Out of Their League


On Wednesdays I look at various chapters in Wonder Woman’s history. Click here for previous installments.

The history of Wonder Woman, at least in my lifetime, seems to have been one abrupt shift after another as the powers-that-be at DC Comics see the need to reinvent the world’s most prominent super-heroine every few years. We’ve covered a number of these start-from-scratch revamps on this blog already, particularly occurring in the last few years. But this habit of trying to “fix” Wonder Woman goes back a long ways. We’ve  seen Wonder Woman abruptly renounce her powers and become a karate-chopping mod detective in 1968, along with a sudden scrapping and replacement of her entire supporting cast. We’ve seen the mod era just as suddenly erased in 1973 with the return of Wonder Woman’s longtime writer-editor from the 1940s through the 1960s, Robert Kanigher, who took a similar scorched-earth approach, killing off Diana’s erstwhile mentor and erasing her memory of the whole period. As we’ve seen, the next few issues were a little weird, not only returning Wondy to her previous status quo, with her old costume and powers, but actually retelling Kanigher’s old WW stories from the 1940s with new art.

And now, abruptly again, that oddly retro period stops with entirely new management on the title: Julius Schwartz, mastermind of the superhero revival of the Silver Age and longtime Justice League of America editor, took over editing Wonder Woman, bringing in a reliable roster of writers to tell the next batch of tales: Len Wein, Cary Bates, Elliot S! Maggin and Martin Pasko. Appropriately enough, the next eleven issues would be all about Wonder Woman earning her way back into the Justice League after a long absence.

Of all the cool cover art during this run, it’s weird that they chose to blow up a relatively uninteresting panel instead.

Of all the cool cover art during this run, it’s weird that they chose to blow up a relatively uninteresting panel instead.

Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors, DC Comics, 2012.

Now, this also means that after writing about the never-yet-reprinted issues of Kanigher’s return, we’re back talking about issues that have been reprinted in a trade collection, albeit less than two years ago. What’s notable is that this is the last collection of a series that would run for another twelve years after this.

There have been Wonder Woman comics running continuously since 1941, and it’s really appalling how few of them have ever been reprinted. I’m going to get into the actual numbers here, so bear with me. DC’s expensive hardbound Wonder Woman Archives have only collected her stories from Wonder Woman and Sensation Comics up through 1946’s Wonder Woman #15 so far (in seven volumes to date). Meanwhile the less expensive paperback Wonder Woman Chronicles have only made it up to 1943’s Wonder Woman #5. The Silver Age is well represented, as the cheap black-and-white Showcase Presents: Wonder Woman collections reprint issues 98 through 177 in four volumes, covering 1958 through 1968. (The hardbound Wonder Woman: The Amazon Princess Archives has one volume so far, reprinting #98-110 in color.) Four books of <iDiana Prince: Wonder Woman cover the mod era, from #178-204, and then there’s this book, The Twelve Labors, collecting #212-222.

The series ran for another 12 years and 107 issues, ending with 1986’s #329, but so far we’re out of luck for all of those. And it’s not like this was some lousy period of Wonder Woman comics, either—there’s some prime stuff in there, such as the Orana story I’ve written about previously that served as the template for the later introduction of the angry Amazon heroine Artemis. Heck, there’s the period illustrated by the great Gene Colan that introduced a bold new costume for Wonder Woman, replacing the eagle emblem she’s always worn with a stylized double W in a shape reminiscent of an eagle. In any case, that’s only 132 issues that have been reprinted so far out of the 329 issues of the first series.

The second series of Wonder Woman, starting in 1987, has had a similarly spotty history of reprints. The first 24 issues by George Perez have been collected in four volumes. Issues #90-112 have been collected in four books, two of them written by William Messner-Loebs and two by John Byrne. Issues #139-142, by Eric Luke, were reprinted in regular comic book form as one of 2011’s DC Comics Presents 100-Page Spectaculars. Greg Rucka’s run from #164 through the end of the series with #217 have been reprinted. So that’s 93 out of 217 issues for the second series that are available in reprints, some of which have fallen out of print themselves.

Pretty much everything after that point has been reprinted, with the exception of a few fill-in issues between longer runs because all subsequent volumes have been collected by writer. But hooboy does DC have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to Wonder Woman. It’s particularly glaring for me because I became a Wonder Woman fan in the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s, and absolutely none of those issues have been reprinted.

But I digress.  Hooboy do I digress.  Let’s take a look at the actual comics, shall we?

Oh, the drama!

Oh, the drama!

Wonder Woman #212, DC Comics, July 1974.

I mentioned that Wonder Woman has to earn her way back into the Justice League. You might say that seems pretty harsh, that it shouldn’t matter how long she’s been gone and that they should welcome her back with open arms. I mean, she’s Wonder Woman, for chrissake. As it happens, the League agrees with all that. It’s Wonder Woman herself who insists on being tested. And fair enough; if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Amazons, it’s that they’re really, really, really, really into tests of strength and skill and problem-solving.

But this isn’t just the usual Amazon exercise in making things difficult for yourself. After running into Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego, Wonder Woman is shocked to discover that there’s a lot about her recent life that she doesn’t remember. She had no idea that she’d ever lost her powers or left the League; she doesn’t remember her martial arts mentor I Ching; she doesn’t remember the JLA moving from its cave headquarters to a satellite and she didn’t know that her boyfriend Steve Trevor is dead. While this was a matter of convenience for Kanigher, it’s intensely disturbing for Diana in this first chapter, written by Len Wein and drawn by longtime Superman artist Curt Swan.

Uh-oh. That’s not good.

Uh-oh. That’s not good.

Wein does an admirable job of taking up where Kanigher left off, with Diana working as a guide at the United Nations, and even attempts to explain some of the weirdness of the retold stories. Kanigher started those by saying Wondy found an ancient Amazon scroll planted in the basement of the UN that mysteriously recounted some of her old adventures, but this framing setup was never revisited nor explained, and some of the other retold oldies made cursory mention of her UN job as if they took place in the present day while including Steve Trevor, who was dead at the time. Wein’s explanation for this last part is particularly messed up: That Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta, implanted the illusion of Steve in her brain to maintain her “psychological stability.” Yeah, like that would help. I’d ask if that meant that all her adventures of the past few months had been illusions, but it was never quite clear if we were even intended to think that those retold stories were actually happening in the present day or were just, well, retold stories.

This just gets more and more disturbing.

This just gets more and more disturbing.

All this makes Wonder Woman decide that she can’t rejoin the JLA—at least not until she’s proven herself worthy with twelve labors, much like Hercules, the demigod who gifted her with his strength. Members of the League will monitor her next twelve adventures and decide whether or not she’s ready to be reinstated. Batman’s the one who makes the call that yes, she should be tested, which may sound like it’s Batman being the skeptical hardass he’d be characterized as in later decades, but here I think it’s just because he’s the elected chairman of the moment and it’s his call to make. In any case, Superman is assigned the first shift of Wondy-watching and tags around observing for the rest of the story, which he narrates.

Of course they’re basically humoring her, because of course she’s worthy.

Of course they’re basically humoring her, because of course she’s worthy.

Interestingly, Wein has Diana describe herself as “the new Diana Prince — self-reliant — liberated — socially aware” in one of her angsty internal monologues, which is much more like the mod-era Wonder Woman than Kanigher’s revival of the mousy alter ego, so it seems like the new regime is cherry-picking the elements from recent eras that they feel worked. I’m all for this, as it brings her back into the superhero community in a way that feels like moving forward, not backward.

One thing that is retained from Kanigher’s stint is the character of Morgan Tracy (not to be confused with Tracy Morgan), a handsome and charismatic “trouble-shooter diplomat” who offers Diana Prince a job in the “UN Crisis Bureau” once he finds out that she can kick people’s butts when necessary, although he apparently finds her so plain that he can hardly remember meeting her before.

This comes up when a group of terrorists attempt to assassinate Indira Gamal, prime minister of the fictional country of Pamanasia (and an obvious stand-in for a certain actual prime minster named Indira). Clark Kent is there but Superman isn’t needed because Wonder Woman mops up the masked gunmen—who in fact are gunwomen serving some mysterious “master.”

That master, we soon learn, is the Cavalier, a musketeer-styled villain who has the power to control women through some kind of crazy pheromones. His actual plan is not to kill Indira Gamal, and through her her country and eventually—dare I say it?—the world!

Wondy don’t play that!

Wondy don’t play that!

It’s unclear whether this is intended to be the same Cavalier as the Batman adversary of the same name, who hadn’t been seen in about 30 years at the time this story came out, but who would resurface a few years later. He’s identified in some online comic-book wikis as the same character, but there’s very little evidence for that. They look different, although they have similar fashion sense, and this Cavalier’s primary talent of controlling women through “chemically-heightened sensual attraction” was never demonstrated by the Batman villain, although here he talks as if he’s been using it for a long time. This Cavalier makes no reference to any past costumed exploits, and I don’t know of the Batman villain ever mentioning a tussle with Wonder Woman. That said, both of them have an electrified sword and hat plumes that serve as darts, which are hardly standard accessories. And Superman’s telling this whole story to Batman, who doesn’t react as if he’s familiar with this Cavalier guy at all.

Batman’s Cavalier, who was identical in the 1970s to the 1940s version.

Batman’s Cavalier, who was identical in the 1970s to the 1940s version.

As shown above, the Cavalier tries to cast his spell on Wonder Woman, and while momentarily susceptible to it, she overcomes it through sheer force of will. Why? because she’s Wonder Woman! She also uses a lasso trick I don’t know that I’ve seen before, using its coils to slice up the Cavalier’s sword. That thing just keeps on coming up with new enchanted uses!

Also introduced in this story is a “new costume-change devised by Amazon scientists” that allows Wonder Woman to change her costume by twirling her magic lasso over herself. (At least I think it’s new; we’ve already established that Diana’s memories are a little out of date.) The explanation is that her clothes have been specially treated that the lasso’s vibrations will alter them, which I guess technically means that she’s wearing a different Wonder Woman costume with every change of outfit.

Anyway, Wondy overcoming the Cavalier’s animal magnetism long enough for her to rather easily defeat him and break his spell over his female thralls, and the Leaguers agree that’s one trial pretty clearly won. Superman drafts the Flash to monitor Wondy’s next adventure, but this post has gotten quite long enough, so we’ll have to check that one out next week!

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