Five Questions with…
Q&A with comic greats regarding Wonder Woman

J. Michael Straczynski

Contributed by Gaelforce, a poster on the CBR Wonder Woman forum. Thank you, Gaelforce!

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m a fan of J. Michael Straczynski and I was very excited to go to NYCC for his panel. While there I met Jan, the administrator over at http://jmsnews.com/forums/, and she was kind enough to point me in the direction of his e-mail. I had not expected such a fast and gracious reply and JMS was kind enough to take the time to answer five questions for us.

My thanks again to him for his reply!

1. How did you end up with the job of writing the ongoing Wonder Woman series and did your story in Brave and Bold 33 factor into it at all?

I took it on at the request of Dan DiDio. What happened — and I’ve discussed this in a few other places — is that we were having dinner here in LA on one of his frequent trips out here, and he starting talking about some of the books with which they’ve been having a hard time. Wonder Woman was at the top of the list: she’s part of the DC Trinity, but whereas Batman and Superman were selling well — 20s to 30s of the top 100 books — her books were selling in the bottom 80s to upper 90s, this despite having had some really terrific writers on the book.

The problem, we both agreed, was two-fold: first, the mythology and supporting cast had grown up around her so thickly that they began to obscure the main character in a way that made her and the book less accessible to new readers, and made the book problematic for current readers who had to keep track of it all, or who wanted to see a book about Diana, not the supporting cast. This was underscored by the numbers: the book had been regularly hemorrhaging 1000-1500 issues per issue for months, meaning that the book wasn’t attracting new readers, and was losing regular readers. Again, this doesn’t directly comment on the quality of the storytelling or the writing: if the audience perceives that the book or character isn’t accessible, if they feel that you need a scorecard to keep track of the universe surrounding the character, they’re not going to pick it up to find out if it’s any good or not.

The book is about Diana. It’s not the Cheetah book. It’s not the Hercules book. It’s her name on the title page, and if that means you peel off the supporting cast for a while to focus on her, then that’s what you do. If the mythos is so complex and over-wrought (again we’re talking perception here, not necessarily the specifics), then you simplify that for a while. When you put that into actual writing terms, it means isolating the character so you can focus on her, stripping her down to the bare bones, and then slowly, carefully, gradually re-introduce those elements of the character and her mythos that you want to keep.

A certain amount of this is about clarity of concept. Batman is the son of murdered parents seeking vengeance by proxy. Superman is the last survivor of a distant world. Green Lantern is an interstellar policeman, a man without fear. The Flash is a police scientist and the fastest man on the planet. Ask the same question about Wonder Woman and you get a nearly infinite number of answers: a symbol of peace…a warrior…an ambassador…a royal daughter…the list goes on. And yes, all of those aspects are fundamentally true (if sometimes a bit contradictory), I’m not saying otherwise. But if you had to tell someone who’d never read her book why he or she should pick it up, it helps to have clarity of concept. This is true of every creative venture, from TV to film to novels to comics. It’s the Greek notion of the ideal form: what is a thing unto itself? What is its perfect form?

The word perfect also touches upon the other problematic aspect of the character. As Dan has said many times, “Where do you go with someone who’s perfect, and who some insist on staying perfect?”

Prior to getting into TV, comics or film, I’d written plays and I have a deep and abiding interest in Greek theater and Greek ways of thought (which is why I picked up a minor in Philosophy at SDSU). Greek drama was the flashpoint of stories that are derived from both internal and external conflict, and in particular it stems from our flaws. Going back to Diana’s roots, this was the staple of Greek theater starting around 500 BC…the conflict between our destiny and our free will, and the tragic flaws within us that led us to our fates.

In particular, I looked back to the works of Thespis, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Eurpides and others, in which so often the main character was suddenly and for often no good reason beset by the gods…abandoned by them, chosen by them, or having terrible fates inflicted upon them. They are tested, tried, and stripped of everything they have, in ways that were often violent and upsetting, to see what they will make of their fates, and themselves. So that, to me, seemed the best way to go that would be consistent with the roots of the character: take away from her everything she has, everything we know of her, cast her out, have the gods seem to turn their backs on her, and watch her as she either falls, or climbs back to something equal to or greater than she had been before. The setting would be modern, but the ride we would put her on could be tracked on a direct line to her character’s roots in Greek storytelling.

Put more bluntly…she is orphaned as a child, washes up on the shore of a distant land, is raised with a foot each in the physical world and the world of gods, and has to embark on a journey to save her people, fight (or save) the gods, and evolve spiritually or die. While I won’t draw a parallel in the quality of storytelling — it would be ridiculous, these guys had me beat centuries ago — you can take that specific structure and draw thematic parallels to the Iliad and the Odyssey, to Odysseus and Ulysses and other figures of classic Greek theater and literature.

It was when I figured this out that I said to Dan, “let me take a shot at the book.” I knew that this structure wouldn’t be immediately apparent, and I’d probably earn a lot of brickbats before I got any flowers, but if I learned anything from Babylon 5 it’s to be patient as a writer. During and after the first season, everybody was yelling at me, saying I’d promised them a five year arc, but they didn’t see it, the stories all seemed episodic. Yes, they did…looking one way. But once you’ve got some mileage with the story under your belt, you can look back and suddenly see the connective tissue. It’s a hard way to write, because you have to go into it prepared to have people beat the crap out of you — because looking at the story as it comes is the only way they can look at it, they don’t know what’s coming, and they have a right to beat the crap out of you until you’ve proven your point. It’s all very nice to say “trust me,” but we all know that all too often it doesn’t pan out. It’s appropriate and proper to be dubious, and to challenge the work while it’s in process. Otherwise you abrogate your responsibility as a reader. If you don’t want to be criticized, don’t become a writer. All I can do at my end is to hold onto the roller coaster and hope that by the time the ride is over, enough people will be able to look at the work and say, “Oh, okay, NOW I get it” to have made the trip worthwhile.

2. Starting with an ‘all new’ Diana was a bit of a risk considering this was only the second time you were writing the character (hardcore Wonder Woman fans are a bit notorious for their love of the more traditional character 😉 ). Why take this approach as opposed to writing the more ‘classic’ Wonder Woman first to establish yourself with her fan base and then launching the current arc a few issues in?

When a writer with any visibility — and I barely count myself in that category — comes onto a book, there’s a great deal of attendant publicity. Consequently, you’re apt to get the largest number of new or casual readers for those first few issues. So it was incumbent upon me to hit with this story right off the bat, to take advantage of that momentum. Again, the intention was to clear the decks and attract new readers with an accessible story for which there’s little or no prior knowledge required, so — form following function — that’s where you want to start your story, with the least baggage and the maximum potential readership, especially coming off issue 600.

3. By both the arc’s title of ‘Odyssey’ as well as your previous statements about the book, it seems that Diana is on a journey not only to find out the truth about the altered timeline but she’s also on a more spiritual journey during which this younger Diana will learn and grow as the storyline progresses. In the end, though, what do you consider to be the core elements of Wonder Woman in terms of personality and values as well as her power level and iconic status in the DCU?

Let me try to answer this by addressing the broader issues of her journey, and her internal makeup. Let’s start with the notion of “Wonder Woman is not about vengeance” issue, which was mentioned a few times hereabouts, I hear. Let’s parse that for just a moment. To start with: those making the observation are absolutely, 100% correct in general, though I do think there could be times when something sufficiently awful happens that she would need to avenge a person or a cause close to her. If someone does something horrific to someone you love, and you don’t have anger, if you don’t want to avenge them, there’s something missing in your psychological makeup. That’s our nature as emotional beings. But what you don’t want to do is to let vengeance control you, or become the central fulcrum in your life upon which every other relationship turns. The moment it becomes the lens through which you see the world…you’re screwed, and so is everyone unlucky enough to be in your orbit.

The Wonder Woman raised on Paradise Island, in an idyllic setting, with a loving mother, a member of the royal family, who had little real trauma prior to going into the outside world, has little within her in need of vengeance. She didn’t have to earn her ability to throw off vengeance; it was simply never an issue. Which is not to say there weren’t tragedies and loss, only that there isn’t that deep seated need for vengeance that might come if, let’s say, your mother was murdered, your land stolen, your people decimated, and you were raised on the run without any place to really call home. That’s the kind of thing that can really mess with your head.

Yes, she wants to settle that score. Anyone who could endure all that and not want to settle the score…raise your hands.

But…and this is the important point…does she stay in that mode, or does she have the chance, and do we get the chance, to see her grow beyond that? It’s one thing to say “No, this doesn’t bother me,” because it just never did…and something quite again to see someone earn that, to see Diana (or anyone, really) confront their rage, grow beyond it, and let it go before it can destroy them and all they love. That’s where wisdom comes from: not what someone told you, but from what you experience and what you let it do (or not do) to you. As Mark Twain once said, “A man who picks up a cat by the tail learns things he can learn no other way.”

In 604 in particular, we will see Diana coming to the point of either pursuing violence and vengeance, and the path of self-destruction that goes with it…or something better. She will have to make that choice at the moment when it’s absolutely the hardest for her to do it…but that’s when what we do matters most, when the choices are most difficult. And that choice would not mean anything if you hadn’t seen her anger leading up to that moment. It’s the difference between playing the process and playing the result.

4. From your work on Babylon 5 as well as your very well-received run on Thor, you clearly have a love for mythology, both ancient and of your own making, and that’s already showing in Wonder Woman. Why did you decide to approach the character from the mythological angle as opposed to a more traditional superhero tale for your first story arc?

I wanted the blend of the mythological and the urban (to which she returns in 605) because I love that contrast. And again, this gets back to the Greek notion of “what is a thing unto itself?” There are a gazillion superheroes in the DC universe. There’s only one Greek demi-goddess named Diana. So the key is to play to those strengths, letting the mythos inform the story without overwhelming it.

5. You said at the DC Panel at NYCC that you would keep writing WW ‘until you suck.’ Assuming you don’t suck and you continue on with the book, any chance of hints regarding what you have in mind for Diana once Odyssey is over?

Not a chance. Again, we’re playing the process, not the result. Anyone who knows my work knows I’m all about process, and you blow that out of the water if you give out too much information in advance.

The last thing I’ll say about the current arc, which is something I touched upon at NYCC, is that the framework for this story is a blend between the classic Greek tragic structure and a contemporary mystery. There’s something going on here that’s larger than the sum of its parts, and the clues are all over the place. Why can Diana see the Keres, and why is she able to hurt them? Why can’t the gods show themselves? Why did they disappear around the same time she was brought out of Paradise Island? Why did Cerberus let her pass when only Hades has that power? Why was she able to inflict harm in the underworld when she should’ve been pure spirit?

(Some have suggested that the trip to Tartarus was so short as to be without point; but in point of fact it was used to set up a boatload of clues for later use. Oh, and as for why Diana didn’t ask about her mother…anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Greek afterlife knows that there are basically nine worlds, including the Elysian Fields — final destination for the brave and heroic — Acheron, Erebus and others…with Tartarus at the very bottom of the list, the final point of destination for the very worst of the dead, criminals and murderers and the like. Charon worked the Styx on the border of Tartarus, so asking if he’d seen her mother in a place like this would be absolutely inappropriate. A little homework would have answered that question rather than presupposing sloppy writing.)

Going back to the questions and clues…why was Paradise Island attacked in the first place? By whom? Why did the gods remove their protection?

Once we have come to the other side of all those questions, Diana will have completed her journey, her odyssey…and when that is all said and done, I think that the ride will have been worth it, and the destination reached will be a salutary one to old and new fans alike. I wouldn’t have taken on the job otherwise.

J. Michael Straczynski

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