On Wednesdays I look at various chapters in Wonder Woman’s history. Click here for previous installments.
When I first started writing up the nonsuperpowered, white-suit mod era of Wonder Woman, this is the story I was most looking forward to, even if it wouldn’t come until midway through the fourth and final reprint volume of Diana Prince: Wonder Woman. What I love about is that it’s just so random, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Going through these stories in reprints has really made me wish I had more of the original single issues. Part of that is for the backup features, whether they’re Silver Age reprint stories of Wonder Woman as a teenager or charming spotlights of real-life “Wonder Women of History.” But they’re also fascinating for the period advertisements showing what else was going on in the DC Universe at the time, or in culture at large. One of the ones I do have is Wonder Woman #190, part of Diana’s journey into the medieval world of Chalandor, which also had this notorious “Let’s Rap!” ad asking the DC readership how interested they really were in reading about astrology or black people. And I have to say, the mod ’60s world Diana Prince inhabited during this series may have been full of hippies and mysterious Chinese characters, but other than that it was pretty darned white, so maybe even asking the question was a step in the right direction, even if it would have been better to just go ahead and make the comic population look a little more like real life.
But especially I miss out on reading the letter columns, which offer a fascinating glimpse in fan reception of these stories and in what the editors were thinking—or at least what they were saying. In issue 190, editor (and writer/artist) Mike Sekowsky writes, “We are trying to make our stories more realistic, not all of them, though—but one thing I can promise you, as long as I’m editor of WW you won’t see any bug-eyed monsters or dinosaurs stomping around through the city, stepping on cars, wrecking buildings, etc.—nor will you see aliens from outer space trying to take over the world.” The irony is that this letter column is literally facing a page in which Diana has to fight a ten-legged red lizard-beast in a gladiator area. But, see, this isn’t taking place in New York City; it’s in a fantasy world where that sort of thing happens all the time. Mind you, even Sekowsky’s stories on the regular earth featured witches and ghosts and whatnot, but I guess he saw those as more realistic than dinosaurs and aliens.
Wonder Woman #201, DC Comics, August 1972.
Sekowsky was off the title by the time issue 201 rolled around, with Denny O’Neil jumping in as writer/editor, but Diana was still a nonpowered karate-chopping mod fashion store owner who kept falling into wild adventures, some of which still involved jaunts to sword & sorcery worlds. The curious thing about this story is that the world she travels to is a preexisting one that’s not even owned by DC Comics—and yet thankfully DC can still reprint the story, unlike many stories featuring licensed characters to which DC or Marvel has lost the rights. (I don’t think that DC can reprint Batman #259, for instance, which features the Shadow, or that Marvel can reprint Hulk #296 with Rom, Spaceknight, or the entire Master of Kung Fu series because of Fu Manchu.)
But really that mostly comes into play in the next issue. This one is all about getting there. Diana is taking her blind mentor I-Ching to meet her new romantic interest, the hard-luck detective Jonny Double. “He’s sort of a loser, but he’s sweet,” she says. Gee, thanks, Diana. Quite a vote of confidence there. Come to think of it, this not-quite-romance is a lot like the one she’ll have decades later with Nemesis, another preexisting detective character, although he’s more of a jerk than a loser.
But when they get to his office, Jonny has been kidnapped! And there are a couple of giant Tibetan assassins lurking there who attack them right away, giving Dick Giordiano a chance to draw a badass fight scene more than a little reminiscent of the kind of stuff Neal Adams was doing with O’Neil in Batman comics.
The assassins kill themselves, presumably rather than be captured, but that doesn’t stop one of them from blurting out “Fist of Flame.” Of course Ching knows offhand what that means—a giant ruby, said to be cursed, that’s worshipped by a sect of Tibetan mountain men who speak exactly the unique dialect those assassins did. Man, Ching knows everything.
Just as Diana’s fretting whether she gives enough of a crap about Jonny to go rescue him when she’s so very, very tired (seriously), she gets a note telling her to get off her ass and go get the Fist of Flame, or it’s curtains for Jonny.
But she has no money to fly off to Tibet and steal this magical jewel from the whole religion built around it, so she sells that boutique she hardly ever seemed to bother running anyway. On the flight over she finds herself checking out some beautiful blonde woman who looks naggingly familiar, while Ching churns out various dismissive ancient Chinese aphorisms.
Led up a snowy peak by a native guide in the middle of a blizzard, Diana and Ching stumble across the cave entrance to a strangely warm and sunny hidden valley presided over by a giant green Buddha statue with the Fist of Flame ruby on its forehead.
Diana goes up to steal it, having to fight a hulking Tibetan swordsman before she reaches it, but once she has it in her hands she’s transfixed by it, hypnotized into a strange trance. That makes it easy work for Catwoman, who appears suddenly behind her, to knock her out and take the jewel for herself. (Obviously the woman on the plane was Catwoman in a wig.) But the exact same thing happens to her, and some monk coldcocks her just as easily. Now Diana and Catwoman have to fight each other to the death over some crazy firepit to decide which one dies and which one lives as a slave to the cult.
Mind you, there’s no record of Wonder Woman ever having met Catwoman before this, because Catwoman was a Batman villain who hadn’t been seen all that much in general for a while. And yet not only did Diana know Catwoman by sight, even if she couldn’t place the face, but Catwoman recognizes the name Diana Prince as Wonder woman, even though that was her secret identity, not public knowledge. I guess a lot went on behind the scenes while no one was looking.
Diana, of course, is chivalrous enough not to let Catwoman plunge to her death, and the two of them fight their way to freedom—and to the ruby. As they’re hightailing it out of there, Catwoman says that it was she who hired Jonny to find the ruby, but he must have been captured by a rival gang led by Lu Shan, I-Ching’s crazy daughter. There’s no time to dwell on that, though, because they’re suddenly transported to another world, just like that.
Wonder Woman #202, DC Comics, October 1972.
But it’s not just any other world that Diana, Catwoman and I-Ching have plummeted onto. It’s the world of Newhon, the fictional sword-and-sorcery world of Fritz Leiber’s adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a huge barbarian swordsman and a sly thief. O’Neil would write a comic series for DC about them the following year in the short-lived title Sword of Sorcery, but at the time Leiber’s heroes showing up in Wonder Woman really did seem like it was out of nowhere. Odder still, this story was written by Samuel R. Delany, the acclaimed science fiction author who hadn’t really written comics before.
If Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser meeting Wonder Woman and Catwoman (and let’s not forget I-Ching!) sounds like a really, really random team-up, that’s because it is. In a way it would be less strange if it were the star-spangled superheroine version of Wonder Woman, because at least she’s an Amazon warrior rooted in mythology. The mod martial artist version, that’s a bit strange. It is cute that both the thieves are cat-themed, though.
Our motley crew literally plummets into Newhon, collapsing on the ground with Leiber’s colorful brigands looming and leering over them. This is more than a little disturbing, because, as I-Ching thinks to himself, “I sense thievery—or worse—as these men’s motivation!”
Whatever they’re after from two beautiful women and one old blind man, they’re not getting it, because Diana fends the huge barbarian off pretty readily, while Catwoman is more evenly matched with the slippery thief. It scarcely matters, though, because Ching puts a stop to the fighting by whipping his big ol’ jewel out. It just so happens that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are looking for a different big ol’ jewel, a sapphire called the Eye of the Ocean but it’s not exactly a coincidence because the two gems are mystically connected despite being two different kind of stones. You look into one of them, and you can see what’s happening around the other. Ching knows all this offhand, of course, because he knows all about everything.
Rather than, say, fight even harder to steal the gem to find the other one, the two rogues decide, hey, we’re all thieves here—we should team up! It’s sort of like every superhero team-up ever, only with less honorable intent. The Eye of the Ocean, it turns out, is back on earth, wherever the heck Lu Shan is keeping Jonny Double. Lu Shan wants both of the jewels to fuel her, ahem, dimensional energy transfer matrix machine to open the gates between the world so she can pillage Newhon, but now the only one she has is the one that’s not supposed to be on her world in the first place. How’d she get it? Well, Ching says, the jewels just hop back and forth between worlds willy-nilly, bringing people with them, but only the machine can control their movement.
Somehow the group figures out that the best plan to get the jewel is go to the guy who supposedly had it last and whom Fafhrd and Mouser were going to steal it from—the wizard Gawron. When they get there, it doesn’t look much like a sorcerer’s lair, because Gawron also has a dimensional energy transfer matrix machine, a sci-fi device that looks distinctly out of place in a fantasy setting.
Remember what I said about those random jumps? Well, one of them just happens to happen while the heroes and thieves are battling Gawron’s guards, bringing the Eye back to Newhon with Lu Shan, her goons, and the tied-up Jonny Double in tow. Cue utter confusion as pretty much everybody fights everybody else.
Ching uses both gems and Gawron’s machine to open the portal so that all the heroes can escape to Earth—even the ones that are supposed to be on Newhon—while leaving his own estranged daughter stranded on Newhon forever. And I do mean forever; this is the last we ever heard from her, though Ching doesn’t seem all that broken up over it. No wonder she hates him.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser go off into the streets of New York to seek new adventure—but it’s way too scary and stinky for them out there, so they retreat back to Jonny’s office just in time for another of these seeming frequent random gem-jumps to take them home. It’s probably not a good idea for them to hold onto that jewel too long if they want to stay in one place.