with them? It’s gratuitous, and what’s more, it’s an event that bears no relevance to future storytelling until Jimenez uses it years later to provide his own massacre of the Amazons with resonance. More infuriating, from what I can remember, the Amazons during Byrne’s story are relatively nameless, identical and in the end ultimately void of anything composing personality, in terms of art as well as writing. The event reeks of shock-value, and provides further material to indicate the Amazons as nothing but cannon fodder in a war fought between Diana and her foes.

The penchant for big Amazonian battles gets picked up again much later with Jimenez’ run on the title, where he manages to massacre them once, and then kill off a few more later. Firstly, we have the Civil War during which the two Amazonian tribes come to blows over tensions exaggerated by Ariadne’s manipulation. A hell of a lot of Amazons die here, and their conflict is resolved with Hippolyta’s abdication and abolition of their monarchy. What matters more with this story, other than the now familiar body count, is that President Lex Luthor uses it to undermine their standing as a peaceful nation in the face of the UN, and Diana’s mission in general. It is a very well written yet horribly annoying plot point that helps to redraw that line between the Amazons and the outside world.

Jimenez follows this up by having the Amazons fight on the side of mankind against Imperiex during Our Worlds At War. In order for the Amazons to appear in this company crossover, they apparently had to barter quite a lot. Not only does Hippolyta die, but she is the only one to do so during the storyline who isn’t given a resurrection at a later date. To add insult to injury, Themyscira is completely decimated during the event, the Amazons are forced to fight alongside Darkseid, and then their sacrifices achieve little panel time other than in the Wonder Woman title anyway. And if you thought that at least this would cement their future relationships with the outside world, you would be sadly wrong. In fact you could, at this point, be forgiven for thinking DC editorial sees it’s Amazons as nothing more than an apparently exponential nation of corpses.

To overcome this, Jimenez makes an important move to representing the Amazons in a context that a) isn’t about war, death or suffering, and b) places them firmly in the DCU in a context which is cooperative, rather than one of necessary difference. He reintroduced them after OWAW with a newly replenished, futuristic, blessed, floating Themyscira (lovingly and patronisingly referred to on the message boards at the time as ‘My Little Pony island’, or the Themysciran Archipelago). This new island paradise was opened to the world as a University for cultural exchange, not just with Man’s World, but across dimensions and worlds. The rebuilding had bonded together the Themysciran and Bana Mighdall Amazons into one nation, represented by Artemis’ and Phillipus’ relatively (if not officially) joint standing as their representatives to the outside world. It was a good move in trying to provide a situation where the Amazons could appear in other comic books without having Wonder Woman attached to them, or marching in line ready for war. Had this particular progression been taken seriously, and applied in the DCU, the theme of tragedy might have been laid to rest, and provided for more varied stories concerning the Amazons, and their place in the world of Man.

But alas, not everyone agreed with that idea, and the Amazons failed to be included outside the Wonder Woman title, and quickly became subject to more massacring.

As soon as Jimenez left, Simonson decided to kill more Amazons in a confusing conflict with something called ‘The Shattered God’ and a Roman Goddess. Again, the Amazons actually play little part in the story other than as targets for a conflict that actually has nothing to do with them, and is certainly not resolved by them. Loeb does the same in his Superman/Batman arc, where the reintroduced Supergirl’s arrival is commemorated by having an army of Doomsday clones attack Themyscira, and the death of Harbinger.

Most recently, Rucka came on board and, despite being one of my favourite Wonder Woman runs, made decisions that further cemented the ‘dead-Amazon’ syndrome. Firstly, he kicked them out of the sky and into US territorial waters. The event put a quick stop to their status as a university of cultural exchange, as they became embroiled in political stalemate with the military surrounding the island. Any concessions concerning previous battles fought together, and any progress supposedly achieved by being a university was undermined by the suspicion they were still treated to by the outside world. Before resolving this, it appears constrictions of the Infinite Crisis company crossover took precedent. Diana’s killing of Max Lord rendered the Amazons the subject of scrutiny and distrust, as well as attack by the OMAC army who went about slaughtering them not just in the pages of Wonder Woman, but Infinite Crisis too. Though well-written, by now I have to say I had grown quite despairing at the sight of yet more Amazons brandishing arms at the sight of invasion, and dying in each others arms. It is only more of a testament to the trend that this conflict was not ended in triumph, but in retreat from the world altogether.

What is promising about Amazons Attack! is that, while it provides a continuation of the above storyline, it also already breaks some of the conventions of prior Amazon appearances. Firstly, it is a storyline that actually centres on them. It is a story that incorporates Diana in a central role, even crosses into the Wonder Woman title. But it is not about her, its about them. Secondly, they have become the invaders, they are going out to meet the outside world, rather than have it trample up the beach or over their philosophical space. Thirdly, it is a storyline touted as having a big impact on the DCU. The idea that the Amazons will be a part of that is a huge change from where they have been before.

Yet the question remains. Do the Amazons have to die to be interesting? Thus far the evidence from DC seems to be an unequivocal yes, and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ scale of the upcoming storyline lends itself to the idea that we may yet see more Amazons dying in each others arms. And I can’t help but wonder what message that conveys.

And I really wish they hadn’t been referred to as ‘sexy aliens’ in Pfeifer’s interview. For crying out loud…

any thoughts?

alex x

go here for an interview with series writer Will Pfeifer

and here for an interview with the series artist Pete Woods, as well as a look at some of the gorgeous art involved.


Ami Angelwings said...

Great article and analysis! :D I much enjoyed it, altho it was also sad to read :(

I think that the Amazons have been used as the Women in Refrigerators for Wonder Woman. :\ They're nameless characters we dun rly know much about, but care about b/c they're a) related to Diana b) women. :( And they come in great numbers that can be killed to make the readers go "OMG". :\

They're a plot device, not characters... :(

I hope that Amazons Attack changes this, but I'm not holding my breath :(

Anonymous said...

I've been a WW reader since the Perez run but dropped off just as Byrne replaced Diana with Hippolyte. And you're right, it IS disheartening to see the Amazons treated basically like cannon fodder. And it is strange how their numbers (I'm guessing initially in the ten thousands) never seem to diminish despite the horrible series of events you just enumerated! While "Amazons Attack" intrigues me, I have this sick feeling in my stomach that I'll be seeing more Amazon corpses soon. WHy do I feel for them? I dunno, I guess having read Perez' WW run, I figure they deserve some happiness after all the crap they've gone through. Then again, the idea of an entire ARMY of warrior women is quite powerful and tempting for any writer I guess.

AlexinWonderLand said...

hey ami,
thank you for taking a look at the blog! Its annoying, the measure of a good Wonder Woman writer for e often comes from whether or not he can avoid using the Amazons as WiR, or emotional sponges for Diana's experiences/suffering. Sometimes it can be confusing, for even the writers who do infuse the Amazons with personality (Perez, Jimenez and Rucka were all good for creating and maintaing specific Amazon characters and personalities) are often responsible for using shock tactics with their suffering. I'm not sure where Amazons Attack! will go with that either, but there's always the possibility that it will ban important move in making the Amazons recognisable in the DCU.

hey to you too my anonymous commenter,
I too dropped off the title with Byrne's change to the status quo, and ended up going back and buying and reading a lot of his run for completion's sake. I still don't think i managed to read his Hippolyta issues however...
I wonder if writers find it easy to massacre the Amazons because they haven't read their history and don't have that sense that it might be high time things went well for them, as you do or I do. And yet despite that, we both concede to the dramatic scope this idea of the Amazon Army has. Can you remember any Amazons from Perez' run, other than Phillipus, that have survived to today? Just a point of interest, I don't have my back issues here in NZ.

alex x

Robert Jones, Jr. said...

Call me a conspiracy theorist if you will, but I think that the treatment of the Amazons has something to do with an overarching sexism and misogyny seemingly inherent in the male-dominated comic book industry.

AlexinWonderLand said...

that would certainly seem to be the case. What's concerning is that these tragedies are not by design, but rather a lack of consideration over the overarching implications of their treatment. It strikes an unsettling balance between purposefully thinking about and using women as emotional symbols, and forgetting to explore their actual suffering for what it implies. They are both thought about and ignored, at once. Not so much conspiracy, as unfortunate statement of fact.

alex x

wildangel said...

I do admire your analysis of the Amazons treated like cannon fodder, which they have been for a very long time as it is always so "moving " to see women die (and furthermore women who do not even have the luck to be protected by men!!!... just jokin!).
What's pretty troubling me is to see them "attacking" wearing the american flag all over! When you say in a previous post that Perez "detached" the uniform from the US flag I don't agree as it got linked to Diana Trevor's outfit...
It seems to me quite alarming to have US paranoia infiltrating in comics and the Amazons appear to me no more than old continent barbarians with no grasp on progress, sterile and doomed.
May be you are too young to remember them pre-crisis, but they seemed much prouder and generous, with advanced technology and incredible garments. That eagle shown everywhere on them make me wonder why the authors and artists don't reach further into mythology and history to have a better grasp on this tribe of females who used to cut one breast in order to hold their archery...
anyway... any hint about the presence of Donna Troy, or Nubia, a return by Hippolyta?

AlexinWonderLand said...

hey Wildangel,
i still stand by the detachment, but not in the way it might seem. you can never really disassociate the american flag from its history, it would be a fools errand, and one without merit. but for the amazons, and wonder woman, the pattern has become synonymous with heroism particularly one of their greatest; the outsider Diana Trevor. It is a symbol for women who go far to do great things. How that then impacts and perhaps comes into confict with the American ideals when they attack is something i hope is played out.

while i do remember the pre-crisis amazons (who i have sporadic familiarity with) i have greater appreciation for the amazons of the Perez era. why they have been reduced in the way they have could realistically have something to do with the merging of their cultures with the Bana Mighdall, and also their experiences as the 'other' within virtually all of their encounters. As for Hippolyta, i guess the cats out of the bag there. what a shame.

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