JMS Talks WONDER WOMAN's New Look and New Direction
Beginning with Wonder Woman #600, the Amazon princess gets one of her biggest overhauls since she was created in 1941.
Wearing a new costume designed by DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee — complete with pants — this new, modern-looking Wonder Woman is from the mind of the new Wonder Woman writer, J. Michael Straczynski.
Because of a change to the character's timeline, Wonder Woman now has a new origin, an altered history and a different supporting cast.
It all starts with an alteration to time, about 20 years ago, when someone destroyed Paradise Island. This new Wonder Woman was a baby then, and after her mother was killed, she was smuggled out of her homeland and raised by guardians in New York.
Wonder Woman readers pick up her story 20 years later, but it won't take long for this altered Wonder Woman to find out what happened to the timeline, making it her mission to correct it.
It's all part of Straczynski's attempt to give Wonder Woman a more realistic, grounded approach that contrasts with her still mythical background. He compares the effect to what Neil Gaiman did in Sandman. While this fresh, new Wonder Woman exists in a tough, urban world, she also interacts with a few surviving Amazons and their mythical world that still exists in the shadows.
These changes to Wonder Woman come on the heels of another big character change orchestrated by JMS. Just last Wednesday, DC announced the writer's "Grounded" storyline that takes Superman across America by foot.
And while the changes to Wonder Woman may seem a bit overwhelming to DC fans, Marvel fans will remember another recent iconic character change written by JMS. After all, Straczynski was the writer behind "One More Day," the story that saw Spider-Man's history altered to erase his marriage.
After that story was finished, Straczynski publicly decried Marvel's editorial changes to his Spider-Man story — particularly its effect on continuity. And soon after, he left Marvel to write exclusively for DC.
Newsarama talked with Straczynski to find out more about the changes to Wonder Woman's costume and timeline, learn which characters remember her and discuss why he feels these developments were necessary.Newsarama: Joe, let's just dive right in and start with exactly what this change means to the character and how it changes her continuity. Has this new Wonder Woman completely forgotten the history we've known? What's her origin now?
J. Michael Straczynski: She doesn't really remember any of it, because in this timeline, it never happened, so there's nothing to remember. However, she does keep getting brief flashes of images that we will recognize as being from the Wonder Woman timeline that we know.
As it stands now, Diana was taken from Paradise Island 18 years ago, when she was a child. The island was under a massive assault, and Hippolyta wanted to be sure that her daughter survived. The queen led the final defense of Paradise Island, but in the end was defeated. She and most of the other Amazons were killed, with some taken prisoner while the rest escaped to the four winds.
So Diana's task now is to a) find out where, how and why the timeline was changed, b) who did it, c) if it can be undone, and d) stay ahead of the forces trying to kill her while e) helping as many of the surviving Amazons stay alive as possible, since they too are still being hunted.
Nrama: What motivated this idea to make a change in Wonder Woman's history
Straczynski: There are several reasons. The first requires that I back into it a bit, however.
I've run any number of writer's workshops over the years, and one of the rules of a good workshop is that you kick out anybody who's been there more than a year. Otherwise what happens is that they begin writing for the group. They know what the group likes, they know what the group doesn't like, and because we all like to be liked, they begin to write more and more within those parameters.
As a result, the stories tend to move in ever-tighter circles, becoming more insular and less accessible to anyone outside the group. This has nothing to do with the quality of the stories, only with the degree to which they become so inside that they aren't as commercially viable as they should be.
Wonder Woman is a terrific character, strong and bright and compelling, and she should be selling in the top twenty on a regular basis. But for the last few years, despite some really good storytelling, she's selling in the low 70s; the numbers have been in free-fall. Starting from May 2009 to the present, the book has lost 500-1000 readers per month. Over the last two years, it's lost over one-third of its readership.
What that says is that new readers aren't sampling the book, and many of those who have been reading it, have dialed out or lost interest. This is one of the surest signs that the stories, as good as they are, have become too insular. This isn't a reflection on the character, the writers or the fans, not by any stretch of the imagination. It's a perception issue, and as a friend of mine once pointed out, sometimes the only way to see clearly through a stained glass window is to punch a hole in it.
As I've noted elsewhere, Wonder Woman has, to an extent, become like a Ferrari you keep in the garage 24/7 because you're afraid of denting it. It's great to look at, beautiful in line and form, and as long as it's in the garage, it's safe ... but that's not what a Ferrari is for.
The second reason for a big shakeup is that frankly, it's long overdue. Her look, her dynamic and the sorts of stories being told have ossified over the years. Other characters have had their image buffed and altered over the years, but absent the regrettable mod look of the 60s, Wonder Woman looks pretty much the same now as she did in 1941. The resultant question being, if you were to design Wonder Woman right now, as though she had never existed before, what would she be like? So there's the timeliness issue.
And that's always been my first responsibility. Coming from TV and film, rule number one is that you always service the main character first and foremost. If that's not working, you've got nothing.
Nrama: So who is this Wonder Woman? Is she still Diana Prince? Where does she live? And what are the differences and similarities between her and the character that was created so many years ago through an encounter with Steve Trevor?
Straczynski: She is still Diana. She was raised in New York by other Amazons and guardians who escaped the destruction of Paradise Island, so she has a foot in both worlds. (There's this kind of cool underground location where some of her guardians have been posted for decades, and it's a very shadowy, candle-lit place...so you can go from the urban environment to something far more mythic looking in a second.)
She knows her background, having been told about it over the years, but remembers very little of it herself. She knows that they're all relying on her to put it all back the way it was, that one day the Princess will return to restore Paradise Island to its former greatness, and that's a huge responsibility for her. Sometimes she chafes against it.
Also, by virtue of being raised off the Island, and other factors involving the timeline shift, she doesn't have her full range of powers. She's nearly but not entirely invulnerable, can't fly (yet), and the lasso was taken from her mother after her death defending Paradise Island. So one by one, she has to pick up these skills or powers, allowing us to examine them more closely, and give them proper weight, rather than taking them for granted.
Nrama: It sounds like she's turned into a woman who is much more realistic, at least in our world. A little less untouchable and god-like, and a little more familiar. Is that accurate? And was that a goal?
Straczynski: Yes. Again, the goal is to make her more interesting to and accessible for a readership that genuinely wants to like this character, but have found the picture-frame surrounding her less than interesting.
There needs to be a greater sense of realism and connection to that real world, but at the same time, we don't want to lose what makes her Diana. So we keep as much of the mythic material as we can, which actually becomes more mythic in feel by contrasting it with the urban world.
For instance...in Issue #600 she goes to see an Oracle who escaped Paradise Island. In the other timeline, she would've lived in a beautiful marble tower, in flowing gowns. We actually see that in a flashback. But having escaped, she lives under a bridge, blind, but still tied to that world, to those powers, bringing the mythic into the urban.
As Neil Gaiman showed, sometimes putting the fantastical (Morpheus, Dream) into the real world makes it seem even more otherworldly by contrast. There's a rule of writing: if everything is funny, nothing is funny; if everything is sad, nothing is sad. You want that contrast. Here, if everything is mythic, nothing is mythic. It's all about contrast.
Nrama: The change in her character certainly explains the need to change the costume. But what were your ideas behind how the character's uniform was created? What role does the big changes in her look play?
Straczynski: It was really a matter of updating the character inside and out, to show that you can make big changes without breaking the character. Her look, again, dates back to 1941. How would we design her today? When I saw Trinity in the Matrix movies, I thought, that's how Wonder Woman should come across: strong, sexy, dynamic, powerful. Right now she's kind of become the mother of the cute girl next door.
Nrama: This must have been a tough process as you tweaked her costume. Were you and Jim Lee — and others who had to approve this — on the same page? What can you tell us about the process and the tweaks that took place as you went back and forth on the way the character looks?
Straczynski: It was a very tough process, because after a while it becomes really hard to think outside the box. The first iterations changed one or two things so tiny that you almost couldn't see them unless you were looking for them.
I had very particular things in mind: I wanted her to have tights and a jacket, dark colors, so she'd be more of a street fighter in appearance, while keeping some of the signature colors and lines.
I thought it'd be cool to have the bracelets solid on the outside, tied on the inside, with a stylized W on the outside that would cross to show WW and which would leave a mark if you got hit by it.
Nrama: The bracelets in particular have a different look about them, but she's still got her belt. What's the story behind these tools — are they still a gift of the gods? How do they work — any differences from what we've known?
Straczynski: The bracelets work pretty much the same, but now they're even more of a signature, literal and metaphorical. They and the rest are a part of her heritage, they represent what she'd fighting to reclaim.
Nrama: What role does the jacket play? Is she more armored than before?
Straczynski: There's a little bit of that aspect to it, but I also just liked the idea of giving her a jacket, so she could leave it on or take it off, add or subtract from it...accessorize. At risk of going all Project Runway, she can have a daytime look, a street-fighter look, something a bit more sexy or elegant depending on how she switches it around.
And she has pockets. How she carried things around with her before now is anybody's guess.
Nrama: When I asked last week about the Superman story, you indicated it took some real nerve to do what needed to be done with that character and reconnect him with America, but this change to Wonder Woman seems much more drastic and had to take some nerve too. Was this idea just as "accepted" by DC? Or was there a little more resistance?
Straczynski: To my astonishment, they never blinked, at least not where I could see it. I have to give Dan and Jim major props for their courage in taking on some pretty radical ideas. Given where things are sales-wise, they knew that half-measures just weren't going to cut it.
Nrama: It's interesting that you have specifically pointed out that guys tend to see women in terms of what role they play. How has that led to Wonder Woman being sheltered from alteration? Or is that true of any icon?
Straczynski: I think it's led to a kind of calcification of the character overall. This is who she is, and that's that; once she's been defined and placed into a role, game over.
I was checking out some of the responses to my Brave and the Bold issue featuring Wonder Woman to kind of get a sense of the room as I developed the story, and was amazed at how many people — mainly guys, but some women — really had a hard time with her telling a joke, or being flirty, or dancing. "Wonder Woman doesn't dance in a club!" one person wrote with great indignity.
Another guy, on a podcast, said the idea of Wonder Woman at a club or acting cool literally creeped him out because Wonder Woman was like his grandmother, and he didn't want his grandmother doing that sort of thing.
When people start to see your character as a grandmother, or a prude, or inflexible...something's profoundly wrong.
Nrama: Joe, you've had experience in how messy these time-tweaking and memory-altering stories can get. Have you mapped out what's happened to continuity now that the timestream has changed?
Straczynski: When I was across the street, some of the time- and history-changing elements weren't of my design, were editorially imposed, or weren't done as I would've liked. So hopefully I can do a tad better on my own. Lord knows I pulled together a number of timeline-based changes on Babylon Five and those came out pretty well, all things considered.
So yes, I've mapped out all the changes so with luck, assuming I don't screw it up, this will all work.
Nrama: Are other characters in the DCU involved in this story? Have they also forgotten her previous interaction with them in, for example, the Justice Society and Justice League? And how does this affect characters like Wonder Girl or Donna Troy?
I'd rather let the Donna Troy folks speak for themselves, rather than my trying to characterize their approach. Just seems polite to do so.
Nrama: Getting back to your story in Wonder Woman, how will you introduce the story to readers? Where do we pick up her life and how do we — and how does she — start to understand what's happened to her?
Straczynski: It happens very literally on the first page of my piece in Issue #600. We see Wonder Woman as we know her turning a corner (after something curious happens with a little girl who disappears) and when she comes around the other side of that corner, she's in the new iteration.
In that flash of a moment, the timeline was altered. We know on the first page that she knows only what she's been told, and set up that dark forces are out to kill her and all the surviving Amazons. So literally from page one, the framework is set and we're off to the races.
Nrama: Every comic has a supporting cast. Who are the characters in this new Wonder Woman's life — both supporters and adversaries?
Straczynski: I want to fill out some of the corners with new characters. The Oracle is one, and as for antagonists, I went researching for Greek characters that haven't been used or over-used. One of the first supernatural forces she encounters are the Keres, and it's best if you look them up in detail rather than my explaining them here, 'cause they're really, really scary. They're enemies worthy of Wonder Woman.
Nrama: Will we see the Greek gods from Wonder Woman's mythology involved in this story? Are they still part of her world?
Straczynski: They're still involved but a bit at arm's length. The gods are in some way responsible for what's happened to her, for reasons of their own. Something's got them scared.
The reason they did this is at the core of what Wonder Woman learns along the way. And yes, they will be making appearances, but often less directly than you might expect. For me, again, a lot of what we're doing with the magic and mysticism of Wonder Woman feels not that far removed from what Neil did with Sandman.
Nrama: Now that we've set up who Wonder Woman is and how she got this way, what drives the story as you begin your run on Wonder Woman?
Straczynski: It's her mission, as stated above, and straightforward survival.
Nrama: I'm sure you can understand that, after years of seeing alterations (although usually more minor) to Wonder Woman coming and going, it begs the question of how permanent this change really is. Or are you admitting up front that it's temporary, since she's trying to put the timeline back in order?
Straczynski: Putting the timeline back in order doesn't mean that some changes don't stick, especially if some of those changes end up being popular or well accepted. It'd be a shame to reboot a character and make her popular only to later throw it all away and go back to what wasn't working as well as it should've.
Nrama: Looking over your bibliography, this appears to be one of only a few solo female-focused solo stories. What's this process been like for you as a writer, as you worked to find Wonder Woman's voice, even a new one for her? Do you feel like it's been a challenge to write such a unique female character? And have you grown and/or enjoyed the experience of getting to know her?
Straczynski: It may be one of the few solo female books, but I've always had a knack for writing strong female characters. I'd point to my movie, Changeling, and virtually all of the female characters on Babylon 5, from Delenn to Ivanova and Lyta, on and on. Certainly, Laurel was 50% of the story in Midnight Nation.
So basically, this ain't my first time at the rodeo.
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything else you want to tell fans about Wonder Woman as she goes through this change?
Straczynski: I guess I'd just say to the current fans: give us a chance, I know it's a bit of a jump, but in the long haul, I think you'll approve. And to those who're thinking about checking the book out...you're jumping in at the right moment, to a whole new chapter. You don't have to know enough about Greek Mythology to pass a test, and the slate is clean. Jump in and join the fun.