“Be Glad of Your Many Sisters” – The Insular and the Exceptional in Wonder Woman: The Circle

Editor’s Note: Back in August, Bruno Savill de Jong emailed me to tell me about his new blog Panels Are Windows, and to pitch the possibility of writing a guest post for The Middle Spaces. I am so happy to be able to publish this deep dive into Wonder Woman: The Circle that considers the significance of Diana’s birth to the insular world of the Amazons. Do you have an idea for a guest post? Pitch us something.

Infant Diana raised in front of the Moon (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #16)

In both publication and fiction, Wonder Woman’s creation is unique.

In 1941, following an interview in The Family Circle expressing the untapped “great educational potential“ of comic books, psychologist, feminist and polygamist W.M. Marston, along with artist, Harry Peter, established the iconic superheroine (assisted by Marston’s wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and the pair’s mutual lover Olive Byrne) in All-Star Comics #8. Yet despite the bold declaration Wonder Woman’s first appearance made against a male-dominated genre, the development of her character’s fictional origins is quite staggered. Within All-Star Comics #8, she is simply the Amazon’s Princess, unique by hierarchy but not biology. In Wonder Woman #1 (June 1942) her origin of being born from clay was introduced, but it was not until Wonder Woman #105 (1958) that her powers were depicted as a blessing from the gods. A more cohesive origin was granted by George Pérez in Wonder Woman #1 (vol. 2, 1987), solidifying the origins of both Wonder Woman and her Amazonian society. That is, until her clay origins were eradicated completely in DC Comics’ 2011 company-wide New 52 reboot. All this is to demonstrate that few heroes have had their minutiae reworked as much as Wonder Woman (including a brief stint without powers or a superhero identity, just a woman in a white pantsuit who knows karate). These reconstructions are important for a character as symbolic as Wonder Woman. They show how she has alternately been made to fall in line with or resist patriarchal notions of power and legitimacy. She is emblematic of the unique and radical concepts her all-female Amazonian society embodies, but her origins also mark her as separate from it. Through her immaculate conception at the behest of exclusively women, Diana is both “of” women and “distinct from” ordinary women. She is both “Woman” and “Wonder” incarnate. Most superhero origins occur within the lead character’s life. Generally, they begin as ordinary people, but then through accident (The Flash), or puberty (the original X-Men), or destiny (Captain Britain), they become something extraordinary. But for Wonder Woman, her origin comes not only from birth, but from the very act of birth itself. Her mere existence is miraculous.

Wonder Woman’s costume against the dark (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #15)

In Gail Simone, and Terry and Rachael Dodson’s story-arc The Circle (in Wonder Woman #14-17 (vol. 3, 2008)) Wonder Woman’s origin is again revisited, but it is more re-contextualised than remade—in a way that both reinforces her womanist aspects, and complicates the paradisiacal unity of Themyscira. Her clay origin is kept largely similar, but is imbued with reinvigorated themes; Diana’s roots are not reduced but strengthened.  In continuity, The Circle takes place when these links are perhaps their weakest. Following the ‘soft reboot” of Infinite Crisis (2005-2006), Wonder Woman’s secret identity is the mortal Agent Diana Prince, her once proud and open Amazonian identity now hidden (once again) behind a human façade. Additionally, the story takes place after Amazons Attack (2007), during which the Olympian Gods have scattered her Amazonian sisters among the mortal world, leaving Queen Hippolyta (Diana’s mother) Themyscira’s only resident, a monarch without subjects. In The Circle, Wonder Woman uncovers a plot by Captain Nazi for his New Reich to invade her now mostly abandoned homeland, intent upon claiming it as a headquarters. More than a standard physical threat, the Nazi invasion attacks both Wonder Woman’s personal and social identities.

Nazi forces destroy cultural artifacts of Themyscira (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #16)

Yet while attempting to occupy and eradicate aspects of Wonder Woman’s origin, the Nazi forces accidentally reawaken parts of it. The other part of The Circle—flashbacks recounted in the opening pages of each issue—tells of Hippolyta’s personal Royal Guard, four Amazons utterly dedicated to protecting their Queen. However, upon hearing Hippolyta’s intention to ask the Gods for a child, they are unable to accommodate this change. The Amazons are immortal and infertile, a daughter who can age is considered such a substantive change to their egalitarian society, that they believe it will destroy the Amazons. Alkyone, leader of the bodyguards, ultimately decides the creation must be stopped, so the Royal Guard attempts to assassinate Hippolyta’s newly-born child in her sleep. When discovered in the attempt, they are imprisoned. However, years later, due to the New Reich’s invasion, these traitorous Amazons are accidentally freed. Having just repelled the Nazis attempting to replace her culture with a new fascist ideology, Wonder Woman must then face these Amazons trying to replace her culture with an older version, one in which she is not included. Each regime tries to stamp out the unique variable that is Wonder Woman.

But Wonder Woman’s exceptional nature shouldn’t be erased. It should be celebrated.

1. “there was also blood”; The Miracle of Childbirth

The celibate creation and virginal birth of Diana may eliminate the necessity of men, but it also eradicates the involvement of women. Owing perhaps to previous era’s restrictions, her transformation from clay doll to living babe is often depicted rather clinically. For instance, in Wonder Woman #1 (vol. 1, 1942), when the clay origin was first introduced, the tiny statue of Diana becomes animate between panels. George Perez’s rendition is better in Wonder Woman #1 (vol.2, 1987), with a small panel of Hippolyta’s sweating and strained face of prayer being symbolic of her maternal labour, but Diana still manifests in a flash of light which turns the clay object alive. In each previous case, the focus is purely on the Greek Gods granting Diana life, not upon Hippolyta requesting it. Any effort on her part is depicted emotionally, not physically. Given Diana is not technically her biological daughter; the framing of Hippolyta’s childbirth in both depictions reduces the sense of physical maternity. Deeply aware of how sanitised this birth has been depicted, The Circle’s opening narration in Wonder Woman vol. 3, #14, mocks the aesthetic of ‘sunny skies over deeply azure oceans of calm” associated with the previous tellings.

Often, childbirth is depicted in media as to remove reference to female sexuality. The Circle contrasts these idealised visions of ‘sunny skies” with “darkness… thunder… [and] blood,” given Diana’s sculpting occurred not on a calm and placid day, but a turbulent and dark evening. The narrative of Immaculate Conception seeks in ways to eradicate the messy femininity of childbirth, but through the blood, rain and mud, Gail Simone replicates the fluids and physical labour of Hippolyta’s delivery.

“Miracle. Oh, Miracle. Wonder” (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #16)

Simone was very conscious about re-contextualising Wonder Woman’s origins with an increased maternal perspective. She has written about how “being a mom is scary and momentous” and this depiction, with the blood-red colour scheme and epic proclamation is “female and frightening” in ways previous depictions simply were not. Simone integrated rarely depicted consideration towards female experiences into Wonder Woman’s creation.

Similarly, Simone considered the implications of Diana’s birth on the wider Amazonian community. Typically, little attention is paid to the community’s reactions to Diana, but The Circle abandons the reductive view of Themyscira as a harmonious community. Simone gives a subtle implication that, after ages of immortal and secluded life, the Amazons are beginning to stagnate. For Hippolyta, Diana is more than just a placation of nascent maternal self-interest, but claims in Wonder Woman vol. 3, #16, that she is a “salvation” for her people, even if they don’t all understand it. The wider implications for the community become obvious when Hippolyta triumphantly presents Diana to the Amazons as “your princess” and “our daughter!” Hippolyta’s request was on everyone’s behalf, not just her own. The request itself is also re-contextualised by Simone to heighten the personal danger Hippolyta risks. Neither previous depiction, in 1942 or 1987, saw any struggle with the Gods for Hippolyta’s daughter. But in issue #16, Hippolyta quietly informs the doubtful Alkyone “If I fail this evening… Phillipus becomes Queen,” implying that if she ventures into the unknown and beseeches more from the Gods who already grant the Amazons safety, not only is it possible to “fail,” but doing so could mean her sovereignty at best, and her life at worst. The epic framing and dramatic revelation that accompanies Diana’s creation shows it as a momentous occasion, in terms of both the expectations of the wider community, and Hippolyta’s personal risk. In this way, the “miracle” of Wonder Woman’s birth, this exceptional moment of change, is not something simply bestowed upon the Amazons, but something earned.

“I give you your princess! I give you our daughter!” (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #16)

2. “A whittle-baby come to life”; The Objectification of Women

There are countless examples of the superhero genre’s problem with women—from casual sexism of J. Michael Stracsynski’s Thor (which was coming out contemporaneously to The Circle) to when in Wonder Woman #17 (vol. 4, 2013) Brian Azzarello had Orion sexually assault Diana with no negative consequences (even, in fact, eventually being rewarded by a romantic relationship with Diana).  The creative team of The Circle demonstrate a willingness to address that pattern through their visual and narrative choices. It is no coincidence that both of The Circle’s secondary antagonists are stereotypes of hyper-masculine aggression; Gorillas and Nazis. Each regard Wonder Woman and the Amazons as inferior due to their gender. Wonder Woman vol. 3, #14 begins with Wonder Woman battling one of Gorilla Grodd’s combat units. They explain that they “were designed to kill Superman,” and she is “but a test case.” The gorillas voice the common sentiment that Wonder Woman’s considerable abilities are secondary to Superman, underlining the sexism she faces, and how she is consistently underestimated. Such casual sexist disregard follows her into her secret identity as Agent Diana Prince, as when in the same issue, her co-worker, Agent Tresser, patronisingly tells her to “stand behind me and I’ll try and protect you.” Both in and out of costume, from both enemies and allies, Wonder Woman’s prestige and power is questioned. Such misogyny becomes more blatant when she faces the New Reich in Wonder Woman #16 (March, 2008), whose invasion of Themyscira intends to overthrow the matriarchal society and replace it with their macho-fascistic Master Race. The matriarchal island is an obstacle to their “new Fatherland.” The Nazis dismiss Amazonian culture as “the trinkets and scribbling of a race of madwomen,” while underestimating Wonder Woman and her mother as merely “two broads.” However, this underestimation and casual dismissal becomes a catalyst for their own destruction. The self-defeating nature of such sexism makes it possible, however, for the harm it can cause to also be underestimated.

“Designed to kill Superman” (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #14)

Objectification, on the other hand, is a particularly malevolent and openly sinister form of sexism that tries to do more than downplay the agency of women, it aims to eradicate it. This aim is rendered in Wonder Woman vol. 3, #15, when Captain Nazi, fighting Agent Prince, wonders aloud “should I kiss you before dying? Or after?” Alive or dead, it makes no difference to Captain Nazi, he would treat his victim as an object for his pleasure either way. Alkyone, leader of Hippolyta’s Royal Guard, also objectifies Wonder Woman. To her, Diana is not lesser due to her gender, but because she views Wonder Woman as entirely lacking a gender because of her “unnatural” origins. Viewing her as an abomination separate from the rest of the Amazons, Alkyone tries to exile Diana from femininity itself. She refers to her as a “whittle-baby come to life” or ‘that thing, that creature” (both in issue #17).  Alkyone views Wonder Woman as hollow, a mindless and genderless Golem in the form of a woman instead of a living person. It is partially Diana’s unique origins, however, that make her more than an object. She cannot be replaced or interchanged with anyone else. There is only one Wonder Woman. In her climactic fight with Alkyone, Wonder Woman refutes the Royal Guard’s reductive definition of her, stating, “I am not a doll, nor a puppet, nor a totem. I have a soul. Nor will I apologize for being born.” Wonder Woman had no choice in how she was created, as no person does, but once given life she chose how to live, and her agency makes her worthy of respect.

“Your majesty” (Gorillas kneeling in front of Diana) (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #14)

Respect is a high priority in Simone’s writing. For example, in Wonder Woman #14, rather than subduing or intimidating Grodd’s combat unit by what Diana calls “Batman’s methods,” she instead negotiates for their surrender with their unit leader Tolifhar. By acting with dignity and good faith against her opponent, Wonder Woman gains the trust and respect of the gorillas. This is later reciprocated in issue #15 when the gorillas assist Diana against the Nazi invaders; assistance she did not even “have to ask” for, given their mutual respect. All the true allies Wonder Woman encounters acknowledge her rank without overcompensation, their fondness and reverence clear. Even when asking other divine Pantheons to assist her against the Nazi occupation of Themyscira (given the Greek Gods have abandoned her), each deity is extremely courteous to Diana, even if their fear of the Greek Gods outweighs their desire to help. Contrarily, those that try to reduce Diana’s agency are blinded by their hatred and need to assert themselves over her, people who truly know and understand the sincerity and compassion of Wonder Woman respect her agency, and stand in awe.

 

 3. ‘someplace of our own”; The Shelter of Ideology

The villains of The Circle all are groups without leaders. Although Wonder Woman battles against “the easily misled” (#14) combat unit of Gorilla Grodd, Grodd himself is never shown. In this story, her antagonists are collective ideologues, groups that have become splintered from their directional authority. Even the obviously fascist New Reich that invades Themyscira is a squadron lacking a properly defined leader. Captain Nazi is more a representative than a commander, the invaders are his “physical brethren” and “genealogical wunderkind,” his equals rather than his followers. Despite Alkyone being the prime member of the Royal Guard, all four view themselves as equally dedicated servants of Queen Hippolyta. But this leader is also absent, given they are loyal only to their idealized Hippolyta, not the actual one. Lacking a primary ruler, these groups act on ideals instead of leaders, dedicating themselves unto unwavering and immutable principles rather than complex or reasonable people.

Wonder Woman pledging her allegiance to Kane Miohai (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #15) [click to view larger version]

Wonder Woman is no stranger of being dedicated to ideals. Raised on Themyscira, her Amazonian principles and virtues are precious to her, and her heroic mission entails bringing these ideals from the secluded island into the wider world. However, Diana is not single-minded. In Wonder Woman #15, she swears fealty to “Kane Miohai, God of the Sky and the Heavens” in return for his assistance against the Nazi invaders. More than just a practical allegiance however, Diana also incorporates Kane’s advice of “Keep faith. Trust to love. Fight with honor. But fight to win,” and repeats it in her final confrontation with Alkyone in Wonder Woman #17. Meanwhile, The Circle introduces enemies that, while leaderless, are so entrenched in their ideology that little space for change exists. While radically different, the New Reich and the Amazonian Royal Guard both operate on the assumption of their gender’s “naturalness.” The Nazis believe in the superiority of their “Master Race” and patriarchy over the un-submissive (and therefore “unnatural”) female Amazons. Meanwhile, the Royal Guard presume since the Amazons have been “barren for eternity,” a break from this “natural state” by gaining a daughter can only mean the destruction of their community. Having based their ideology on maintaining what they perceive as the “natural order,” these groups do not require specific commands, but can act upon their naturalized assumptions.

Alkyone refuses to accept Diana as anything other than a threat to her Amazonian paradise (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #17)

Neither the New Reich nor the Royal Guard are willing to consider that the assumptions their ideological structures are based upon could be wrong. Unsurprisingly, the fascist Nazis do not seek to reason with ideological challenges, but to destroy those with different opinions. Their new Fatherland on Themyscira will be “someplace of [their] own” where their “very beliefs are no longer outlawed” (#14). Regardless of their “beliefs” being predicated on intolerance and genocide, the Nazis cannot stand reciprocal intolerance to their own views. They turn insular rather than face external opposition. While the ideology of the Royal Guard is very different from that of the Nazis, they hold the same resolute conservatism that cannot admit fault. When Hippolyta tells Alkyone that Diana’s birth did not, as Alkyone assumed, destroy the Amazons, Alkyone declares, “I won’t believe it” (#17). Fiercely dedicated to protecting Queen Hippolyta, and by extension the social hierarchy of Themyscira, the Royal Guard became fixated on preserving order as much as maintaining it. Having envisioned themselves as “four points of the compass… at all times, surrounding” Hippolyta, their protective barricade also becomes suffocating. Preventing any risks, they stop new ideas as well as threats, and their loyal guard allows no room for expansion or exceptions. Their strict defense becomes a prison.

In The Circle, loyalty is distorted. The supposedly uncompromising radicalism of the New Reich falters once they face a real challenge. Despite their posturing, when facing the full wrath of Wonder Woman, the Nazis declare, “We’re not real soldiers” and surrender to her. In issue #15, Captain Nazi’s oppressive grandeur is exposed as vulnerability with Diana’s Lasso of Truth, which “can see right inside” him. It shows “there is no evil here but that which you bring in yourself,” demonstrating Captain Nazi’s hatred goes inwards as well as out. Despite his attempts, the cruel fascism cannot disguise the insecurity built from his abusive childhood. Similarly, Gorilla Grodd “adorn[s] lies with truth” to persuade the combat unit to fight at his command, manipulating their justified anger at “poachers” for obedience. But Diana manages to replace this hatred with empathy, letting them fight for her not from obedience or hatred, but as “friends.” Love creates stronger bonds than hatred, if to a fault. The loyalty of the Royal Guard is also distorted, although arising from overzealous love towards their Queen. Coming from love rather than hatred, they cannot be made to surrender or “repent,” unlike the other groups. To Diana, after the events of The Circle, she questions the benefits of such excessive loyalty, evident in her mother too. She asks Hippolyta “why do we continue to worship [the Olympian Gods]? Why do we bow, against all they have done to us?” (#17). Yet for Hippolyta, her loyalty is not distorted given her debt to the Gods can never be fully paid. “They gave me you, daughter,” she replies, and with this gift her loyalty is always justified, with a source of infinite love.

4. “Our daughter, all of us”; The Community of Sisterhood

Themyscira was previously called Paradise Island. Both literally and symbolically, Alkyone views the island by this name, a kind of Eden whose immortal and eternal nature the Gods provided. To be unsatisfied with Paradise is to blaspheme. Hippolyta daring to request even more of the Gods than this island—asking to break the cycle of eternal and infertile women by providing her a child—is their Tree of Knowledge, and Diana’s birth their Original Sin. Alkyone sees Hippolyta’s request as the Amazon’s Fall, and idealises their culture prior to that event. Alkyone judges Themyscira by its longevity and history, accusing Wonder Woman in issue #17 of “not know[ing their]…tribal beginnings” and of being ignorant “of what we were before culture.” Alkyone views ‘culture’ as an unnecessary progression away from the Amazons innate warrior instincts, making Wonder Woman’s civilised “weak, polite way” (#17) another aspect that estranges her from “authentic” Amazonian values. Diana is regarded as incompatible with the “original” and “natural” Amazons, especially since Alkyone views childbirth as “the foolish dream of a sterile race,” a useless fantasy that contradicts the immortality of the Amazons. For Alkyone, Amazons and maternity are opposed. She worries that if the “ache of an eternally empty womb” is suddenly fulfilled; it would destroy their all-female community from the inside out.

“Ache of an eternally empty womb” Akylone’s reflection on how Amazons still desired to be mothers (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #15)

Representing the Royal Guard and “tribal” (#17) Amazons, Alkyone believes their strength comes from their distinction from mortal women. Lacking the necessity, or ability, of procreation grants the Amazons a timeless hierarchy of “ages beyond memory,” an immortal tradition based upon close-guarded community rather than nepotism or lineage. She is loyal to a Queen without the possibility of heirs. Children would disrupt this system. Alkyone reasons that beforehand they “were a race of equals, of sisters. [A child] would bring envy to us all. It would end us.” The Amazons had been satisfied with their Queen due to an equal and communal society, but if she was granted a child while the rest were “barren for eternity,” Alkyone presumes the physical connection to Diana would outweigh the social bonds of the sisterhood, and destroy Themyscira’s community.

Imprisoned for their attempted murder of the infant Diana, the Royal Guard are not present to witness her development and integration. Indeed, when the Nazi forces inadvertently release them into the now-empty-of-Amazons Themyscira, it seems their worse predictions have been realised. Hippolyta must explain to them that Diana did not divide the Amazons, but instead unified them into a maternal collective. Instead of bringing jealousy, “all the Amazons became her mother, as one. She brought us hope, and love. She saved us.” The Royal Guard both overestimated the Amazons” tolerance for an eternal, purposeless existence, and underestimated their capacity for collaboration. Their combined effort raised Diana, and while Wonder Woman holds dearly to her “one mother,” she is grateful for her “many sisters.” Hippolyta sees Diana as not just hers but “our daughter, all of us,” while Wonder Woman refers to herself as the product of a nation, the “only daughter of Themyscira.” Diana may be distinct and unique from the regular Amazons, but she is also a result of their collective effort.

“She is our daughter, all of us” (Wonder Woman, vol. 3, #16)

5. “Make us whole again”; The Femininity of Circles

Circles have long been symbolic of femininity. In art and customs, circular vessels have represented female reproductive organs. Although Wonder Woman did not emerge from such a physical place, the various circles in The Circle symbolise her non-biological maternity. Hippolyta names her new-born Diana, which is the Roman equivalent of her Greek Goddess Artemis, appropriately the virgin goddess of the hunt, childbirth and women. Wonder Woman’s namesake embodies her feminine and warrior instincts, while also being the Goddess “of the Hunter’s moon,” a round celestial object that is constantly overlooking the story’s developments.

The moon’s shifting orbit is regularly associated with women, and reappears at key points throughout The Circle. Given historically its monthly phases are compared to women’s menstrual cycles, the moon appears to illuminate Hippolyta’s attempts at auto-reproduction. Having vowed to kill Diana to preserve their unchanging sterile race, a blood red moon is shown bisected by Alkyone’s sword, the harmonious circle cracked and distorted. Following Diana’s successful creation, Hippolyta holds her against the heavens, silhouetted against the full moon, enveloped by this symbol of feminine power.

Alkyone’s sword reflecting the broken Moon (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #16)

But circular paths are not only visible in the comic’s art, they are entrenched in the narrative. Alkyone vows to “make us whole again” by killing Diana, to repair the gaps caused by her birth, and reseal the loop of the Amazon’s circular existence. But to get rid of this addition would only seclude Themyscira, relegating them to an endless ring that turns infinitely, leading nowhere.

Remaining sheltered and eternally guarded against new perspectives is frighteningly easy. Those who refuse to consider the significance of both female representation and objectification, ignoring their influence to manipulate or empower readers, remain not only ignorant but also malignant. But this behaviour remains widespread because it is easy, safer to remain with the predictable rather than acknowledging the possibility of change, and allowing the entire foundation of your ideological beliefs to crumble beneath you. The Circle demonstrates Gail Simone’s, and Terry and Rachel Dodson’s attempts to recognise the benefits of radical change. Wonder Woman’s birth itself was reframed with a greater physical maternal perspective, acknowledging continuity while also adapting it. Like her creation, Diana’s journey into “Man’s World” was unprecedented for the Amazons, but such a risk expanded the Amazon’s principles not only forward but outward. Circles might be protective, but they still have boundaries. And Wonder Woman’s exceptional nature is too important to be contained.

“It’s a perfect circle” (Diana and Etta Candy looking at the Moon] (Wonder Woman vol. 3, #17)


Bruno Savill De Jong is a UK writer, attending the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he is completing his Masters of Arts in English Literature. His work at Panels Are Windows focuses on thematic analysis of specific comics—including Sex Criminals and Planet Hulk—attempting to articulate how the medium can reflect issues from the world onto the page. His incredibly infrequent Twitter is @BrunoSavillDeJo.

One thought on ““Be Glad of Your Many Sisters” – The Insular and the Exceptional in Wonder Woman: The Circle

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