Saturday, February 21, 2009

Thoughts on Donna Troy and "Dollhouse"; or, If You Wait Long Enough, It Gets Better

Last night I was taking care of a couple of nerd obligations -- watching "Dollhouse," because clearly someone has to; and trying to come up with my fifth list item for Tom Spurgeon's "Five For Friday" feature -- and found myself flipping through the Who Is Donna Troy? paperback collection.

WIDT? features the eponymous story from The New Teen Titans vol. 1 #38 (January 1984) in which Robin helps Wonder Girl reconnect with her past. It follows that one with Tales of the Teen Titans #50 (January 1985), the double-sized issue chronicling Donna's wedding. After a five-issue Titans storyline involving Donna's secret outer-space origin, it concludes with a short piece about Donna's memorial service (she was killed in a story not reprinted here).

It's no stretch to say that Donna -- or, perhaps more specifically, Wonder Girl -- has had a strange and complicated history. "Wonder Girl," like "Superboy," started out as the teenage version of an adult hero. Thus, Wonder Girl was the younger Wonder Woman. However, as the Wonder Woman comics got increasingly crazy in the 1950s and early '60s, the adult Wonder Woman found herself teaming up not only with Wonder Girl, but with the toddler Wonder Tot. The story goes that, when the time came to create a super-team for the teen sidekicks of adult heroes, the editor noticed only that there was a Wonder Girl, and put her on the roster without checking to see where she came from. Consequently, the "Wonder Girl" who first appeared with the Teen Titans in 1965 didn't get a separate origin, or even a real name, for four years. The first mention of the name "Donna Troy" came in Teen Titans vol. 1 #22 (July-August 1969), courtesy of writer Marv Wolfman.

Of course, Wolfman and artist George Perez would go on to produce most of the stories reprinted in the aforementioned paperback, and that's really where I want to start. Unlike her colleagues, Donna didn't have that much of a history from which character traits could be derived. Robin was struggling with independence from Batman, Kid Flash was already in semi-retirement, and Speedy had that unfortunate junkie phase. Therefore, it wasn't hard for Wolfman and Perez (and especially Wolfman) to flesh out Donna as everyone's friend, and sort of the wholesome girl-next-door. Since she had no real history, pros and fans alike could see whatever they wanted in her.

Naturally, that kind of approach can produce a creepy slippery slope, where Donna stays popular and loved because we said so. In 2003, Donna was killed (for all intents and purposes) in a fairly ignominious way at the climax of a miniseries designed to reshuffle DC's teen-hero and former-teen-hero team books. It was done mostly for shock value, since the reactions of various characters would cause said reshuffling. However, those were the characters: the book in which Donna appeared, Titans, never got as much attention as DC had hoped, and certainly not as much as the other team being broken up, Young Justice. Thus, on one level, Donna's death was an opportunity for the characters to voice what DC presumed would be the fans' reaction -- except that by 2003, Donna's popular days were at least about ten (and probably closer to 15) years behind her. Younger fans wouldn't have connected with Donna the way the older fans had; and we older fans had, I suspect, become jaded and bitter about superhero death anyway.

Still, Donna's death led to the last story in the Who Is Donna Troy? collection, writer/artist Phil Jiminez' account of Donna's wake. Jiminez is a huge fan of all things Wonder Woman and Teen Titans, and had drawn the JLA/Titans miniseries which led into the Titans ongoing which was cancelled as a part of Donna's death. This made Jiminez an especially appropriate choice to eulogize Donna. His story is rife with the kind of references and in-jokes which we enlightened superhero fans are supposed to condemn as "inaccessible."

Regardless, if like me you recognize the references (notwithstanding the fact that they refer to earlier stories in the WIDT? book), or if you know the significance of the "HELLO MY NAME IS DONNA" doll, odds are you'll find the story moving, as I did. The pivotal moments in Donna's life -- finding her real family, getting married, dying in battle -- resonate with those who "knew" her, because they are built on the readers' own hopes and dreams. I'm convinced that the fans who like Donna Troy actively want to like her in a way that other characters with more established histories don't facilitate.

What's this have to do with "Dollhouse?" Well, it's not that Donna is a blank slate on the order of Echo, or that people who like Eliza Dushku really like Eliza Dushku in some preternatural way. Instead, it's the notion that a series can be actively challenging to its viewers for a while, almost daring them to watch; and then turn a corner, change things up, and become all-of-a-sudden "good."

By now we all know the criticisms of the show's premise. Last week's episode reinforced those criticisms: why go through a shadowy criminal enterprise when you could hire a real person, etc. Last night's episode helped justify the Dollhouse's business plan, even if it raised still more questions (as pillock observes, what kind of infrastructure must it have?). However, it was a step in the right direction. Apparently the back half of this batch of episodes really reveals the point of the series, and these we're seeing now (including that debut episode, which I gather was reworked heavily) are just standalone warmups.

Question is, though, how much of the bad stuff must we wade through before that corner to Qualityville is turned? I have watched the first episodes of both "Farscape" and "Babylon 5" and wasn't sufficiently intrigued to continue with either; but I stuck with any number of shows which started out fair-to-middling and only hit their stride after a year or two. Whether I became more receptive to their individual charms, or they each simply got better, is something of a moot point; because in the end, the result is the same. You sit through a lot of fair-to-middling stuff so that the payoffs will matter more. "All Good Things..." was a reward for watching "Encounter At Farpoint." DS9's "What You Leave Behind" even included a montage. I know I'll be paying special attention to the Final Five's early scenes whenever I watch "Galactica 2.0" all the way through. "Lost" seems to be composed exclusively of buried details. Accordingly, if "Dollhouse" lasts long enough to build up its own macro-story, I'm sure I'll look back on these early episodes with a more practiced eye. That doesn't mean they were necessarily good ... just that they were, I don't know, tolerable. I'm not real comfortable spending my time just on the tolerable, but obviously I do believe in giving a show a chance to prove itself.

Going back to Donna, I do think that "Who Is Donna Troy?" and "We Are Gathered Here Today" (the wedding issue) were, by themselves, good comics. By that I mean that they were crafted well enough so that the emotional moments were built on elements from the stories themselves, and not merely on the reader's pre-existing awareness of the character. Sure, it helped if you knew Dick and Donna's relationship, and especially Donna and Terry's, but I read each of those for the first time when I had been away from comics for a couple of years. In this respect I think Perez's layouts and character direction help greatly, especially with the wedding. Talking about these stories in the context of the overall series, I thought they succeeded
almost despite the fact that there's not much more to Donna beyond being pretty and nice. However, the peculiar alchemy Wolfman and Perez were able to use on her has turned that around into a kind of unequivocal goodwill -- that because she's so nice, we don't want anything bad to happen to her, and we even actively wish her well.

To be clear, that kind of success is in addition to whatever enjoyment a reader new to the whole Donna thing gets out of those stories. Donna went through a lot of mediocre stories before Wolfman and Perez came along, and the duo didn't make her a star overnight either.

That's the appeal of serial superhero comics, though, isn't it? Even the bad stuff gets repurposed eventually ... except the really quite extraordinarily bad stuff (like the "Teen Tony" Iron Man or the Team Titans book), which is annihilated in the metaphorial incinerator. Still, if even the bad stuff has some potential value, aren't we just lowering standards with each bad element?

More than likely, I suppose ... but regardless, it sounds like I've been suckered into "Dollhouse" for a while....

7 comments:

plok said...

Hmm, the third episode of Dollhouse really annoyed me -- damn sloppy logic. I don't mind gaps and holes, but I want them to be ones I can imagine being filled in, somewhere along the way...

Tom Bondurant said...

Actually, I haven't seen the third episode yet, but from everything I hear it was eminently skippable.

plok said...

Symbolically, everything was intact, and advanced the overplot fairly well...for that it's worth seeing...but, it was at the expense of the higher logic of who the hell are these people, does anything they do make any sense...and it didn't help that I just couldn't believe in the character of the "diva". Which is too bad, because if I had found that character remotely compelling, the symbolic stuff might've packed a bigger emotional punch than it did. Hard to imagine this wasn't a rush job, it seemed so underwritten...but it's still worth a look for that, if only an academic look. And the brief moments where it connects to the larger story are I guess worth having in hand! But the logic problems though, oh Lord: they brought me to the very edge of giving a damn, I'll tellya.

One more like this, and that Whedon-penned sixth episode is really going to start sounding like a desperation bet. So hopefully it was just a screwup!

plok said...

Tonight's was MUCH better, I'm happy to say. One or two "huh?" moments, but I'm not an ogre...fair to say it was the best episode thus far, I think.

plok said...

But actually, I now revise that opinion -- ANGRY!

Still the best episode so far!

But, very annoying too!

That sixth episode better ne a KNOCKOUT.

Tom Bondurant said...

plok, just wanted you to know I'm not ignoring you (or your own "Dollhouse" posts) -- but Friday nights are full of TV-watching around here, and I've had to catch up on the show via the Internet.

plok said...

Oh, absolutely, Tom...there's just something that makes me have to rant and rave about it pretty much in realtime...