Wonder of Wonders

Thu, October 1st, 2009 at 11:28am PDT | Updated: October 1st, 2009 at 12:36pm

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AMAZONS ATTACK - THE REDHEADED STEP-SISTER (ARTEMIS OF BANA-MIGHDALL)
by Mars Getsoian

Hello to all! Welcome to the first post of AMAZONS ATTACK. With this column, I'll be taking a deeper look at the cast of the Wonderverse, both Amazonian and otherwise, and their key stories; who the characters are and how they've developed, what went wrong and what went right and where, and how they fit into Diana's universe and, on a meta level, into ours.

And who better to begin with than an Amazon among Amazons, the champion of her own people and a former Wonder Woman to ours, made topical by Gail Simone's current inclusion of her in "Secret Six," the woman called Artemis of Bana-Mighdall? After all, I do like a challenge, and if her various portrayals over the years are any indication, getting a handle on Artemis is a challenge indeed.

I think the solution, in part, is to understand that Artemis is made up of two halves, two equally important and occasionally conflicting character threads. The first, and perhaps the simpler half, is a conceptual one – the idea that she is the best of her people. Just as her name mirrors Diana's ("Diana" being the Roman version of the deity Artemis), so does her thematic position among the Amazons; where Diana is the most powerful, skillful, moral and heroic of the Themyscirans, Temi is the most powerful, skillful, moral and heroic of the Bana.

Okay, so, who are the Bana?

Well, in the beginning (by which we mean roughly 1000 years BC, or issue #1 of v2 of "Wonder Woman"), the Amazons lived in Man's World, ruled by two queens, the sisters Hippolyta and Antiope. For a while, the nation prospered and spread the Amazonian message of peace and equality, but eventually a bunch of their neighbors, led by Heracles, prompted by Ares, and just itching to put those uppity women in their place, declared war on the Amazons and nearly obliterated them by dint of sheer malicious deceit.

Now, Amazons are a hard breed to put down, and despite Herc's best tricks, they eventually drove the invading army out. But after the battle, there was a split in the Amazon ranks; Hippolyta led a number of their people to a magically concealed island paradise, where they would be awarded immortality by their gods and protected until the world of Men was actually ready to hear their message of peace, while Antiope took the rest of the nation back to Athens to wreak bloody vengeance on their oppressors. Hippolyta's Amazons, of course, became the Themysciran Amazons who raised Wonder Woman. Antiope's Amazons, however, were lost to the world for about three thousand years (or thirty-ish issues), until Wonder Woman stumbled upon their modern-day descendents, hidden deep in the Egyptian desert in the city of Bana-Mighdall.

The Bana. Mercenaries. Slavers. Crack business negotiators.

At first blush, these lost Amazons, the Bana, come across as a fairly stock strawfeminist story. You've heard it before, I'm sure, it's particularly common in comics – the hero meets some lunatic caricature of a feminist, who loathes and despises all men, rants about patriarchy and oppression, considers women the superior sex, and basically exists to be proven wrong by our hero, thus proving that there are no Scary Feminists Here among the Good Guys. The Bana are, you see, a colony of xenophobic, misandrist, violently militaristic lesbian separatists, basically, who seem to exist mostly so we can see that our hero Diana rejects their man-hating ways and that's not what real Amazons are about.

George Perez, being some kind of minor literary deity, managed to make what should have been a sexist, racist (there are Themyscirans of color, but the Bana are entirely dark-skinned, and the visual contrast between the Light-skinned Good Amazons and the Dark-skinned Bad Amazons is pretty stark), lazy and generic pile of fail into an incredibly layered, fascinating story, where the Bana come across like real, plausible people. A people who are not actually bad guys any more than the cultures that surround them. They're crazy misandrists, sure, but no more so than many existing cultures today who are crazy misogynists. They function just as well as any of our current day cultures and have just as many genuinely good people among them. This nuanced and brilliant bit of worldbuilding made the Bana so compelling and laden with potential that they became a regular fixture in Diana's mythos, culminating in them reuniting with the Themyscirans into a single, if fractured, nation during William Messner-Loebs' run. (WML accelerated the otherwise implausible unification process by shunting both tribes off to a hell dimension where time moved differently; after a short civil war, they were forced to band together to fight the local demons, and after a decade or so of this they'd forged an uneasy alliance, which apparently mellowed the Bana some, just in time to be dumped back into the real world where maybe a year had passed in their absence.)

So that's the Bana. And that's the first, conceptual half of who Artemis is: as the “best of the Bana,” she was raised in a culture of extreme xenophobia, extreme misandry, and the glorification of violence. While her people have had a decade to grow out of that, and the positive influence of the Themyscirans to alleviate it, it's still going to have a pretty profound effect on her character. She may be the best of them, the most open-minded and forward-thinking and kind-hearted, and intellectually, she may have rejected many of her culture's original guiding principles. But she's going to be really strongly shaped by that culture nonetheless, both for good (she's an amazing warrior) and for ill (she's kind of a jerk).

If the first half of understanding Artemis is conceptual, the second is practical – what she does on the page and, as a supporting cast member, how she relates to Diana. For that, we begin with her introduction during WML's final storyarc. The year was 1994, and the hot trend at DC was kicking established characters out of costume and replacing them with newer, edgier characters (this was the Knightfall/Reign of the Supermen/Emerald Twilight era, for those who remember that stuff). The creative team behind Wonder Woman decided to get in on the action by reimagining a pre-Crisis Wonder Woman story called “Tournament,” in which another Amazon, named Orana, competed and won against Diana in a repeat of the original contest over who earned the honor of bearing the title of Wonder Woman. Much like Orana, Artemis beat Diana and earned the Wonder Woman mantle, only to ultimately fall short and be killed in the line of duty, allowing Diana to reclaim her proper role. She's even a direct visual reference, a red-haired green-eyed Amazon warrior (though Orana lacks Temi's awesomely ridiculous, ridiculously awesome 90s ponytail).

Some of the finer points of the job escaped Artemis at first.

Where the two characters differ, though, is that Temi is fundamentally a hero. We learn early on that, despite being only fourteen at the time, she argued against the initial war between the Bana and Themyscirans. Her participation in the contest for the Wonder Woman mantle is a deliberate attempt to earn the respect of the Themyscirans for her people, and she smacks down her own friends for attempting to utilize scare tactics while deliberately aggravating the rift between the tribes. During the contest, she risks her victory and her own life to save other Amazons, both Bana and Themysciran, who end up in danger. She's far from perfect – her prickly aggression, intense arrogance, easy willingness to kill, and general lack of understanding of anyone who isn't a warrior like herself make her short stint as Wonder Woman basically an inept disaster – but at her most basic level, Artemis is a woman who takes her duties seriously, works to end hostility, and risks her life for others without a thought. And she's not blind to her own flaws, either; her last act before dying is to acknowledge that her arrogance and naivete was no substitute for Diana's compassion and wisdom, and thus Diana is the true Wonder Woman, and Temi's superior.

I say “before dying,” but obviously, she got better – in fact she even got a whole (admittedly pretty abysmal) mini dedicated to her escape from Hell (and don't ask me why a Bast-worshipping Amazon ended up in Hell, I said it was abysmal) – and as time rolled on, subsequent authors built on that acknowledgment of superiority to make Temi one of Diana's most loyal and consistently involved allies (something of a coup for WML, it's vanishingly rare for a Wondy supporting cast member to survive more than one writer changeover). Writer/artist John Byrne further developed her hero cred during his stint on "Wonder Woman," setting her up victoriously against demons and making her the natural leader of Diana's allies in Diana's absence; Eric Luke later picked up one of Byrne's subthreads and made her into Cassie “Wonder Girl” Sandsmark's official trainer and mentor, an enormous undertaking with no reward that further cemented the depth of Temi's loyalty to Diana; Phil Jimenez even went so far as to make her one of the rulers of the Amazon nation after Hippolyta's abdication, struggling to bridge the gap between her people and the Themyscirans and torn between her desire to cover Diana's back in the field and her responsibilities as a leader. Nowadays she's one of the most reliable fixtures of the Wonder Woman mythos.

And with all that said, you can start to see why Temi's portrayals over the years have been a bit inconsistent – those two very different threads, “hero and loyal ally” versus “exemplar of a Very Flawed People,” are too disparate for many writers to reconcile. Some focus on the practical, presenting only “friend of Diana who's arrogant and new to men,” and you end up with ludicrous stuff like WML or Byrne's attempts at giving her male love interests. Both authors played it out like the male-hero version of that stock strawfeminist trope the Bana so thoroughly weren't – the strident, misguided woman meets a Good Man and learns the male of the species is not as bad as she thought. This is ridiculous on multiple levels once you remember the conceptual half of Temi's character, i.e., she's a Bana. For her, falling in love with a man would be the equivalent of the firstborn son of the Grand Wizard of the KKK falling in love with a black dude. I mean, sure, it might happen (though I think it would be a massive waste, since Temi is the highest profile Wonder who might conceivably be allowed a blatant on-panel same-gender romance in my lifetime, and considering Wonder Woman's relevance to the queer community, it's frankly shameful that it hasn't happened yet with one of them, so why squander the opportunity?), but if you insist, and you want it to ring even remotely true, it's going to be a slow and painful coming-out story with a lot of guilt and prejudice and culture clash, not casual mildly disgruntled swooning over Mike Schorr's manly arms.

She's become a pretty perceptive woman.

Then, on the other side of the coin, some writers focus on the conceptual, presenting only “paragon of the Bana who basically has pure contempt for Man's World,” and you get absurd nonsense like Temi running a wounded Vanessa off the island during Greg Rucka's run as the title's writer, because, not being an Amazon, she's “not their problem,” nevermind Nessie is Diana's family and Artemis dropping everything to care for one of Diana's young Man's World tagalongs is half her defining character history. Your Rucka and Walt Simonson types who completely miss Temi's profound devotion to Diana and her mission end up offering a character who rings even more false than those writers who skip the conceptual for the practical – what kind of Wonder Family member has no loyalty to Wonder Woman?

When you do get a writer who can easily navigate both threads, though, Artemis is a pure joy to read. Her voice is completely unique – what other character can casually imply that some men are inherently rapists and then, in the same breath, completely cuttingly dismantle the idea of the ends justifying the means with the sophistication of a master observer of human behavior? Her aggressive bent is both a great contrasting highlight to the other Wonders' patience and compassion, and a guilty thrill in itself – Diana's patience, composure, and forgiving nature is the appropriate response to conflict, prejudice, and general douchebaggery, but there's something viscerally cathartic about Temi's willingness to just put an arrow through a chump's face, verbally or literally, that's just nice to have even if it is rather less than we should aspire to. And her complex history lends itself to a lot of interesting stories – teacher, warrior, hero, leader, slave, sidekick, you won't find a more multifaceted character who's still so completely coherent.

And, seriously, how could anyone not love that hair?

When she's not busy overanalyzing and overinvesting in fictional characters, Mars Getsoian moonlights as a freelance writer and works on a novel she will never actually finish.

TAGS:  wonder of wonders, artemis, bana mighdall, secret six, dc comics

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