DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Drew Baumgartner and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Drew’s blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Wonder Woman while Drew is hosting the discussion of The Flash.
Patrick: The ladyfriend and I tried something new this evening. I hooked my computer up to the TV and we read Wonder Woman 1-4 together. She doesn’t read comics – I think the only thing she’s ever read was Batman: Year One, and if I recall correctly, I read it to her. She’s not in to the whole genre, but she is a woman, and that’s a perspective that I think it always going to be important regarding whatever Wonder Woman series DC is running. My point is, I got a little female insight into this character, expect to see it scattered throughout this write-up.
But let me start by saying that I really like Wonder Woman. I never knew her that well before reading these monthlies, and most of what I did know was shaped by the gender disparity that plagued this character’s creation and most of her existence. Remember when they tried to do a WW television show, but the pilot couldn’t get picked up? The Deadman pilot has a better shot, and no one even knows who that is. The point is Wonder Woman has a rough media history and in a lot of ways still only exists to be a girl version of Superman.
There were other reasons I didn’t get into the character before this – she’s an Amazon. Like a real life Amazon. I now realize this falls in the “duh” category, but when everyone else is aliens and speedsters and batmen, the concept of a super hero being an actual mythological creature was off-putting to me. One of the ways this series in particular helps me get over this hurdle is by throwing me into it full force. The first issue opens with Apollo entertaining some slutty guests at his penthouse suite in Singapore. He uses them as Oracles to search for his missing father, Zeus, but they can only speak cryptically about the woman that bears his seed. This woman – a Virginian redneck named Zola – is under attack by Centaurs sent by Hera. With the help of Hermes and Wonder Woman, Zola is able to escape her attackers to Paradise Island.
Let’s throw on the breaks there for a second. If you had any reservations about dealing with traditional elements and characters from Greek mythology, the first issue makes you confront that directly. No hints, no implications – the gods are real, they still exist in 2011 and they still get into the same kinds of trouble the did in the good ol’ days. And that’s the kind of story this is. It’s a myth. Most superhero stories borrow the forms, but this takes what was essentially religion, and makes it literally true in this fiction. It’s like Thor – I remember being thrown way off when someone told me that he’s actually Thor. Like the Norse god Thor. Thor Thor. But those mythological stories, while presented now as Important Stories, were probably just the comics of their day. We place a lot of importance on Zeus and Hera and the gang because their slapped with that “god” title, but maybe if we called them Kryptonians or Mutants or whatever, we could recognize those myths for what they were probably intended to be – fun, pulpy stories about super creatures doing crazy shit.
So it was in this spirit that I started the second issue. I stopped thinking of the mythological characters as being repurposed, and just accepted their presence. Good thing too, because Hera and her daughter Strife start out the issue on Mount Olympus talking about Zeus’ transgressions. Back on Paradise Island (which… is this the same as Themyscira? This series didn’t name the place beyond “Paradise”), Wonder Woman is warmly welcomed back by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, and not so warmly welcomed back by the rest of her Amazon sisters. In addition to leaving them some time ago to live among the mortals, she now comes dragging this white trash chick and (gasp!) a man. Or god-man-bird-thing, however we best describe Hermes. There’s a nice scene between Zola and Hermes where he lays down the standard Silver Age (possibly Golden Age too, now that I think of it) Wonder Woman origin story: her mother made her out of clay, prayed for a miracle, and got it. But the fun and festivities of Diana’s return are cut short when the Amazons appear to be under attack. Wonder Woman is quick to identify that it is just confusion brought on by Strife, but not before the Amazons slay a lot of their own kind. Strife reveals herself and indicates that she’s there to talk to her sister – Diana.
SCREEEETCH!!!! That’s right, the perfect fatherless Amazon is actually just another one of Zeus’ bastard offspring. This is the kind of character alteration the New 52 was designed for, and it better integrates Wonder Woman into the word of the Gods of Olympus. Now, not only do I feel better about seeing Hera and Apollo and Hermes on the page, their presence illuminates Diana’s character and the whole world is richer for it. I know there was some nerd backlash on this one, but come on nerds, sometimes change is good.—Issue three sees the Amazon’s burying their own and blaming Diana while Hippolyta recounts her romance with Zeus to her daughter. Her sense of home and identity (they are closely bound) shaken, Diana decides to leave the Island and commit herself to protecting Zola and her unborn baby. Really light on plot, but the pages give way to some really excellent character work. Diana had already left her home, but she was still using her non-superhero name and had still been taking marching orders from her mother. The games and festivals she participates in the second issue are all part of the culture she reluctantly returns to when she comes back to the Island. Scorned by her people and her family, Diana embraces her Wonder Woman monicker and does the Amazon version of a microphone drop – lighting a series of funeral pyres from a touch using her mighty breath. It’s a pretty cool moment and her first rejection of family.
Issue four is where things really pick up. I think if we had reviewed 1-3, I would be more middling on this title, but the fourth issue really reinforces the idea that we’re reading a kickass series. Apollo appears in Darfur, and as the place is war-torn, he easily locates his brother Ares. Apollo asks for his brother’s participate when he makes a move for the throne, and Ares obliges. Back in London, Wonder Woman is embracing her new-found normalness by going out to a bar and rocking out to some live music. Hermes is there (rocking a hilarious disguise of a knit cap and what look like rayban sunglasses) along with Zola and Strife. Strife makes some comments about how they are sisters now and, as family they need to stick together. She even suggests turning over Zeus’ “pound of flesh” by simply taking the baby from Zola now. But for the second time in as many issues, Wonder Woman rejects her family in favor of her friends and stands up for Zola. Back at her flat, Wonder Woman chats with Zola about her life – her family. Zola’s father has been in and out of jail and she and her mother were always on the outs. Until her mother died. It’s a simple story. Not even a story really, just Zola offering bits of information in a shockingly undramatized fashion, like a friend mentioning they weren’t close to their mother any more. Wonder Woman decides that, regardless of how she feels about the rest of the Amazons, she should make peace with her mother. Using Hermes’ staff to teleport back to Paradise island, she discovers that her mother has been turned to clay by Hera to punish her for her affair with Zeus.
Now, I know that doesn’t necessarily mean the character is dead, but HOLY SHIT. Hippolyta is a pretty big wheel in DC sidecar – I did not expect to see her eat in in the 4th issue.
There is some interesting violence happening just on the edges of this series. Near the end of the third issue, two crabs are fighting, and one removes the other’s claw. In issue four, a child soldier murders a man in Darfur. It is as though the nature of the gods is affecting all creatures around them, and the real world echoes the conflict of the heavens. It’s cool and mysterious and I want more of it.
There’s also some really great little touches in the writing that help individual issues cohere so well. Issue two opens with Hera calling herself “Queen” and Strife lumping all the various baggage that word implies. When she is called “Mother” moments later, Hera acknowledges the weight of that word. Later, Hippolyta notes that “fear” is the word to describe how she feels, and at the end Diana accuses Strife of misusing the word “peace.” I spotted similar unifying language themes in the other issues, but for the life of me I can’t remember them. They’re all very clever and I tip my hat to Brian Azzarello for managing to squeeze them in amid the nicely paced story and character work.
The art in Wonder Woman is also fantastic. All of my current favorites embrace this slightly cartoonier style and Cliff Chiang’s work on WW is no exception. The characters are all elegantly designed and simply drawn. Unlike Batman, I don’t ever have a hard time distinguishing one character from the next, even when everyone in the scene is a similarly dress Amazon warrior. My girlfriend pointed out that a lot of the coloring in this title is softer – almost the jewel versions of those colors. Pages frequently appear mostly pink, orange or teal. She suspects it is all in an effort to feminize the action of particularly non-feminine women. I’m not so sure that I agree, but if you compare the color palette to anything else we’re reading, you’ll definitely see a difference.
I feel like I’ve been writing for ever and haven’t touched on a lot of the things I liked about this one, but in the name of brevity(ish), I’m passing it over to you. How do you feel about having Greek mythology in your comic books?
Drew: Maybe this is dumb to say, but the thing I’m liking most about the supporting cast being made up of greek gods is that I already have a passing familiarity with their abilities and motivations. In the same way I kind of know that Wonder Woman is an Amazon who carries a lasso of truth, I know that Hera is constantly on a rampage about Zeus’s most recent extramarital conquest. It’s an effective way to populate a story without devoting a time to the whos and whats. This frees up time for the whys and hows, and some good character moments, to boot. Where other titles may not even get around to properly introducing the supporting cast (Green Lantern Corps, I’m looking at you), Azzarello is able to jump right to nailing his characters’ voices.
I had some preconceptions coming to this title, mostly surrounding how she’s been treated in the past — and the present, for that matter. My girlfriend thought I was crazy for calling Jim Lee’s ogling depiction of Wonder Woman, telling me that “that’s just how women are depicted in comics.” While I admit that comics don’t have a great history of treating their female characters like, you know, people, I think the only way to change that is by holding writers and artists to a higher standard. My soapbox aside, her point was that everybody draws Wonder Woman that way, at which point I was happy to point her to Cliff Chiang’s work on this title. Sure, there’s occasional implied nudity, and the sexualities of some of the characters do play a role in the plot, but it never feels like anyone’s body is there for me to drool over. In fact, Hera seems to use her nudity as a bludgeon to demonstrate how confident and powerful she is, an attitude that is effectively foreshadowed in Zola and Diana’s first meeting.
The acting here is also stellar. Chiang’s faces and gestures convey both the subtle feelings of the quiet conversations and politicking going on, as well as the huge, raw emotions of the more dramatic scenes. I’m also digging the little details he’s cramming into the frames. Did you catch Strife hitting on the bartender in that club scene before she butts in on Zola and Hermes’s conversation? It’s completely auxiliary to the plot, but it’s a fun detail that absolutely fits with her character.
But back to female empowerment. The thing I’m liking most is the way femininity is permeating every aspect of this title. There’s an emphasis here on manipulation with a subtlety I don’t think anyone would ever try to pull off in a title with a male lead (they’ve got to make room for all the punching), but what I’m most impressed by is the way the story is paced femininely. Bear with me, here.
I think the easiest way to illustrate what I mean is to draw our attention to the other end of the spectrum with the macho-est title we’ve been reading: Aquaman. In that title, emotional resonance is skipped in favor of speeding towards a climax that is over too soon (plus, he runs around with a big fucking phallic symbol). We’ve already discussed how this is bad, but I’d like to posit that it’s also an inherently masculine way of pacing a story. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, has only hinted at the “main event,” devoting much more of its time to emotional connections. This slow burn is much more feminine, and works thematically to turn Wonder Woman’s gender into an asset rather than just an excuse to put her in a skimpy outfit.
I mentioned in the comments for our write-up of Batgirl 4 that Wonder Woman (as of issue #3) was failing the “reverse Bechdel” test (suggesting that men are under-represented in the title). By the close of issue #4, this is no longer the case, which is a testament to how well this past issue grew the world that this story is inhabiting. Apollo is clearly going to be a big player in the issues to come, but he has yet to interact with Diana or the rest of the cast. The fact that his journey hasn’t led him directly to Wonder Woman’s flat has me excited to see how his journey will play out.
I hate to make predictions about where I think plots are headed — they tend to always be pretty embarrassingly off the mark — but I can’t help but thinking that the child Zola is carrying is Zeus. I know that doesn’t exactly make sense, but, you know, Jesus. Anyway, I think it explains Zeus’s mysterious absence, and may work to explain the oracles’ prophecy in the first issue.
Anyway, this title is hitting all of the marks; it’s got good writing, art, and a compelling hero at the center of it all. Diana has established herself as a strong character and a total badass, all without having to whip out any tridents. Geoff Johns should take note.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Action Comics, Aquaman, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, Swamp Thing