Wonder Woman Volume 1: Blood, DC Comics.
By Sam Hurwitt
I’m not sure what it is about Wonder Woman that makes people want to “fix” her. She’s considered one of DC Comics’ “Big Three” superheroes, a sort of trinity with Superman and Batman, but that’s more to do with name recognition than with prominence in the comics themselves. Supes and Bats routinely have two, three, four or more monthly titles apiece at any given time, while Wonder Woman has almost always had just one. Over the years the writers, almost all men (Gail Simone is the only female ongoing writer that Wonder Woman’s ever had), have seemed not to know what to do with her. In every reboot she’s started over from scratch while many other heroes have remained pretty much the same.
Even the switch from one writer to another without any other world-changing events has usually occasioned a complete change of supporting cast, base of operations, modus operandi, and potential romantic interest, although really she hasn’t had a real boyfriend since Steve Trevor 30 years ago. Nobody’s good enough for her, the logic seems to go, so she doesn’t really get to date. Or maybe it’s just that her writers (again, almost all men) are uncomfortable writing a guy who’s just the boyfriend of a much more powerful woman. You know, like the girlfriends that most male superheroes have. But I digress.
Maybe because she’s by far the best-known superheroine in the world, let alone at DC, the writers seem mighty concerned with figuring out how to do her right, which involves a lot of do-overs. Implicit in all the changes seems to be that she’s in some way a boring character, at least the way that previous writers have written her, so she’s in need of a revamp—and then another, and then another. DC can’t retire her—she’s too important for that—but writing her seems to be as much a hot potato as the prestige gig that it should be. You’re not just writing a character; you’re handling a feminist icon who’s been superheroine number one since 1941, and you’d better not mess it up.
Well, last fall DC Comics did another reboot—at least a partial one, where Batman and Green Lantern continue uninterrupted but suddenly Superman was never married and other heroes were rebuilt from the ground up. And of course, Wonder Woman is reimagined yet again.
Wonder Woman #1, DC Comics, November 2011.
Like most comics in the New 52 relaunch, Wonder Woman (volume 4 of the 71-year-old title, if you’re keeping track) makes it unclear at first how much has really changed. She has a new costume that has elements of her “classic” costume (or at least the 1980s Gene Colan redesign thereof) as well as Jim Lee’s notorious 2010 getup for her amnesiac street vigilante period. (The new compromise costume is also a Lee design.) But it’s clear that she’s already been a superhero for some time, even if we have no idea if any of her adventures that we read in the past actually happened to this version of Diana or not. But she’s still Diana, still from an island of Amazons, still the daughter of Queen Hippolyta, and still closely tied to the Greek gods. And yet it’s obvious from the outset that much has changed.
The new series is written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Cliff Chiang, the team that created the terrific Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality story celebrating obscure DC characters long lost in comics limbo (one of whom—I, Vampire—actually has his own series again). The tone is surprisingly dark, especially for Wonder Woman: the first issue shows human hands and head slowly emerging from the gory neck of a decapitated horse. It’s the sort of book that might have received a “mature readers” warning a decade or two before, but now that kind of bloodshed is pretty much par for the course in mainstream DC superhero comics. There’s more blood where that came from—in fact, the first trade collection of this run is titled “Blood”—but it’s nothing compared to, say, what’s going on in Animal Man.
The gods are very different than when last we saw them, too. Apollo has purple-black skin and glowing yellow eyes without pupils, and he tosses beautiful women off the side of the tallest building in the world so they can act as his oracles. Hermes is an unnaturally tall man with chalk white skin, black eyes (again no pupils or irises), and chicken feet with winged ankles, and for some reason he wears a World War I helmet. When we first see him, he’s in rural Virginia trying to save a foul-mouthed young woman with a pixie cut from centaur assassins because she’s pregnant with a child of Zeus. He didn’t go for one of his elaborate disguises this time; he was apparently just one of many one-night stands, and she’s not really sure which one. Her name is Zola, and we’ll be seeing a lot of her, because Diana’s pretty much stuck with her, at least until Hera and whoever else stop trying to kill her.
When we first see Wonder Woman, by the way, she’s in bed, because Zola’s been helplessly teleported into Diana’s flat in London. We don’t know anything about why Diana lives in London, what her life is like or if she has any friends or day-to-day duties there. She’s probably gone back to having no secret identity, though, because she doesn’t appear to have anything to hide. And no, that’s not meant in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge way, although I suppose it could have been.
It’s a mysterious, high-energy opening to the series, but the curious thing is that it reminds me more than anything of Mike Carey’s Lucifer series, a Sandman spinoff under DC’s mature-readers Vertigo label. That’s by no means a bad thing, as that was a hell of a series, if you’ll pardon the expression. But that series was rife with universe-twisting odysseys through mythological realms with occasional unfortunate humans in tow—including a mystically pregnant nightclub performer, which is no doubt why I’m reminded of it.
All in all, it’s a great start. Chiang’s art is gorgeous, with a nice mix of cartooniness and gloomy edge, and so far Azzarello’s Diana is just right, a hypercompetent warrior who’s all business when there’s business to be done but with a natural amiability that makes her likeable from the get-go. Whatever dark business we’re delving into, we’re in awfully good company.
Wonder Woman #2, DC Comics, December 2011.
In the second issue, we go home to Paradise Island, which is apparently called Paradise Island again. (It’s been called Themyscira since the Wonder Woman relaunch of 1987.) We also meet Hippolyta, who’s blonde again, as she was from 1958 to 1986 (both in the Golden Age and in the decades since the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot, she had black hair like her daughter’s). But she’s also clearly a warrior, as she has been in recent years, and so is everyone else on the island. There’s also a redheaded rival for Diana named Aleka, who might be the New 52 version of Artemis or Orana if she sticks around. We see the Amazons swaggering and joking around, we see them playing tournaments of martial skill just to pass the time, and we see them in battle, and every bit of it is pretty badass.
We also see Mount Olympus—a very traditional-looking version with a scrying pool—where the ever-jealous Hera rages in a peacock robe. After all the other monstrous-looking gods we’ve seen so far, Hera looks surprisingly normal, just a beautiful strawberry blonde with purple eyeshadow. Her daughter (well, Zeus’s daughter) Strife looks like a club rat, with light purple skin, a shaved head, and a raccoon layer of red eyeshadow. Presumably a new version of the goddess Eris, Strife is pretty self-explanatory—she stirs up shit—and unfortunately for all concerned we’ll be seeing a lot of her. She also seems to grow to 60 feet tall when she wants to make an impression, but maybe all the gods can do that, because unless a whole lot has changed she’s a pretty minor one.
We’re also told, or rather Zola is told, Diana’s origin, which at first sounds pretty much the way we’ve always heard it. Hippolyta wanted a child and sculpted one out of clay, which the gods then imbued with life. (It used to be that the gods granted her gifts of their attributes as an infant, making her “beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, stronger than Hercules and swifter than Mercury,” but we haven’t heard that version in a long time. When I was a kid I insisted that she had to be stronger than Captain Marvel, because he was just as strong as Hercules, and because Captain Marvel and Superman were always shown as equally matched, that would make her stronger than Superman as well. But she was certainly never portrayed as stronger than Superman in the comics, alas.)
However, at the end of the issue we find out that this business of Diana being the fatherless daughter of an immortal civilization of woman ain’t necessarily so, as Strife tells her she’s actually the daughter of Zeus. Now, Strife is really the last person you want to believe, but just because she’s trying to stir up shit doesn’t mean that she’s lying, and all subsequent indicators seem to be that it’s true.
This was pretty controversial when it came out, because in a way it’s diminishing. Sure, she’s a demigoddess, and that’s cool and all, but coming into being because Zeus can’t keep it in his pants (if he even wore pants) is just a lot less interesting and less resonant than being crafted out of clay and being given life just because her mother wanted her so much. And frankly, coming from no man is a pretty central part of her appeal—and sorry, male gods count.
Anyway, that’s distinctly not an improvement, but it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker either, and it’s clearly pretty distinctly interwoven into the story Azzarello is telling. I wish I could say that I have faith he’ll get it right, but I don’t, really. His pulp-inspired Batman/the Spirit/Doc Savage crossover First Wave should have been right up my alley, but his characterizations of all of those characters proved to be really tone-deaf. But that hasn’t been true of his Diana so far at all, and by and large I’m really enjoying the story he’s telling, so I’m still on board, just grumbling a bit. Not to worry, though—if that bothers me, there’s something coming in five issues or so that was wayyy more controversial than that. But this collection only goes up to issue #6 and I’m not picking up single issues, so for now I’m blithely innocent of all that.
Wonder Woman #3, DC Comics, January 2012.
Apparently the Amazons have a nasty nickname for Diana—“Clay”—which at least makes a heck of a lot more sense than “The Dragon,” the name her sisterly detractors gave her in Gail Simone’s run.
The irony, of course, is that in this issue it’s confirmed that Diana wasn’t made from Clay after all, as Hippolyta tells all about her torrid love affair with Zeus. Zeus is depicted as a naked guy in a feathered cape, with long white-guy dreadlocks, a Van Dyke beard, and eyes crackling with lightning, wooing the Amazon through battle. It’s actually an unusually cool look for Zeus, who appears to be missing in the present day, and who will rule the skies in his absence is much discussed. (And here we have another parallel with Carey’s Lucifer series, where it was YHWH who’d gone AWOL.) The lovemaking scene is very well done, not least because the affair with the king of the gods is depicted very much as a meeting of equals.
The issue starts with a funeral pyre for the Amazons killed in battle in the previous issue, while Strife, the person responsible for their deaths, just hangs out smirking in her little black dress, because for whatever reason nobody can touch her.
We continue to learn that everything we think we know about Wonder Woman is wrong. The American military pilot washed up on the island and the tournament among the Amazons to determine who would bring him home and act as their representative in “Man’s World”? Apparently never happened. In a bit of bitter dialogue between mother and daughter, it’s implied that Hippolyta has no idea why Diana left home. I guess there’s room there for some version of the story to have happened, and maybe the queen just doesn’t know why her daughter chose to be the one to go, but at this point we just don’t know. She could just as easily have simply left one day.
In any case, Diana is in no mood for any smart-Aleka comments or any other static from her Amazon sisters in this issue, because she’s in a serious snit about being lied to her whole life for her own protection. (Remember that whole thing about Hera wanting to kill her husband’s love children? Not a new thing. Just ask Hercules.) And really, Wonder Woman is not someone you want mad at you. Just for the record.
Wonder Woman #4, DC Comics, February 2012.
If anyone had been wondering what happened to Ares, one of Wonder Woman’s most frequent foes, he shows up in issue 4 as a broken-down old man hanging out in a Darfur bar, with bloody corpses all around him. Apollo simply calls him War in this issue, and come to think of it I’m not sure anyone has addressed Apollo by name in this series yet. Nor do we know what he’s up to, really, except that he seems to be angling for power in Zeus’s mysterious absence.
Diana, meanwhile, is wallowing in her anger with a night out at a London rock club, looking quite at home in a bikeresque leather outfit. She still has Zola, Hermes and Strife in tow, though she’s definitely not happy about that last member of the party. It’s still not clear why Diana lets Strife hang around because she’s so obviously trouble, except that it doesn’t seem worth the effort to try to get her to go away. And she is an amusing foil for the good guys, filling the slinky sinister trickster role pretty well. Diana continues to be a total badass, level-headed and good-hearted but not someone you want to piss off.
I realize I’ve talked more about plot so far than I have about dialogue, and that’s an oversight, because Azzarello’s dialogue is a lot of fun in this series. He shows a knack for wordplay and light punning that’s clever without being too glib (your mileage may vary, of course). Occasionally the turns of phrase are downright poignant, as when Hera comes calling of Hippolyta. “This storm,” one of the Amazons says, “Its fury—” “—Is of a woman scorned,” the queen answers. Hera makes quite an impression when she comes—she’s fearsome and furious and unreasonable, but also touching in the hurt she carries from her husband’s constant catting around (and swanning, and bulling, et cetera).
The series is building—or rebuilding, rather—quite a cast of characters already without reintroducing all the old supporting cast, because so far it’s not really telling a superhero story at all so far. Dark fantasy, suspense, heroic journey, sure, but there’s nary a costumed criminal to be seen. Heck, Zola is the only human in the mix so far. Whatever the gods are up to, you can tell it’ll occupy Diana’s attention for some time.
Wonder Woman #5, DC Comics, March 2012.
Chiang takes some time off for the next couple of issues, with Tony Akins filling in on art duties. His faces seem a little rough and not so attractive after Chiang’s elegant character work, but he does great work with the new sea monster version of Poseidon and his herd of sea horses. Having Poseidon be some kind of tentacled whale with a walrus face is a pretty awesome touch, and I also like the depiction of Hades as a boy with a mass of candles for a face. (And all this hobnobbing with grotesque deities also reminds me of Carey’s Lucifer, but I promise this is the last time I’ll mention it in this entry. It is a really good series, though.)
This issue doesn’t do much but introduce the new/old gods, and also another character whom I imagine will be sticking around for a while. Tromping in uninvited comes the hard-boiled, know-it-all Englishman, Lennox, who looks like a barroom brawler (complete with a bandaged nose) and lays all sorts of elliptical hints about the gods fighting over Zeus’s domain. He’s apparently yet another demigod who used to be a soldier before he discovered he was immortal. He’s also kind of annoying, a smirking, charmless John Constantine type, but hey, you can’t win them all.
Other than that, the story just has Diana setting up a conflict between Poseidon and Hera using a variant of the I-heard-that-guy-talking-about-your-mama gambit, with Hades involved somehow as well. What’s it all leading to? Well, the next issue, of course!
Wonder Woman #6, DC Comics, April 2012.
Tentacles, tentacles, tentacles! This one has Wonder Woman tussling with Poseidon and killer centaurs, Lennox chitchatting with Hades, and all the gods—Zeus’s siblings, anyway—being played against each other. Things are coming to a head, and yet there’s not that much to talk about here. Diana gets to play with the big gods, and holds her own beautifully. It’s what she does.
I continue to love Poseidon for his oversize ego and…well, everything, really. Diana’s master plan (suggested by Lennox) turns out to be pretty convoluted and confusing, and it’s not clear exactly what the heck happens with Hera in the end. What is clear is that the stakes are high and that Diana’s only going to get deeper into this whole mess—which, really, is as it should be.
If you can’t have a self-contained story arc in a six-issue bloc, you should at least have a sense of progress and upping the stakes, and this issue certainly does that. It gets me totally on board for the next issue—or, the way I read things, for the next trade collection—and that’s all you can ask for, really. And it’s not like anything’s going to happen in the very next issue that’s going to piss me off, right? Right?