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Eugene Weekly : Books : 12.3.2009

 

Dusting Off the Golden Lasso

An Oregon writer makes Wonder Woman relatable

By Aaron Ragan-Fore

Since her inception in 1941, Wonder Woman has been a symbol of freedom and democracy, a totemic 1970s feminist touchstone, a piece of bikini-clad eye candy and an icon of gay America. 

Wonder Woman: Rise of the Olympian. Written by Gail Simone; cover by Aaron Lopresti.
Wonder Woman: Ends of the Earth. Written by Gail Simone; cover by Aaron Lopresti.

What the foremost female superhero hasn’t been, particularly, is relatable, at least not for the legion of mostly male superhero fans who support the comic book industry. When the Amazon princess wasn’t being used for gratuitous T&A, she was portrayed either as a man-hating harridan or a cipher for blandly apolitical gender equality. Wonder Woman always seemed to work better as a symbol than as a character.

Happily, that’s changed. In an era in which parent company DC Comics is fostering iconic runs by star writers on some of its flagship titles — Grant Morrison on Batman, Geoff Johns on Green Lantern — Diana Prince (the heroine’s secret identity) has been quietly flourishing under the pen of Oregon native and former hairdresser Gail Simone. And though some women have tackled the character in the past, notably in a short-lived stint by novelist Jodi Picoult, it is Simone who holds the rather surprising title as the first female regular writer in Wonder Woman’s history.

“We have a different conception of feminism than was written in [Wonder Woman’s] conception,” Simone said in October at a panel for the UO’s Understanding Superheroes conference. And while the writer is certainly capable of writing a good, old-fashioned, politics-free superhero fight, Simone’s social messaging makes her work compelling. “I can’t write a story that doesn’t have some of that, somewhere,” she says.

Simone will discuss “Gender and the Superhero” in an appearance on Wednesday, Dec. 9, at the UO, likely touching on her work on Secret Six and Birds of Prey, both comic series that incorporate well-rounded characters of both genders, the latter detailing the exploits of an all-woman team of superhero espionage agents.

Even as her star has risen swiftly, Simone continues to live a quiet life on the Oregon Coast, far from fan culture. “I always wanted to be a writer to some degree,” she says, but the goal “just didn’t seem attainable, somehow.” She graduated from high school early and received a scholarship to study English and theater at the UO, but “life intervened,” and Simone wound up at a Springfield beauty school.

While managing her own salon, Simone began writing for online comics fan forums and soon attracted attention with her superhero humor column “You’ll All Be Sorry,” which led to work on The Simpsons comic book and then on Marvel Comics’ darkly humorous Deadpool. “It’s one of the amazing things about the Internet,” Simone says, “that kind of democratic notion that you can live in a town with no decent Chinese food and still be read each week all over the world.”

But it was the writer’s eyebrow-raising website Women in Refrigerators, an exhaustive (and exhausting) compilation of the female characters depowered, raped and killed in superhero comics, that made Simone a recognized expert on feminism and gender for the capes-and-tights set. Her outspokenness on this and other issues has also led to some frightening reactions, Simone reports, such as the time an unhappy reader “left two bullets at a store where I was making an appearance.” This sort of instance has encouraged Simone to foster a carefully guarded family privacy.

Early offers of comics writing work tended toward female protagonists, a trend Simone initially resisted. “I didn’t want to be that chick that writes only the chick books,” she says. But a funny thing happened on the way to the comics shop: “The audience simply didn’t care what plumbing I had,” Simone says. “They liked the stories, they liked the characters, and they have always supported me just as they do any other writer.” 

In Simone’s two Wonder Woman collections published this year, Wonder Woman: Ends of the Earth and Wonder Woman: Rise of the Olympian (each in paperback and priced at $14.99), the title character confronts her own capacity for evil, encounters a rival determined to accelerate Diana’s antiwar message to a violent degree and even navigates the Hollywood production machine. She also finds time to woo a secret agent, but as with most male super-types, the romance angle is one element of the plot, not the plot in its entirety.

This self-agency separates the character both from the ranks of female versions of existing male heroes, such as Supergirl or Spider-Woman, and the passive female protagonists of other genre literature. Wonder Woman, Simone says, “didn’t fall down the rabbit hole; she didn’t get taken by a hurricane to Oz.” Simone’s version of Wonder Woman is a well-realized character who stands for something and helps the reader feel like she (or he) is standing alongside. 

“I think the beauty of writing fiction is that no matter what you’re writing, there’s always the choice to do a hack job or to look for some real poetry, some humanity that’s worth recording,” Simone says. “Comics is its own reward, for me. I love this way of telling stories. The mix of word and drawing is incredibly powerful and rewarding.”

“Sometimes I get the feeling the audience is hipper than me,” Simone says. But like any good stylist, Simone incorporates what her clients request and what they can wear well. “Readers don’t always know what they want until they read it.”

Wonder Woman expert Andy Mangels interviews Gail Simone on “Gender & the Superhero” at 5:30 pm Wednesday, Dec. 9, at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Free. See jsma.uoregon.edu for more info.



Attentive Adventures

To Salem resident Jessica Maxwell, traveling to western Canada in search of the all-white “spirit bear” and salmon fishing in Outer Mongolia were simply waysides to her career as a successful travel and adventure writer. Her most eventful experience was driving down a Pacific Northwest highway in 1992 and seeing her father’s face in the clouds three days after he died. This experience leads Maxwell, a self described “spiritual bumbler,” around the world in search of understanding. 

At the beginning of Roll Around Heaven: An All-True Spiritual Adventure (Beyond Words Publishing, $25), Maxwell’s marriage is a shambles, work for travel writers has dried up after 9/11 and she is broke — pretty normal stuff. She’s a skeptic who deeply mistrusts church and has only a vague notion of what spirituality is. With guidance from the Holy Pig Farmer, Lory Misel — a counselor who really does farm pigs and who speaks in snatches of Buddhist and Christian wisdom — Maxwell begins to see God in every coincidence and experience. 

Her narrative, which covers 20 years of personal miracles, jumps through time and draws profound conclusions from seemingly brief experiences. She soon becomes not a seeker but a holy woman who provides an entire epilogue’s worth of advice on opening up to spirituality. But even if some of Maxwell’s experiences are hard to believe (she heals a squirrel through prayer, for instance), she does impart one lesson that is worth remembering: Pay attention. You never know what you might miss if you’re not looking. Jessica Maxwell reads from Roll Around Heaven at 7 pm Sunday, Dec. 6, at Tsunami Books. Free. — Vanessa Salvia