Beyond Wonderdome


On Wednesdays I’ll be taking a look at various chapters in Wonder Woman’s history. This is the third in a series of posts on Greg Rucka’s much-lauded stint writing the Wonder Woman comic. The first two installments are here and here. My write-up of the most recent era of Wonder Woman is here.

Wonder Woman: Bitter Rivals, DC Comics, 2004.

By Sam Hurwitt

It seems like most modern-day Wonder Woman writers like to wipe the slate clean when they take over the title. New supporting cast, new rules, sometimes a new city—they like to make their mark on it as quickly as possible.

One thing I appreciate about Greg Rucka’s run is that he does exactly that, but so smoothly that if you’re going back and reading it years later, as I am now, you might not always realize that the characters he’s introducing haven’t been there all along. The villainous businesswoman Veronica Cale is pretty clearly someone Diana hasn’t met, for instance, but the Amazon blacksmith Io and the embassy chef Ferdinand are so clearly already part of Diana’s world that you might just assume you’ve already met them.

Small wonder that he spent the first few issues exploring and establishing Diana’s daily life and the people she works with, pretty much all of whom are new to the comic. And relatively quickly he brings in some of the key villains and supporting characters of other recent runs, just to let us know they’re still very much part of her world and aren’t going anywhere. It’s a completely new chapter without completely writing the book.

It seems ludicrous to call the second volume of Rucka’s Wonder Woman run “in-betweeny,” because of course it is in between the beginning and whatever it’s building towards. He definitely favors slowly building a long, complicated arc with many working parts, not all of which are connected to each other initially at all. Diana has multiple bad guys scheming against her, for instance, and that’s as it should be. At the same time, it’s not the full-on “decompression” that you see in many comics nowadays, where very little happens in any given issue and there’s often not even much dialogue on any given page. A quite satisfying amount happens in each of the Rucka issues, and most of them have a sort of mini-arc without really telling a self-contained story.

That’s certainly evident in the issues collected in Bitter Rivals, which is distinctly a separate chapter from the first volume while continuing and developing several of its plot points, leaving some of them aside for later, and introducing a bunch of new complications. Sadly, for all of Rucka’s memorable introduction of his impishly scheming version of Ares in the first volume, the god of war doesn’t appear at all the five and a half issues collected here, but surely we haven’t seen the last of him—which isn’t great news for Diana but is sure to be a treat for the reader.

One annoying thing is that the collection lists four pencillers in the front but doesn’t indicate who drew which issues, so unless you know their work by sight you have to go to the internet to find out who did what. The original cover gallery is placed in the back so as to give the illusion of there being no separation between issues, which is understandable for the overall flow of the story but a little vexing for my purposes.

What we do get is…kittens! This Steve Rude pinup was in the previous volume, but still.

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

Issue 200 is actually split between two different trade paperbacks. The main story is in the first volume, Down to Earth, while one of the back-up stories is in this second volume. Other short backup stories written by Nunzio DeFillipis, Christina Weir and Robert Rodi sadly aren’t collected at all. One of the thing that saddens me when I write about Wonder Woman is how little of her comic over the years has ever been collected, or even reprinted. For the world’s number one superheroine, she sure doesn’t get much respect. But I digress.

Pay attention, kids. There will be a test. A horrible, horrible test.

The backup story collected here is a charming retelling of the story of Medusa, spelled Medousa here—how she was a beautiful winged woman until Athena cursed her, giving her snakes for hair and a face that turned people to stone.  It’s recounted by Cassie Sandsmark (Wonder Girl) as a bedtime story to Martin and Robert, the two kids of embassy media affairs officer Peter Garibaldi.  Ferdinand, the embassy’s minotaur chef, provides amusing running commentary on how much Cassie’s cleaned up the story for the kids’ sake. The art by Linda Medley gives the whole tale a delightfully playful quality, looking like a comic adapted from a kids’ cartoon.

At the moment it seems like just taking a break to tell a story from Greek myth about the ancient hero Perseus, who cut off Medousa’s head. But of course, Wonder Woman’s whole life is Greek myth. At the end Ferdinand mentions in passing that Medousa’s two Gorgon sisters are still around somewhere, and wouldn’t you know it? In the very next issue they’re back.

After many a cybernetic alteration dies the swan.

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #201, DC Comics, April 2004.

One of the things that happened in the last volume was that an enraged Hera stirred the waters, sending Paradise Island flying and apparently landing it much nearer to the United States than before. As you might imagine that caused a ton of damage on Themyscira itself, and the Amazons are scrambling to rescue people and repair the damage.

But it also released a number of dangerous prisoners on the self-explanatory Reformation Island, including the Gorgon Stheno (Medousa’s sister) and the witch Circe, one of Wonder Woman’s primary recurring villains ever since the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot of the 1980s. She’d appeared occasionally as a Wondy foe in the 1940s and early 1980s, but the version created by writer/artist George Perez in 1988 is the one used ever since. Stheno had appeared previously in the Phil Jimenez run, circa 2001, but then she was depicted as a Medousa-like snake-haired Gorgon, whereas here Shane Davis draws her as a beautiful raven-haired winged woman, untouched by Athena’s curse.  She and her sister Euryale are immortal, too, unlike long-dead Medousa, which seems like bad news because they’re not exactly even-tempered. Now they want Circe to bring their millennia-late sister back to life, and that’s someone who can probably pull it off.

Friends don’t let friends become psycho killer cyborgs…oh, whoops, too late.

Meanwhile Wonder Woman’s trying to help her former kid pal Vanessa Kapatelis, who’s now been turned into the cybernetic winged psycho the Silver Swan. Vanessa’s robotic implants seem to be killing her, so Diana takes her under her protection (and as we know from Rucka’s first WW graphic novel, The Hiketeia, she takes that kind of thing seriously) and goes to find help. Naturally her first stop is heading home to Themyscira, through an instant portal she conveniently keeps in the embassy, only to find what we already know—that Paradise Island is a wreck. Still, they help treat her as best they can, when other Amazons come rushing in to tell Diana that the displacement of the islands has caused a tidal wave rushing toward the East Coast of the US. And the only one who can help her stop it is… her invisible plane!

It’s a dude! It’s a plane! It’s… you know what, let’s just call it a plane from now on.

Now, I don’t pretend to understand this, but one of he many ways that John Byrne overcomplicated Wonder Woman’s mythos when he wrote her comic in the ’90s was that he revealed that her invisible jet was actually a shape-changing sentient alien being all along, one that briefly became her own floating home base called the Wonderdome. They manage to stop the wave using some cockamamie pseudoscience—essentially generating and amplifying a sonic boom when she clashes her bracelets together—but somehow the strain of it tuckers Dome out, and it dies, becoming only the inanimate (but fully functional) invisible jet it appeared to be in the first place. This sequence doesn’t make a lot of sense and feels like nothing more than a way to get rid of this shapeshifty thing and make the invisible plane just an invisible plane again, but even so it gets an affectionate, semi-heroic sendoff.

I’m guessing this is how Veronica sees Diana all the time.

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #202, DC Comics, May 2004.

Hey, remember Veronica Cale, the rich genius businesswoman who hates Wonder Woman for mysterious reasons and is trying to destroy her, both her reputation through a PR firm and the rest of her by throwing her old supervillains at her?  Well, in this issue we finally get to find out what’s up with her.

Diana was told that book-writing was a better business plan than butt-painting. She was lied to.

No sooner does Cale find out that there must have been a leak at the PR firm that she hired to dig up dirt on Diana than she’s had her goons capture the young woman who let WW’s people in on all the accusations they were about to hurl at her. And once the woman’s all tied up, bruised and justly fearing for her life, what’s a villain to do but reveal her life story in a monologue?

Cale reveals that she grew up poor, the daughter of a stripper and one of her married clients who led her on, and young Veronica worked hard to make something of herself, excelling in school and founding a string of businesses that made her a fortune. And why does she hate Wonder Woman? Not for anything she did to Veronica, but just for who she is—this unattainable ideal, this fairy-tale princess that people look up to as she’s a role model, the way they should look up to a real-world self-made woman like Cale. A fine reason for a mild distaste, but clearly Cale’s issues go pretty deep.

It’s a bonding experience for both of them.

As for her prisoner, everyone knows that these monologues are any hero’s chance to escape. When you’re not the hero, well, that doesn’t work so well. Steve Sadowski draws it all with glamour—it’s hard to forget that pretty much the whole issue is beautiful women talking to each other—but he also builds a tense atmosphere for the interrogation/torture scenes in perversely well-lit, elegant surroundings.

No seriously, Batman’s in this one! For one whole scene!

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #203, DC Comics, June 2004.

You may have noticed Batman on the cover of this collection, which is also the cover of this issue. And yeah, he’s in there. Mind you, the “Bitter Rivals” of the book title definitely aren’t Wondy and Bats; unlike in The Hiketeia, they get along just fine. Actually, I’m not sure who the bitter rivals are; Cale’s pretty bitter, but Diana doesn’t even know her. Really, there are a lot of people bitter about Diana, and they’re all kind of hovering around her, so maybe that’s the point. But anyway, back to Batman.

He’s broody but effective!

One of the things that I really appreciate about Rucka’s stories so far is the way he uses her superhero colleagues. They don’t have grand team-ups in the classic style. Superman drops by to help her with her book, the Flash runs into her at a forest fire and they argue over how to deal with it, and Batman helps her out with an unsolved murder as if he were simply a detective acquaintance she had on call. Sure, the covers prominently feature the guest stars, but in the story itself it’s not a big deal that they stopped by. They’re just friends helping each other out. It’s a far cry from the “Stay out of my city!” posturing of Jimenez’s “Gods of Gotham” arc, but that sort of thing is enjoyable in its own way too. In any case, Batman’s there for just one thing: to find out who killed the right-wing pundit who was shot amid the protest outside Diana’s embassy.

But that’s only a couple of pages in the middle of the issue. The rest is concerned with other things. Diana tries to get medical help for Vanessa, the dying Silver Swan. Paradise Island has turned her away, between current co-ruler Artemis being annoyed at Diana at breaking the Wonderdome to save some puny humans and just generally kicking all outsiders out so that they can focus on rebuilding. Diana’s search for a cure brings her to none other than Doctor Leslie Anderson, Veronica Cale’s best friend and business partner in a pharmaceutical firm. Now, Leslie seems as nice as Veronica is cruel, but obviously there’s a conflict of interest when the woman she knows her friend hates is coming to her for help.

Meanwhile, Diana has to fend off the New York district attorney, who wants the Silver Swan arrested as a terrorist, not given asylum. Artemis and other Amazons take time out from rebuilding to hunt down one of the mythical beasts that escaped from Reformation Island, while warships from an antsy United States gather around Themyscira. And that other escapee, Circe, reluctantly helps the Gorgons bring Medousa back to life, grumbling about it all the way.

This seems like a good idea.

Penciller Drew Johnson returns after a couple issues away, but one thing I like about the artist switches in this volume (the opening kids’ story notwithstanding) is that they’re pretty subtle.  If you’re looking for the differences, they’re certainly there: Davis’s dynamic work in 201 is more stylized and slightly distorted, while Johnson’s art here is more subtle and shaded, but they all work well together.

She’s the hangin’ judge of Paradise Island.

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #204, DC Comics, July 2004.

This issue continues seamlessly from the last, with everyone continuing their work on their separate projects. Diana makes her pitch to Leslie, completely unaware that the doctor has any connection to the bad guy, or even that Veronica Cale is a bad guy at all. As yet she’s hardly even aware of Cale and has no way of knowing that the pharmaceutical CEO has it in for her. As for Leslie, she quickly warms to Diana and is inclined to help her.

And she brought you some homemade cookies! OK, not really. But she would!

Annoyed at having to help anybody, Circe tries to trick the Gorgon sisters, but Poseidon pops up to gently ask her to cut the crap and help them. It’s a lyrical depiction of the sea-god; water pours forth from one of the statues that Medousa turned to stone long ago, and it becomes a glowing-eyed figure of water. The figure is that of the statue, so who knows what he looks like, really? It’s a far cry from both the bearded classical god he’d been shown as in past DC Comics, or the giant walrus/whale/octopus beast he’s been shown as in recent Wonder Woman comics, but compatible with either. For immortal beings that ultimately never change, they can change their appearance however they like.

Soggy Goddy to his friends.

And of course Batman continues working on solving the assassination that took place outside of the embassy. We see Diana’s domestic staff poking gentle fun at Batman’s creature-of-the-night shtick, and Batman’s butler Alfred teasing him about why he can’t date a nice woman like Diana.

If being Batman means you don’t get French toast, it’s totally not worth being Batman.

Bats and Wondy actually had an extremely brief romance a few months earlier in Joe Kelly’s JLA, but mercifully there are no anguished glances or other references to that here. If anything, Bruce’s dismissive reply, “Not every friendship with the opposite sex must be governed by romance, Alfred,” seems like a comment on the ludicrousness of the idea of pairing Wonder Woman up with every superhero in sight.

And yet Alfred gets the better of him in conversation anyway. As always.

Batman being Batman, he figures the whole crime out from available footage and other records—that it was Doctor Psycho whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and that the actual gunman was another unidentified body in the morgue, Cale’s chief of security, Matthew Fallon. This is Diana’s first hint that there’s something tying Cale Anderson Pharmaceuticals to her recent troubles, which is especially troubling because she was just talking to Leslie Anderson mere moments before.

Psycho/Cale, qu’est-ce que c’est?

Now, we’ve actually seen this guy, Fallon, since his death, and it’s worth remembering that Doctor Psycho can make people see whatever he wants. So if he wants to look like Fallon and hang around Cale Anderson Pharmaceuticals, that’s just what he’ll do. And if he wants to, say, tie up Veronica Cale and pose as her as well, well, he’ll do that too. Doctor Psycho is crazy and sadistic—thus the name—but he has no problem reining it in enough to convince people that he’s whoever he pretends to be. It’s all a sick game to him, and the game’s no fun if you don’t play it well.

Totally misleading, and yet this totally happens. Clever, that.

Wonder Woman vol. 2 #205, DC Comics, August 2004.

In issue 205, the game comes to a head. Diana goes back to C.A.P. to find out what this dead guy Fallon has to do with the woman she came to for help, but when she talks to Leslie she finds out that no one knows Fallon is dead. In fact, they just saw him. It’s pretty obvious to her what’s going on—this level of it anyway, if not Cale’s involvement—so he goes on a Psycho hunt. She finds Psycho posing as Cale, in a compromising situation with the Senator that Veronica’s sleeping with. Doctor Psycho is a delightfully horrible sicko, and Rucka sends him on a rampage in this issue, posing as all kinds of people and causing havoc all over the building. Wonder Woman can see right through him, but he has no problem making the security guys see and hear her as a threat, which is where the cover image comes in.

Oh, that scamp!

Nothing is resolved in this issue, but it provides a great mini-climax to the few issues collected with it and a strong cliffhanger for whatever comes next. The first hint of a wedge is driven between Leslie and Veronica, as Dr. Anderson starts to get the idea that there’s something problematic going on, and of course Cale isn’t too happy that her old friend is suddenly hanging out with her chosen enemy. Circe and the Gorgons complete their task, and if there’s anything that Wonder Woman’s old enemy and those who hate Athena with a fiery vengeance can agree upon, it’s probably not going to look good for Athena’s champion Diana. And Doctor Psycho gets away, so he’s still out there too.

So even if whatever Ares is up to is firmly on the back burner—and you never know—there are so many threats looming that you know Wonder Woman’s in for a bumpy ride. And really, it wouldn’t exactly be a superhero comic if she weren’t.



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