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“Submission is Faith in the Strength of Others”: Synthesizing Male and Female Aspects of War in Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman

By Houman Sadri


Scholarship on the development and initial establishment of Wonder Woman tends to agree that the primary concern of her creator, William Moulton Marston, was to create an independent, feminist role model for young girls as a counterbalance to the huge number of popular (male) superheroes geared towards young boys. Regardless of this, however, the character has, in the subsequent decades, become part of a popular and commercial superhero franchise1, which tends to mean that her stories are regularly updated, re-imagined, or retold for successive generations of readers, the better to keep the character / brand fresh and up-to-date. Despite this need for reinvention, or perhaps because of the reverence with which many readers regard what would be referred to as “canon,” new interpretations and reconstructions of the character are not always well-received. For example, in his book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston / Peter Comics 1941-1948, Noah Berlatsky argues that Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s tenure as writer and artist on DC Comics’ Wonder Woman title represents a betrayal of William Moulton Marston’s ideals and original intentions for the character, even going so far as to accuse Azzarello personally of misogyny, iconoclasm and ideological antifeminism (Berlatsky 196). It is Berlatsky’s position that by altering the character’s origin story and presenting a critical view of the matriarchy from which she originates, Azzarello is essentially breaking down years of Diana as a feminist icon and dragging the character through the dirt. Philip Sandifer echoes this in A Golden Thread, labeling the change in origin “indefensible,” and suggesting that it “comes close to a wholesale rejection of Wonder Woman’s entire history of idealism” (264). Carolyn Cocca also cites objections to Azzarello’s changes, noting that even prominent former Wonder Woman writer/artist Phil Jimenez has taken vocal issue with them, believing that the revised origins speak to a fear of femininity and feminism amongst the comic’s fan base, and expressing the view that the character’s uniqueness is somehow lessened as a result (Cocca 101).

In this article I examine Azzarello and Chiang’s seemingly controversial revision of the character in order to show that, despite the ostensibly coherent reasoning offered most notably by Berlatsky, Sandifer and Jimenez, not only does the “antifeminist” argument miss the point, but Azzarello and Chiang’s interpretation is, in fact, both a reaffirmation and an update of Marston’s ideas and principles. In pursuit of these aims, I employ a critical reading of the primary text that is chiefly informed by the writings of Joseph Campbell, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. However, despite Campbell’s importance to the present study, it is not practicable or necessary to give a detailed account of his vast scholarship (or, indeed, to account for and evaluate how Campbell’s ideas have been received by literary theorists) within the narrow scope of this paper. Instead, I sketch out here the most relevant aspects of Campbell’s theoretical framework—specifically the aspects of the Hero’s Journey to which Azzarello and Chiang’s text most corresponds— and refer the reader to other, more comprehensive works on Campbell and his ideas (such as Segal 1999, Ellwood 1999, Palumbo 2014, Frankel 2010).

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell describes the Monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, as a structural pattern common to a wide range of mythological and scriptural tales from around the world. In essence, an ordinary yet heroic figure leaves the comfort of home, immerses themself in the extraordinary events of an outside world that is intrinsically unfamiliar, fights and wins a decisive victory and, this achieved, returns home with an essential boon or blessing. While this pattern has seemingly-inextricable links to presently out-of-favor concepts such as archetypal criticism and Jungian psychoanalysis, the current cultural ubiquity of monomythical narratives suggests that aspects of Campbell’s theory are still relevant, and that while the beats that popular films, television shows and works of literature regularly strike tend to be true to the classic archetypes, the characters and circumstances have progressed and evolved alongside the cultures to which they cater. However, one problem that seriously tests any consideration of the Monomyth today is that of gender: Campbell’s pattern, in keeping, to some extent, with the classical and biblical hero narratives it both describes and draws from, tends to privilege the male hero, with each one of its stages framed in essentially masculine and patriarchal terms. From an archetypal perspective, the mythological hero has tended to be male, and while female deities and monsters are common within both pantheistic and monotheistic folkloric traditions, human women are, more often than not, secondary to the crux of the tale, more apt to be portrayed either as maternal figures or as victims or hostages waiting for a male champion to perform an act of rescue. Gender roles have evolved within Western culture, however, and as a result these female archetypes are increasingly problematic and untenable.

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir notes that while there is a historical precedent for women to take part in—even relish—war and conflict, those that have done so have often tended to reject more traditional or archetypal female traits and roles. The Amazons of classical antiquity, for example, were said to have mutilated their breasts in order to facilitate archery, implying a rejection of motherhood, and indeed tended to be portrayed in myth and legend as hostile to all men (De Beauvoir 72). In Azzarello and Chiang’s recent six-volume Wonder Woman storyline, however, the eponymous character—an Amazon princess who has chosen to leave her matriarchal home and live in and fight for “man’s world,” and as such represents a prime example of the monomythical pattern —is obliged to take up the mantle of the God of War after the death of Ares and in the absence of Athena, and it is only by combining the attributes of both deities that she is able to prevail in both her new role and her battle with the First Born. The latter is the story arc’s primary antagonist, so named because he is the first child of Zeus and Hera, spurned and left to die by his father as a result of a prophecy that he will one day rule Olympus. He represents, as I show, Wonder Woman’s diametric opposite. I argue that this synthesis has several implications, foremost of which is the idea that being the embodiment of war represents a series of apparent oxymorons, with Diana’s ultimate consignment of the First Born to what he characterizes as a fate worse than death seen as an act of “tough love” (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones:142) (fig 1).

Figure 1

While this victory is portrayed as a fundamentally moral one, it is also a synthesis of force and mercy, and as such, I maintain, represents the aforementioned fusion of gender aspects in line with ideas fundamental to the creation of Wonder Woman as a character. Indeed, it is my argument that the character’s role as God of War, and the narrative and mythology-based gender synthesis that this entails, is essentially an affirmation of the original ideas of Wonder Woman’s creator, who believed that triumph could only be achieved within submission to loving authority, an idea characterized by Diana herself as, “faith in the strength of others” (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones:142). Furthermore, this faith is arguably a fundamental aspect of war: a commander must have faith in the forces at their disposal to prevail in any conflict, and as a result command itself ironically becomes an act of submission.

In addition to this, the trajectory of the heroic journey undertaken by the central character of this set of tales hews closely to the Monomyth, and it is my assertion that this synthesis of archetypal—perhaps, on the face of it, stereotypical—male and female gender traits represents Diana’s successful completion of her heroic arc, and the enlightenment, or even transfiguration, that this completion necessarily entails. The specific act of synthesising the gender aspects of war within herself leads to the achievement of Diana’s boon, that is to say the culmination of her Heroic Journey in line with Campbell’s pattern, and so this must be seen in terms of Apotheosis, the stage of the Hero’s Journey which both immediately precedes and directly leads to The Ultimate Boon. We see, then, that this narrative represents not only the ultimate fulfillment of Marston’s aim in creating a symbol of female empowerment in the character of Wonder Woman, but also the embodiment of a particularly modern and female example of a critically outmoded male hero archetype, thus complicating the Monomyth. Consequently, it is necessary to interrogate the implications of the Monomyth as they pertain to the text, as well as examine the ways in which these implications and conclusions both critique and affirm Campbell’s pattern.

Absent Gods

Aside from Diana herself, arguably the most important characters of Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman story arc are often conspicuous in their absence. As the text opens, Zeus has apparently abandoned Olympus and Athena is missing. Ares initially seems apathetic about the power vacuum these absences have caused within the Olympian pantheon, and therefore refuses to take sides or become involved with his siblings’ internecine fighting, keeping himself peripheral to the main thrust of the narrative until he has no choice but to intervene (fig 2) (Azzarello & Chiang, Blood: 93). In the Greek mythological pantheon, Ares is famously the God of War, but Athena, while better remembered as representing wisdom, law, civilization, home, and craft, actually shares this role. In fact, Ares represents the cruelty and brutality of war—its masculine aspect, at least within this context—while Athena holds dominion over defensive warfare and the civilization building that comes in the wake of battle: in other words the (textually) feminine aspects required to fight for and maintain civilization and society. Within the wider context of Wonder Woman, Marston established Athena as one of the patrons of the Amazons of Themiscyra, the matriarchy from which Princess Diana—Wonder Woman herself—springs, with Ares usually portrayed as the Amazons’ main antagonist, the sponsor and progenitor of the wars and savagery that beset the world of man. Within the parameters of the source material, then, Ares is seen to represent the patriarchy and masculinity in general, while Athena is often portrayed as essentially his opposite number (fig 3) (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones: 161). This explains how the Amazons can be seen to be martial without being stereotypically violent and warlike, which is the way the world of man is most often portrayed by Marston (Morrison 43-44). The implications, however, are clear: within the context of this interpretation of the Greek pantheon at least, war is equal parts male and female in nature, with each gender’s supposed traits balancing those of its counterpart. In other words, Azzarello’s version of Diana can only succeed if her monomythical journey reconciles the character’s masculine and feminine aspects; this represents a knowing update of Marston’s more polemical world view.

Figure 2
Figure 3

It is worth reflecting that this absence of familiar deities and their influences in Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman is consistent with a Nietzschean reading of Ares’ apathy and eventual willingness to sacrifice himself. Nietzsche’s claim of the Christian God’s demise is, as Rex Welshon explains, a result of God having “lost whatever functions he had as a result of the actions taken by those who believed in him” (Welshon 40). In other words, if the actions of believers are responsible for the figurative death of God, it follows that the diminishment and eventual death of Ares is a direct result of the actions of those over whom he has dominion and sway. Likewise, we can surmise that Athena and Zeus’ seeming abandonment of their responsibilities must have something to do with a need to reconfigure their influence and redefine the way in which they are perceived and followed. In assuming Ares’ role, then, it is clear that Diana must do things differently because the methods of modern warfare are dysfunctional enough to undermine the idea of war and its effectiveness as a means of settling disputes. The very fact that the need to replace Ares has emerged makes explicit the idea that it is not the personification, but rather the concept of war that requires retooling. This can be read as a critique of modern warfare, or even as the simple observation that those who fight in modern wars do not understand the parameters of what they are doing. Ares’ jadedness and lack of enthusiasm for his role is in stark contrast to the bombastic figure we encounter in the text’s flashbacks to earlier times, and this implies that man’s ferocity and cruelty in waging war has become too much even for its god. It is clear that war needs to be redefined.

Athena’s role as Goddess of War is obscured within Azzarello’s text by the Olympian characters’ propensity towards using each other’s functions as appellations: hence Hades becomes “Hell,” and Poseidon “Sea,” while Ares is constantly referred to as “War.” In a way, this is an act of textual legerdemain on Azzarello’s part—as long as Ares is so named, one tends to identify him as the sole God of War, and to forget this aspect of Athena’s role as well as the significance of her absence. We are told within the narrative that she, like Zeus, is missing, and the text essentially leaves it at that until the end of the sixth and final volume, with far more emphasis and weight afforded to the missing ruler of the Gods than to Athena’s absence. In the context of the narrative, this obfuscation of Athena’s whereabouts is intended, in part, to highlight the closing revelation that she has been hiding in plain sight all along2, but it also serves to mask her importance from Diana for the majority of the text.

After Diana ascends to the role of God of War, she refuses to allow her fellow Olympians to call her “War” as they did Ares. Until she is both aware of the need and able to synthesize the aspects of both Ares and Athena within her person, she does not truly wear the mantle of War. It is only once she accepts the dichotomous gender aspects and roles of War at the climax of the sixth volume3 that she fully ascends to her place in the Pantheon—and, indeed, is able to persuade the returned Athena to again subsume herself within Zola, a character whom the reader has heretofore taken only to be the latest in a long line of human women seduced and impregnated by Zeus, but is revealed to have been a homunculus wholly created by Athena specifically for this task. It is clear that Diana would have been unable to successfully persuade Athena to restore Zola to life were she still attempting to live up to Ares’ role alone, thereby neglecting the fact that she—as both a protégée of the Goddess and as God of War—has access to Athena’s wisdom. Indeed, at this juncture, Diana’s wisdom surpasses that of the Goddess. So, it is only once Diana realizes that the role she inherits is a dual one, with contrasting attributes, that she becomes ready to perform the dual functions allotted to her in her ascension to the Olympian pantheon.

Submission to Loving Authority and The Emotions of Normal People

Ares’ role within the narrative is further muddied by the reader’s semiotic understanding of the God’s role within the context of Wonder Woman stories as a historical whole. Marston created Wonder Woman specifically as a feminine archetype to rival Superman, expressly because he felt that “[not] even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peaceloving (sic) as good women are” (Lepore 187). Marston was many things: a psychologist, academic, qualified lawyer, inventor of the first rudimentary polygraph test and, indeed, polyamorist. His family arrangements were such that he lived with two women, his wife and the woman Grant Morrison describes as their “mutual lover” (Morrison 41). This unconventional family had four children in total, each woman having given birth to two. Elizabeth Holloway Marston, herself a psychologist by training, acted as the family’s main provider, working as an editor at the Encyclopaedia Britannica while Olive Byrne acted in the more traditional “mother” role, raising the children while also working as a freelance writer for Family Circle. Marston himself was often unemployed—academia was his natural habitat, but his unconventional ideas and methods had left his reputation tarnished and, as a result, he was increasingly unable to find or hold on to tenure or even amanuensis work. So it is that the women in Marston’s life adopted and adapted both traditional male and female roles within the nucleus of their family unit, and, as Jill Lepore suggests in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, it was upon this feminine amalgamation that he based the character of Wonder Woman.

Marston self-identified as a feminist, and it was his belief that the world would eventually become a matriarchy—indeed in November 1937 he went so far as to call a press conference to announce that, a millennium hence, this would in fact be the case (Lepore 169-170). It was his argument, and a major prong and recurring idea of his research, that women have twice the emotional maturity and development of men, and that this is in essence due to their apparently greater ability to offer affection and nurturing. Furthermore, he espoused the idea that women are better able to submit to love, and, crucially, what Marston terms “loving authority.” Perhaps paradoxically, Marston posits domination as a typically male trait, one that is fundamentally deplorable, while submission is, in his view, archetypally female and, as such, an important quality for society to have. In his book The Emotions of Normal People, he explains that “[b]y submission in every case, is meant a decrease in the self to permit an allied person to direct at will, not only the organism apart from the motor self, but the motor self, also” going on to remark that his mostly-female test subjects describe submission as being characterized by “wanting to give the self helplessly, without question, to the dictation of another person. This feeling [is] increasingly pleasant in proportion as the self is increasingly controlled” (Marston Emotions 244). By contrast, Marston posits that dominance is “chiefly characterized by victory of the motor self over an antagonist of inferior intensity”, associating this trait with aggressiveness, willfulness and—in extreme cases—destructive behavior (Marston Emotions: 108). In other words, to seek to dominate another would be wrong (and intrinsically masculine), but to submit to another’s gentle and loving control, something Marston posits as being more evident in women, is a sign of superiority. Moreover, his reference to the “motor self” implies that the male dominates reflexively and without consideration: it is just what men do as a matter of course. He interprets this as incontrovertible proof of the intrinsic superiority of women.

Within the context of the origin story written by Marston, as well as the entirety of his work on the title, Wonder Woman is fated to lose her power and strength if she is ever physically bound by a man (fig 4), and it is my assertion that this is her creator’s metaphorical description of the effect of male dominance on women as a whole. This weakness has often been read either as some kind of failsafe on the part of Diana’s creator, a means by which to ensure that Wonder Woman can never really escape patriarchal conventions or realities, or as an example of Marston’s supposed sexual peccadillos—and as Hanley notes, the submissive aspect of bondage is not only often a lifestyle choice as opposed to a mere activity, but is also one which resonates tellingly with the theories Marston tended to espouse (Hanley 47). However, a different, persuasive reading posits this vulnerability as a comment on the patriarchal tendency, identified by Marston as stifling women by means of domination. As Lepore points out, “Not a comic book in which Wonder Woman appeared, and hardly a page, lacked a scene of bondage […] And it isn’t only Wonder Woman. Every woman in the Wonder Woman comic books is bound” (Lepore 233, emphasis in original),4 and Marston’s instructions for artist Harry G. Peter were always rich with specific details as to exactly what forms this bondage should take. However, it is usually men who bind these characters, and it is always men who behave in a dominant and cruel fashion (fig 4) (Marston & Peter Chronicles vol 2. 51). Lepore cites a story in Wonder Woman #2 in which Diana is handed a whip and instructed to “discipline” slave women who have voluntarily submitted to this domination. She chooses instead to speak to them and to ask them to tell their stories. While it is hard to disagree with Lepore’s assessment of this as “feminism as fetish” (Lepore 236), it can also be argued that Marston is making his thoughts on submission, domination and the roles and proclivities of the sexes abundantly clear.

Figure 4

By the time of Wonder Woman’s debut in 1942, the world was at war, and it was expedient for Marston to present Ares as the progenitor and sponsor of masculine warlike behavior, with Aphrodite (not, in this instance, Athena) as the patron Goddess of the Amazons. Indeed, in Wonder Woman #1, Marston’s omniscient narration goes so far as to claim that, “The planet Earth […] is ruled by rival gods—Ares, God of War, and Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty” (Marston & Peter Chronicles vol 1 100). Within the context of Wonder Woman—and in line with Marston’s own ideas as a psychologist—men are quite literally portrayed as combative and barbaric by nature, while women are (also by nature) intrinsically beautiful and loving5 (fig 5). Diana herself is specifically equated both with Aphrodite and Athena—repurposed by Marston as the Goddess not only of Wisdom, but also of Peace (Marston & Peter Chronicles vol 1 98). In a historical period where male comic-book superheroes were depicted as literally heading off to fight in the Second World War, this must be seen as a bold ideological move on Marston’s part.

Figure 5

As a character, Wonder Woman has endured a far more fraught publishing history than that of her iconic male counterparts (Lepore 260-272), but whenever she returns to her myth-based roots, Ares has tended to be portrayed as her most potent antagonist,6 while Athena has remained a figure of patronage and counsel for the Amazon and her people (Jimenez & Wells 46-47). In other words, as problematic as Marston’s ideas on gender differences and politics were,7 what is beyond doubt is his fervent belief that human society could ultimately only be saved were it to become a matriarchy. In her origin story, Wonder Woman is presented as entirely free of any male influence or genetics, to the extent of being sculpted from clay by her mother, and then having life breathed into her by Gods. She has no father and is therefore, to Marston, the ultimate example of female perfection. To mix metaphors, Marston’s Diana is the female virgin birth, and as such can be interpreted as redressing the gender imbalance of myth through a determined shift away from the patriarchal paradigm.

Wonder Woman’s New Origin

Azzarello subverts Marston’s origin story almost immediately by exposing this seven-decade-old tale as a lie—Diana is revealed as a child of Zeus, the product of a heretofore secret tryst between the Olympian ruler and the Amazon queen Hippolyta, whose true paternity has been hidden in order to protect her and the other Amazons from the anger of Hera. This revelation creates three separate yet intertwining realities for the character within the context of the narrative. Firstly, she is no longer a virgin birth, and her genes are, indeed, half-male like everyone else’s. The Amazons of Themiscyra have always been portrayed as more than a mere matriarchy, rather a society made up solely of women who have chosen to exist free of either the influence or need for men. However, Diana’s true origin story causes her to question her identity and her society. Azzarello reveals not only that Diana was conceived in a normal way, but also that the Amazons ensured their race’s survival by essentially raping unsuspecting sailors in order to become pregnant, with any male children of these forced unions given away to the armorer god Hephaestus as slaves. In other words, the images she has of both herself and her sisters are called into question simultaneously. This leads to the second new reality, the increasing persuasiveness of the idea that everything is intrinsically gendered, and that this gendering needs a counterbalance. The Amazons may be a matriarchal society, but their treatment of both the sailors they essentially rape and the male children born of these encounters suggest something that appears never to have occurred to Marston: that people of both genders are equally capable of cruelty. This can be seen not just as a subversion, but also a more realist take on Marston’s more biologically essentialist portrait of Themiscyran society. Interestingly, however, Berlatsky’s objection to these changes in origin and depiction is predicated not on the idea of the Amazons being portrayed as aggressive or warlike, but rather on the idea that it is questionable to “[replace] the peace-loving Amazons not with the Greeks’ admirable, war-loving Amazons but rather with a society built on falsehoods,” going on to state, more than a little problematically, that this change establishes Azzarello and Chiang’s run as “explicitly antifeminist [or] [d]eterminedly misogynist” (Berlatsky 196). It is my assertion, however, that this is not the case and that Azzarello’s interpretation of the Amazons is far closer to those of their mythological narratives.

Indeed, this new origin, alongside that of the First Born, has parallels in actual myth, indicating that the shift towards a more modern perspective on the eponymous character actually represents a reaffirmation of Wonder Woman’s mythic roots. It is my assertion that this further establishes and concretizes Azzarello’s attempts to link his narrative both to Marston’s ideas and, bearing in mind the latter’s eagerness to steep his character in the rudiments of Greek myth.8 Hesiod’s Theogony tells us that Zeus removed Athena from her mother’s womb and implanted her to gestate in his own body as a reaction to prophecy: “For from Metis9 it was destined that clever children should be born: first a pale-eyed daughter, Tritogeneia,10 with courage and sound counsel equal to her father’s, and then a son she was to bear, equal to gods and men” (Hesiod 29). In other words, Zeus gestates and gives birth to Athena in order to avoid the chance of her actual mother’s influence rendering her his equal, and then rids himself of Metis before she can give birth to a son who will depose him. Equally, by creating the lie that she was fashioned of clay, Hippolyta removes her daughter from Zeus’ influence and Hera’s wrath, allowing her to grow up independently of the strictures and intrigues of Olympus. And, of course, Zeus disposes of the First Born as an infant for the precise same reason that he prevents Metis’ son ever existing: he does not wish to lose his throne.

Also underscored here is the fact that without the concept of war there can be no understanding of the concept of peace. While Marston positions Athena as the Goddess of Peace, this role cannot exist without its opposite number. Within the Greek pantheon, Ares and Athena perform different functions and represent different aspects of war—therefore war must, within this context, be seen as both masculine and feminine in nature, and cannot function or exist without both of these aspects. The Amazons of Themyscira are, Azzarello’s text is at pains to remind us, a nation of warriors, and as such hew closer to the ideas espoused by Ares, especially in times of actual conflict. This sets Diana apart from her “sisters” in as much as they are neither conditioned nor predisposed to show their foes mercy.

Wonder Woman and the Monomyth

The third new reality and role for Diana is first that of demigod, and then (after Ares’ demise) God of War in the Olympian pantheon. This role allows her not only to ultimately synthesize the male and female aspects of war within her own person and, in doing so, stop the threat of the First Born, but also situates her within the myth tropes from which Joseph Campbell first derived the monomythical pattern described within The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Indeed, Diana is ineffective and unsuccessful as the embodiment of war so long as she attempts to conform to Ares’ conventions and parameters, and it is this realization and the resultant synthesis of these more traditional tropes with the attitudes and functions of Athena that represent the final stage of Diana’s Hero’s Journey. As Douglas E. Palumbo points out, “The underlying subject matter of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is spiritual enlightenment” (Palumbo 2) and as such the Monomyth is at heart the description of the path to this transcendence via a navigation of life’s transitions. It is a description of the movement from what one is now towards what one is meant eventually to become, and while the entire text performs this function for Diana, it is this climactic realization and course-correction during her final encounter with the First Born that enables her to complete her journey and claim her boon. According to Campbell, in order to reach the point of being ready to accept the ultimate boon, the hero must first go through Apotheosis, a death and rebirth that is simultaneously physical and figurative, and for Diana this rebirth takes the form of the synthesis of Ares and Athena’s attributes, attitudes and skill sets. Like all such rebirths, however, this does not come easy, and indeed involves lessons and knowledge that Diana can only understand fully when lying in a liminal state between life and death after an aggressive assault upon the First Born has left her critically wounded.

In volume three of Azzarello’s run on the title, we are shown a flashback to a young Diana’s first meeting with Ares. In this instance, we see him not as a world-weary old man in a battered and blood-drenched lounge suit, as he has heretofore been portrayed, but rather in leather battle armor, wearing a horned helmet and appearing very much as one would expect the Greek God of War to do.11 He introduces himself to Diana by shouting, “I be the settler of dispute.12 I be blood! I be guts! I be iron! I BE WAR!” (Azzarello & Chiang, War 9) (fig 6). This declamation is not only telling in its bombast and hyperbole, in as much as it sets out the way in which Ares interprets his own role, but it also sets the agenda for their future relationship, with Ares training the young warrior and, in doing so, attempting to hone her into his ideal version of the heir he evidently knows she will be. This training regime reaches its apex when Ares pits Diana against the Minotaur; Diana defeats the beast but refuses to kill it, despite Ares’ admonitions and commands to the contrary. It is Ares’ stated position that the purpose of war is to end conflict by aggressive means—by domination—while Diana, though young and inexperienced at this juncture, sees the inherent value of mercy and cannot bring herself to kill a prone, vanquished foe. Ares’ reaction to this is essentially to disown her, calling her his “greatest failure” (Azzarello & Chiang, War 21) (fig 7). The Minotaur, however, shows respect and gratitude (Azzarello & Chiang, War 22), and this will prove important later in the narrative, when, during Diana’s climactic encounter with the First Born, she finds the roles reversed, and she is at the creature’s mercy. Diana’s refusal to kill the prone Minotaur is an early signal that despite the fact that she is evidently a skilled fighter, she is unwilling to dominate, in the way Marston posited that men instinctually do. Indeed, her act of mercy represents the rejection of Ares’ male warrior archetype, and can be seen, according to Marston’s doctrines and philosophy, as an act of submission. As such, it is submission that breeds lasting kindness in a way that brutality and domination simply cannot.

Figure 6
Figure 7

Prior to this climactic battle, Diana has attempted to fight the First Born in the way that she believes her predecessor as God of War would have done—in other words, on his, and Ares’, terms. The First Born is cruelty and brutality (domination) incarnate, and as such Diana cannot be a match for him: she is informed by mercy and compassion (submission), and he has none. When she meets him with weapons drawn, and swathed in battle armor, she cannot win because she is essentially in drag, dressed in another entity’s accoutrements, ones that are not meant for her—she is captured, bound, stabbed and left to die (fig 8) (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones 77). In this half-dead state, which literally represents the beginning of Diana’s apotheosis, the spirit of Ares visits her and tells her that remaining true to herself constitutes her ultimate victory. This is in contrast to his reaction to Diana’s refusal to execute the Minotaur when she was his apprentice, but he admits that he had lost sight of the truth back then, saying, “I gave up on the truth so long ago, I barely remember what it really is” (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones 107) (fig 9). Ares also kneels down to bring himself to the bound Diana’s level, in contrast to his earlier tendency to loom over her, dominating the frame. (fig 7 and 9). This represents a tacit admission that his definition of war was wrong, or at least jaundiced, and helps Diana to see that she has been going about her tasks the wrong way: she must be true to her belief system and values, and this truth lies not only in mercy but also in kinship and the ability to love and trust others—traits corresponding to Athena.

Figure 8
Figure 9

From a monomythical point of view, this near-death, dreamlike encounter with Ares’ shade corresponds to Apotheosis, one of the most important stages of Campbell’s pattern. This stage, which comes immediately before the granting of the ultimate boon, describes death and rebirth, or life in death, and the bestowment upon the hero of the divine knowledge needed to complete his or her quest. Within the context of the Monomyth, this bestowment of knowledge also pivots upon a melding of gender aspects and identities. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell points to the passage from the book of Genesis which specifies that when God created man in his own image, this creation was essentially androgynous, or even hermaphroditic: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”13 Campbell then states that, “The removal of the feminine into another form symbolizes the beginning of the fall from perfection into duality; and it was naturally followed by the discovery of the duality of good and evil” (Hero 153). In other words, the only true prelapsarian—and therefore perfect and divine—state is one in which the two genders are melded. As Campbell elaborates, when elucidating the meaning of Tibetan images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, “When [God] created man in his own image he created him male and female. In the male’s right hand is a thunderbolt that is the counterpart of himself, while in his left he holds a bell, symbolizing the goddess” (Campbell 1993: 171). This underlines the idea that in order to achieve her boon—in this case, saving the world from the horrors of the First Born—an aspect of Diana must die, and she must be reborn as her ultimate self, in essence an amalgam of Ares and Athena, one which encompasses an explicit, modern and more coherent, update of Marston’s intentions and ideas for the character. Indeed, this amalgamation can be seen as corresponding to Judith Butler’s assertion that the re-description of societally constructed and mandated gender configurations would inevitably lead to “a new configuration of politics,” which in turn would ensure that gender and sexual binaries would be exposed as unnatural (Butler 149).

As Robert A. Segal notes, despite the fact that the crossing of the return threshold—the hero’s return to everyday existence after the successful completion of his or her quest—is the final stage of the Hero’s Journey, “[t]he world to which the hero returns is not the everyday world. It is the strange new world which turns out to pervade the everyday one. No separate everyday world exists” (Segal 128). Apotheosis, then, creates a new status quo, and it is only once this is done that the hero can return to what is, in essence, a newly defined everyday existence. With this in mind, it becomes clear that Diana’s synthesis of gender attributes and identities must be seen not only to represent a paradigm shift within the context of the society in which she lives, but also a sharp socio-political critique of the society in which the text is read.

Gender and the Monomyth

In The Power of Myth, the series of interviews with Campbell conducted by Bill Moyers, the mythologist explicitly identifies the hero as male and as almost always having a close relationship with a maternal, as opposed to paternal, figure (Campbell Power 166). This idea is certainly problematic, and in The Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock recounts a meeting with Campbell, at which he expressed the view that women did not need to undertake a monomythical journey, because, in his view, they have already achieved their enlightenment (or boon)—they just don’t know it yet! “All she needs to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to. When a woman realizes what her wonderful character is, she’s not going to get messed-up with the notion of being pseudo-male” (Murdock 2).

While this comment is paternalistic and infuriating, it inadvertently speaks both to Marston’s original reasoning for the creation of Wonder Woman and to Diana’s acceptance of the mantles of both Ares and Athena in Azzarello’s narrative. Marston intended Wonder Woman to function as a role model for young girls, in order to combat the perception Lillian S. Robinson describes in Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes when she writes that “[t]he dominant cultural message of my growing-up years was precisely that awakening to womanhood meant abandoning the heroic identity […] for domesticity, motherhood and consumerism” (Robinson 12-13). It was his intention to inspire and encourage girls to take on occupations and societal roles heretofore monopolized by men, albeit from the perspective of his views on the benefits of submission and the problems of domination. Equally, Diana’s failure to fullfil Ares’ legacy when attempting to do so on masculine terms speaks directly to Campbell’s sentiments: when she first takes the mantle of God of War, Diana “gets messed up with the notion of being pseudo-male,” and as a result, fails. However, her ultimate apotheosis does confirm that she is on a Hero’s Journey: it is just that she is rejecting the binaries of the original monomyth.

In From Girl to Goddess, an exploration of the female hero’s journey in mythology and folklore, Valerie Estelle Frankel speaks of the heroine’s elevation to the role of guardian of the living via death and rebirth, framing this as the true apotheosis, pointing out that within multiple myth cycles the female figure who achieves this “has reached an expanded consciousness […] In her enlightened state, she understands how the cycle must continue and she can descend to Earth and be reborn and claim her place on the unending ring of nature once again. With this, the heroine truly masters both worlds: mortal and goddess” (Frankel 315). So it is with Wonder Woman.

Diana’s principal and ultimate adversary within Azzarello’s narrative is the First Born (fig 10) (Azzarello & Chiang, Flesh 9), who is presented as the first child of Zeus and Hera, sent away to be killed as an infant as a result of a prophecy that his destiny was to usurp the throne of Olympus and rule alone. Left in the desert to fend for himself, the baby learns only cruelty, hatred, and domination; he grows to be a fierce warrior and leads his followers on an assault on Zeus. This assault fails disastrously, and the First Born is cast into the center of the earth, a fate from which it takes seven millennia for him to escape. The First Born is presented as the ultimate example of all the aspects of masculinity Marston found most problematic. He is incapable of love or mercy, and he is overtly dominant: even his allies are degraded and beaten down, like Cassandra, the demigod who helps free him, and who in return is shackled, prostrated and forced to eat the raw flesh of her friend. While under the thrall of the first born, the Minotaur—pictured more traditionally in his first appearance during the episode flashing-back to Diana’s training under Ares—is dressed in leather bondage apparel (fig 11) (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones 131), a sign of his forced submission to domination (as opposed to willing submission to love).14 Even the way he stabs Diana is telling—bound before him, she refuses to submit to his will, and so he forcibly penetrates her with a sharp protrusion from his forearm (fig 12) (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones 98): the metaphor is crude, but effective. Diana is stabbed in the side, mirroring the wound sustained by Jesus Christ—one of Campbell’s most important examples of the Hero resurrected—whilst on the cross, underlining the fact that despite Azzarello updating Diana as an heir of Zeus, she is still something of a messiah figure,15 in line with Marston’s original vision and intentions. In doing this, the text also rejects Campbell’s assertion of the impossibility of a female or feminist monomythical hero.16 Equally, until his flaying by Apollo, the First Born is depicted as a muscular male figure unwilling to mask his nudity. After the First Born ascends to the throne of Olympus, the home of the Gods is transformed into a charnel house of flesh, blood, and viscera, while the character himself grows horns, another symbol of rampant masculine sexuality and domination. It is clear that as a female character, Diana cannot hope to prevail against such an overtly masculine and dominant threat—indeed, the embodiment of everything Marston created the character to combat and counteract—by usurping Ares’ masculinity and masculine methods and attempting to use them herself. She needs another approach.

Figure 10
Figure 11
Figure 12

The Boon

In the final confrontation with the First Born, Diana is forced to battle the Minotaur again, and this time the beast bests her. However, remembering the mercy that she showed it as a girl, it refuses to comply with the First Born’s command to kill her. This shows us that mercy begets mercy, and that through this Diana is victorious: the First Born shows no mercy, and the Minotaur is slaughtered for its defiance, but this is expressly why the former cannot ultimately win. Diana realizes that it is only by being herself—protégée of and heir to both Ares and Athena, and therefore perfect synthesis of both—that she can prevail.17 Indeed, by learning from each other, Diana and the Minotaur break down the binaries of victor and victim by which Ares and the First Born, not to mention classic male monomythical heroes and super heroes, have lived. She defeats the First Born by consigning him to a fate that, for him, is far worse and more tortuous than mere death—she throws him into a chasm that leads to the Earth’s core, dooming him as Zeus had done seven thousand years previously. Diana has divested herself of all armor, including the bracelets that keep her power within manageable levels, and has taken off her boots. Olympian Gods are always depicted barefoot within the text, but this is the first time we have seen Diana without her shoes on since before Ares’ death (fig 13) (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones 137). Even more aptly, when Diana then defines her actions towards the First Born as “tough love,” she pointedly adds, “Submission is faith in the strength of others” (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones 142). This explicitly affirms Marston’s ideas, not only by allowing Diana victory only when she embodies the synthesis of force and mercy, of Ares and Athena and of male and female—thereby underlining the idea that war is not intrinsically male, but rather a synthesis of male and female aspects—but also by implying that while domination is harmful and recidivist, submission is an act of both love and faith (fig 14 and 1) (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones 142).

Figure 13
Figure 14

Diana’s apotheosis within this text can also be read as an apotheosis for the iconic Wonder Woman, the figure created by Marston and all the different interpretations and versions of her that have come since. In dying and becoming reborn into the role of God of War, the old versions of Wonder Woman are also killed and reconfigured. Implicit within all this is an affirmation of Marston’s interpretation of Athena as the Goddess of Peace, which, while not necessarily in keeping with the original myth cycles, can be seen as an extension of her function as the representative of the civilizing effects of war. She represents, in essence, the occasional necessity of waging war in order to keep or promote peace, as evidenced by Ares’ aforementioned declaration that he is the settler of disputes. As Marc DiPaolo points out, many cultural critics—including Gloria Steinem, who famously devoted the cover of the first issue of Ms to Wonder Woman—have asserted that, “Wonder Woman should ideally promote peace over war, feminism over conservatism, and multiculturalism over American imperialism because she acts as one of the few progressive alternatives to the male-centric sensibilities still dominating popular culture” (71). In other words, by becoming and synthesizing the male and female aspects of war, Diana also becomes (and does the same for) peace. Equally, by allowing the male and female aspects of her role and nature to hold equal importance, Diana reaffirms and redefines both. Just as the understanding of one cannot exist without the experience of the other, Diana embodies and symbolizes war and peace simultaneously, because she has come to represent both Ares and Athena.

As the tale reaches its conclusion, Diana is still in place as God of War. Ares is dead, and Athena—who had subsumed her essence into the being of Zola, the woman apparently seduced and impregnated by Zeus, whose baby will grow up to be a new incarnation of the King of the Gods—has been persuaded by Diana that she should allow Zola to live out her life and care for her child, and so has retreated back into the stasis from which she emerged toward the end of the climactic battle. It is also important to note that Zola is now a person, and a mother, as opposed to being a homunculus and a tool, and that this is a direct result of the new wisdom Diana has achieved, for without it Athena would not have been persuaded to listen. The implications of this are clear: Diana has received and delivered her boons. Diana has accomplished two separate Hero’s Journeys: Marston’s Princess Diana chooses to leave the seemingly prelapsarian matriarchy into which she was born in order to fight both within and for the patriarchy, while Azzarello’s more experienced Wonder Woman synthesizes male and female tropes and attributes within the context of her role as the God of War. When taken together, these aspects of the Monomyth represent a more subtle and feminist form of the monomythical pattern. Azzarello’s text sets Marston and Campbell up as binaries and then synthesizes them, as Diana does Ares and Athena.


In returning to Berlatsky’s position, that Azzarello and Chang’s text is in essence contrary to the fundamental spirit of Wonder Woman, and represents a betrayal of her creator’s feminist ideals, it is clear that this interpretation has missed the subtext entirely. The most overtly dominant male figures within the narrative—specifically the First Born and Ares, but also the doomed Apollo who first claims the throne of Olympus, but is essentially out-dominated by a more alpha-male figure even than he—quite explicitly fail, their brutalities counting for little in the end. Equally, Diana’s attempt to perform her role as God of War in the style of her deceased mentor is also seen as doomed to fail. Diana is only able to prevail by coming to terms with and synthesising both the male and female aspects of her role. This represents not only the triumph of the character and the culmination of her monomythical journey within the context of the narrative, but also a nuanced assessment and reinterpretation of her creator’s views on submission, domination and the importance of strong women and female role models (fig 15) (Marston & Peter, Greatest Stories 56). To be a female hero does not entail the elimination of so-called or pseudo-masculine traits—it is Diana’s ability to take stock of these and adapt them to what Marston would see as more feminine strengths that helps her to emerge victorious.

Figure 15

Equally, Diana’s ultimate victory can be seen to represent the boon for mankind that comes with the completion of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and as such shifts the monomythical paradigm. The problems a female heroic figure faces within the context of Campbell’s pattern are particularly thorny ones, so it is fitting that Diana is able to achieve her boon by synthesizing female archetypal behavior with that of the traditional male monomythical hero archetype. Crucially, the death and rebirth that Apotheosis represents stands for the achievement of the understanding and knowledge necessary to allow the granting of the boon, and, as such, without it the transcendence for which this is a metaphor is impossible to reach. The word itself means the granting of divine status to a mortal, and so it is clear that while Diana became God of War immediately after Ares’ death, she truly ascends to Godhood during her final confrontation with the First Born. This gender synthesis, then, does not represent a victory for male behavior patterns or mythical tropes over female ones. Rather it shows the way for both a new behavioral model and narrative paradigm, ones that are specifically egalitarian and combine the ideas and ideals put forward by Marston and Campbell.


[1] Known as the DC Universe, after the eponymous comics publisher, which is a subsidiary of Time-Warner.

[2] In the person of Zola.

[3] And as I discuss in greater detail later in this article, in the section sub-headed The Boon.

[4] In the literal sense.

[5] Though as befits a comic book of the WW2 era (one in which the hero’s costume is essentially a star-spangled bathing suit), Marston is at pains to depict the USA as the last hope for democracy, peace, and women’s rights, irrespective of contemporary gender roles or politics.

[6] The most prominent example of this is George Pérez’s celebrated tenure as writer and artist of Wonder Woman from 1987-1992, though subsequent runs on the title have repeatedly returned to this trope.

[7] Hanley has written persuasively and at length about Marston’s supposed proclivities, Morrison notes wryly that sales on Wonder Woman were never stronger than when bondage was presented as overtly as it could be (Morrison 43), and Sandifer refers to his views as “BDSM-inflected feminism” (Sandifer 15).While there is no real documentary evidence to suggest that Marston was a sexual fetishist, there is plenty of textual proof that the concept of bondage was not one with which he was either unfamiliar or unfriendly.

[8] Though it is important to stress that Marston’s versions of the Greek pantheon and myth-cycles were often altered to suit his own narrative and philosophical purposes, while Azzarello follows the original tales and tropes far more faithfully.

[9] Zeus’ first wife.

[10] Another name for Athena

[11] It is worth noting that once he has usurped the throne of Olympus and captured Diana, the First Born physically grows horns (Azzarello & Chiang, Bones 69), and removes those of the Minotaur: it is clear from this that Wonder Woman is not the only character who believes that mimicking Ares in his pomp is the correct way in which to embody and wage war.

[12] This of course underlines the symbiotic functions of war and peace: if War is the settle of dispute, he/she must be seen to be responsible for the peace that this arbitration—however violent—brings about.

[13] Genesis 1:27

[14] And as I have noted, the Minotaur’s natural horns have been removed, in contrast to those grown by the First Born. That the character is seen wearing a helmet equipped with artificial horns implies a forced acquiescence to the specific form of masculinity and dominance of the First Born.

[15] In line with Marston’s origin story’s specification that she is a virgin birth.

[16] It should be noted, though, that Campbell equated female figures and energy with fairy tales and folklore, as distinct from scripture and pantheistic myth cycles (Campbell, Goddesses 230, 237). These female characters and goddesses are not, however, monomythical hero figures, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces tends to concern itself with male hero figures only.

[17] Diana’s relationship with Athena—one corresponding to the one she has with Ares, and explicitly positioning her as an heir to the goddess—is actually documented in an issue of a different DC periodical, namely Secret Origins #6 (2014). This story is reprinted, out of sequence, at the end of the final volume of the Azzarello and Chiang run, though it should ideally be read earlier.

Works Cited

Azzarello, Brian and Cliff Chiang et al. Wonder Woman: Blood. DC Comics, 2012.

—. Wonder Woman: Guts. DC Comics, 2013.

—. Wonder Woman: Iron. DC Comics, 2013.

—. Wonder Woman: War. DC Comics, 2014.

—. Wonder Woman: Flesh. DC Comics, 2014.

—. Wonder Woman: Bones. DC Comics, 2015.

Berlatsky, Noah. Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston / Peter Comics 1941-1948. Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge, 1990.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. Doubleday, 1988.

—. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Fontana, 1993.

—. Goddesses. New World Library, 2013.

Cocca, Carolyn. “Negotiating the Third Wave of Feminism in Wonder Woman”. PS: Political Science & Politics, vol 41, no. 1, 2014, pp. 98-103.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Bordge and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier. Vintage, 2011.

DiPaolo, Marc. War, Politics and Superheroes. McFarland & Company, 2011.

Ellwood, Robert. The Politics of Myth. State U of New York P, 1999.

Frankel, Valerie Estelle. From Girl to Goddess McFarland & Company, 2010.

Hanley, Tim. Wonder Woman Unbound. Chicago Review Press, 2014.

Hesiod. Theogony and Works and Days. Translated by M.L. West, Oxford UP, 1999.

Holy Bible – New International Version. Hodder and Staughton, 1989.

Jimenez, Phil and John Wells. The Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia. Del Rey Books, 2010.

Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Marston, William Moulton. The Emotions of Normal People. Thomas Lyster Ltd., 1989.

Marston, William Moulton and Harry G. Peter et al. Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. DC Comics, 2007.

—. The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume 1. DC Comics, 2010.

—. The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume 2. DC Comics, 2011.

Morrison, Grant. Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero. Jonathan Cape, 2011.

Murdock, Maureen. The Heroine’s Journey. Shambhala Publications, 1990.

Palumbo, Douglas E. The Monomyth in American Science Fiction Film. McFarlane and Company, 2014.

Perez, George, et al. Wonder Woman by George Perez Omnibus. DC Comics, 2015.

Robinson, Lillian S. Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes. Routledge, 2004.

Sandifer, Philip. A Golden Thread. Eruditorum Press, 2013.

Segal, Robert A. Theorizing About Myth. U. of Massachusetts P., 1999.

Stuller, Jennifer K. Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warrior I.B. Tauris & Co., 2005.

Welshon, Rex. The Philosophy of Nietzsche. Acumen Publishing Ltd., 2004.

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