The modern WW, from Morrison to Azzarello: DC’s third most important hero, fierce, confident and tough as nails
As things stood at the beginning of the ’80s, reading Wonder Woman was a pretty drab experience – as it was with so many DC heroes. The TV show was over, no creative team hung around for long on the comic book, and, once again, no one seemed to know what to do with her. Worse, we enjoyed a succession of false dawns. First, with issue #288 (February 1982), we finally got what looked like a good – and, hopefully, stable – creative team. Roy Thomas and Gene Colan need little introduction, and took Diana seriously, though some complained that the swirling, spooky Colan art was unsuited to a character as essentially sunny as this. They began with a bang: “Look out, world! Wonder Woman is busting’ loose!” screamed the cover, together with the bizarre detail of one of the hopeless gun-thugs shooting pointlessly at our girl shouting conspiratorially to the reader, with a fourth wall-breaking grin, “An’ this time, nothing will stop her!” But it ended with a whimper. After barely six issues both creators lost interest and moved on.
Issue #300 went past, with interesting guest artists galore, then a very uninspiring-sounding team took over – writers Dan Mishkin and Mindy Newell and veteran industry workhorse Don Heck – and, to everyone’s surprise, started to do rather well with the book.
Heck had always drawn beautiful girls, and here really started to kick against his hack reputation, delivering some of his prettiest art in years. Not that there was much chance for it to go anywhere, for DC was just marking time until the biggest shake up in the company’s history: Crisis
On Infinite Earths. Heck’s last issue before the old Wonder Woman was replaced with a brand new version saw her finally marry Steve Trevor – “Hey, Zeus,” he asks, “how are you at performing marriages?” – and settle down; it’s no Alan Moore’s last
Superman story, but it still brings a tear to
The Challenge of th e Gods
Post- Crisis, of course, everything changed. Wonder Woman had “died” in that outwith-the-old miniseries, devolved back to the clay she was originally made from, and the way was now clear for a new, fresher incarnation of Diana, as curated by superstar artist George Pérez. As with all the other DC heroes, it was now deemed that the earlier Wonder Woman adventures had “never happened”, and she would be reintroduced as a brand new character, starting with a new issue #1. Pérez had initially been teamed with
Jemm, Son Of Saturn- creator Greg Potter, who’d done much of the early development work on the new series, but after just three issues the writer disappeared from the book – and, seemingly, from comics – leaving Pérez to plot and draw the thing solo, bar a little script help from veteran Len Wein. That a figure as prominent as Pérez should choose this gig of all the post- Crisis revamps surprised many at DC, not least the artist himself. Offering to take her on “just came out of my mouth,” he later said.
His new Wonder Woman, like the old one, had been fashioned of clay by Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, then given life by ancient Greek magic. Steve Trevor still crashes near her home, but now Paradise Island has a proper name – Themyscira – and the pilot was less wishy-washy, and not necessarily a romantic interest at all.
In many ways the new Wonder Woman was closer to the original Marston version than she’d been for years, in that this Diana only outstrips the other Amazons by virtue of bravery, determination and skill, not through inherent additional magic powers. The emphasis, too, is back on Wonder Woman fighting to improve Man’s World by good example.
Other subtle changes were made too. Boston – so little seen in comics – becomes
her new home, and Wonder Woman develops a new supporting cast. Pérez got rid of the old idea of Diana using a secret identity too. Finally, in the interests of keeping the mythology straight, the old Roman names were binned in favour of pure Greek – Mars is now referred to as Ares, for instance. This meant an end to the weird super-tech of the old Paradise Island too. “I wanted to purify the concept,” the artist said.
Look Back in Wonder
So how well does this reinvention work? Brilliantly, most would say.
In general, Pérez – working with female editors like Janice Race and Karen Berger – pulls a blinder. His Wonder
Woman is well-paced and lovingly crafted, with well-rounded characters, intriguing plots and the great benefit of his fetishistically detailed art. There’s a grandeur and an epic feel to it, with many of the gods – not least the pushy Hermes – becoming major supporting characters.
With #25, though, things slightly stutter. Though Wonder Woman was selling better than it had for years, it still wasn’t doing well enough to make an artist like Pérez the royalties he might expect, and he felt he had to give up drawing it, moving on to better-paying gigs. The slightly muddy work of Chris Marrinan struggled to cut it as a replacement, and though Pérez continued to write Wonder Woman for a while, the stories swiftly went off the boil.
Pérez pulls a blinder: his
Wonder Woman is well-paced and lovingly crafted
And it got worst post-Pérez, with Diana soon enduring a pointless run of adventures in space. For a while it was only a terrific set of Brian Bolland covers – from #63#100, virtually every one iconic – that kept
Wonder Woman on the radar at all. The years since have been a mixed bag. The Bill Messner-Loebs issues of the mid’90s, with their in-your-face Good Girl art by Mike Deodato, sold like gangbusters, but split fandom – some appreciated the introduction of important new characters like Artemis, but others couldn’t see past the ridiculous boobs and teeny outfits.
Then came John Byrne – who should have been a saviour for the book, ushering in a new Golden Age at least as strong as Pérez managed – but who somehow failed to bring the magic. He had fun replacing Diana with Hippolyta for a time, and sending her back for WW2 adventures, but in large part he stripped the character of everything distinctive and cool.
Indeed, it was often in DC’s events and team books that we’d enjoy the strongest reminders of the Wonder Woman we all wanted to see. In Grant Morrison’s blockbuster summer movie version of the
JLA, every character got poetically cool moments, but Diana more than most. At one point she takes out a vast heaven-sent battleship: from below we see explosions marching along its length, as – KaChoom, Ka-Choom, Ka-Choom – Diana smashes all opposition from the inside, and an awe-struck Aquaman whispers “Angels… meet Diana.” This was Wonder Woman as icon, and other superheroes were awed by her presence.
Later, in the much-disliked Batman: The
Dark Knight Strikes Again, Frank Miller adds a throwaway 300- style Spartan nose guard to the tiara, and it makes perfect sense; suddenly, it’s a warrior’s helm.
In the regular comics, meanwhile, Phil Jiminez – whose art style resembles Pérez’s – did his best to recreate the initial post- Crisis glory years, then Greg Rucka modernised the Greek gods, giving them business suits and laptops. Gail Simone became the character’s longest running female writer, and J Michael Straczynski guided an alternative timeline story not un-reminiscent of his Thor run, where the Amazons have been living amongst mankind all along, not realising who they are.
Parallel to all this, meanwhile, ran a sometimes intriguing, often annoying, sub-strand, wherein the Amazons are made to look like violent semi-bad guys. When Wonder Woman snaps the neck of hero-turned-villain Maxwell Lord in the painfully violent Infinite Crisis, she probably saves countless lives from the prospect of a homicidally mind-controlled Superman, but the other heroes turn against her, regardless. And in the horrendous six-part 2007 “event” Amazons
Attack!, Themyscira launches all-out war against Washington DC, apparently killing innocent, unarmed children.
There should be violence in Wonder Woman’s world, of course – it would be in no way loyal to the Greek myths on which it’s based if there were not – but surely, not like this?
Gods draw blood
Since 2011, of course, Wonder Woman has been enjoying something of a Golden Age – if something so borderline horrific could be called such. Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang – illustrating in a bold colour palate of reds and blues, hot and cold all at once – have been in charge of Diana’s New 52 incarnation for knockingon three years now, and it’s been terrific: an intelligent revamp, heaving with new supporting characters, revelling in yet another revised origin, and, by removing the Amazons for the time being, freeing up plenty of space for very modern takes on the Olympian gods.
The current team has been running chunky year-long story arcs that are proving to be one of the true sales and critical smashes of the modern DC – IGN, for instance, voted it Best Comic Series of 2013 – and it’s all been building toward this summer’s “Battle For Olympus”, at which point the run will end, leaving someone with almost impossibly big boots to fill.
The changes are legion. Characters are killed off with a Game Of Thrones
style glee, and both Wonder Woman and the Amazons in general have been allowed to be much more in-your-face sexual than they’ve been in the past, kinky-bitch bondage games aside. Forget mooning over the plastic Steve Trevor: now Diana’s in a relationship with Superman – well, of course she is – while the sexual tension with the brash, violent Orion of the New Gods (a stroke-ofgenius foil for Diana) is off the hook. And then there’s the controversial “Sex Pirate” angle, in which the Amazons are revealed as vicious killers – sirens who periodically go to sea, seduce random sailors, then toss their exhausted bodies into the Briny. It’s shocking, but it feels real – and effectively explains why Diana is different to the other Amazons. After all, her father was the King of the Gods, while theirs were scruffy seadogs, effectively raped for their seed.
Which brings us to the smartest change of all – making Diana the biological daughter of Zeus and Queen Hippolyta. Now released from her weird and creepy origins, this Diana now has all the deities of Olympus as her relatives, with the complications and opportunities that brings. Heaving with prophecy and family drama, and with the menace of the First Born – Zeus and Hera’s first child, buried deep beneath the earth many centuries ago – ever present, this is a dark reinvention that rings exciting and true.
Throughout it all, however, it remains true to the character – so this Wonder Woman is still winning over some of her greatest enemies (lately Hera, Zeus’s wife and one-time Queen of the Gods) and making them her staunchest allies. After all, chief amongst Wonder Woman’s formidable array of superpowers has always been the ability to turn people around.
Following the Azzarello run will be quite the challenge for some lucky creative team, but in the meantime there are still Wonder Woman stories to look forward to, not least the 120-page Wonder Woman: The Trial
Of Diana Prince, a glossy mother-daughter story – packed with the inevitable love-hate dynamic of such – by Grant Morrison and artist Yanick Paquette, designed as the latest of DC’s prestigious Earth One out-of-continuity graphic novels.
“It’s not like a superhero comic,” Morrison has said. “It’s about the sexes and how we feel about one another, and how she represents the best of something.”
Considering all the disappointments the character has suffered in recent years – the collapse of the much-anticipated Joss Whedon movie project of the midnoughties, the disappointment of both the actually-made 2011 NBC TV pilot and the never-shot Warner Bros TV project
Amazon – and uncertainly over what sort of prominence Diana will receive in the upcoming Man Of Steel sequel, it’s good to know that the comics, at least, are in the rudest of health. All th e world is waiting for you Wonder Woman remains a confused, and sometimes confusing, figure. The fact is – and it’s largely to do with her being a woman, the first and most potent female superhero by far – she’s nuanced in ways
Writing Wonder Woman well is one of the great challenges in comics
that most of her male counterparts are not. She’s a helper, proud and supremely self-aware; she’s the Spirit Of Truth, with an unbreakable sense of honour. And she boasts a level of compassion that’s almost self-sacrificing.
Perhaps the problem is that she’s such a strong person, so grounded, that some creators get frustrated – how do you stop her looking so damn perfect? What can you throw at her that will convincingly upset her? It makes writing her well one of the great challenges in comics.
And on top of all the comic book triumphs, old and new, Wonder Woman has an extra weight to her too. Is she the first pop culture Feminist? Quite possibly. She certainly works at a level of camp and of total seriousness, as woman and as icon. When the fashion designer Diana von Furstenberg did a Wonder Woman-themed collection a few years ago – “She’s so powerful,” she’s said, “I love her” – no one batted an eyelid. Women are the way of the future and sisterhood is stronger than anything, Wonder Woman says. And what comic book message is more challenging, or more exciting, than that?
Above: Don Heck’s surprisingly good run culminated with Diana getting hitched to Steve Trevor, right.
Above: Deodato’s highly sexualised mid-’ 90s take on Wonder Woman, all glossy lips and heaving breasts.
Left: Bill Messner-Loebs took over with #63; he would later create Artemis.
Above: A particularly bizarre-bodied Diana – what’s going on with her arm?! – in Miller’s Dark Knight Strikes Again.
Above: Azzarello and Chiang’s New 52 incarnation of the Amazonian Princess is the best she’s been in years.