The Wonder Wing

WONDER WEDNESDAY

On Wednesdays I’ll be taking a look at various chapters in Wonder Woman’s history. This is the second in a series of posts on Greg Rucka’s much-lauded stint writing Wonder Woman. The first, about the graphic novel The Hiketeia, is here. My write-up of the current run of Wonder Woman is here.

Wonder Woman: Down to Earth, DC Comics, 2004.

By Sam Hurwitt

The first volume of Greg Rucka’s acclaimed run as the regular writer of Wonder Woman is well named.  After the fun but hectic adventures of Phil Jimenez’s stint on the title and some big cosmic doings during Walter Simonson’s brief arc, “Down to Earth” checks in with what Wonder Woman’s daily life is like at a time when she and her mother have given up their royal titles to enable peace between warring Amazon tribes that now rule the island together. So Diana is no longer the princess of Themiscyra (or Paradise Island to old fans like me) but its ambassador to the United Nations. So there’s a “how does she do it all” vibe to the story that’s hardly about fighting villains at all. Sure, she runs a mission or two, saves the day here and there, but the rest is meetings and public appearances, some of them around publishing and promoting a book of her speeches and essays that, interestingly enough, becomes the catalyst for much of the conflict of this particular chapter.

And yeah, that Greg Land cover is embarrassingly porny, and in fact was probably traced from a photo of a porn star. I believe it’s been replaced in subsequent reprints by the cover to Wonder Woman #200, and thank goddess for that. I’m using the first printing cover here because that’s the version that I read.

Hey look, action and adventure! Pretty misleading, but whatever ropes ‘em in.

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #195, DC Comics, October 2003.

Right off the bat Rucka introduces an entirely new cast of characters, most of them on Diana’s staff at the Themiscyran embassy. The best of them is Ferdinand, the gruff chef, who’s a minotaur. Rucka takes a West Wing approach to his first issue, focusing on the support staff who protect the star attraction’s time, image, and mission. Meanwhile we get occasional glimpses of Wonder Woman as a blur of action past soldiers in some war-torn African nation—not so much her as the effect she has on people around her.

I stand corrected!

The point of view character is Jonah McCarthy, a starstruck new staffer on his first day. We follow him around as he meets people and gets briefed on his job duties. There’s an amusing meeting with a book publisher who wants to give Diana’s book a ridiculously exploitative cover, and her staffers smoothly counter with the ambassador’s own pre-approved design.

Jeez, who’d you get to do that? Greg Land?

Maybe the best part is when Superman stops by to drop off some edits on Diana’s manuscript, and Jonah is so flustered that, he says, “I think I’ve forgotten my name.” “It happens,” Superman says understandingly. And when Jonah finally gets to meet Wonder Woman at the end of the story, it’s also a pretty great moment.

See? Adorable.

Penciller Drew Johnson’s figures are sometimes a little stiff, but there’s a warmth to his facial expressions that makes this tale of just plain folks particularly charming.

All in all, it’s an adorable first chapter that gives a great sense of how ridiculously packed Diana’s life is (who has time for a secret identity?) and the people behind the scenes who make it possible. Seeing it all through the eyes of the new guy is a perfect introduction to the new status quo for a new chapter of Wonder Woman.

Actually, she’s totally cool with it. Still: drama!

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #196, DC Comics, November 2003.

In Rucka’s second issue, we re-meet some of the gods, Ares and Aphrodite, both of whom are voraciously reading Diana’s book. It’s apparently all the rage in the heavens as it is on the earth. The gods have a very modern, casual look in this period of Wonder Woman. Ares is wandering around in black pants and black open shirt, with close-cropped blond hair, red glowing eyes, and a chest etched with scars, a far cry from his classically armored look that had become the standard since George Perez revamped him in 1987. (Ares has been one of Wonder Woman’s main enemies since Wonder Woman #1 way back in 1942, though he went by his Roman name of Mars back then.) Aphrodite is lounging around naked in a loosely draped pink scarf and sunglasses. Olympus is an elegant jumble of classical architecture at right angles to each other as if gravity runs sideways as well as up and down.

We are as gods!

Much of the time is still spent in Diana’s office with her hypercompetent staff helping her keep her appointments straight and keenly guarding her image. We keep going back and forth from her gang to some new antagonists, led by the mysterious Doctor Veronica Cale, a sharply-dressed young blonde in business attire. At first we have no idea who she is or where she comes from (aside from Texas), just that she’s made it her business to destroy Diana’s reputation. As soon as the Amazon’s book is out, she sets a PR firm to going through it line by line to see what they can take out of context and spin to turn the public against Wonder Woman—and with a devotee of the Greek gods in country that identifies as a Christian nation, they don’t have to look too hard. She’s a radical feminist, an environmental extremist, she worships false gods, and worst of all, she’s a woman who presumes to tell men what she thinks, as if her ideas are somehow better than theirs.

Hobbies: no good, troublemaking, villainy.

Cale also has a knack for obtaining, controlling and strategically deploying Wonder Woman’s old enemies, starting with the sadistic telepathic dwarf Doctor Psycho, who dates back to 1945 (first introduced in Wonder Woman #5) and particularly enjoys torturing women.

Nooo! People think I'm nice! And have good hair!

Nooo! People think I’m nice! And have good hair!

But before that other shoe drops, we get to see Diana at ease, chatting with Ferdinand the cook (in which we learn she’s not fond of cilantro); visiting with Io, the Amazon blacksmith who finds back home that whenever she forges a weapon it immediately disappears (sounds like some Ares tomfoolery to me); and hobnobbing at her book launch.

I like how you totally get who she is right away.

Io is another Rucka invention—a butch but shy short-haired woman in the Amazon equivalent of overalls who seems to have a crush on Diana. They do come from an island populated entirely by women, after all. Come to think of it, add that to the right-wing talking points above.

Well, that answers that.

One thing Rucka handles beautifully that a lot of writers (and readers) have trouble with is how darned good Diana is, how kind and understanding she is, taking an interest in everyone she meets while always keeping an eye on what needs to be done.

See how nice she is? I’m sure they’re going to be great pals.

Flash doesn’t really know what he’s doing here. He’s not alone in that.

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #197, DC Comics, December 2003.

Issue 197 guest-stars the Flash (the Wally West version), but that’s a bit of a red herring, as all their encounter amounts to is a disagreement about how to deal with a forest fire. The Flash wants to extinguish it, and Wonder Woman insists that he let it burn—make sure the people and homes are spared, but let the forest renew itself. The whole thing would be a non-issue, but it provides fuel for another fire—the backlash that Dr. Cale and her cronies are whipping up against her. It’s Wonder Woman against the right-wing broadcast echo chamber!

Doesn’t she know fire BAD? Also, tree pretty.

Some of Johnson’s faces are awfully similar, so one of the PR bad guys trying to take Diana down looks almost exactly like Jonah, the new guy working for her. Cale’s henchwoman Leslie looks a lot like Wonder Woman did back in her civilian identity of Diana Prince, back when she had a secret identity. (That was one of the elements done away with in the reboot of the 1980s.)

Meanwhile, Dr. Cale shows that whoever she is, she’s a tough cookie, bending the psychotic Dr. Psycho to her will. Ares confirms that whatever’s going on with Io’s weapons disappearing, he’s behind it somehow. Like most of the stories in this volume, it’s mostly setup, but it’s an awfully intriguing one.  The plot thickens!

Hey! Something on the cover that actually sort of happens!

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #198, DC Comics, January 2004.

And here the plot pretty much blows up. Ares continues to roam around being friendly to everyone, clearly up to no good. Rucka’s version of Ares is a lot of fun, more of a subtle, scheming trickster than the bellicose god of war he’s been in the past. More than anything he reminds me of Loki in Marvel’s Thor comics, always working some angle that’s going to end horribly for everyone.

Here he stirs up trouble by working on Zeus, subtly implying that the king of the gods doesn’t get much of a mention in Diana’s book, compared to other gods in the pantheon. Unlike other gods who are seen in modern dress throughout this arc, Zeus is still in a toga, seemingly stuck in his ways. And if you know anything about Zeus’s ways, you know that they have a tendency end badly for everyone as well.

Also, Diana looks in on Vanessa Kapatelis, a former child pal of Diana’s from early in the Perez reboot who’s since been turned into the psychotic cybernetic bird-woman the Silver Swan. Vanessa has been in an Argentine hospital working on a cure, but Diana discovers that she’s been kidnapped—and we learn that Veronica Cale has added Vanessa to her menagerie of Wonder Woman foes. Uh-oh!

“Shut up,” he explained.

Oh, and one of Diana’s assistants totally clowns one of the family-values blowhards railing against her on TV. This issue may have ruffled some feathers in making Fox News types look like hypocritical buffoons, but that doesn’t exactly take much effort; as Jon Stewart has been demonstrating for a while now, they do that just fine for themselves.

The sly smile would really be more his than hers in this scene, but let her have her moment.

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #199, DC Comics, February 2004.

Things start to go very badly indeed. On Mount Olympus, Ares manages to turn Zeus’s ever-roaming eye toward Artemis, current co-ruler of the Amazons. Ares also has a nice chat with his old archenemy Diana, saying he’s turned over a new leaf as the “god of conflict” and swearing to her while wrapped in her lasso of truth that “your sisters will suffer no harm at my hand”—a conspicuously specific promise that leaves him plenty of room to get others to do his dirty work for him. Doctor Psycho is deployed, and a mob gathers around the embassy to chant against Diana.

I think this is what the collection looks like now, which is definitely an improvement.

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #200, DC Comics, March 2004.

And now everything goes to Helena Handbasket all at once. Somebody’s shot in the protest; the Silver Swan attacks, looking like a D-list cyborg X-Men villain from the ’90s Doctor Psycho whips the crowd into a murderous frenzy; and the seed Ares planted in Zeus’s mind takes roots with predictably horrific results—only, as Ares himself says, not in the way he predicted. It’s a cliffhanger ending that does the opposite of resolving anything—it raises still more questions, ups the stakes considerably, and leaves the reader dying to know what happens next.  One thing that’s clear is that things are only going to get worse for Diana and her Amazon sisters, between the apparently unconnected schemes of War and Dr. Cale. And what are they up to? Ares seems to just be causing trouble for its own sake, but Cale clearly has a pretty specific agenda.  So why’s this woman we’ve never seen before so dedicated to destroying Wonder Woman? We’ll just have to grab the next volume in hopes of finding out, and Rucka does a great job of making us want to do just that.

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