On 20 April 2016, DC Comics announced the departure of Shelly Bond, editor-in-chief of its 'mature' comics line Vertigo.

Poet of the Week

Valentina Neri


Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

Under Bond and her predecessor Karen Berger, who established a commercial space for nonconformist creators to interrogate and deconstruct mainstream comics conventions, Vertigo had come to shape the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in sequential art in just a little over two decades.

That same week, numerous allegations of sexual harassment surfaced against Eddie Berganza, editor of DC's Wonder Woman and Superman comics. These allegations had floated around the comics Internet for several years without a name, alluding to “a senior member of staff” under whom no women were allowed to work as a precaution against his behaviour. The loss of one of the only women in the company's upper echelons, in charge of an office renowned for putting out groundbreaking content under female leadership, was one transgression too far. Berganza was named with the intent of shaming. Despite continued questioning, the company kept silent.

This was also the month that DC published Wonder Woman: Earth-One, its much-hyped graphic novel exploring the origins and future of one of the best-known female heroes in modern Western culture with an all-star lineup: Nathan Fairbairn on colours, Yanick Paquette on pencils and inks, and Grant Morrison on script duties. And Berganza as editor, of course.

You may notice that this all-star lineup is all-male. But no matter. By the time previews were out, Fairbairn had provided colours for The Multiversity: Pax Americana, the most revolutionary single issue in mainstream comics of at least the last decade. Paquette had drawn the psychosexually complex Bulleteer, about fantasy, heroism, mortality, and our real and conceptual bodies, in DC's even more complex Seven Soldiers series, as well as various new and established titles for the company – and specialised in muscular beauty not far off from what you'd get if Alphonse Mucha's women knew how to deadlift.

The original Wonder Woman comic.
Morrison, who gained a foothold in the American industry via his work for Vertigo, was mainstream comics' established wunderkind (and the oxymoron contained therein will tell you a great deal regarding the state of contemporary comics), with an impressive CV already behind him that included Vertigo's The Invisibles (1994-2000), a mind-bending epic about chaotic occult fighters who operated in an unseen realm, hailed by himself and others as the uncredited inspiration for the Matrix trilogy; Marvel Comics' New X-Men (2001-2004), which attempted to reinvent their premier superhero franchise and provided an aesthetic basis for the first X-Men films in the early 2000s; and his 2006-2013 Batman run examining the foundations of who was now Western culture's most obviously beloved superhero on a personal, poignant level, questioning the effects of the very concept of heritage. His interviews often mentioned the various mythologies, occultists, and other esoterica he had researched when writing his latest series. Wonder Woman: Earth-One (henceforth referred to as WW:E1) was no different, except that the usual post-Crowley/early Indo-European/chaos magic/modern alchemical texts were replaced by “the entire history of feminism”.

Regardless of your spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, you may notice a disparity between the arcane sources of his earlier interviews and an ideology that seeks to encompass approximately 50% of the world's population. You may also wonder how one person could possibly digest the entire history of feminism, given the variations between cultures not only in terms of feminine behavioural norms but with regard to historiography and the preferred media (oral, visual, written, or other) for recording socio-historical narratives – and, in light of that, whether he looked at the work of feminists of colour with different global roots or focused on the work of white Western feminists. You may even consider that a would-be feminist approach is ultimately futile under the aegis of an all-male creative team and a male editor with an alleged history of sexually preying upon and harassing women.

Wonder Woman: Earth One cover.
Nevertheless, WW:E1 billed itself as delving into the roots of its beloved protagonist, as set out by (male) original creators William Moulton Marston and H. G. Peter, and manifestations of female power against a patriarchal world. To illustrate the latter, Morrison brought up memories of watching his mother and sister's vicious fights during his childhood, when they would attack each other by, for instance, threatening each other with pots of boiling water.

If I were cynical, I would class this as a tactic to prove his feminist credentials: I must be on the side of the gynocracy, because I have a mother and a sister.

If I were cynical. I don't want to be.

I believe in the potency of superheroes; in light of the power of fiction, it seems futile not to. Two of my six tattoos are Morrison-inspired, symbols of perseverance etched onto my body as psychological sigils against despair.

Yet in the context of the male-dominated production of this book, of Berganza's involvement with WW:E1, of DC promoting female power while protecting an (alleged) sexual predator, I don't see how I can be otherwise. These factors underlie what is essentially an advanced guide to mansplaining – what the French now call “m'expliquer” – basic survival principles for women in real-life patriarchies, and doing it harmfully in the process.

The Amazons in the Wonder Woman comic.
Plot summary: Wonder Woman is on trial for running away from her all-female society, the Amazons, on Paradise Island. During her travels she meets pilot Steve Trevor and feisty sorority girl Beth Candy, who were her love interest and best gal pal respectively in the Marston/Peters comics, and learns important truths about “man's world” in the process.

In a flashback at the start of the book, we learn that Paradise Island's gender restrictions are a reaction against male violence. Hercules has enslaved the Amazons, raped Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons and Wonder Woman's mother, and stolen her girdle of strength as in the classical myth; subverting the myth, Hippolyta then strangles him with her chains and declares that Paradise Island will remain free from any male presence in order to keep her people safe from harm and oppression.

Three thousand years go by, taking us into the present. Living only among other women has softened the Amazons' warrior ways into ceremonial competitions and play-combat pageants – until Wonder Woman encounters a man for the first time, namely Air Force pilot Steve Trevor (a white man in the original series, but here of black American extraction), who crashes on the island. She breaks the laws of her society to take him back to our world, which the Amazons refer to as “man's world,” and in the process discovers human customs and patriarchy.

On the cover and throughout the trial, Wonder Woman appears in chains, a reference to Marston's fascination with bondage as it manifested in the comic and in his personal life. Marston believed that female supremacy would improve the world, but as Noah Berlatsky notes, this stemmed from a conception of women as more naturally submissive, less power-hungry and, in a patriarchal context, less assertive.

Not that we should discount more empathetic constructions of power, but the relationship between male creator and female creation compromises said constructions. In the cases of both Marston/Peters and Morrison/Paquette/Fairbairn/Berganza, Wonder Woman's power remains under male control, a display of female autonomy shaped and restricted by the interests of men and therefore posing no threat to the status quo.

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

The above quote, attributed to Margaret Atwood, illustrates the disparity between the dangers that women and men grow up fearing. How many girls are warned about what to wear, where to avoid going, what not to drink? How many boys are indoctrinated with the same fears? As a result, Laura Maw states that women grow up reading their environments as systems of danger. Maw refers here to physical environments, but for many women (including myself) these include social, political, or any other conceptual environments.

There's a moment in WW:E1 when Hippolyta asks Steve Trevor why he sides with Wonder Woman. His response reveals much more about Morrison's attitudes than it does about the character.

“Like a lot of people in 'man's world', my ancestors were enslaved and persecuted by men with too much power. The truth is, rich men and the men who do their dirty work will try to sell you garbage while they do their damndest to stripmine your technology, poison your culture and degrade your women”.

By pinning this all on “rich men”, Steve Trevor disavows complicity in the systematic perpetuation of patriarchal dominance. Steve, you are a man. By definition, you are complicit in the evils of man's world, similar to how as an active citizen and resident of capitalist societies I am complicit in the global evils perpetuated by those societies.

Perhaps I'm being uncharitable, but my first response was to mentally ask the creative team: how dare you? On what authority do you speak for black men in America or women anywhere, to instruct us from your positions of privilege on how we should react to our struggles or how black American men feel about rising up against a legacy of enslavement?

Solidarity is a wonderful thing, but this is not solidarity. It is an insulting assumption that all oppression is the same and that all suffering is equal, reminiscent of John Lennon's statement that “woman is the n––r of the world” – Lennon, of course, being a white man with a history of domestic abuse. Non-black people must stand against anti-black racism (and indeed all types of racism), but claiming to understand how its sufferers feel would be presumptuous to the point of scorn.

Are Morrison and Paquette also disavowing their complicity in man's world by creating characters who do the same, despite a lack of justification? During Wonder Woman's trial, Beth informs the Amazons, “Sure, the patriarchy sucks, but we ain't shy about tellin' 'em!” You see? is the implicit message. We're on board with strong women “tellin' 'em.” As they say on Twitter, we're #NotAllMen.

In real life, some women who “tell 'em” or even refuse unwanted advances are murdered by men for speaking out. It's not necessarily shyness, Morrison. It could be self-preservation in a world that hates us.

Let's return for a minute to Berganza's multiple sexual harassment allegations and what they say about power. It has been rumoured for some time that DC Comics never hires women to work in Berganza's office, which as mentioned earlier covers Superman and Wonder Woman comics. If this is true, DC knows what he is yet continue to employ him. They have also allowed an alleged sexual harasser of women to control the stories of who is perhaps contemporary Western culture's most prominent female hero.

Sexual harassment is an exertion of power, where the harassed must submit when desire is imposed and the harasser is entitled to that submission. Reports on street harassment/threats/groping/assault are met with ire that victims dare to value themselves.

“Women just can't take a compliment.”

“What's wrong with someone expressing their sexuality?”

Such comments are predicated on the idea that men are entitled to all bodies and all discourse in all spaces. This is the source of the recent controversies surrounding safe spaces, which tend to be occasioned by white men; witness, for instance, Politics.co.uk editor Ian Dunt arguing that safe spaces lead to intellectual stagnation, and prioritising this (spuriously constructed) peril over the mental and emotional well-being of marginalised individuals who depend on safe spaces.

WW:E1 supports this dynamic by portraying Paradise Island's women-only society, which is founded as a safe haven free of sexual violence, physical hurt, and male dominance, as a restrictive place where women's safety and the acquisition of knowledge are mutually exclusive.

For instance, makeup is treated as a betrayal of feminine principles: “How could you do this to us?” Nubia, Paradise Island's lone Amazon of colour, asks when she notices that Wonder Woman is wearing lipstick. It's a particularly strange remark given that Paquette's art makes the Amazons appear to be wearing makeup all the time, and that in many real-life cultures all genders traditionally paint their faces and bodies for many purposes unrelated to beauty.

Paradise Island also fails to honour other physical differences, as seen when Amazon champion Mala describes the heavyset Beth Candy as “Deformed, shrunken, bloated – domesticated cattle.” There is no reason within the story why Amazon strength should only manifest in a single body type; after all, athletes of equal skill in different sports are likely to have different builds. Here, the safety of a group marginalised and mistreated by the outside world shuts out the possibility of recognising difference.

At the end of the book, we learn that Wonder Woman is allowed to be a hero because, unlike the other Amazons, she contains aspects of both the male and the female. Her creation was occasioned by a mixture of Hippolyta's essence and Hercules', which was originally intended as an act of revenge: turning the male oppressor's lineage into one of female strength. In light of this, the presence of maleness within Wonder Woman is linked to her excellence. Her difference is seen in her bravery, curiosity and acuity, which are beyond those of her Amazonian peers, and in her not wholly female origins.

In fact, Wonder Woman's creation here is wholly male – but if this origin story tells us anything, it is that men should control women's stories, even (or especially) when that control actively hurts women. This fosters dependency upon men's actions, which in turn sustains the mindset that they know better than us. They are entitled to instruct us how we should be strong, in ways that are pleasing. We must let them into our safe spaces; we must never threaten, because we will always need them.