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Wonder of Wonders – Star-Spangled Panties: What’s in a Name?

by Carol A. Strickland

Anyone who’s paid attention in school, or recalls the words to Schoolhouse Rock, remembers that a noun’s a person, place, or thing. Easy enough. “Hey, Batman, go to Gotham City and take down the Joker and Penguin!” Four simple nouns.

But with Wonder Woman we have problems:

“Wonder Woman, go home to Themyscira because the Hecatoncheires, Briareos and Cottus, have joined with the Bana-Mighdall to overthrow Hippolyte!”

Ouch. Look at all the syllables! Look at the weird spellings! Please don’t make me read that sentence aloud.

It doesn’t help that “Wonder Woman” is four syllables in a short ‘n sassy world, but she’s also got all this ancient Greek baggage to cart around. She’s constantly being besieged by ancient Greek threats, and her sister Amazons are often stuck with names that can make a reader stop and ask, “Am I supposed to be able to pronounce that? Doesn’t she have a nickname?”

On occasion magic users even slap a spell on Diana, chanted in Greek—sometimes at great length. It might even be ancient Greek for all I know, but I doubt it is. Perhaps I should flag down some of the many, many people in the DCU who not only can read ancient Greek fluently, but can pronounce it like it was 3200 years ago, and they were raised in the suburbs of Sparta. Lucky guys. I can’t.

It’s all great for atmosphere but hell to plow through.

hiketeia

Why, one of Wondie’s graphic novels was titled, The Hiketeia. That’s pronounced, uh, how?

Poor Diana of Themyscira (a misspelling of the city, by the way, perpetuated in Volume 2 and 3 of the book; it should be “Themiscyra.” Bronze Age stories got it right. Guess “Paradise Island” just isn’t hip enough these days.) has not only to battle ancient Greek foes constantly but try to pronounce their names as well.

Thankfully, the JLA cartoon told us that “Themyscira” is pronounced, “the mascara.” But a reader of comic books shouldn’t need to keep a pronouncing dictionary in hand to get through a WW story. They shouldn’t be lazy like SOME people (okay, like me) who look at these long words, decide not to take the effort to figure the pronunciation, and abbreviate them. “Wondie, go home to The Mascara because Zeus’ big monster guard guys have joined with the Bana to overthrow Hippy!”

Wondie’s got enough things operating against her in her quest for a larger readership. Why must we pile more on her?

To make matters worse, the modern WW mythos suffers from an awful lot of name-doubling. Though there are doubled names many places in the DCU, especially among the new heroines of the Young Justice era, there seems to be a megachurch-sized congregation of them within the pages of WW.

There’s Julia and Julia, Artemis and Artemis, a slew of Hippolytas/Lytas, and an entire squadron of Trevors, to name just a few. Some people like Achilles get stuck with multiple names like “Warkiller” and “Olympian” (which is also the code name for another character recently used in a WW-related book). Someone call the Amazon librarian, Mnemosyne, and get some more examples, will you? No, she’s not the famous mythological Mnemosyne, she’s the Amazon one. Min… Nim… Nemmie… Oh, forget it.

Don’t get me started on Donna Troy, she of the infinite origins and names. And please, writers, don’t bring back a completely dead character like Medusa and change her name (and powers/skills) to “Medousa.” Why are you trying to make things more difficult?

I’m big on simplifying the WW mythos both to help new readers (and myself) but also to streamline and focus the character. One of the problems the new creative staff should look at could be nomenclature. Keep it simple. Remember that the American school system is turning out kids who can’t even read basic English well, and texting isn’t helping things, u no.

Perhaps this problem could be solved merely by having Diana encounter threats that are NOT related to ancient Greece. Oh my, the idea! Perhaps it could be helped by Diana leaving Themyscira and concentrating on where she should be, Patriarch’s W—I mean, the Outer World.

Wonder Woman is such an exciting concept. She’s one of the premier get-it-done capes of the DCU, a fascinating character with layers of intriguing personality and unique ability/skills out the wazoo. Yet she’s a female in a medium directed at males. She has suffered from creative staffs that had little or no regard for her because she was a woman. She’s borne the burden of creatives who haven’t understood her in the least, or sometimes even deliberately set out to screw up her mythos and themes.

But through it all she’s survived. Diana shouldn’t face the additional challenge of requiring her readers to battle their way through a continual avalanche of long, odd words.

42 Comments

HAH, that was a nice article.

It’s probably the character’s biggest problem.

Over reliance on myth

Great piece, although it seems like, since Perez, most of her writers have been motivated and into her (as opposed to having little regard) but, per your article, misguided (it seemed like Heinberg might’ve had the right idea …).

HAHA.

Carol,
You always have the funniest comments and while I disagree with you (I love the long, complicated Greek names), this is an awesome read.

XXX

before i take wonder woman seriously as a character two things have to happen:

loose the ancient greek connection. (or make the ancient greek connection very, very loose – see golden age)
I mean despite being an unoriginal origin, those old authors of REAL greek literature would be spinning in their graves if they would read a WW comic.

second:
why is she wearing a bathing suit?

I’m not really that much into Wonder Woman, but the crazy Greek names are one of the highlights of her mythos for me. And yes, I did learn how to pronounce what I do know from the JLU cartoon too.

Great article. I laughed at least twice.

The Greek Mythology is great, but it is hard to do really well. I had not even considered the names as being an additional problem, but you are absolutely right that they are.

this article was a great read. thanks carol. my problem with crazy names in books is that, after a while, i just start glossing over them as i read. I often have to flip back a couple of pages to remember who people are talking about.

I liked the humour in the article, but have to disagree vehemently with the premise.

It’s precisely the modern use of “reliance on Greek myth” and “all those unpronounceable names” that make Diana such a distinct entity within the DCU. Without them, she becomes just another “cape” with incredible strength, like Supergirl, or Power Girl.

And yes it’s true that most kids today don’t have the grounding in English comprehension of us older folk, but why is dumbing the content down the solution? God forbid the kids might have to look up how Themyscirs is pronounced or learn about the Greek myths created by the people who are the roots of our Western culture, or actually learn new words or something.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

June 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm

More to the point, why haven’t “silly names” hurt the geek cred of most fantasy fiction from Tolkien on down? Why is H.P. Lovecraft still so influential, when his work is stuffed with deliberately unpronounceable names and incoherent, non-classical mythology?

Wonder Woman should be a WWII comic. It’s the only way it makes sense.

She is driven to leave her perfect island because the world was on the brink of disaster.

And because Steve made her tingle.

THAT is Wonder Woman!

Plus, you could have guest spots by Sgt. Rock and Jeb Stuart and Gunner and Sarge.

And elephants and parades and spankings!

I love real Greek mythology and think WW’s connections to it help make her unique, BUT I sure wouldn’t mind reading WW for a few years without her always fighting mythology-based opponents (which always seem to appear just where she is, not in other cities or countries- does she just attract these freaks?), or without going to the stupid island where no story changes ever really stick though every writer tries (why?), defending said island from yet another invasion (must be getting pretty easy to find by now), agonizing over her relationship with her mother or the Greek gods, or her getting killed out of her own book or replaced by someone else, male or female.

Oh yes, and kill anyone named Wonder Girl. WW’s hard enough to write with only one of her! The only thing I liked about WGirl when Byrne introduced her was that she was a skinny average-looking kid. Now a decade later, she’s a tits-out-to-here generic hottie bombshell with long blond hair and a big attitude, just like every other teen heroine. Out of costume, most artists draw her just the same as Supergirl or Stargirl. And Donna Troy’s back too of course.

But to get back on point, I’d like to see Diana have a long cycle of stories set in the modern world and some in space, fighting modern big megavillains, like a JLA story but with just her on the side of good.

I agree with Jeff. I also always liked the Greek Myth aspect of Wonder Woman. It makes her distinctive.

To me, the perfect Wonder Woman comics should be 60% mythological fantasy, 30% feminist politics, and 10% typical superheroine stuff.

rene you sound like a total bore, or an accountant.

please don’t ever listen to rene, DC.

@ Rene:

I agree with you that the Greek mythology is a big piece of what makes WW unique. The problem is that Themyscira is really the only setting that is strongly associated with WW. It is as if every Superman story took place on (New) Krypton, or every Batman story happened inside Wayne Manor. Any setting gets dull when it used to exclusively.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

June 25, 2010 at 6:18 pm

One of the smarter ideas in her setup has been to base her in Washington D.C., which has lots of neoclassical architecture.

I don’t see how Ancient Greek names are a problem. I’ve never had any difficulty reading Greek mythology or history. (I’ve read Herodotus three times. It’s great!!) And Greek pronunciation is pretty straightforward, I’ve always thought, although I’ve never been sure which syllables to emphasise.
If the spellings have been inconsistent, part of that may be due to the fact that the Greeks have a different alphabet, the names varied over the centuries and in different parts of Greece, and many names were altered by the Romans and their spellings are still common today (ie Circe and Cyclops, rather than Kirke and Kuklops).

shit this has nothing to do with panties

Greek mythology, until just a couple of decades ago, was just part of the curriculum in American education and there should be a place for Greek myths in pop-culture beyond Hercules (or, to the Greeks, Herekles!)

The material is so rich with storytelling potential in part because the authors of these myths didn’t care a whit about continuity beyond the most essential aspects of the myth– so just as there are multiple versions of the Wonder Woman’s origin story there are multiple versions of these ancient myths that can be drawn upon.

So let Wonder Woman keep her Hellenic roots (names included) and bring writers in who have a demonstrable appreciation for Greek mythology– like Peter Milligan.

funkmasterdre

June 25, 2010 at 9:04 pm

I don’t think that the over reliance on mythology is a bad thing, it’s just used badly. I mean, look at Simonson’s run on Thor. Extremely steeped in Norse mythology and with names that are equally difficult to pronounce. Considered by many to be the quintisential Thor run. George Perez’s WW run starts off on Simonson-Thor levels of awesomeness but falls apart towards the end. So, the mythology thing could work but no writer has ever been very successful. Maybe your whole point is that mythology doesn’t appeal to young/new readers?

"O" the Humanatee!

June 25, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Supplementing Omar’s point, how many of you have read a word for years in print, only to find that you don’t know how to pronounce it when you try to say it out loud? Being able to say a word is not required for knowing and recognizing it.

I’m not against the mythology in WW; I’m against the over-emphasis on it and the fact that she seems to be stuck on Themyscira, surrounded by Amazons who, more and more, seem evil and/or sick—definitely not the loving masters of their peaceful philosophy that the book began with.

DIana’s meant to be the Captain Kirk of Amazons. She’s waaay off in the Unknown from her people on her mission and can’t wait for instructions from home. She has to make her own decisions, perform her own actions that can sway the fate of entire worlds.

But this article’s about the long, awkward names that can stop a new reader from sticking around and discovering true Wondie goodness. Glad some folks here are steeped in such words. I know I was reading Bullfinch when I was in fourth grade. But when the Queen of the Amazons has two nicknames: “Polly” and “Lyta,” that to me signals that folks have no idea how her name is pronounced. Most readers subvocalize, and this can cause them to stumble out of the story.

Of course Hippy is one of the few difficult names I’d keep, since she’s been there from the first AND she’s relatively well known among the running-acquaintance-with-myths folk. If the other Amazons would fade into the background, making their names a rare read, that would help.

There’s no reason that the writers should be so confused about the pronunciation of Hyppolyta: she also appears as a character in Shakespeare’s most popular play.

My view is that if a superhero comic book sends its readers off reading Bullfinch, Graves, or Hamilton in order to figure out these names and the stories of these supporting characters and otherwise expanding their horizons, then that’s a good thing.

Neil Robertson

June 26, 2010 at 8:10 am

About Mom’s abbreviations: is it Leet-a or Light-a? I always said Leet-a until I met Roy and Dann Thomas at a con while they were working on Young All-Stars and her name came up as Light-a. Roy was a scholar, and if that’s how his team pronounced it, who was I to disagree?

Welcome to the island of Mxyzptlks!

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

June 26, 2010 at 8:19 am

Again, though, I have to ask: why aren’t such long and tricky names any impediment to the popularity of numerous works of fantasy and horror?

Roy Thomas is wrong.

In modern English and French the “y” is pronounced as a “long-e” sound– this is how it’s pronounced in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The “y” however is a transliteration of the the Greek letter upsilon or ypsilon. In early pre-classical Greek it was pronounced “oo” and in classical Greek it was pronounced more like the French “eu.” So the proper pronunciation would be closer to “Eep-po-leut-e.”

I don’t think the Greek names are that much of a problem for the Wonder Woman comic, although I DID dislike it when they renamed Paradise Island “Themiskyra”- after all, that was a place that actually existed; at the least, the island should be NEW Themiskyra. And what’s wrong with “Paradise Island?” Did Perez feel that it didn’t fit his vision of the island as a place of continuous strife against imprisoned monsters?
While we are on the subject, I think reinventing the Amazons so that they’re closer to their mythological version, thus removing their access to science and a more progressive culture was a BIG mistake. Diana is supposed to represent Amazon society before the rest of the World, and to bring its wisdom to us. But what wisdom is there in being a barbaric, killing-your-foes-is-right culture? Wonder Woman is supposed to be a SUPER HERO, and while I agree her amazon background makes her unique and shouldn’t be ignored, it should NEVER be more important than her role as a hero, which, thanks to years of collaboration with people like Superman, should be clear to her by now.
I also do not mind if mythology-based characters appear in the series… but they should NOT be the only ones. Again, as a major superhero, Diana should face all kind of menaces. I do think it’s time she spent less time in her homeland or worshiping those obviously flawed gods and tried to fit in better in modern society.

I agree with Omar. This only slightly humorous essay is packed with silly arguments. All the excessive and sometimes-difficult names in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ didn’t keep it from being the biggest fantasy trilogy of all time. And are you seriously suggesting we dumb down content to make a comic book more marketable? Yikes.

I have to agree with Jeff’s comment: dumbing down the language is never the answer. The answer is to make the story so good that the reader actively wants to look up those words in fear that they might be missing something. I think Stan Lee has had the right idea for years: “If a kid has to go to a dictionary, that’s not the worst thing that could happen.” And again, if the story is good, the outside source adds to it rather than taking away.

I also agree with Carol: the language and the mythology are two different things. However, the real problem here, as the article touches on, is that the language is largely made up out of whole cloth with no consistency whatsoever in order to make the mythology look more authentic when it’s bastardized. It is not a bad thing to ground Wonder Woman in mythology; it’s a bad thing to keep piling on made-up new stuff until it’s incomprehensible. What I’m seeing is that writers aren’t trying to streamline anything, but rather just adding their own, new baggage (complete with “mythy”-sounding names and terms) to the already-massive burden.

A comic that asks the reader to consult an outside source like a dictionary or encyclopedia is not a problem. A comic that heavily relies on mythology that is dense, confusing, and can’t be found in any outside source (and just keeps getting denser and more confusing) has a serious problem.

The Greek mythology is not going away. They provide a wealth of storytelling possibilities. Comic book geeks have no problem trying to untangle official continuity for ongoing characters, they can use the same skills in attempting to reconcile the superheroics and the ancient myths. Get a first-rate writer who is known to appreciate the Greek myths.

I again suggest Peter Milligan– he’s already writing Greek Street for Vertigo

So am I correct in assuming that despite all the effort to include ‘authentic’ mythology in Wonder Woman, the Amazons are still all drawn with two breasts?

(Alan Davis once drew a single-breasted Amazon in Excalibur– the ONLY time I have ever seen one portrayed that way ANYWHERE.)

Yeah well, I guess those Amazons themselves were a fairytale, Mary, so you might have some leverage providing them with a second boob.

despite all the effort to include ‘authentic’ mythology in Wonder Woman, the Amazons are still all drawn with two breasts?

The tradition that they cut off one breast appears to be a folk etymology– in which classical Greek writers speculated that the name was derived from “a-mazos” “without breast.” Though the name goes back to pre-Classical times. Linguists have proposed other etymologies, linking the name to the ancient Iranian word for “warriors” “ha-mazan-”

However while the classical Greek writers were saying the Amazons only had one breast, the sculptors and the painters were always representing the Amazons as have two breasts (usually one covered and one bare) which just goes to show how much the Greeks were not hung up on continuity.

I recommend Robert Graves’ two volume Greek Myths because he lists all the alternative versions of each and every myth (though you also have to wade through some of his more eccentric theories as well) and he really spells out just how irreconcilable the myths often are.

Yeah, I already knew it was just folk-etymology, and the archery explanation never made much sense, but it is a part of classical mythology, and it’s always bothered me that it never seems to show up in modern stories even when they incorporate other late additions to myths which can be just as silly.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

June 26, 2010 at 3:18 pm

I imagine the fact that it would require writing about breast mutilation in a superhero comic might have discouraged the idea long enough for the two-breasted depiction to become normalized and standard.

Has Neil Gaiman ever written a WW story anywhere? I’m sure he could pull off all the references, subtlety and character we’ve been discussing, though he’s not known for big action sequences. Whether he’d want to write a WW story is another matter..

It’s been a while since I posted this link. Guess it’s time to bring it up again, since folks are talking about the boob thing. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2133/whats-up-with-the-amazons

I think she needs the myth. Superman’s best villains are sci fi based (whether aliens or evil scientists or both) and Batman’s are crime bosses. No one is like, why don’t they just fight more wizards? Without that focus, Wonder Woman just becomes another heroine.

Wonder Woman stumbles every time the book MOVES AWAY from the Greek mythological trappings… (as it is doing now).

Terrific piece, Carol. Or may I call you Carole? Oh, Carolina.

I’ve often felt thick compared to my fellow Wonderfans cos I can’t remember Amazon names – three syllables are about all I can process.

Love the new star-spangled banner!

Omar, the daft names put me off HP Lovecraft and Tolkein.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

June 29, 2010 at 4:55 pm

There’s a huge difference between saying that *you* were put off by something and saying that everyone else is put off by it. You may not like the daft names personally, but it would be ridiculous to claim that Lovecraft and Tolkien are anything other than immensely respected, popular, and influential within their genres.

The question is whether it’s a *general audience problem* with Wonder Woman or not, and if so, why Wonder Woman’s *general* popularity and geek cred is damaged where Tolkien and Lovecraft’s aren’t.

Being Greek, i can’t see at all what the problem with the names, is. :-P

I think a reasonable solution to the Paradise Island/Themiscyra/Greek mythology “problem ” could be placing the island and everything connected to it (including all the history and retcons) in Skartaris.
As a fluid, metafictional (sub-conscious/imagination-influenced) dimension, it could accomodate any inconsistencies in events/origins etc. and it could be done easily by incorporating any event that has been discarded in “realtime”, as an iteration of the island and its inhabitants in Skartaris…
… plus we could get a cool new setting for adventures and even possible meetings/team-ups with Warlord and (a favorite) – Shakira!
NOTE: Even the fact that Travis Morgan is now dead, is inconsequential in a place that gives life to legend.

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