Saturday, May 13, 2017

Screaming Chicken Armor: Wonder Woman & Kingdom Come


Superhero comics are a unique genre in that most of its characters exist in a relatively ongoing-yet-static state, but are defined by hundreds of different writers and artists. So although most characters have some kind of foundation of who/what they are supposed to be on paper, that base is subject to the interpretation or reinterpretation of whichever creator is using the character in any given story.

If a character is around long enough, or achieves enough popularity/exposure, he or she will have stories that define them in the eyes of fans and other creators. Tales that will cement who they are and what they're about, or perhaps reinforce who they are and what they're about if the character had strayed too far or had been deconstructed in some capacity.
Or sometimes they're just really good stories that fans and creators embrace and, from then on, will point to and say: "There! THAT is what this character is all about!"

And sometimes there will come a story that redefines a character and changes the way they are seen. A deconstruction, a reconstruction, or maybe the creator just saw something in the character no one else ever had.
Sometimes it might be unintentional and even detrimental to the character.

Arguably, one of the best examples of a defining story that permanently shaped (or re-shaped, depending on your point of view) a character would be Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. The impact of that title on Batman is still felt to this day. See also Year One.
Another less radical example might be Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman—a tale many fans I've seen point to as a perfect encapsulation of everything Superman is, should be, and represents.

And Wonder Woman..?
She's certainly had strong, defining stories over the years. If asked, most fans will point to the runs of George PĂ©rez, Greg Rucka, and Gail Simone or specific stories like The Hiketeia.
But there's one book that has influenced how she is regarded in the eyes of fans and creators since its release that usually isn't included when people discuss defining Wonder Woman stories. Largely because it isn't really a "Wonder Woman" story to begin with.

That would be Mark Waid and Alex Ross's Kingdom Come.

Usually, when this story is discussed, it's more in regard to Superman and maybe Batman. Superman especially is very much the heart of the story.
But Kingdom Come is a seminal and defining work for Wonder Woman, even if it wasn't intended to be. It marks a significant turning point for her—both in her portrayal, and her place in DC as a whole—and for better or worse, has defined her in many people's eyes. Whether they realize it or not, it has colored the way Wonder Woman is presented, and its impact on her remains to this very day.

Warrior-Mode
Kingdom Come tells the story of a possible future where Superman, disgusted that the people have embraced violent, "extreme" heroes, goes into a self-imposed exile. Other heroes, shaken or dejected that even Superman would give up, either isolate themselves or go into their own exile.
Ten or so years later, after one of these anti-heroes causes a nuclear catastrophe, Superman returns to reform the Justice League alongside Wonder Woman and several other "old guard" heroes to clean up the mess and put the younger heroes in line.
Some go along and join the new League, but many resist, forcing Superman to imprison these renegades in a super-prison called the Gulag, and the world's leaders grow increasingly concerned with this powder keg.
Meanwhile, Lex Luthor and a band of villains try to exploit the growing conflict to their advantage, only making things worse, and everything comes to a head when the imprisoned anti-heroes riot and try breaking out. Wonder Woman leads the League to war while Superman tries desperately to find some other solution.
After a massive battle, a nuclear explosion, many deaths, and Captain Marvel's sacrifice, the surviving heroes and world’s leaders achieve a kind of peace and begin picking up the pieces.

Kingdom Come was, in its release, created as a criticism and counterpoint to the growing trend of ultra-violent anti-heroes that were popular at the time (this was the mid-90's mind you).
The core conflict comes, not from villains, but other so-called heroes, and there is a theme regarding the clash of older heroes like Superman and Batman versus the newer "extreme" heroes—personified by Magog who, in the story, is embraced by the public as a great hero after he murders the Joker, leading to Superman's exile in the first place.

Wonder Woman's primary role in Kingdom Come is as Superman's second-in-command and closest confidant. It is she who urges him to come out of exile and lead, and she becomes a driving force in the Justice League containing the renegade anti-heroes.
As the situation escalates, Diana becomes increasingly hostile, militaristic, and convinced war is the only and inevitable solution.

Wonder Woman's portrayal in Kingdom Come has been praised and criticized by fans for essentially the same reason.
Some liked the emphasis on her "warrior" attributes and applauded her presentation as an aggressive, no-nonsense bad-ass who's quick with a sword and not afraid to get shit done. Others, however, thought this was very out-of-character for Diana and contrary to the diplomatic, compassionate peacemaker she is supposed to be.

The thing of it is both sides are right. Yes, Wonder Woman in Kingdom Come does act more aggressive than normal. And yes, it is out-of-character for her. But there's a very important thing to remember which puts Diana's actions in context:
Midway into the story, we learn shortly after Superman’s exile, Diana was put on trial by her Amazon sisters who believed she had not been doing enough to make the world a better place—as is her mission as Amazon Champion. They stripped her of her title and banished her from Themyscira, leaving Diana to believe she is a failure.

And that there is the critical thing.
This is a Wonder Woman believes she's failed her mission, given up on her belief in peace, and is (over)compensating by becoming a hardcore, sword-wielding WARRIOR woman.

Kingdom Come is, at its core, about what can happen when the Trinity loses their way. Superman gives up and goes into exile. Batman holes himself in his cave, turning Gotham into a practical police state with an army of robots.
And Wonder Woman becomes an angry, fatalistic zealot—convinced the only way to redeem herself is to become a war-monger.

Yes, Diana is acting out-of-character...but that's the point. 

Broken Idealism
As I've said in previous posts, a key aspect of Wonder Woman is her idealism. It is, alongside compassion, arguably her defining attribute. Her desire to leave Themyscira and become a hero was based on her idealism. Her mission is an idealistic one. She is driven by the belief that people are, deep down, good and decent and she wishes to make the world a better place. The fact she sees her mission as her very destiny is in itself an idealistic notion.

So, of course, one of the most compelling conflicts that can be offered to Wonder Woman as a character is having her idealism tested...or even broken. What would Diana be if she lost faith in herself or people in general? What would make her question her mission? Or further, what could drive her to quit?
Kingdom Come is one of the only stories to explore these questions. When one considers the greater context, Diana's actions and how she came to this place makes sense.

Look at it from her perspective...
Diana is tasked with making the world a better place using tolerance and diplomacy. But despite her efforts, the world in Kingdom Come is becoming a progressively darker place. Violence is escalating to the point where the so-called heroes are virtually indistinguishable from villains. This comes to a head when Superman turns his back on the world and exiles himself to his Fortress of Solitude.

Shortly after this happens, as she explains to Superman, the Amazons put her on trial, deem her a failure, and banish her from Themyscira. We get no details on what exactly Diana's been doing in the years since, but we can assume she continued to be Wonder Woman...only to watch as the world got even worse around her—culminating in the nuclear disaster Magog instigates.

Again, Diana's actions are out-of-character, but that's the point of her arc. This is a Diana who sees herself as a failure. From her perspective, she's failed her mission, failed her people, failed the world, failed her destiny. She hides it behind a cool exterior, but this is a Diana who's been broken and responds the only way she can think of.

Does she crumble to pieces? No...she hardens. She comes to believe the reason for her failures and reason the world isn't getting better is because she was too soft. She rejects her belief in peace and compassion and embraces a militaristic warrior mentality. She looks back on her past "gentility" with bitterness.
And as the conflict continues to escalate, she decides war is inevitable and puts aside her traditional costume in favor of golden battle-armor complete with sword.

Speaking for myself—and I'll admit to some bias, as she is my favorite of the three—I find Diana's arc in Kingdom Come more compelling than Superman or Batman's.
Although much of it is between the lines, this is a Wonder Woman who is in a very dark place and hurting because of it. And tragically, she's making rash decisions as a result, further distancing herself from the compassionate person she normally is.

Also consider the stuff that isn't addressed in the story.
There's no mention of Steve Trevor or Etta Candy. If they're not dead, they're most likely old while Diana remains young. Although Donna Troy is around, we see almost no interaction between the two. The implication is that Diana is alone and has been for some time. Her friends and loved ones age, abandon her, or die...and she carries on. Is that one of the things weighing on her and making her act the way she does?

Although not addressed or relevant to the actual story—the ending implies Diana loses it when she becomes pregnant—that also raises questions regarding her immortality overall.
How long does she plan to be Wonder Woman? Does she have an end-goal in mind? Could or would she ever really settle down and/or pass the mantle to someone else? Will she retire to Themyscira, or would she choose to remain in the World of Men?

All interesting questions that, unfortunately, are rarely treated with the gravity they deserve.

Not to get off track, but the Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia includes entries on the various versions of Wonder Woman—be they alternate Earths, parallel timelines, or possible futures. And it's kind of depressing how the vast majority of them boil down to Diana being inconsequential and/or dead.
More often than not, she exists in these stories merely because she's Wonder Woman and is expected to be there, and her character functions in relation to whatever the plot or premise demands.

Kingdom Come is one of the rare stories in which Diana has an active role, is engaged with the story surrounding her, and makes sense within the context. Or to put that another way, it's a story in which Diana has motivation and agency.
And in doing so when it first came out, it presented a side of Wonder Woman a lot of readers, many of whom were probably not all that familiar with her, had never seen before. I'll come back to this later, but at the time, this was the first a lot of comic book fans saw there might be a compelling character in Wonder Woman.

Unfortunately, a lot of these readers were so taken by this interpretation, they didn't realize it was a vision of Diana who was not acting like her normal self. And I think a big reason for that is, as much as I praise her role in Kingdom Come, there is a huge problem with her arc...

Left Hanging
I think if there's a flaw with Wonder Woman's portrayal, it's that her arc/conflict doesn't really get proper closure.

During the final battle, after she kills Von Bach, Diana and Batman have a confrontation. He calls her Amazon beliefs paradoxical and, after they see incoming planes armed with nuclear missiles, he lectures her a bit and that presumably gets Diana's head back on straight.
After the battle and things work out, she's accepted back onto Themyscira and becomes a teacher for the new generation of heroes—regaining her faith in peace and becoming her old self again.

Diana realizing she's lost her way and returning to her old self is a satisfying and logical conclusion to her arc, but it's not made clear and presented in a muddy fashion.
Diana's epiphany comes after Batman lectures her about the Amazons, so the scene could be read as her agreeing with him and rejecting her Amazon ways, but that doesn't work because the story ends with her being welcomed back to Themyscira and reclaiming her title there.

I've read that Kingdom Come's writer, Mark Waid, is/was not happy with his handling of Wonder Woman. I haven't been able to find the interview (or wherever it was stated), but he allegedly said he felt he didn't really get the character at the time and didn't have a grip on her until the end of the story.

I wonder if that explains the lack of proper closure? Did he think Diana's conflict and arc was something else entirely? Or maybe it started as one thing, but became something else somewhere in the writing process? Was he not even aware he was giving Diana an arc to begin with and thought this is just how Wonder Woman is?
And if so, does that invalidate everything I've written here?

That last one is not a rhetorical question. The answer is no, but it is something to consider all the same.*

Whatever the case, it's a muddied conclusion that hampers her story, and I suspect that's one of the reasons many readers don't realize that Diana is acting out-of-character and that her acting OOC is the point. And it hurts what is otherwise a compelling arc about Wonder Woman losing faith and finding her way again. 

Impact
The first thing I want to touch on is Kingdom Come's affect on the relationship between Wonder Woman and Superman, because this story is often cited by Diana/Clark shippers as the proof they belong together.

And it's funny, re-reading Kingdom Come for the first time in years to prep this blog post, seeing just how UN-romantic their relationship is in the story. Despite ending with Diana and Clark hooking up and having a baby, there is virtually no romantic chemistry between the two. Quite the opposite in fact, as they spend the majority of the story at odds with one another.
There's no denying there is a friendship and bond between the two. It's obvious Superman is concerned over how broken Diana has become, and Diana herself tries to be supportive when Clark is doubting himself, but...true love..? That's a negative.

There's exactly one scene (two panels to be accurate) that even attempts to depict romantic chemistry, and it comes completely out of left field. After Superman first learns Diana has been banished from Themyscira, he tells her he's worried about her. And apropos of nothing, Diana goes in for a kiss.
Aside from that, they share a kiss at the end, which could easily be interpreted as platonic. Honestly, if not for the Epilogue that reveals Clark and Diana are going to have a baby, you could walk away from the story not knowing they're supposed to end up together.

Re-reading Kingdom Come kind of reinforces my previous assessment: this isn't a story of two lovers destined to be together. Clark and Diana's relationship in KC is that of two old, lonely people settling because they don't have anyone else.

Moving onto important matters, one of the major impacts that can be traced back mainly to Kingdom Come is the "Trinity" itself.

Younger fans might not realize it, but the notion of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman representing a core "Trinity" in the DC Universe is a relatively new concept.
Of course they've long been regarded as iconic figures, and Wonder Woman herself has, for many years, been known as the most recognizable female superhero. And obviously it wasn't the first or only story to depict the three of them as a unit. But Kingdom Come was one of the first stories—at least the most prominent—to depict Superman, Batman, AND Wonder Woman together as the primary cornerstones of the DC universe.


Before then—and if we're being perfectly honest, to this very day to a degree—the so-called Trinity of DC icons was Superman & Batman, the World's Finest.............................................and Wonder Woman.
And I know there are still fans who will insist there is no "Trinity" and question, even if there is, why Wonder Woman is the third corner.

But Kingdom Come was one of the first stories to portray Wonder Woman on equal footing with Superman and Batman, and it wasn't long after that DC started to really push the notion of "The Trinity."

At the time, many readers only saw Wonder Woman as a less interesting Superman. And to be blunt, many creators depicted her as such (and many still do, let's not pretend otherwise). So to see her presented as, not only a relevant part of the DC Universe, but one with an engaging role and arc within the story was an eye-opener for a lot of readers.
I don't want to blow this out of proportion and suggest Diana was the break-out character of the story—as said, usually when Kingdom Come is discussed, it's in regard to DC as a whole and/or Superman in particular—but this was a story that made many fans notice Wonder Woman as something other than "Superman with boobs."

But there is a caveat to that. As there tends to be with many seminal works, sometimes people only see the surface and take the wrong message or ignore some important bit of context.
Kingdom Come is a story that depicts Wonder Woman as a sword-wielding WARRIOR with a short temper who is quick to wage battle and "force peace." As explained, this is NOT how Wonder Woman is supposed to be and that's very much the point. There is an in-story reason for why she's acting like this, and her arc concludes with her realizing that is not who she is.

But many creators and fans either didn't see that, or chose to outright ignore it—instead only seeing Wonder Woman with a sword and declaring it "bad-ass."
Although she had used a sword and worn battle-armor before, it was after Kingdom Come that image of Diana started to become more prevalent. The golden armor she dons, dubbed the Screaming Chicken Armor by some fans, found its way into the main DC continuity. Some writers depicted her as aloof, distant, and sanctimonious. Her compassion would be down-played, and over time, she'd be more likely to swing a sword or axe than use her Lasso.

Suddenly, she being a "warrior" became her defining attribute, and that meant presenting her as a bloodthirsty zealot...just 'cause. And that portrayal of Wonder Woman, combined with her purported beliefs in peace and tolerance, gives rise to the notion that she's a "paradox."

This is another idea that can be traced back to Kingdom Come and has lingered around people's interpretation of Wonder Woman ever since: that it is somehow inherently contradictory for her to be a warrior who advocates for peace.
This was something Mark Waid would bring up again when he wrote JLA later, and we'd see it come up under other writers like Geoff Johns, and it still crops up from time to time.

I won't say there's no merit in the idea. There is potential conflict to be mined out of where the line is drawn between battle and diplomacy.

Unfortunately, I've found actual execution of that conflict rather lacking. Mainly because it tends to stem from this false notion that a "warrior" automatically equals "kill-crazy berserker who doesn't listen to reason."
And it doesn't. A "warrior" is a person who fights; that's it. Technically, almost every hero and villain in the entire DC Universe is a "warrior."

Just because Wonder Woman is a "warrior" does not mean she's Conan the Barbarian. And therefore, her drive for peace and compassion does not necessarily clash with that.

The depiction of Diana as a paradox is, more often than not, just a half-hearted attempt to reconcile the perceived contradiction in her character. But that approach only serves to make her seem more aloof and inhuman...which gives rise to the ludicrous notion that Diana isn't human, nor does she understand humans.
Or, at worst, it just makes her look like an inconsistent hypocrite.

In many ways, the worst of Wonder Woman's portrayal in the New 52 is the apotheosis of concepts and ideas that came out of Kingdom Come.


Kingdom Come, although not really a "Wonder Woman" story, is a classic and seminal work which has, however unintentionally, come to define her in many ways—for better and worse.

It introduced the idea that she is a pillar of the DC universe on equal footing with Superman and Batman in the hearts and minds of many fans. It presented her with a compelling arc that revealed aspects of her character we hadn’t seen before.
It also gave rise to an interpretation of Diana that goes against everything she’s intended to be, and planted the seeds for what would be severe mis-characterization of her in years to come.

Overall, I still enjoy Kingdom Come and I believe it's worthy of status as a classic.
As said, flaws aside, I find it an interesting exploration of Diana as a character, though I wish more writers who take their cue from it would remember what is actually happening with her in the story and why—as opposed to seeing her wield a sword and going from there.

Hopefully, more writers will understand that and create more defining stories that test the limits of Wonder Woman's idealism, compassion, and fears.

 ______________________________________________________
*I am aware there was a novelization that might elaborate or address some of things I discuss here. Having not read it—basing this post solely on the comic—I can't comment on whether it backs up my points or contradicts them. 

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