Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed by writer Laurie Halse Anderson, artist Leila del Duca, colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick, and letterer Saida Temofonte is a new but not entirely different telling of the story of Diana, Princess of the Amazons, and it is ambitious. This coming-of-age story for the would-be Wonder Woman brings her out of Themyscira and into a world full of evil: war, famine, and the displacement of people from their homes and homelands.
Displacement — when people are made into refugees — is a central theme of Tempest Tossed. The title is an allusion to Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, “The New Colossus,” of which the best known lines read, “‘Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’” There is dissonance, however, between the reference (appearing first on the cover) and the poem (appearing near the end), which frame the text. During her lifetime, Lazarus “advocated voraciously for Zionism.” While there is not one single kind of Zionism, and Lazarus predates more formal assertions of it, it was and is broadly a movement in support of the establishment and development of a Jewish state in Palestine. What Israel remembers as Independence Day, Palestinians remember as the Nakba, when, in 1948, 750,000 Palestinians became refugees.
In Tempest Tossed, the dissonance comes from the creative team’s use of Arabic-speaking refugees to catalyze Diana’s story. In an interview with EW in November, Anderson said, “I’ve been watching for years as we’ve seen families all over the world being forced into refugee camps — in Syria, it’s just been heartbreaking. Around the time that DC Comics approached me, there were several photographs in the news of child-size life preservers that had washed ashore in the Mediterranean, where families fleeing for their lives had taken their children on overcrowded boats and sometimes those boats sank and children died. There is a visual of this in the book when Diana finds one of these little life preservers.” At no point does the creative team — executing Anderson’s script — name the ethnicity or nationality of the refugees who wash up on Themyscira’s shores, sink below its waters, or nearly drown outside its magic barrier.
They do not specify in the text that these people are Syrian. With or without a direct reference to the Syrian civil war — which is ongoing — Tempest Tossed co-opts the narrative of Syrian refugees. In not naming these characters, as a people or as individuals (with a few exceptions who prove the rule), and either killing them or displacing them in order to advance Diana’s narrative, they are divested of their humanity. These plot devices could just as easily be Syrian as they could be Palestinian, because Tempest Tossed doesn’t recognize that kind of difference, one tangled up in the politics of the poet whose work they reproduce without care. Instead of doing so, and instead of just watching for years before writing this story, Anderson could have told a different story, or she could have told DC to approach someone better suited to telling this one, someone more capable of telling it authentically. The creative and editorial teams could have, at least, brought on an Arab co-writer. They could, still, donate the profits made off of this book to the International Rescue Committee (and The Polaris Project and Safe Horizon) instead of just naming them in the back of the book.
A book that I’m not sure had to have been about Wonder Woman or, at least, not about this Wonder Woman, Diana. Why couldn’t a baby made out of the clay of an island in the Mediterranean — whose myth says it floats through the universe — look more like people on another side of the sea? Nubia already answers this question, but her book isn’t due out until February 2021. Diana, however, is white. There is no escaping the fact that she’s white, even if the coloring of her skin varies drastically throughout the book. She doesn’t look like the Arabic-speaking refugees (who, if they are ethnically Arab and from the Middle East or North Africa, would be white according to the United States Census and would be people of color according to American popular media [and our own campaigns to be recognized as such]) with whom she spends just two weeks on a Greek island in a refugee camp before being individually liberated by American husbands Steve and Trevor, the former an Asian diplomat and the latter a Black doctor. Diana, unlike dozens of other children and adults who will — in the best of circumstances — spend months if not years at the camp, is special.
She was special on Themyscira, too. The Amazons call her “the Changeling.” Historically, the designation of “changeling” has been given to children with disabilities, particularly invisible ones that appear in childhood, during or after infancy, but Diana’s changes are concurrent with puberty, which the Amazons do not experience and which, consequently, makes Diana alien to them. At sixteen, her powers are fickle: sometimes she is super strong like the Amazons, and other times she is weak like humankind. Beyond giving and using the nickname throughout the text, the creative team doesn’t attempt to reckon with the history or implications of the term “changeling,” even in their use of it to indicate physical change to a body that remains able-bodied if not super strong, nor do they engage with the potential of treating this iteration of Diana as representative of mixed race children or transracial adoptees. Diana is bodily different from the Amazons and her Amazonian mother, and that difference affects the way she understands herself and her home and her sense of belonging. Instead of reckoning with any of that, they make her a refugee.
But only briefly. Diana arrives in the United States and almost immediately receives a student visa. Steve and Trevor place her with a Polish American family: Henke Cukierek and her teenage granddaughter, Raissa Díaz Cukierek (who is also, if her name is any indication, Latina). Diana joins Raissa as she serves her community in Queens, eventually coming into contact with a human trafficking ring targeting immigrants of color. There are clues, throughout, that something evil is happening, but it is not until a child with whom Diana (who is not yet an adult herself) personally interacted is kidnapped that they take direct action. She discovers the place where women and children are being held prior to transport and stops them from being moved. Her body is no longer in flux, having realized that she belongs to this community, so she does so with the strength of an Amazon. The ringleader gets away, possibly in anticipation of a sequel to Tempest Tossed.
Anderson, del Duca, Fitzpatrick, and Temofonte’s Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed is ambitious. But ambition is a double edged sword, and, as well-intentioned as this creative team and the editors with whom they worked may have been, it is one that, for me, cleaves this text in two: it is both an often beautiful and sometimes poignant comic book and a reminder that implicit representation cannot do what explicit representation does. I do not doubt that this story, which is not truly one about refugees but about Diana Prince, will evoke if not outright action on behalf of, then sympathy for displaced people, nor do I doubt that there exists the potential for a better, more authentic story to be told in this same medium, in these same worlds, with some of these same characters or, rather, mantles. DC has already successfully made that argument with Shadow of the Batgirl and Green Lantern: Legacy. Wonder Woman is, here and often, a monolith, but she doesn’t have to be. Cassie Sandsmark and Donna Troy and Nubia make that plain. There are other ways of imagining Wonder Woman, but only so many people handed the opportunity to do so.