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Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics Q&A – Phil Jimenez (Comic Writer and Artist)

Phil Jimenez, comic book writer and artist, including on a long-running Wonder Woman arc, and co-author of The Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to the Amazon Princess, talks about incorporating the heroine’s comic legacy into new work, how Wonder Woman has changed since her creation, and what the new hit film might mean for her character.

Q: When did your love/passion for comics begin?

A: I’ve been writing and drawing… for DC and Marvel for about 27 years. I got into the business around 1991, although I really got into comic books in high school. And the way I got into superheroes was the way a lot of my peers did, which was through cartoons. I was a huge fan of superhero-based TV shows, like the Super Friends and Tarzan and the Super 7, The Batman Adventure Hour, etc. But what really got me into superheroes was the Wonder Woman TV show and that set me down a lifelong path and love for Wonder Woman as a character.

Q: How you got first get started in the comic book industry?

A: I got into the industry in a little bit of a circuitous fashion, but I had worked at a comic book store … and was obsessed with comics and drawing comics. I was one of those latchkey kids that was always drawing some kind of a story, and, somewhere along the way, I think because I had met professionals at this comic book store, I realized that the people you needed to know to get a job were not artists and writers but were editors. And I started realizing that there was one particular editor who edited all my favorite books, Karen Berger, who would go on to found the Vertigo imprint at DC Comics. When I moved to New York City to go to art school, after deciding that I wanted to pursue this as a career, I called Karen up. Karen and I had met at a convention a couple years before that. She remembered me and allowed me to visit her at the DC Comics offices and then she would give me practice scripts to work on, so my first two years at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in college I also had practice scripts from DC Comics. And then I would submit my new portfolio every six months, and after my sophomore year, I was hired by the new talent group at DC Comics, and I was put in their new talent development program. I started working about three weeks after my sophomore year ended. I’ve actually had the good fortune of working for a really, really long time with no breaks other than the ones I imposed upon myself. It’s been a really terrific industry to work for.

Q: The story of Wonder Woman’s creation is seemingly stranger than fiction. What aspect of that history that you were the most surprised to discover?

A: I actually didn’t know much about the history of Wonder Woman’s creators for a very long time. I was just sort of fascinated by her iconography and look and mythology, etc. It was probably when I got into comics really, and then when I really started studying Wonder Woman, as an icon and a feminist and a queer touchstone character, that I started to study her origins. That of course is when I learned more about William Moulton Marston, a name that I knew about, but I certainly didn’t know anything about his history or particularly the fact that he was in a polyamorous relationship with two women at a time, which I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like. Marston was a Harvard professor, well-known psychologist, sort of navigated various circles including Hollywood and various blue blood academic circles. Here he had a wife and another spouse and they lived together and reared children together in the ’30s and ’40s. This was pre-World War II. And that’s extraordinary to sort of contextualize. Once I started studying that and exploring that, it really made me think more about the sensibilities and creation of the original Wonder Woman, who I think for many reasons is quite different from the incarnation we have today. The visual iconography is sort of similar, but there was some heavy stuff that Marston was dealing with and it’s funny looking back on it now, like how potent it was and how progressive it was, even at the start of World War II.

Q: Now knowing the full backstory, how do you think it impacted the character and what she ultimately came to symbolize?

A: I think there are many iterations of the character. All are valid of course, but some are closer to Marston’s vision and some aren’t. Marston, I think it was in the ’20s when he published his essay about emotional behavior and how people do things based on these four quadrants of behavior: dominance and submission, inducement and compliance. It’s interesting how he coupled this work with the psychology of his comics. In 1941, these young kids are reading Wonder Woman and absorbing Marston’s ideas, particularly his idea that masculine energy, like the energy that most boys had which was destructive and violent, and feminine energy was based on love and submission to loving authority. These are some pretty high concepts wrapped up into this crazy genre. This idea that he’s promoting that women could rule the world… if they were allowed to do so, because they would curb their violent acts and they would rule with love, not war. Over the years, the thing I’ve come to believe — and there are many different scholars who may have different opinions about this — is that Wonder Woman talks primarily about two things, and how you respond to her, I think, is how you respond to these two things. She talks about sex and gender, and she talks about war and violence. And how you feel about those things is I think how you receive that character.

Q: What did you learn from Wonder Woman and your experience writing and drawing her?

A: Wonder Woman was a character that I aspired to be like, and I fail a lot, but this becomes an interesting thing about what and how we see of ourselves in characters and the need to relate to them. What I connected to was less physical biology, obviously, but I wanted to be like her — and I always fail, because I think Wonder Woman is more aspirational than real — but she had a worldview. The way I understand that character, she believed in a world where we could co-exist peacefully if we just had the tools to do so. And I think that’s still an extraordinary thought, and that if we allow other people in, like in Marston’s case it was just, “Why don’t we give women a chance, why don’t we let them lead for a little while and see what happens?” That idea in its time was mind-boggling in its grasp and reach because it was such a change in the way we think about things. What I love about Wonder Women particularly is that, at her best, she demands of us that we think about the world that we live in and think, are we doing it the right way, are there other ways to do it, are there other ways to consider and, if we did live in a world of love and harmony, would that be so terrible? People seem to resist it because they’re really cynical about it, but it makes perfect sense to me.

Q: As an artist, how would you say the differences in her character’s design from her first iterations through today have reflected her changing legacy through the last half century?

A: Wonder Woman’s costume is, of course, controversial for a couple of reasons. It’s both essentially a bathing suit and it’s star-spangled. It’s American iconography on this international character in the shape of a one-piece bathing suit. There’s a lot to unpack there. I was actually thinking back, as I was prepping for this, I was thinking about H.G. Peter, the original artist for Wonder Woman, and his original take on her, which was this really sort of thick, robust woman. She was not some waif. She was not some heroin chic model from the ’90s. She was a thick, sturdy woman who, by all counts, is pretty dang proud of her body and not ashamed of it and this is what she ran around in and she was cool with that… That costume works because of how she wears it — not because it makes any sense but because it makes perfect sense on her. What’s been really interesting is, even with the George Perez version on down, the move to militarize Wonder Woman and the Amazons and her costume, to make it body armor, to constantly give her a shield, to up the sword and helmet part of it, I think speaks a lot to what we value culturally and what we legitimize. So the more warlike she is, the more spartan she is, the more sellable she is, the more we believe in her because we could never believe in a woman running around in a bathing suit saving the world, but we certainly can believe a militarized figure with a sword and shield and spear because that makes sense to us. What’s interesting about the costume and its transformation from culottes to body armor is what it says about what we think and what we legitimize culturally and say, “That’s heroic, that’s powerful, that I can believe in, but that I can’t,” and the fact that we can still easily invest in a militarized version of Wonder Woman, but not as a more fantastical version, says I think quite a lot about us culturally.

Q: Having researched for the Wonder Woman encyclopedia, are there any obscure characters or storylines in the Wonder Woman canon you hope will make a return some day?

A: I have a couple of narrow and broad answers to that. …One of the things that was stripped from the Amazons in the past 30 years was this technological prowess. I tried to re-introduce it in Wonder Woman when they created a floating university that was both magical and science-based. I think even Warren Ellis, he did a planetary version of the Justice League and had Wonder Woman came from a very highly technologically advanced society. And I think one thing I would love to see a return to is this idea of a highly advanced Amazon civilization, as opposed to a more regressive, still caught in the Bronze Age, 3000 years ago version, because I love the idea that these women stripped from man’s world and, given nothing but time and opportunity, would do more with their days. They would invent things. They would explore worlds. They would create things. I think of this as one element I would love to bring back from the past. If you remove war and battle from your day-to-day existence, it opens you up to so much. It allows these people to use their brains in so many other ways.

The other character — quite frankly, she’s problematic but I love her — is Nubia. In the 1970s, Wonder Woman had this twin sister, a black woman named Nubia and obviously this is from the black power movement in the ’70s. I have this crazy soft spot for Wonder Woman’s twin sister, who was created at the same time by the same method [that created Wonder Woman], but she was spirited away by Ares and turned into his ultimate warrior. But she rejected Ares and she would align herself with Wonder Woman from time to time. So, if I could bring back a character in the most absurd fashion, it would be Nubia.

Q: What do you think the success of Patty Jenkins’ film means for the future of Wonder Woman?

A: The thing that makes me the most happy about that Wonder Woman movie is how much I love Patty Jenkins, because I think she’s an amazing person, and I think what she did, what she accomplished was amazing. Secondly, what I love about that movie is how much women loved that movie. The number of women I’ve spoken to — in entertainment, outside of entertainment, family members, etc — who really found power in that movie and power in that character and the Amazons that just thrills me no end. I’ve had the really, really good fortune of working with and playing with Wonder Woman for a very long time, as have a number of my friends, but nothing was more exciting to me than seeing this movie, which also happened to really touch and reach so many women. I don’t even know how to overstate my excitement for that. My hope is that continued films play up everything that was wonderful about that movie… [Wonder Woman] was kind and likable and determined and good, without cynicism or irony. I keep saying that one of the most amazing things to me about Wonder Woman — and I hope this comes through in the movies and through the books — is that while she can teach people, especially women and girls, to raise their swords up, she can also teach us how to put them down and extend our hands in peace instead. I’ve said that in other interviews, but I truly believe that Wonder Woman’s greatest strength is she knows when to lead an army and she also knows when to lead in peace. And for us to be able to learn from that is great. Whether she’s a love leader or a spartan warrior, all that matters to me is that Wonder Woman is inspirational.

Read an interview with Sean Howe, comic historian and writer of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

Robert Kirkman‘s Secret History of Comics airs Mondays 10/9c. For news and exclusive extras, sign up for the Secret History of Comics Insiders Club.

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