Camp is born, not made. A few weeks ago I went to see a screening of Mildred Pierce with my boyfriend, David, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. For a serious drama, there was a fair bit of snickering in the audience, some of it from me. How did an Oscar-winning drama become such a wellspring of humor? The movie hasn’t changed, but we have. In a post-Mommie Dearest world, the image of a mother calling her daughter “cheap and horrible” has become hysterically funny, where once it likely elicited emotional discomfort.
My point is that what we call camp happens by accident and that we can’t control where, when and how it happens--we can only see it in hindsight, like genocide and environmental devastation.
Let’s examine camp from the perspective of another powerful female figure and gay icon: Wonder Woman.
During the week of March 21, there was a thread on the Gay League Yahoo group addressing the lack of male members (so to speak) in the Wonder Family. As threads tend to do, it evolved into a broader discussion of Wonder Woman’s supporting cast; but it was mentioned by one post-er that a Captain Wonder did exist in the DC Universe (Pre-Crisis--you won’t find him in the recently published DC Comics’ Encyclopedia, although he earned an entry in Who’s Who back in the day). Captain Wonder did indeed make a brief appearance in a late Silver Age story by Roy Thomas. The character resonated with me because (as any hardcore DC fan will admit) the notion of expanding superhero families, parallel universe incarnations and assorted variants was endemic to the core of the DC Universe. It was fabulously silly, but I took it very seriously and I hoped Captain Wonder was not a joke.
He wasn’t a joke, but he wasn’t a serious effort to expand the Wonder Woman family either. Frankly, the notion of adding a male member to the cast seems counterintuitive to the mythology behind Wonder Woman, Themyscira and the Amazons.
Captain Wonder had a pseudo-precursor in a Superman story a year or so earlier called “The Turnabout Trap” in which Superman faced a gender-transformed world that includes a Wonder Warrior.
I guess the name didn’t take and so, when Roy Thomas came aboard to helm Wonder Woman with Gene Colan in 1982, he went with the name “Captain Wonder” and Colan provided a very different gender-bend costume. As much as I enjoyed Gerry Conway’s earlier scripts with José Delbo’s drawings, those first Roy Thomas-Gene Colan issues (with tender Romeo Tanghal inks) drew my breath away. Consider how much of Wonder Woman’s current mythos draws on those first few issues: The first incarnation of the Silver Swan, the first modern day appearance of Doctor Psycho, the introduction (after 40 years) of a new insignia for Wonder Woman and the debut of the Wonder Woman Foundation all occurred in the first three issues of the Thomas-Colan run. Captain Wonder was just another fresh concept that didn’t quite hold rank in the unfolding mythology. Greg Rucka may yet find a use for him.
Captain Wonder is just one element in a larger story about Doctor Psycho’s attempt to target his hatred towards women by destroying Wonder Woman--and all women. Psycho, the grandson of a Greek immigrant, suffers from physical deformities that made him the victim of mockery and low self-esteem as a youth. He kidnaps Steve Trevor so that he may use “a man who likes women – to vent my rage upon all women.” Psycho straps Trevor into his “Ectoplasmotron”, a device he uses to draw out Captain Wonder. Captain Wonder is the manifestation of Doctor Psycho creating an idealized version of himself out of the “ectoplasmic” matter in Steve Trevor’s mind. Hence, Captain Wonder bears a startling resemblance to Steve Trevor, and his costume is a masculine version of Steve’s subjective interpretation of Wonder Woman’s costume. Here, camp is born.
The first thing to note about the Captain’s costume is how little is bared compared to Wonder Woman’s skimpy attire. His spandex suit, though attractively form-fitting, covers him from head to foot, with only his blond tufts of hair, face and hands left exposed. This is truly a double-standard. The old eagle insignia (Steve hasn’t had a chance to absorb the new emblem into his mental repertoire) wraps massively around his chest like a bustier--its overemphasized scale may perhaps signify the importance Steve places on Wonder Woman’s chest. Except for a brief remark by Doctor Psycho on his “outlandish outfit”, there is no irony presented here. This is serious stuff, just like with Mildred.
The first male member of the Wonder Family isn’t a hero at all, but a pawn of misogynistic villainy. Rather than dilute the feminine stronghold of the Wonder Family by introducing a true male hero to the cast, Thomas employs a masculine and objectified idealization of Wonder Woman as a weapon against her. This is an allegory of the battle of the sexes in glorious primary color; but there is another timeless story embedded here: the historical male practice of misogyny and oppression. Doctor Psycho is the ultimate hater of women not because of any physical deficiencies but because he is such a morally weak and ineffectual man. Since he is too weak to fight her directly, he employs the “ectoplasmic” distillation of Wonder Woman against her. Wonder Woman is fighting herself--as Dr. Psycho, in the form of Captain Wonder, says, “The better to destroy you with – you, and all women!” Funny, how the villain had to become an objectified blond Adonis to pose any kind of serious threat.
But Wonder Woman isn’t facing just one enemy. While Dr. Psycho’s plan unfolds, another ugly duckling is becoming a pawn in the God Mars’s plan to destroy Wonder Woman. Helena Alexandros is a frumpy, pimply-faced plain Jane as disturbed as Dr. Psycho and angry at men’s rejection of her. In return for unconditional obedience and the death of Wonder Woman, Mars grants Helena exquisite beauty and grace as The Silver Swan. At the height of a battle above Washington D.C., Captain Wonder and The Silver Swan lock gazes and fall in love. The hater of women and the hater of men make a pact to be together. For this to happen, Wonder Woman must die to satisfy Helena’s agreement with Mars; and in order for Dr. Psycho to retain his idealized form, Steve Trevor, too, must die. But this is a physical love only and when the two villains are eventually defeated, they revert to their natural selves and go their separate ways.
Captain Wonder slips back into Steve’s psyche and is never seen again. We can laugh at the costume, but the outlandishly garbed “Wonder” man represents something sinister and dangerous that society hasn’t yet defeated. Veda Pierce can make us howl when she says to her mother, “It’s your fault I’m this way”, but we know she’s a dangerous and malignant villain. The best camp has the most serious of intentions.