When it comes to superheroes, some are known for their overwhelming goodness, others are brooding, loner crime-fighters, and many more are awkward teenagers coping with new found powers and too much responsibility. Mix and match archetypes and you have almost every hero out there, but only one is considered the quintessential feminist icon in comics: Wonder Woman. From her BDSM roots to 1960s political activism, to her modern day New 52 reincarnation as the illegitimate daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus (shattering the “made out of clay” myth), Wonder Woman is no stranger to sensationalism. Despite being the character unanimously chosen as the example of empowerment and feminism in comics, the Princess of the Amazons has not always lived up to that mantle. This is something Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette intend to explore in the upcoming Wonder Woman: Earth One — the difficult task of writing a feminist heroine under such scrutiny. Several of Morrison’s early interviews included references to the Amazon’s attitudes towards sex, amongst promises that it would be a Wonder Woman story unlike any other, which predictably sent the internet into a frenzy of possibilities. We caught up with Paquette to discuss his thoughts on illustrating a character with so much history and social responsibility.
“I understand that this is a slippery project because I’m a guy,” Paquette states bluntly, well aware of the scrutiny he and Morrison are under, particularly when the topic of sex comes up in relation to Wonder Woman. “I’m going to [draw] it as sensual as I can, but there’s always the potential trap of ‘Am I just listening to my animalistic voice that would push me to exploit the female form to the detriment of what we’re trying to say?’ I’m aware of all that, and I’m guessing on the writing level, it’s the same. With any other writer, I would feel unsure but not with Grant. With Grant, I know we can attack and explore the most difficult, sensitive subject, knowing that he will bring us home and it will be ok.” This is when Paquette brings up Morrison’s wife and publicist Kristan, the unofficial representative of womankind on the project. “We have an editor [Eddie Berganza], but Kristan is really the bridge between Grant and I — she’s almost the other editor. I feel like she is the watchdog in a way; if we go astray, she’ll be there to keep us grounded and our eyes on what we’re trying to say. I trust my instinct not to be a womanizer as I do this but it feels great that she’s around to check, and as she’s backing up what I do, I feel like I’m on the right track. Her presence on the team is absolutely reassuring [to] my confidence in the project, and this project’s pillars, in part, includes Kristan.”
Both Paquette and Morrison have had ample time to consider the pillars of their new Wonder Woman: DC originally offered them the project almost three years ago, but it was delayed due to other commitments like Morrison’s The Return of Bruce Wayne story arc already taking place. “After Batman Inc., I was supposed to do Wonder Woman, but then they restarted everything with the New 52 and that got postponed again,” Paquette recounts. “They offered me Swamp Thing and I just couldn’t resist, for the reasons we discussed in our last interview, so I had to say yes. They really needed somebody on Action Comics that would make it a guaranteed something: something good, something weird, something bizarre, but certainly not something boring because Grant will never give you that. So I did two years, he did two years and now that’s it: we’re going back to the original program. All that time I was thinking about Wonder Woman and what we could do. Grant was leaking information about it once in a while but I’ve learned I should be prudent with my expectations and not plan too much ahead. Bulleteer for instance: he sent me an outline for what was going on, but at the end of the day, it was very different. So it was particularly hard for three years knowing I was doing Wonder Woman with him, trying to think and prepare myself for that project with the most open mind possible. Trying to figure out what I can do in terms of graphic design and art style.”
So what stood out to both creators during initial discussions about the series? “Early on it was clear that we were going to bring back some of the sexual aspects that were there in the 40s, that is not there in the more modern incarnations,” Paquette explains. “I would like to talk about sexuality in a positive fashion. If you look at the origin of Wonder Woman, before she was a feminist symbol, they’re pretty wild. The stuff in the 40s, you almost can’t believe it was published and read by people at that time. It’s really wild and fun and entertaining. It’s always positive and is somehow empowering. It’s not always perverted, but there is bondage like you can’t believe.” He sidetracks briefly at the mention of BDSM. “Personally, I don’t understand bondage: I don’t judge it, but I don’t want to tie people to things, and I don’t want to be tied to things. Maybe I should try to discover that side of me to be truthful with the illustration,” he quips, “but I’m willing to explore that part of the story. Amazingly, when the book was announced, one thing everybody seems to be on board with is the return to bondage. Everybody recognizes that Wonder Woman from the 40s is at the very least, a source of fascination. Maybe it’s something that only worked in the 40s, and if we do it now, it won’t make sense? There’s no reason that the Wonder Woman of the 40s can afford that kind of stuff but now we can’t. I’m trusting Grant to find a way a modern way to revisit these themes.”
Finding a balance between fun and thought-provoking with a side of heathy sexuality will be tricky, but the Earth One format may help. Earth One stories exist outside the current continuity, allowing creators more flexibility with characters so they can stray from canon to create new origins for familiar heroes. Theoretically that means there should be less backlash from fans if creators speak to scandalous matters like sex, but that’s a tricky subject, canon or not. Paquette may jokingly refer to himself as having no morals due to his French Canadian background, but his opinions on sex are a refreshing take on a sometimes stifling North American view of sexuality — particularly in mainstream comics where objectification is common but healthy examples of sexuality are scarce.
“Coming from another culture (and I don’t want to judge) but sometimes I look at the reaction of Americans towards sexuality, and I’m a bit perplexed, confused,” he admits. “It seems women aren’t allowed their rightful sexual empowerment beyond the moral comfort of the asexual angel/Madonna/mother role. An openly professed sexual appetite would have you classified as, well, a slut or something. I think it’s unfair. Just imagine the reverse scenario with Iron Man. He’s going out with all these women — every night it’s a new babe, a top model. She’s waking up [thinking] ‘Oh what a crazy night!’ but he’s already gone, doing some superheroing. Everybody’s happy with this and no mother thinks twice before buying Iron Man toys for their kids. Guys wish they could be Iron Man. But what if Wonder Woman would have a new boy toy every night for her own enjoyment? She certainly could, I mean, she’s Wonder Woman! How do you think the public would perceive her then? Will mothers still buy Wonder Woman lunch boxes for their daughters? Feminism did a lot for equality of sex, but clearly in that example, the equation can’t be reversed without a scandal. Obviously male and female moral rights to their own sexuality are far from equal.”
More than any other character that I can think of, Wonder Woman stands as a symbol for feminists. Which is ok,” Paquette continues, “[but] the problem is that if you do stuff with Wonder Woman and people are not happy, you’re doing it to all the woman in the universe. You attack Women, with a huge W. I think a lot of the writers went into this territory very carefully. Much more carefully than people who went into doing Batman and tried to redefine Batman in a new light because they can do whatever they want.” Paquette nails the difference between writing other characters and Wonder Woman concisely. “There is some consensus about what is Batman: for some people, Batman is more dark than other people who see Batman as more of a detective, but basically everybody has a similar vision. With Wonder Woman, that’s not the case. Everybody has their own vision of Wonder Woman and again I think it’s because she’s not just a character anymore, she’s a symbol for feminism. so she does carry these values. Now the way I see it, this could work to our advantage. By giving a healthy place to sexuality, she can carry the message that it’s okay for women to have a sexual appetite. I’m saying that after three years of thinking about it but at the end of the day, it might come out that Grant’s script is something totally different.”
Fans are aware of Morrison’s notoriety for leaking details that may or may not end up in his books, which might explain the wide range of theories popping up for this project. Paquette shares his thoughts on fan speculations. “A lot of people think there’s a problem with Wonder Woman, everybody thinks they know how to fix it, and it’s all different options – often contradictory. As this book was announced, I saw their reactions and everybody was happy and speculating! ‘At last, I won’t find Wonder Woman boring anymore because there’ll be some kinky sexual things going on!’ On the other side, ‘At last, Wonder Woman is kicking guys asses and I hope Steve Trevor is never coming back!’ Everybody is happy so far, but obviously they’re happy thinking we’re going to do their version. Eventually, there’ll be a reality check for [fans]. We’re going to do a version, which is Grant’s vision for it, but I don’t see how everybody could be happy in the end. I’m very glad I’m just the artist,” he confesses with a laugh.
With three years to consider a visual style, Paquette has done a significant amount of research and is producing what looks to be some of his finest work. He details the reasoning behind some of his visual choices for the series. “Hippolyta fled the antique time about 7000 years ago: they’ve been on that island for a long time. There’s no reason there should still be Greco-Roman architecture and togas all over the place. They should have evolved, even more than us because they’re super wise, wonderful women with no war to disturb [them]. We suggest that Themyscira is this utopian, beautiful, almost sci-fi world that evolved separately, but with the foundation of the Greek culture and the culture of Aphrodite (the Amazon goddess).” Paquette also incorporates regional landscapes into the series. “On a trip to Provence, in the south of France, we went to the calanques. It’s crazy white rocks with super green olive trees growing on them: these things just fall into a blue green lagoon and it’s so beautiful. I was looking at this place thinking, ‘This is the land of the Amazons.’ It’s a landscape for tough women to live in, it’s so dramatic. They live and create a sci-fi city embedded in that.”
Themyscira is just the start of Paquette’s visual re-imagining. “My first thought when Wonder Woman with Grant was mentioned was ‘I don’t want her to be dressed as an American flag.’ Not because an American flag is wrong but it made no sense. She’s coming from such a rich, wonderful culture with so much iconography (Greek culture), so why does she not use that, and why would she dress up as a flag? She’s not Captain America. But at the same time, I understood that this kind of iconic colour/texture is something that’s recognizable, so in that aspect it does have value. If I could reach the same design with a few differences, but make it so it’s not coming from the flag, it’s coming from a natural extension of her culture, I could live with this. The retro-engineering of her costume into something that makes sense is already embedded into the story.” He details some of the changes he has in mind. “The animal associated to Aphrodite is a dove so instead of an eagle on [Wonder Woman’s] breastplate, it will be more of a dove. It’s not the American eagle, it’s the Aphrodite dove. Stuff that creates [the letter] W is by accident, so it’s not like she already has a letter of the alphabet on her [costume]. In the end I’ve created a structure so it feels inevitable for Wonder Woman to look the way she does.”
Wonder Woman’s costume may be the most iconic piece, but Paquette and Morrison don’t stop there. “Grant wants to explore that she’s not always in her suit,” Paquette elaborates, citing a cheeky influence. “I think we’re both a fan of Barbarella and again, she’s coming from a time where sex is cool and fun. Barbarella is changing all the time into a million dresses, and they’re all cool and weird and super fun. Because everybody wants to see the costume, I had to put some serious thought into the official royal suit to do heroic deeds in, but I want to draw Wonder Woman out at night, at a soirée. I want to explore what she could be as a woman outside of the superhero costume. That is an important piece.” As are the rest of the Amazons’ visual appearance. “It’s a society of only women, but there is royalty because Hippolyta has to be Queen and Diana the princess, so they are separated from the others by a colour scheme. More pure colour: hard red, hard blue, and the soldiers have the same colour but less saturation. I spent extensive amounts of time looking at haute couture to create drapery, things with beautiful feathers ([referencing] the Amazon animal), etc.”
Beyond character and location redesigns, Paquette’s run on Swamp Thing brought readers a unique visual narrative by framing panels in plant-based shapes and structures, incorporating key elements of the character as a storytelling device. Although he won’t be using the same type of layouts, Paquette intends on bringing Wonder Woman’s story to life in a similar fashion by using historical influences this time. “The Greeks left us a beautiful record of their own ‘comics,’ if you will.” He explains. “Portraits classified under the name of black-figures and red-figures. The black-figures have cruder anatomy and are from the period before, and the red-figures are almost the same style but reversed — instead of having a black figure on a red background, it’s a red figure on a black background. Through pottery and plates, [they tell] all the mythology stories, including the story of Hercules kicking the shit out of Hippolyta. In that case, because it’s Greek, Hercules is the hero. He’s such a hairy, wonderful, absolutely manly man,” Paquette says with obvious sarcasm. “I’m using these portrait fragments in the book as a counter point to the much harsher visuals [in the comic], which tells almost the same story but you can see how [Hippolyta] is not just the equivalent of ‘he beat the crap out of the lion, he cut off the head of the hydra, and he beat that woman who was unbeatable.’ She’s not just another problem.” Paquette is referring to the only sample art released thus far (below), which shows Hippolyta strangling Hercules in what appears to be her victory over him. “By juxtaposing these two realities telling the same story, it gives me some pretty cool visuals to play with, to ground at least this part of the story into the past. For the rest of the story, I’ll have some other visual elements to jazz things up a little bit. I look forward to do square panels too, because they work! I’m not against them but if I find a visual device that helps an aspect of the story, I feel now that I have the freedom and the liberty to use it, because people back me up on that. Which I’m happy for.”
It’s still very early days for Wonder Woman: Earth One, which has not even been given a release date yet. A lot can happen between now and when fans get their hands on it, but from everything Paquette and Morrison have revealed, it sounds like a Wonder Woman origin story unlike anything we’ve seen before. For Paquette, it’s nice to finally work on a series he’s spent three years thinking about, even though he knows it won’t be easy. “There’s a lot of pressure,” he admits, “it’s a massive book. I want it to be as good as I can but I have the time to do it. All the frustration of not being able to tell the entire story that I had with Swamp Thing is not there anymore.” He says, referring to how he was not able to draw every issue on his Swamp Thing run. “If you want to just tell a story, you can take a character, but when you want to address a social issue, let’s take the voice of [Wonder Woman]. It’s a wonderful vehicle to explore these things,” he says excitedly, before pausing a moment to consider fan reaction, and the future. “Seriously, if we do survive this, I don’t know what I’ll do next. Draw the Bible?” he quips. “Let’s do it!”