WAR & PEACE: DISTURBIA
By Robert Jones, Jr.
One of the most persistent critiques Wonder Woman receives is that she doesn't have much of a Rogues Gallery; that her villains are corny and bland. It's a charge that I find true only to the extent that it's true for any other superhero. Sure, Batman, Superman, The Flash, and Green Lantern all have recognizable villains in their arsenals, perhaps more recognizable than Wonder Woman's, and they're perhaps perceived as more menacing. Additionally, Wonder Woman's villains are generally permitted to be canon fodder for other heroes, thus reinforcing the "lame" stereotype (see the Cheetah).
Nevertheless, if you looked at the entire villainous assemblies of any hero, you'd find far more "silly" concepts than strong ones, and you'd see as many trite characterizations in those galleries as you would see in Wonder Woman's. For her rogues, the question is whether the banality is a problem inherent in the characters themselves, or if it's simply that relatively few writers have taken on the challenge of dusting off these old concepts and updating them for a modern audience ala Geoff Johns (who successfully revitalized a slew of corny bad guys like Captain Boomerang and The Black Hand over in "The Flash" and "Green Lantern").
Something else that might be coloring the perception of Wonder Woman's gallery (that doesn't come into play with male heroes) is gender. Most of Wonder Woman's enemies are female. In an industry where the vast majority of the audience is male, and a significant proportion of that audience lives vicariously through the characters they read about, I'd wager that not very many of them can (or want to) identify with Wonder Woman or her female foes. Perhaps, some male readers are, shall we say, more inclined to regard female characters as objects of desire rather than as powerful beings who pose a significant threat. Whatever the psychological and sociological reasons, generally speaking, it seems that males have more difficulty identifying with fictional females than females have identifying with fictional males.
Wonder Woman does have male foes, but they, too, are regarded with suspicion by some of the male audience, mainly because of what those readers perceive as the larger gender politics at work in the book. Some seem to feel that the inherent message in "Wonder Woman" is "Women are Good and Men are Evil," despite the overwhelming number of evil female super-villains present in the stories. So when a male bad guy shows up, he's representative of a perceived misandry that immediately alienates them.
There is some basis for that belief, particularly when you observe the other forms of media in which Wonder Woman appears. The "Wonder Woman" animated film is a shining example of what happens when you get Wonder Woman and gender politics wrong; and some portrayals of Wonder Woman outside of her own title - like Frank Miller's version or the ethos in "Amazons Attack" - are notoriously warped. And while some of her male villains are representative of the baser attitudes some men hold toward women, they are not representative of all men. Anyone who would give the main title a chance would see that if any notion is true, it's this one: for Wonder Woman, female equality doesn't equate to male inferiority. There are quite a number of admirable, intelligent and courageous males in the supporting cast: Steve Trevor, Tom Tresser (aka Nemesis), Sarge Steel, James Allen Yarbrough, and Michael D'Alessio.
Let's take a look at ten concepts from Wonder Woman's gallery and discuss why some of them work and why some of them could work given the proper literary attention.
Background: Alkyone is an Amazon, and the former captain of Queen Hippolyta's Royal Guard. She and her accomplices - Myrto, Charis and Philomena, collectively known as The Circle - plotted to kill the queen's daughter, Princess Diana (aka Wonder Woman), on the night of her birth. Foiled, all four were imprisoned by Hippolyta, but were released during recent invasions of the island and are free to resume their plan to assassinate Wonder Woman.
Powers: Alkyone is immortal and possesses strength, speed, stamina and resilience greater than that of a normal human being. She trained as a warrior for over 3,000 years and is quite handy with a sword.
Why it works: It's cultural. Alkyone's hatred of Wonder Woman is misguided, but borne out of a deep-seeded and extremely radical loyalty to the Amazon tradition. She believes that bringing a child into the Amazon culture would break the eternal bonds of sisterhood and destroy their way of life. The notion of motherhood on an island filled with women who have been denied the ability to procreate is an explosive and divisive topic (it's almost like talking about gay marriage in a room full of conservative Christians). Like real-world beliefs, Alkyone's are unassailable. She's a fundamentalist who's convinced that Wonder Woman is the Amazon version of the Anti-Christ (though, in a moment of weakness, she confessed to wishing that Wonder Woman was her daughter). This all makes for fascinating role-reversals and dynamic confrontations between the two.
Key Appearances: "Wonder Woman" (third series) #14-17, 32, 33.
Background: Very little is known about Angelo Bend beyond the fact that he's a thief from Italy (with a great appreciation for the finer things in life) who renders his services to the highest bidder. A ladies man who's as interested in seducing his female adversaries as he is robbing them blind, Angle Man has been more a thorn in Donna Troy's side than in her big sister's.
Powers: It doesn't appear that Angle Man possesses any superhuman abilities. However, he is the owner of a triangular device of unknown origin called "The Angler." It allows manipulate the location and direction of matter and energy by bending space and time. As a result, he's able to disorient his opponents (as seen in the image to the right), redirect light and kinetic energy, and create and see through optical illusions. The Angler also gives him the power of teleportation and invisibility.
What could be improved: He's almost a blank slate: we don't know why he became the Angle Man, where he got the Angler, or why he finds himself tangling with Wonder Woman. Still, he would prove a cunning enemy for Wonder Woman with his unique powers and old-fashioned, chivalrous villainy. He could also bring some dark humor to her rogues, which might make for interesting stories.
Key Appearances: "Wonder Woman" (second series) #179-183, 186, 187. Avoid his "Catwoman" appearances, which are difficult to reconcile with what was previously established.
Background: Ares, son of Zeus and Hera, is the Greek god of war. Greg Rucka recently revamped him into the god of conflict and ruler of Tartarus), but I'm not certain if that slight alteration still applies (Wonder Woman readers still don't have a clear picture of Wonder Woman's post-Infinite Crisis, post-Final Crisis history; a "Wonder Woman: Secret Origin" miniseries could clarify matters). Nevertheless, he is the personification of man's inhumanity toward man and views Wonder Woman and her mission as major impediments to his success.
Powers: A full-blooded, nearly-omnipotent Olympian god, Ares possesses a vast array of divine abilities including incalculable strength, flight, invulnerability, invisibility, intangibility, teleportation, divine insight, mind-control and shape-shifting. He's capable of resurrection and reanimation, among other things. His mere presence inspires violence. He's also a master combatant, capable of wielding any weapon with unparalleled skill. Ares feeds directly from conflict; the more conflict there is, the more powerful he becomes. He's the ultimate sadist.
Why it works: It's divine irony. Ares is the primary reason Wonder Woman exists. The Olympian goddesses had the foresight to understand that Ares would one day present a significant threat to reality and conspired to thwart his influence. Their plan was to combine their might in the form of a champion who would be smart enough, strong enough, fast enough, and loving enough to stop him. Wonder Woman was created to undermine the world of unceasing war Ares is attempting to maintain. However, with every punch she throws, she increases his power and influence. So she often has to find non-violent means by which to end his threat, making it all the more difficult to confront Ares with physical means - though, that hasn't stopped her from trying.
Key Appearances: "Wonder Woman" (second series) #1-6, 196-211; Wonder Woman (third series) #32, 33.
Background: A lying, cheating, selfish, manipulative, murderous, narcissistic, brilliant, and intensely curious archaeologist by the name of Barbara Minerva tricked the ancient African plant-god, Urzkartaga, into granting her the ability to transform into the savage were-beast known as the Cheetah. The transformation is a brutal one and requires an addictive, ritual, human sacrifice that takes a terrible toll on Minerva's mental and physical health.
For those of you who might not know, the Cheetah isn't just a Catwoman wanna-be in a cheetah-print leotard. You may have seen her portrayed as such in other books, but those writers simply failed to adequately research their subject.
She's one of the leaders of the Secret Society of Super Villains.
Powers: The Cheetah is a ferocious fighter possessed of a berseker's rage. She's super-strong and resilient enough to withstand blows from alpha-level beings. Thanks to the Flash rogue, Zoom, she's free of the psychological barriers that limited her speed and can move nearly as fast as The Flash himself. She has deadly claws that can slice through steel (and even cut Superman!), enhanced senses, incredible agility, healing factor, cunning, camouflage and a prehensile tail. She used to have this racially-offensive sidekick named Chuma who helped her to "shoot up;" I'm glad he's fallen by the wayside.
Why it works: It's the dark reflection. At first, the Cheetah was simply interested in stealing Wonder Woman's golden lasso to add to her collection of rare and ancient artifacts, like an evil Indiana Jones. But now, the Cheetah views herself as the twisted version of Wonder Woman. She's just as smart, beautiful, wise, strong, cunning, fast, and capable as Wonder Woman; but where Wonder Woman was blessed by her gods, the Cheetah was cursed by hers. Where Wonder Woman was loved and nurtured, the Cheetah was despised and neglected. Where Wonder Woman is a free agent who is able to stand up to and even defy her gods, the Cheetah is trapped in an abusive celestial relationship with hers. Her opposition to Wonder Woman is part curiosity and part envy: she wants to know the secret to Wonder Woman's divine favor and, at the same time, wishes to destroy her for being thusly favored. That is, after she toys with her for a bit, like a real jungle feline.
There's also the icky Virgin/Whore dynamic going on between the two of them. Quite frankly, the Cheetah's sizzling, completely-owned sexuality comes across as much more healthy, mature, normal and empowering than Wonder Woman's (perceived) cold and eternal virginity (the Cheetah is now dating JLA mascot, Snapper Carr).
Key Appearances: "Wonder Woman" (second series) #9; 31-33, 222; "Final Crisis: Resist;" "Secret Six" (current ongoing) #3; "Justice League of America 80-Page Giant" #1 (2009).
Background: Circe is a goddess and daughter of Hyperion and Perseis, two Titans of Myth. She has been a thorn in heroes' sides since the days of Homer. Initially, she and Wonder Woman were bound together by some cryptic prophecy involving the moon goddess Hecate. The prophecy promised that the one who destroyed the other would receive Hecate's unlimited mystical power. Circe - fearing that Wonder Woman would kill her and claim Hecate's power - went about trying to destroy Wonder Woman and claim the power for herself. After a huge battle, Circe managed to kill Wonder Woman, but was defeated after Wonder Woman was resurrected. With the prophecy now null and void, Circe has other reasons for tormenting Wonder Woman.
Powers: Circe is an alpha-level sorceress who generally invokes the dark mystical arts through spell-casting. She's had thousands of years to learn and perfect her spells, thus giving the appearance of being able conjure just about anything with the wave of her hand. Her specialties seem to be devolving people (especially men) into human/animal hybrids called "bestiamorphs," and projecting deadly bolts of eldritch energy. She's capable of teleportation; can transport objects as large as Paradise Island across dimensions; is a shape-shifter; and has actually used her magicks to devolve Wonder Woman back into the clay from which she was formed. She's also able to transfigure human beings into immortals (as she did with the Bana-Mighdall Amazons) and can resurrect the dead (as she did with Medusa and Hippolyta). Additionally, she can cast spells that boost or dampen the meta-human abilities of others. Her cunning is so great that she was able to manipulate entire pantheons of gods into declaring war and inflicting deadly violence upon one another.
Circe's only weakness is a plant called Moly, upon which her magicks have no effect. Used properly, it can protect one from her spells or render her completely powerless.
Why it works: It's philosophical contrast. She seeks to unleash chaos and misery in direct opposition to Wonder Woman's mission of uniting the world in harmony and joy. She believes that humankind's essential nature is violent and cruel, and wants to do everything she can to bring that to the surface, particularly between the sexes. She regards Wonder Woman's mission of peace and love as a farce at best and hypocritical at worst, given that Wonder Woman is from a martial society. Circe is to Wonder Woman as Nietzsche is to Gandhi - that is, if Nietzsche could cast spells and Gandhi could lift mountains over his head. Interestingly, there's also a bit of Sun Tzu in Wonder Woman's philosophy, adding further complexity to her relationship with Circe.
Key Appearances: "Wonder Woman" (second series) #17-19, 88, 100, 176; "War of the Gods" #1-4; "Amazons Attack!" #1-6.
Background: Dr. Cylvia Anita Cyber is a criminal mastermind and a disfigured freak who, not unlike Dr. Doom, aspires to take over the world. In some of the earlier stories, Dr. Cyber covets Wonder Woman's beauty because her own face is horrifically scarred. She sets about trying to capture Wonder Woman in order to perform a face transplant (decades before "Face Off").
Powers: Dr. Cyber's armor provides enhanced strength, limited invulnerability, energy absorption, and concussive energy blasts. She also utilizes powerful android/robot foot soldiers, presumably of her own creation.
What could be improved: She looks ridiculous in that awful purple jumpsuit and green Dracula cape - although, I think Dr. Doom looks just as goofy. With the right design, this cybernetic genius could wreak all sorts of mechanical havoc in Wonder Woman's life. Also, I think there's an interesting subtext beneath the Dr. Cyber concept: commentary about beauty; about the tremendous pressure women face to live up to impossible aesthetic standards; the price they pay in the attempt to resist or acquiesce - and how Wonder Woman, by her very existence, feeds into that pathology.
Key Appearances: "Wonder Woman" (first series) #179-182; 221; 287; "Power Company" #1-5; "Wonder Woman" (third series) #2; Annual 1.
Background: While her true identity is unknown, we do know that she's the unnamed granddaughter of Princess Maru, the original Doctor Poison - and perhaps a member of royalty herself. Dressed in black leather drag (with lips pulled back into a horrific smile, and eyelids held open by tiny mechanical devices she created), this dominatrix has fought Wonder Woman numerous times both solo and with a villainous group known as Villainy, Inc.
Powers: Poison doesn't possess any superhuman abilities, but she is a brilliant surgeon/chemist who likes to experiment on herself a much as she likes to experiment on the innocents she menaces. This medical terrorist concocts all manner of potions that can do anything from turn humans into monsters to infect people with dangerous and divine diseases.
What could be improved: The bones are there, but there's no flesh. Poison's impetus is very creepy: She's driven by a bizarre, unethical scientific curiosity. Honestly, The Joker's psychoses pale in comparison - but the Joker is more interesting because even if what we know about him is a lie, we know something about him. We know almost nothing about Doctor Poison or why she's particularly committed to destroying Wonder Woman (and not, say, Superman or Batman or Aquaman). This character is begging for a compelling backstory - even if it's entirely made up. Ben Caldwell's Japanese-totalitarian-mobster-with-a-hypodermic-needle-fetish version of the character from "Wednesday Comics" was a stroke of genius.
Key Appearances: "Wonder Woman" (second series) #151, 152, 179-185.
Background: In the pre-Crisis DC Universe, Dr. Edgar Cizko was enlisted by evil gods to help oppress women and cause all sorts of havoc and discord in opposition to Wonder Woman's mission of peace and harmony. Post-Crisis, he seems to be more of a serial rapist motivated purely by sadism.
He's also a member of the Secret Society of Super Villains.
Powers: Psycho is a powerful telepath who can invade the minds of his prey and exert complete control over them. He can cast believable illusions and even alter the dream state of his victims.
What could be improved: He needs more dimension. He's the one super-villain in comics that I actually despise. He's a physical, spiritual, emotional and telepathic rapist who messes with the minds of his victims so fiercely that he once stripped a toddler of its ability to love its mother. He's a demented beast, and a significant challenge to Wonder Woman's humanist ideology. But there are just too many unanswered questions here: this troll just flat out hates women - but why? He's deformed - but why? He has enormous telepathic powers - but why? It'd be great if a writer would explore these ideas rather than allow them to remain so one-note.
Key Appearances: Wonder Woman (second series) #54, 55; Wonder Woman (third series) #1-4, Annual #1; Villains United #1-6; Action Comics #830-831.
Background: Dr. Doris Zeul doesn't want much, just a beautiful body into which she can place her brain. At first she tried a gorilla, but that wasn't to her liking. Then, she tried to kill Wonder Woman and use her body, but that failed miserably. Finally, she discovered a comatose circus performer named Olga, upon whom a Native American shaman cast a spell. Zeul stole the body, transplanted her brain into it, and discovered that the body possessed special powers.
She is also a member of Villainy, Inc.
Powers: Giganta is a size-shifting villain who can apparently grow to the size of a skyscraper, with her strength and stamina increasing proportionately. She also possesses a genius intellect.
What could be improved: Yes, her name is sort of ridiculous (so is Bizarro's and Sinestro's for that matter), but she's still one of Wonder Woman's most recognizable foes (thanks to the "Challenge of the Superfriends" and "Justice League Unlimited" animated shows). But that's nothing compared to her being portrayed as, well, a punk. She's powerful enough to destroy an entire city just by stomping her foot and yet she's perceived (and often written) as a patsy. She has an intellect that rivals Lex Luthor's, and yet she's never posed a formidable challenge to anyone. Could it be that her intellect conflicts with her more brutish aspects resulting in inertia? Also, it'd be nice to know why she has a beef with Wonder Woman now that has a body with which she's happy.
Key Appearances: "Wonder Woman" (second series) #175, #179-185; "Wonder Woman" (third series) #1-4, 36, Annual #1; "The All-New Atom" #1-7
Background: Warkiller is the nom de guerre for the ancient Greek hero, Achilles. He was recently resurrected by Zeus to rule the Gargareans, a sect of male Amazons who live on an island called Thalarion, not too far from Themyscira. As Zeus' champion, it's Warkiller's job to bring peace across the globe - by any means necessary. And if that means killing every warmonger on the planet, then so be it! But he's also conflicted: in his heart of hearts, he knows Zeus' way isn't the true path to conflict resolution, but he is very loyal to Zeus and believes that it's his duty to obey him.
Powers: Achilles possesses superhuman strength and near-invulnerability. He's an unparalleled armed and unarmed combatant with the remarkable ability to anticipate his opponents' physical and strategic attacks. He controls the mystical "Virgin Spear of Athena," whose abilities and properties are not yet known. He rides Mysia, a super-strong, super-durable, flying elephant with three glowing gold eyes.
Why it works: It's a study in extremes. Warkiller is kind of like - if I may be so bold - Malcolm X to Wonder Woman's Martin Luther King, Jr. He's taken Wonder Woman's mission of peace to its most radical conclusion. It presents an interesting moral dilemma for Wonder Woman to oppose someone whose end goal is the same as hers, but whose methods are highly controversial. In the minds of much of the world's skeptical populace, she and he are cut from the same cloth. Thus, his presence and actions cast doubt on her message and mission. He's like a living, breathing cautionary tale for anyone questioning Wonder Woman's philosophy: "If provoked, how easily might Wonder Woman resort to the same measures?" Scary thought, indeed.
Key Appearances: "Wonder Woman" (third series) #28-34, 36-39.
Honorable mention: Gundra the Valkyrie, Kung the Assassin, the Mask, Osira, and the Silver Swan.
Forget they ever existed: The Crimson Centipede, Cyborgirl, Egg Fu, Genocide, Mouse Man.
So what do you think? Isn't it interesting how many of Wonder Woman's enemies are doctors and scientists? What do you think that says about her as a character? What themes and conflicts do you believe are in play? Are there any other rogues you think should have made the list? Join the discussion at the Wonder Woman message boards!
Robert Jones, Jr. is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY. He is webmaster of the blog Son of Baldwin, and is currently working on his first novel.