It should come as no surprise that reliance on canon creates an orthodoxy which harms and marginalizes perfectly valid queer readings.
– Emma Houxbois, Comicosity (née The Rainbow Hub)
The power of stories like these, whether it’s a deep and personal tale wrought with emotion, or some fun and flirty fan art, cannot be underestimated… Seeing characters portrayed as bisexual helped me get a better grasp on my own identity.
– Kieran Shiach, ComicsAlliance
There is a tension that cannot be denied between the above two references to LGBT representation — and among dozens of other nuances of expectation — when it comes to seeing queer narratives validated on the comic book page.
On the one hand, there is an audience growing in size every year that is desperate to have the same benefit afforded them as their straight, white, cis male predecessors: the ability to see themselves explicitly mirrored on the page, not just with an occasional background character, but with book and series leads. This is not a desire exclusive to the queer reader, but one felt deeply by all manner of marginalized audiences, from female to Black, Asian to Latinx, Muslim, disabled, gender nonbinary, and every intersection you can imagine.
In fact, if you’ve followed me or my work for any appreciable amount of time, you’ll know I am a strong advocate for explicit representation for LGBT (or “queer”) individuals in comics media. I’ve cheered DC’s acknowledgment on the page and through interview of the queerness of Catwoman and the legitimization of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy’s non-exclusive polyamorous relationship. I’ve swooned month after month as Midnighter has grown into an amazingly high-profile gay character, now returning with partner Apollo by his side. And I’ve glowered over Marvel’s editorial response to queerness in lead characters Angela and Hercules through outright public denials.
But those calls and jeers do carry with them questions of authority, assumptions of a monolithic understanding of queerness, and the privilege that comes in my own cis male understanding of what counts as representation for an increasingly diverse queer population whose experiences and self-image may not echo mine. Put frankly, I have an understanding and acceptance of out politics that can’t reflect every understanding of queer sexuality (or even the very meaning of the word “queer”).
Enter: Wonder Woman.
With DC Comics’ Rebirth of the Amazon Princess’s central title taking fan praise and critical acclaim to new heights, there’s a long list of reasons for me to celebrate her rise in this, of all, years. As the character’s 75th year in print, 2016 has delivered a demonstratively queer vision of Wonder Woman’s origins and homeland — first in books like the Wonder Woman: Earth One original graphic novel and the weekly DC Comics Bombshells digital-first series, and now in the twice-monthly ongoing by writer Greg Rucka and artists Nicola Scott and Liam Sharp.
That audience call for queer acknowledgment seems to have been substantially heeded.
Yet, there can be difficulties, from a queer audience perspective, with demanding explicitness in representation, particularly in the case of Diana of Themyscira. Said best by Robert Jones, Jr., the queer cultural critic also known as Son of Baldwin, “the heterosexist gaze that denies any queerness that isn’t spelled out by an oral declaration or visible sexual intercourse” is a dangerous trap for readers, queer and not queer alike. It sets terms that denies the possibility of any understanding of queerness not juxtaposed to heterosexual patriarchy.
And, as we’ve seen early on in Rucka’s return to the Amazon Princess in Wonder Woman #2, Paradise Island simply is, as it should be, paradise — a civilization so far removed from heterosexist constructs that it has even lost the words that describe it. What is queer about the Amazons and their shining ambassador could be nothing at all by their standards, while thoroughly looking like lesbian, bisexual, or polyamorous structures from our perspectives.
In that sense, Wonder Woman may well encapsulate that existing tension for her diverse queer audience more thoroughly than any character in the comic book stable. And her current creators know it.
With this exclusive interview, riding proudly under our Queer Visibility banner, Greg Rucka chats about the vision he and his collaborators have for their Wonder Woman series, the act of balancing representation with the craft of storytelling, and the question of what it even means to be queer in a culture absent of heteronormativity.
Matt Santori-Griffith: I’m going to start off simple and to the point. The Wonder Woman that you and Nicola have introduced to us in “Year One” — is she queer?
Greg Rucka: How are we defining “queer?”
You’re applying a term specifically and talking to an ostensibly cis male (and white to boot), so “queer” to me may not be the same as it is to an out gay man. So, tell me what queer is.
MSG: Fair enough. For the purposes of this conversation, I would define “queer” as involving, although not necessarily exclusively, romantic and/or sexual interest toward persons of the same gender. It’s not the full definition, but it’s the part I’m narrowing in on here.
GR: Then, yes.
I think it’s more complicated though. This is inherently the problem with Diana: we’ve had a long history of people — for a variety of reasons, including sometimes pure titillation, which I think is the worst reason — say, “Ooo. Look. It’s the Amazons. They’re gay!”
And when you start to think about giving the concept of Themyscira its due, the answer is, “How can they not all be in same sex relationships?” Right? It makes no logical sense otherwise.
It’s supposed to be paradise. You’re supposed to be able to live happily. You’re supposed to be able — in a context where one can live happily, and part of what an individual needs for that happiness is to have a partner — to have a fulfilling, romantic and sexual relationship. And the only options are women.
But an Amazon doesn’t look at another Amazon and say, “You’re gay.” They don’t. The concept doesn’t exist.
Now, are we saying Diana has been in love and had relationships with other women? As Nicola and I approach it, the answer is obviously yes.
And it needs to be yes for a number of reasons. But perhaps foremost among them is, if no, then she leaves paradise only because of a potential romantic relationship with Steve [Trevor]. And that diminishes her character. It would hurt the character and take away her heroism.
When we talk about agency of characters in 2016, Diana deciding to leave her home forever — which is what she believes she’s doing — if she does that because she’s fallen for a guy, I believe that diminishes her heroism.
She doesn’t leave because of Steve. She leaves because she wants to see the world and somebody must go and do this thing. And she has resolved it must be her to make this sacrifice.
So, it’s a thorny question. And I understand as best as I can the desire to see representation on the page. I don’t object to that at all. But my job first and foremost is always to serve the characters as best I can.
For me, all other questions aside — and there are many legitimate reasons to ask the question — the answer first and foremost must be yes, because otherwise it takes away from Diana’s heroism.
MSG: As you’ve alluded to, there definitely is a desire from a corner of readers for definitive proclamations of sexuality that can’t be whitewashed. Tell me a little about how you think about that as a writer in terms of crafting the story in Wonder Woman.
GR: Ah. We’re talking about the “Northstar Problem.” The character has to stand up and say, “I’M GAY!” in all bold caps for it to be evident.
For my purposes, that’s bad writing. That’s a character stating something that’s not impacting the story. I get nothing for my narrative out of that in almost any case. When a character is being asked point blank, if it’s germane to the story, then you get the answer. But for me, and I think for Nicola as well, for any story we tell — be it Black Magick, be it Wonder Woman, be it a Batman story — we want to show you these characters and their lives, and what they are doing.
We want to show, not tell.
Showing requires bringing in a situation only as it relates to what we’re trying to do overall with the story. And in part one of “Year One” in particular, one of the things we really needed to do in that issue is juxtapose her life and Steve’s. We wanted to establish that there is a connection between these characters long before they see each other. That they share certain things.
Very importantly to us, we wanted to make clear a vision of Themyscira that justified calling it “paradise.” That’s something I think has been oft-lost in many examinations of Diana. I suspect the reason is that a lot of people believe paradise is boring. That there’s no drama to it. There’s no conflict. As a result, it becomes paradise in name only.
We didn’t want that. We wanted to honor what we thought was the Marston vision of the Amazons, in that they live in a utopian society. Almost all of our choices were directed to that end. Obviously, when you start off with that premise, you spend a lot of time thinking about what that means. In terms of the society, what the individual’s role constitutes in that society, what counts as fulfillment and happiness in that society.
For instance, when Io finds Diana on the plain passed out, she and the other Amazons had just come back from a foraging mission to gather supplies. Supplies are not given to them. They can make everything they need, but they have to make it. How is that an element of paradise? Action, activity, and the reward of doing good work is an element of their paradise. As opposed to the Gods going, “Boom. You need wine? Here’s a vat.”
By the same token, going back to the question of sexuality on Themyscira, we spent a long time thinking about what this means. I did a talk at Fantastic Comics in Berkeley, California, where I said that no Amazon is going to look at another Amazon and say they are Amazoning wrong. Because that wouldn’t be paradise. The society accepts everyone in it. The requirement is, you’re here and you’re female.
Now, that opens up a separate question. For the purposes of Themyscira, as the Amazons experience it, and as we represent that experience, nobody looks at Io and says, “You’re too butch.” Nobody looks at Kasia and says, “You’re too femme.” Nobody says a dress is inappropriate. Nobody says, “Why are you wearing pants?” Nobody says you’re too heavy. Nobody says you’re too skinny, or not strong enough.
It has to be an inclusive and accepting society, for a number of reasons — paradise being one of them. But also because, Nicola, Liam, and I believe very strongly that Diana is beautifully and very actively inclusive.
That’s not to say Batman or Superman are not, but for Diana, it’s a very active inclusivity. That’s just part of what she is. Her arms are always open wide. There’s room for everybody. That’s an active part of her. I mean, Batman doesn’t have an issue, but he doesn’t spend his days thinking about how best can he understand his fellow man. [laughs]
MSG: So, yes, in terms of Themyscira, maybe “queer” isn’t even a thing in that environment. But what kind of tension does that produce when Diana leaves there for the outside world?
GR: Hold on. This is important to me, too. By our standards where I am standing of 2016, Themyscira is a queer culture. I’m not hedging that. And anyone who wants to prevaricate on that is being silly.
I’ve said elsewhere that I feel like this has been asked and answered. If Grant Morrison writes an Earth One book where Diana is calling Mala her lover, I don’t think one can get more definitive than that. Now, for those of us who are comics-savvy, we go, “Well, Earth One is not the New 52 or Rebirth.” But all the Earth One books thrive on a distillation of the fundamental truths of these characters.
For the Amazons, it’s just not a word that’s active in their vocabulary. It’s the same way that Diana has to search for the word “brother” to describe Steve’s relationship with his fellow sailors, and Hippolyta says, “The word is ‘brothers.’ We just don’t use it a lot. That’s probably why you don’t remember it.”
It’s not going to happen in “Year One,” but you know like ten minutes after that story is over, Lois Lane lands the interview with the Wonder Woman and asks her where she’s from. Diana will say she’s from Themyscira, an island of all women. Now, I’m not sure Lois would ask, “Does that mean you all sleep together?” because that doesn’t seem to me germane to Lois’s character.
But when someone does open up the question, Diana is like, “Of course we love each other. Some Amazons have been together for thousands of years. Some have been together for only a short time. And sometimes they’ve had several partners at once. Sometimes they break up. But we all have to live together and make it work.”
MSG: Right. I didn’t mean to imply a dodge in any sense. It’s that you’ve very effectively created this culture where heteronormativity has been removed from the narrative.
GR: Exactly. Matt, these are the things I think about.
And I really don’t like the idea that there are people out there who might think DC is being mealy-mouthed about this. They’re not. No one wants to be taken out of context by ignorant people, but nobody at DC has ever said, “She’s gotta be straight.” Nobody. Ever. They’ve never blinked at this.
And when they’ve had questions about how we represent this, it’s always been about representing what the story needs. I think every publisher can be lit up for moments of negligence and mistakes they made, but it matters a great deal to me that DC be given their due here.
They would, I think, like any business, prefer this not be an issue to anybody. But most of us human beings would also really rather this not be an issue for anybody anymore. It is what it is. This is how the Amazons live.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this and talking to a lot of people about this. I wonder what would happen if you are a trans woman transitioning, and you go to Themyscira? Since they’re not a heteronormative culture, I wonder if the concept of transgender life or gender confirmation process is one that they’ve ever even considered. These are the things I think about. I don’t have an answer to that. Yet.
But I know this: their society has to be the best possible paradise.
MSG: Looking over the narrative in Wonder Woman, the landscape of representation, and your role in both, any other thoughts on the big picture here?
GR: Our job — myself, Nicola, and Liam — is to serve the character. To tell the best stories that we can possibly tell for her, and to the best of our abilities. That is always the eye on the prize for us. If, on the way, we manage to step on bases that expand a larger understanding of Diana’s importance culturally and that answer questions people have, great! And I know this is going to frustrate some people, but that’s not my first order of business.
It can’t be. Because otherwise, I end up writing a polemic, not a story. A polemic is bad narrative.
That said, there was a piece of me that was taken aback when Wonder Woman #2 came out and saw that some people thought all this was still unclear. I don’t know how much clearer I can make it! [laughs]
So, I believe very firmly that the answer should be in the text. It really shouldn’t matter what I say to you. It only matters what you can read in the published work. What you can find in the text.
My personal politics are absolutely always going to influence how I write what I write. But at the end of the day, what I believe doesn’t matter. What matters is what you leave the book with.
It doesn’t matter if I say, “Yes, she’s queer.” Or “No, she’s not queer.” It matters what you get out of the book. Can you find it? Is it there? Is it on the page in action or in deed? Then, there’s your answer.
All images pencilled and inked by Nicola Scott and colored by Romulo Fajardo, Jr.
Haven’t caught up on Wonder Woman lately? Well, get busy, because issue #7 — with art by Liam Sharp — arrives in stores from DC Comics today — Wednesday, September 28. View our exclusive preview here.
And if you’re curious about Greg Rucka’s first run on the Amazon Princess, check out the recently released Wonder Woman by Greg Rucka Volume 1, available here and at bookstores and comic shops nationwide.