One of my favorite college professors once said something in a class on renaissance drama that changed how I looked at history and storytelling. While discussing the enduring power of certain stories, she said that people have been telling stories about the same things for centuries. What changes is the language used. A character from one of these plays written in the early 17th century could be dealing with alcoholism or depression, and the audience understood those problems, but we as a culture didn’t develop those words until much later.
In that spirit, while E.J., K.P., and Meagan have all discussed literal shapeshifting, I’m going to be taking a more metaphorical approach, specifically looking at the type of shapeshifting most seen in modern superhero stories. DC Comics: Bombshells is a comic series that takes place in an alternate universe where the DC heroines get involved in World War II. The various intertwining stories follow Wonder Woman, Aquawoman, Vixen, Zatanna, and many more, but I’m going to focus on Batwoman, Stargirl, and Supergirl.
The first volume opens in Gotham City in 1940 at a women’s professional baseball game, where the players are forced to wear masks to hide their identities to protect themselves from harassment. This isn’t an origin story. In this world, the Batwoman, AKA Kate Kane, has been active on the baseball field as well as in the streets fighting crime, even merging the two when a group of criminals attacks the crowd gathered at the stadium. When Amanda Waller offers her the chance to help end the war, Kate doesn’t hesitate because, as she says, “I want my life to have greater meaning”1 a meaning she can’t get on the home front. Whether that’s a character flaw or strength is left up to the reader.
No matter the reason, she heads off to Berlin on a spy mission, where she continues to be Kate Kane in public and the Batwoman in private. In every superhero story, the protagonist is, essentially, two people—their heroic identity and their secret one. Kate is no different. She feels unable to contribute to the extent she wants as Kate Kane, so she becomes the Batwoman.
While she represents America in the war, Stargirl and Supergirl hail from the Soviet Union. In this universe, Kara Starikov (elsewhere known as Kara Zor-El) landed in Russia when she was sent to Earth. Consequently, she was found and adopted into a Russian family, including an adoptive sister, Kortni Duginovna. In 1940, they join the Night Witches, Russia’s legendary squadron of female fighter pilots. After an accident with Kortni’s plane forces Kara to reveal her alien powers, they pressed into service as Stargirl and Supergirl, “pinnacles of Soviet civilization” and “defenders of the motherland.”2 Their identities are turned into propaganda.
The question with all three of these characters, and with superheroes in general, is which identity is the true one? How does donning a costume and wearing a mask alter the original identity? In “What’s Behind the Mask? The Secret of Secret Identities,” Tom Morris discusses this dual nature, particularly in regards to Superman and Batman, and comes to the conclusion that “a duality has replaced a singularity, but with a new, fused unity.”3 In essence, a superhero character isn’t their secret identity at certain times and their heroic identity other times. They’re both simultaneously.
In her essay “What Is a Female Superhero?” Jennifer K. Stuller argues that “stories about superheroes can teach us about our socially appropriate roles (or, if we’re savvy, how to subvert them), how we fit into our communities, and about our human potential, both terrible and great.”4 As we do with all fiction, we learn about ourselves and other people through superhero stories. So while we read about a superhero’s two identities becoming one, we realize that we, too, can transform.
Circling back to Bombshells, at the end of volume two, Stargirl’s and Supergirl’s story intersects with the Batwoman’s in London, where they face the threat of the Tenebrae, soldiers brought back from the dead. All the heroines we’ve been introduced to so far are here, so there’s a lot going on in this climactic scene. Among the chaos, though, the Batwoman says to Stargirl, “Symbols and stories got power, sugar. Fairy tales and propaganda. It’s all in the story you tell. It’s all in the story you sell. . . . Write your own ending.”5 This brief, powerful moment confirms that we don’t have to wait around for change to find us. We have the power to change our story, and through that, we transform ourselves.
The Batwoman’s words make an impact on Stargirl, too. The memory of them nudges her into an otherwise unexpected choice that forever changes her life and her sister’s. “I am a new story,” she says. “I am a story for mothers to tell their little girls. We must decide for ourselves what we would create, what we would change, and what we would leave behind. What you leave will be the thing that most defines you. What you save will be the thing that saves you.”6
These are tumultuous times, and the challenges we face personally and as a society can seem overwhelming. But since we’ve told stories, we’ve taken strength from them. If we start small, start close to home, save the things we love so they can save us in return, maybe eventually, the shape of our society will shift into something kinder and lovelier for everyone.
Bennett, Marguerite, et al. DC Comics: Bombshells, Vol. 1: Enlisted. DC Comics, 2016.
Morris, Tom. “What’s Behind the Mask? The Secret of Secret Identities.” Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, edited by Tom Morris and Matt Morris, Open Court, 2001, 250-266.
Stuller, Jennifer K. “What Is a Female Superhero?” What Is a Superhero?, edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2013, 19-23.
Bennett, Marguerite, et al. DC Comics: Bombshells, Vol. 2: Allies. DC Comics, 2016.
Demigoddesses were rare in Greek mythology. The few mentioned tended to be some variety of nymph. One exception of that trend were the Amazons.
Hippolyta is a notable figure in Greek mythology made all the more famous by the Wonder Woman franchise, but she was not the first queen of the Amazons. Her mother, Otrera is most frequently credited with founding the Amazon nation.
In some versions of the myths, Otrera is the daughter of the eastern wind and consort to Ares. In others, she’s a daughter of Ares. She is credited with the creation of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
In short, she was an awesome figure in mythology. So why haven’t more people heard of her?
I made it my mission to change that by incorporating her into my Aphrodite trilogy. Her matter-of-fact level-headedness was a much-needed addition to Medea’s tragic naiveté and Aphrodite’s divinely skewed view.
Here’s one of my favorite scenes featuring Otrera:
“OKAY, LET ME get this straight,” Otrera said the next morning as we were getting ready.
Aphrodite and I rolled our eyes at each other and moved to either side to give her some counter space in the bathroom. If the three of us had to share a cabin with only one bathroom, at least it was a big bathroom. A mirror ran the length of the entire wall, reflecting the crowded strip of marble-patterned countertop and two sinks. A space about as wide as a hallway separated the countertop and the wide Jacuzzi tub, and the walls of the bathroom and shower stall came together to form a semi-private room that tucked the toilet out of view.
Otrera had taken the news that Aphrodite was a goddess in stride, but when it came to the plan Aphrodite and I had come up with, Otrera had been “getting this straight” all night and most of the morning.
If Otrera noticed our eye-rolling, she didn’t comment on it. “You want to do something stupid in hopes that if you get Narcissus angry enough, you’ll get thrown into the hidden hospital wing. Then you’re going to search the top-secret, guarded lab and find the Lord of the Underworld while you’re in there. Once that’s done, you want to have Medea teleport all the weapons and poisons away before summoning a pissed-off goddess to our island?”
“I’m open to other ideas.” Aphrodite’s lips pulled back in a way that somehow looked more like an animal baring its teeth than a smile.
My hand paused midway between my powder compact and my face as I studied Aphrodite in the mirror. She still looked like Elise, but she’d changed somehow. Maybe it was just because I knew who she was now, or maybe it was just that she was covered in scabbing scrapes and fading bruises. But she didn’t look like the demigoddesses I’d seen. There was a quiet power to her. A determination. The shock had faded and left something, someone, dangerous in its place. Someone other.
I’d never seen her at full strength. The poison had already leached away most of her powers before we met. But now, I found myself wondering. Was she like them? Poseidon and Persephone? Was she so filled with power that she almost seemed to glow with it? Was my attempt to join the Pantheon, my proclamation that I was what came next, laughable to her? Swallowing hard, I resumed applying my makeup, suddenly self-conscious.
Rein it in a bit, Medea. Right. I could feel myself over-attaching to Aphrodite. Latching on to her like I had Jason, far too much, far too fast. Normal people didn’t do that. But I couldn’t seem to stop myself. If you build her up too much, you’re setting her up to let you down. But it was like a train hurtling toward a broken bridge just beyond the bend. I saw the disaster looming, but I couldn’t seem to make myself jump the track.
Otrera remained unimpressed. “You do realize they’re just as likely to kill you as lock you up if you do anything too drastic, right?”
“If Narcissus lets me die, he loses his scapegoat,” Aphrodite reasoned, scowling when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. “And he definitely can’t let any harm come to Medea. She’s his escape route.”
What did she look like when she wasn’t disguised as Elise? I tried, and failed, to imagine her without her tousled hair that somehow made the just-out-of-bed look unobtainably sexy. Her gold skin was darkened with bruises, cuts, and scrapes, her hawkish eyes perpetually narrowed with frustration or anger. Every feature was so uniquely her that I couldn’t imagine her looking like anyone else. How had I ever mistaken her for the model in all those pictures? Her every mannerism was different from the Elise behind the makeup tutorials I’d watched before her arrival on the island.
“If they cross any major lines,” Aphrodite continued. “If they do anything they might actually look back on and regret, then Narcissus risks losing the crowd.”
“Let’s assume you’re right.” Otrera reached under the cabinet for her lotion. “What happens once you get thrown in there? You’ll be under guard, and you’ll be locked up. How does that help us get off the island?”
“That’s why she has to get locked up with me.” Aphrodite jerked a thumb toward my reflection in the mirror. “She’s linked to the Steele and the poisons. I can talk her through ‘porting them away once we’re behind the shield.”
I nodded, like my input held any weight with either of them.
It should. It had during the chaos of yesterday, but now that they’d both latched onto their own idea of the best way to handle things, no one else’s input mattered. Not each other’s, and definitely not mine.
Hush now, sweetie, the grown-ups are talking, their tight faces seemed to say when I interrupted with questions or suggestions. It wasn’t right. My input should be the be-all and end-all. Not only was I the linchpin in Aphrodite’s plan, but I was the method of escape in Otrera’s. Part of me resented the way they dismissed me. Like just because I was younger than them—well, physically in Aphrodite’s case since she was only what, three?—my ideas were somehow invalid.
But unlike Jason, I could tell I was more than a tool here. They might just see me as a naïve kid, but I mattered to them as a person. So maybe I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was still leagues ahead of where I left.
Last time you were willing to settle for “better than where you left”, you ended up impregnated by a lying psychopath who used your blood to torture people. Maybe it’s time to set your standards higher.
“Why not just shred the shield?” Otrera stepped back from the counter. “Medea said she could teleport through the shield protecting the island. The one protecting the hospital can’t be much stronger.”
Medea is right here, I wanted to point out. Instead, I studied myself in the mirror, searching for what they saw when they looked at me. Dark hair; strange, frightened eyes; young; small for my age. I wouldn’t take me seriously either, but at the moment, I was stronger than either of them.
Shouldn’t that count for something? My fingers itched to write in my journal. Everything was so much clearer when I wrote it down. But I hadn’t had a chance. They’d been right here all day, all night, all morning. Writing about them while they were just a few feet away felt wrong.
Today, I promised myself. I’d make time today. I had to get my thoughts in order before we did anything. When I turned my head to look at Otrera, my neck objected with a phantom pinch of pain. Scowling, I rubbed at it. Last night, I’d been unable to stomach the thought of sleeping in the bed Jason and I’d shared after I abandoned him to the Pantheon. So, I’d pulled out the couch bed. Otrera had spent yesterday afternoon rearranging Jason’s office space, also known as most of the living room, to make room for her mattress. That was smart of her. The damage from the uncomfortable night of tossing and turning on the couch had long since healed, but the memory still hurt.
Aphrodite claimed my bed. After changing my sheets and complaining about the lack of pillows, she’d sprawled out on the king-sized bed with nary a thought to me or Otrera and crashed until she woke up in the middle of the night screaming bloody murder. Otrera and I both pretended that hadn’t happened, but I desperately wanted a few minutes alone with Otrera to talk about what we’d heard last night. The way Aphrodite screamed, how long it had taken her to calm down. I’d never heard anything like it before, and I never wanted to again.
Aphrodite sighed, stepping back from the countertop, apparently giving up on her reflection. “Look, they are going to know the second we mess with the shield. But if Medea and I can get ourselves placed behind the shield, they won’t know anything is wrong until they’re disarmed.”
“It’s a matter of seconds,” Otrera argued.
“Assuming she’s back at full strength,” Aphrodite replied, like “she” wasn’t standing right next to her. “I don’t know how long it takes to recover from moving a land mass.” The twist in her lips told me what a stupid idea she thought that had been.
But it had worked, hadn’t it? It had hurt like hell, but it had worked. I arched a brow at her in my reflection.
“If we try it your way,” Aphrodite said to Otrera, “we risk alerting everyone to what we’re doing, then being stuck there with no way to ‘port ourselves or the weapons out. With my way, it’s all one shot. If it doesn’t work, no one even knows we tried, so we live to try another day.”
“It’s a moot point at the moment,” I reminded them, finally working up the nerve to speak. “I’m still pretty burnt out from moving the island yesterday.” Feeling the power missing from my body last night was part of what had kept me tossing and turning. It was like a physical ache. After a few hours’ rest, I could feel some growing tendrils within me, but not enough for what Aphrodite was talking about.
Concern flickered in Aphrodite’s eyes, and she nodded, her face dead serious. “We can’t risk draining your powers completely. So we’re going to have to wait a few days.”
“Days?” Otrera objected. “Yesterday, we were looking at escaping this island as soon as possible. Why not get out of here as soon as Medea’s recovered, then teleport back in when her powers are completely back? Hell, let’s meet up with the Pantheon and bring one of them with us if you’re worried Medea can’t manage all of that. Everyone wins! We’re safe, you’re reunited with your . . . brother.” Otrera cringed as though she’d tasted something foul.
Aphrodite glanced up at the ceiling as though she was praying for patience, and I wondered who that particular prayer would be directed to.
“I told you last night, divine genetics—”
“Don’t work that way,” Otrera said by rote. “They pass on power. The incest taboo is a human thing that makes total sense because of the way mankind works, but you’re all different and special. Yadayadayada. I’ve spent the last two and half years of my life on an island full of super inbred demigods. I’ve heard the spiel. It doesn’t mean it’s not gross.”
I fought back a smile. I’d always wanted to live out scenes from my favorite TV shows. And now, here I sat, listening to my roommates, my two best friends with wildly different personalities, who cared about each other more than they dared to admit, gripe at one another. I realized that as long as I ignored the death, the destruction, and the terrifying stakes, this was the happiest I’d ever been.
I stepped in before there could be actual bloodshed. “Otrera, if we do it your way,” I pitched my voice loud to drown out their bickering, “they won’t owe us. And you and I need them to owe us.”
“Exactly,” Aphrodite said. “An entire island popping up in Poseidon’s domain isn’t going to go unnoticed for long. Once he finds us, the rest of the Pantheon will follow. If we neutralize the threat before they get here, it will be better for everyone.”
Otrera still looked like she wanted to argue, but a glance at her watch cut her off short. “I’m on breakfast duty today.” She scowled at the watch, as if she could make it turn back time through sheer force of will. “Do not—” she held up a finger to me and Aphrodite in warning “—do anything stupid until I get back.”
Aphrodite bristled at the order, but I shot her a quelling look as I followed Otrera through the tiny cabin. I couldn’t set foot in the living room without running into bedding. The three of us living here made for some pretty cramped quarters.