Comics, Essays, Gender

Wildcats, Superheroes and the True Female Power Fantasy

When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster invented Superman in 1938, they created a new kind of power fantasy. Yes, Superman stood for the oppressed and downtrodden, but what excited readers most was his ability to do what normal people could not. His super strength and endurance, his ability to leap from place to place (his flying ability not yet invented), and–most importantly to Siegel, whose father died during a robbery–an imperviousness to bullets.

But it wasn’t just what the original Superman could do that mattered. What mattered was what he got away with. He had an attitude, never missing the opportunity for snark and flaunting his superiority over the evil businessmen and domestic abusers that came across his path. He was also rather prone to significant destruction, once leveling an entire tenement block in order to force the government to rebuild better facilities for its impoverished population. Each and every time, he got by without a scratch and always sent a verbal jab. He was Superman after all; what could an alien man of his caliber possibly care about the property and egos of the morally destitute antagonists that opposed him?

Power fantasy: Wonder Woman and some girl-slaves

Golden Age Wonder Woman by William Moulton-Marston and H.G. Peters

When William Moulton-Marston created Wonder Woman with H.G. Peters in 1941, he took influence from Superman when it came to Diana Prince’s strength, endurance, and bullet-proof bracelets. However, although Marston was a feminist for his time period, the 1940s still had very “traditional” ideas as to what men and women were and how they should behave. So when Marston approached the “woman” part of Diana, she certainly didn’t have the sharp edges of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman:

“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

–William Moulton-Marston

This is quite possibly the key to why so many writers find Wonder Woman a challenge to write. Even Grant Morrison, who’s known for getting to the conceptual core of DC characters in groundbreaking comics, couldn’t manage it in a way satisfactory to most readers in his Earth One: Wonder Woman graphic novel with Yanick Paquette. This is, of course, because personhood with all its flaws, mistakes, and ugliness is still something often not applied to real women in our society, along with female representation in all media. If women are mean, they’re bitches. If they show sexual cravings, they’re sluts. If they slip up, they’re incompetent.

If anything, Superman over the years has become more like Wonder Woman, toothless as Clark Kent and possessing of traits associated with femininity. No longer an intentional force of destruction on government-owned property, his high points are now compassion for all living things, a tenderness toward the people in his life, and a peace-loving commitment to good. Something very similar to what Marston envisioned in female form as a role model for little girls. However, since Marston’s passing, Wonder Woman has largely only been handled by men, and this has prevented her potential growth toward something reflective of the original Superman. Sharp humor, the willingness to take risks without fear of repercussions, forgiveness for her mistakes–don’t girls and women deserve a role model like that?

I have already talked about how Wildstorm’s Apollo is the feminine Superman, with only the implication instead of outright stated belief that he could easily become the modern Superman with proper corporate backing. So, in relation, what character could easily become the modern Wonder Woman? Another character on a once-explosively popular 1990s superhero team that started on the Wildstorm imprint: The WildC.A.T.s’ alien warrior princess, Zealot.

Whereas previously I’ve discussed male characters with feminine qualities, Zealot, or Lady Zannah of the planet Khera, is a female character with very masculine qualities. Coming from a group of all-women warriors called The Coda (see the similarities to Wonder Woman?), she is among the oldest and most experienced of the WildC.A.T.s. She’s not only one of the most fearsome forces on the team via a combination of her absolute lack of physical mercy and precise tactical sense, she also trained fellow teammates Cole “Grifter” Cash and Priscilla “Voodoo” Kitaen in Coda combat.

Power fantasy: Batman gets stabbed

Art from DC/Wildstorm: Dreamwar by Lee Garbett

This means that she’s basically the source of the majority of the WildC.A.T.s’ power.

Marston’s vision of ideal women included sweetness, softness, and willingness to submit. Zealot is none of those things. She’s about as merciless outside of the battlefield as she is while swinging one of her swords, and she doesn’t take anything from anyone.

“Hi Zealot,” Grifter greets her in Warren Ellis, Chris Sprouse, and Laura Depuy’s “WildC.A.T.s/Aliens,” which takes place sometime after their relationship ends.

“Die, Cole,” Zealot answers without even the slightest amount of hesitation.

Nobody in the room calls her out on this. As a matter of fact, except in extreme cases–such as her facilitating racism on Khera or trying to make a Coda breeding ground with unwitting human women in the middle of an apocalypse–it’s a rare occurrence for someone to call Zealot out on anything she does. Like the original Superman, Zealot doesn’t face repercussions for her tactlessness or aggression. She’s too good at what she does for anyone to make the stupid mistake of speaking up against her.

Unfortunately, female friendship in media remains a scarce thing in our culture, even in books and movies with “strong female leads.” Instead, in our misogynist society, we have a tiring amount of weak, catty, and jealous female dynamics where women compete with each other mostly for male attention. A teenage girl’s favorite mantra, even today, usually is, “I’m not like other girls.”

However, something must have clicked for most of the WildC.A.T.s writers that a woman who grew up surrounded by other women would not hate them. And so, Zealot has a strong friendship with her fellow female teammate, Voodoo. I would even go as far as to suggest that Zealot loves Voodoo. Although the two women have their ups and downs–generally due to plot-based reasons rather than over men–they spend a fair amount of time together and clearly respect one another as fundamental parts of their team.

Ahh. Coda trained?” an antagonist, a female member of Zealot’s former Coda group in James Robinson and (mostly) Travis Charest’s WildC.A.T.s run, asks Voodoo during a fight scene.

“By better than you, bitch,” she responds proudly.

And the Zealot miniseries by Ron Marz and Terry Shoemaker centers around Zealot telling Voodoo about her centuries on Earth, in the end gifting her her honor blade.

“It’ll be useful for keeping your boyfriends in line.”

“That was a joke, wasn’t it?” Voodoo asks, amazed.

“I tell one every century or so.”

Zealot talks to her friend

from Zealot #3 by Ron Marz and Terry Shoemaker

It’s kind of daring to imagine that a female character only ever written by men would show few signs of misogyny. But until much later WildC.A.T.s books (now spelled Wildcats, to everyone’s relief), when the apocalypse drives Zealot to extremes, she’s hardly ever depicted as misogynist. She was close with her mother, her daughter Savant is the most important person in the world to her, and she has exclusively worked with women throughout most of her life, Wildcats and related teams notwithstanding. This means that Zealot contains several qualities of strength without changing herself to fit inside a man’s world–an impressive feat, certainly, considering how masculine the Wildstorm universe tends to be. Even when depicted in objectifying poses and outfits, artists often attribute to her a rarely seen kind of power. She’s a relentless force, an experienced commander, and a woman true to herself.

Zealot in WildC.A.T.s by James Robinson and Travis Charest

Although women have made great strides since 1941 in career opportunities, reproductive rights, and many other challenges, the perception of women in comparison to men still holds us back. Everyone in our society is still conditioned to believe that women should be “tender, submissive, and peace-loving” whether or not this comes out in blatant ways. As such, women make a countless number of compromises that men do not. Many don’t or are unable to speak up when mistreated, feel blocked from making requests that benefit them–such as promotions or raises at work–and accept normalized harassment on a regular basis.

[pullquote]It’s kind of daring to imagine that a female character only ever written by men would show few signs of misogyny.[/pullquote]Probably because most of them are written by men, many of the supposed female power fantasies in DC Comics and Marvel Entertainment books are lacking. There is no equivalent to Tony Stark, a rich woman who commits her genius to her family business and scientific inventions while snarking everyone to death. There is no equivalent to The Flash, a speed character whose annoying habit is that she’s always late. The most flawed and quirky women are mostly villains and, unless they’re Harley Quinn, those characters are always set up to lose.

Zealot is a bitch, but she doesn’t care. Zealot has centuries’ worth of sexual history, but this is accepted as normal. And peace-loving? Who the hell has time for peace-loving when that male-coded creature over there has just murdered a bunch of people?

The real female dream is the ability to be assertive, even rude, without punishment for it. The real female dream is to be able to embarrass that catcaller beyond repair without potentially risking one’s life. The real female dream is to be able to have a bad day or even just fuck up, be late to that meeting, or have a pimple without judgment. I have never heard the sentence, “Oh, don’t worry about it, that’s just [name],” in reference to someone who wasn’t a cis man. You know what the Wildcats think when Zealot snaps at someone? They probably don’t, because they have accepted without a second thought that “Zannah is just like that.” Zannah has the same right as a man to be herself.

The new Wildstorm Universe approaches with the promise of a new Zealot, one designed with much less face paint and a much more appropriate wardrobe by Jon Davis-Hunt. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman’s off in two-arcs-in-one with the current Rebirth title. While Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott evoke a warmness and curiosity out of Diana that makes her very human, it continues the pattern of 75 years where their book shows what she can do, not what she can get away with. Outside of that book, we already know DC’s attitude to Wonder Woman “getting away with it” as of ten years ago, because she couldn’t justifiably kill Maxwell Lord without the Justice League shunning her for it.

Zealot redesign

New Zealot “Lucy Blaze” design by Jon Davis-Hunt

Because it had the advantage of starting in the 1990s, Wildstorm benefitted from the racial and sexual progress that preceded in the decades before. Many of its teams in the old continuity had not one, but several people of color from different races. It broke sexuality limits in 1999 by outing Apollo and Midnighter as the first queer couple in corporate superhero comic books. And by starting with the Wildcats, it established a precedent for female diversity by introducing Zealot and Voodoo as two very different, but collaborative women (along with a third, Void). Wildstorm, in many ways, looked in the 1990s what superhero comics should look like now.

Assuming the relaunch, starting February 15th with The Wild Storm #1, follows along this established path, it’s a promising sign for diversity in comics that we have these characters in monthly publications again. It’s an imprint more likely to depict women as they truly are: mean but tough, ungroomed but creative, arrogant but brilliant. Three-dimensional. Realistic. Human. Zealot is the new Wonder Woman: the kind of female power fantasy that makes girls want to be girls and women proud to be women. Unrelenting, uncompromising, and unashamed–the true female power fantasy.

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  1. Chima Ihebuzor

    February 15, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    The only reason Diana got flack for killing Max Lord was due to an out of context video. She’s killed people before without any trouble. She’s made mistakes and owned up to them. She’s killed but she is not s murderer or assassin

  2. DMaster

    February 16, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    Question regarding women getting away with crap: 1.) in general, how do you feel about women – usually in animation – being able to get away with casual violence towards disrespectful men (i.e. the age-old stereotype of a housewife coming after her husband with a frying pan)? 2.) for a specific example I’ve heard some back-and-forth on, how do you feel about the character of Revy from Black Lagoon?

    1. Ray Sonne

      February 17, 2017 at 11:25 am

      I have never seen Black Lagoon.

      As for your first question, that’s a completely separate subject than the one I’m arguing. I’m not advocating for abusive characters, I’m advocating for women characters who fight for justifiable reasons. The anime trope of women beating up men for being ignorant is a bad one based on perceptions of women being weaker and therefore their violence less impactful. Zealot and other female characters in superhero comics have little to no relation to that trope.

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