Friday, January 1, 2016

Lessons From a Comic Book: A Warrior's Laugh

Art by Alex Ross
Somewhere, I forget where, I once heard a legend about certain ancient warriors laughing when going into battle as a way to stave off their own fears as well as to confound their opponents.  I saw this idea revisited in a Wonder Woman story from the early 1990s in which she gets marooned in outer space. Wonder Woman laughs as a spacecraft that she is literally holding together with her golden lasso gets jumpstarted into hyperspace and takes her and another stranded astronaut to the far reaches of outer space, unable to find their way home.  The narrative, of course, set up the reason for her unconventional reaction as something the Amazon warriors did when they felt they were faced with certain death.  So, this somewhat outlandish demonstration didn't come across as Princess Diana having completely lost her mind.

The image of Wonder Woman laughing as she zooms away to an uncertain fate resonated with me in ways I didn't realize until years later.  Obviously, there is the fact that the reaction is something I hadn't seen in a mainstream comic before.  I mean, Batman and Superman always faced whatever dangers were presented to them with a level of stoicism that bordered on pathological denial of reality.  But, in this instance, a major character unmistakably shows fear and, more importantly, chooses an expression for that fear that is empowering.  Essentially, Wonder Woman acknowledges that she is afraid and in doing so manages to reclaim her bravery.

With her upcoming appearance in Batman Vs. Superman as well as a major solo film in the works, Wonder Woman is about to be in the spotlight more so than she has ever been in the past.  And, so I have begun to seriously reflect on my years of reading her comic.  The fact of the matter is that while the Flash is my favorite comic book super hero, I have actually been reading Wonder Woman much longer than I have Flash, and I have seen the character through some major ups and downs over the years.

The outer space story some might call one of her downs.  It was at a time that the book was in a major transition with a writer (William Messner-Loebs) who seemed to be struggling with how to write stories for the premier super-heroine of comics.  This was where readers got to see Wonder Woman, a royal princess and Justice League member, working in a food fast restaurant and sleeping on a couch.  All in an effort, I guess, to make her more down-to-earth and accessible to the regular reader.

Art by Paris Cullins, Wonder Woman (Vol. 2), Issue No. 66
Needless to say, that didn't go over well with long-time fans, and Loebs soon adjusted the scope of his stories to better fit the epic quality readers wanted in their Wonder Woman adventures.  That is probably why Princess Diana found herself stranded in the middle of outer space with no apparent way home - as powerful as she is (arguably second in power only to Superman in the DC super hero hierarchy), Wonder Woman does not possess the ability to travel unaided to the farthest reaches of space like Superman does.  So, she was lost in space and facing an array of alien threats indigenous to the DC Universe.

Being a somewhat wonky time for Wonder Woman, this storyline stands out to me for the rather original, yet fitting way Messner-Loebs has Diana react to her rather dismal situation.  As I stated before, she reacts to unknown danger, not only danger for herself but for the Russian astronaut she is desperately trying to protect, and almost certain death with laughter.  And, within the context, she does so without seeming crazy or callous.  Just the opposite as a matter of fact.

How powerful is that?  To be able to look straight on at your own demise and greet it with the universal proclamation of happiness.  It speaks to the indomitable spirit we humans cherish so much in those we idolize.  And, it shows us that though we may not be in control of anything around us, we can still choose how we react to the situation presented to us by fate.

On a more personal level, I find I have begun at times to rely on humor when faced with scary or dire circumstances, especially in situations in which I clearly have no control and am totally at the mercy of chance and fate.  This first manifested itself a few years ago when I went on a roller coaster for the first time in many years and found that my adult sensibilities had made me keenly aware of my own mortality in a way I hadn't been as a teenager.  So, in short, I was on this roller coaster, going higher and higher up into the open air, and feeling my anxiety increase the farther we went.

Feeling unsafe, exposed, afraid I was going to fall to my death at any moment, I was suddenly aware of my lack of control, my inability to do anything should something go horribly wrong, and a small giggle escaped my lips.  Amidst the continuous click-click-click as the roller coaster rose to the first steep drop, I started to laugh heartily and incautiously.  I'm sure I couldn't be heard above the hoots and excited screams of my fellow passengers, but it felt like my laughter was the only thing around me, the only thing happening.

And, as I continued laughing, an ease came over me, and I was no longer anxious or afraid.  The following thought sang in my mind: "If I die, I die.  Nothing I can do about it, so I might as well enjoy this awesome ride."

When the first drop came, I exalted in the speed and the queasy feeling of gravity yanking me back down towards the earth.  I laughed through that and continued laughing as we looped and circled our way back to the loading house.  When all was finished, I bounded out of my seat with exhilaration and, most importantly, happiness.  Not just happiness resulting from the adrenaline rush brought on by speed and thrill, but happiness, as I came to realize, from choosing my reaction to something that scared me.  And, as a result, I reclaimed my courage.

Later, I made the connection to the old Wonder Woman story I had read as a teenager.  I don't know if on some unconscious level that story had come back to me while I was on the roller coaster, but the parallels are very clear.  And the lesson was there and has continued to be with me to this very day.

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