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September 26, 2011

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Review: Wonder Woman #1

Posted by on Sep 26, 2011
Wonder Woman #1

In the entire DC pantheon, perhaps no character was more deserving or more in need of a relaunch/reboot than Wonder Woman.  Although she’s officially considered part of the Trinity, it’s not exactly breaking news that Wonder Woman has often, if not always, been the distant third in DC’s big three (not to be confused with Studio 60‘s big three).  I was excited when the creative team of Cliff Chiang and Brian Azzarello was announced and even more excited when Azzarello described the title as a mythological “horror book”.  For a character I had very little invested in, Wonder Woman had somehow become my most anticipated book of The New 52.

So how did they do?

Before we can jump into the new book, I think it’s important to take stock of both the character’s history and of DC’s recent turmoils, as both inform my (and, I would assume, many other comic book readers’) reactions to and reception of the new Wonder Woman.  Gird your loins, it’s about to get real.

While she was originally created to be a feminist icon, the character has unfortunately spent much of her publication history as a walking bondage joke in underpants.  And it’s not hard to see why.  For a superhero whose powers rival those of Superman, Wonder Woman finds herself tied up.  In very suggestive situations.  A lot.

Suffering Sappho? Seriously?

Although the above image is from 1973, I’m sad to say that it is chronologically neither the first nor the last of its type.  As much as DC has historically pushed the idea of the Trinity, they’ve never really given Wonder Woman a fair shot to earn that spot.  Her storylines have ranged from the sub par to the insulting (see above).  And while we’re on the topic of storylines, let’s talk origins.  Superman?  Son of a dying planet.  Batman?  Witnessed the murder of his parents.  Wonder Woman?  That depends.  Her origin story has drastically changed multiple times since her debut in 1941.  Anyone who reads superhero comic books or has seen a superhero movie can tell you the importance of the origin story.  Not only is an origin the impetus for a character’s transformation into a hero, that formative experience often serves as the guiding force in their heroic endeavors.  Wonder Woman?  Doesn’t…really…have that.  This variable background explains, at least in part, the general failure to create compelling Wonder Woman tales.  Although certain depictions of her have definitely gotten it right (New Frontier, Kingdom Come, The Dark Knight Strikes Back), none of those depictions have occurred in stories specifically about Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman doesn’t have an All-Star Superman or a The Dark Knight Returns.  To quote Bill Sienkiewicz, the man who would have handled the artistic duties on an aborted Frank Miller concept entitled Wonder Woman: Bondage, “she’s always been a ‘symbol’ more than a character that has been well-utilized in a story context”.  I know that’s right.

Speaking of symbols, let’s compare Diana to the other DC big hitters.  Batman has, obviously, the Bat Symbol emblazoned on his chest (and the Bat Cymbal in his marching band).  Similarly, Superman is never seen without his trademark “S”.  While the design of Wonder Woman’s breastplate has, like her origin story, changed multiple times (sometimes it’s an eagle, sometimes just arches; sometimes it’s golden, sometimes it’s silver), far more constant an identifier are her trademark star-spangled underpants.  Which begs the question why, unlike her male counterparts, Wonder Woman decided it was a good idea to fight crime and injustice…without pants.

For issue 600 of the previous run of Wonder Woman, Jim Lee, Co-Publisher of DC Comics, wrought a costume redesign that included pants.  And, while reactions were mixed (less because of the pants, more because of the shoulder-padded half jacket), the pants didn’t stay on long.  Less than two years later, in The New 52 Justice League, drawn by none other than Jim Lee, Wonder Woman is back sporting her classic lack of legwear.

Clearly, a large part of Wonder Woman’s problems is that DC hasn’t taken her seriously, so the rest of the world hasn’t either.  Which sounds pretty bad.  And it is.  But, the rest of her problems might actually be worse…

Mere months before their historic cancelling of the longest running comic book titles in history, a fan’s question during a SDCC Q&A with Dan DiDio, Co-Publisher of DC Comics, launched an onslaught of criticism concerning the companies lack of female creators.  It also sparked an industry and fandom wide discussion that brought awareness to the issue and, ultimately, will help comics.  Now, with that storm barely behind them, DC is facing a new host of questions concerning some…interesting…choices they have made in the depictions of their female characters in The New 52 thus far.  For both sides of that argument, you can read two cogent op-eds from Mary Staggs at Panels on Pages and from Laura Hudson at Comics Alliance.  While I don’t necessarily want to open that can of worms in this review of Wonder Woman #1 (which, technically, hasn’t even started yet), I think it’s important to note how much is riding on Wonder Woman’s reintroduction being a dignified one.

So, how did they do?

Chiang’s art looks great.  His line work is crisp and clean and reminds me of Oeming’s recent work on Powers, of which I am a fan.  The character designs for the gods are all very cool, particularly for Apollo.  We’re really given a sense of Diana’s physicality as she towers over Zola, a mere mortal.  Her costume is more subdued than usual, and it works, looking less like decoration and more like battle armor.  She’s still rocking the underpants, but you can’t win them all.  Colorist Matthew Wilson deserves some mad props for resisting the temptation to resort to dark colors to establish the tone of darker moments.  The brightly lit pages provide an effectively unsettling contrast to some of the horrific events that unfold.  And unfold they do.

It’s the first issue and while the details of this arc are still vague (and I wouldn’t want to ruin them for you anyway), suffice it to say my interest is piqued.  The villain, an ingenious selection, is established in a suitably creepy fashion.  And, despite the book’s “Teen” rating, we are left with no illusions as to just how grisly things can and will get, both for the bad guys and for Diana.  Azzarello is definitely bringing the mythological horror, and, in the same way that the Green Lantern books fill a sci-fi niche while still existing within the greater DCU, I’m hoping that Wonder Woman will do the same for this distinct genre.

Now the bad.  Maybe I’m just more sensitive to the issue in the wake of recent events, or maybe the creators, wanting to place a greater emphasis on the mythological aspects of the character, didn’t want to introduce Diana in “civilian” clothes…but, the first couple of panels featuring Diana are a bit revealing.  This, for the potential storytelling reason listed above, I’d be willing to forgive.  Unfortunately, Zola, a character who seems to be integral to the tale Azzarello is mapping out for us, spends the entire issue in her underwear.  I reread the issue hoping to find a reason why a normal human being wouldn’t be wearing pants in the middle of the day.  And, while I can think of plenty, there isn’t one presented in the book, which makes the whole situation feel a bit gratuitous.  And that’s unfortunate.  I feel like the creative team wasted some of the good will they earned by making Wonder Woman such a bad ass.

Will I keep reading?  Absolutely.  Azzarello and crew have immediately drawn me into this world and, with multiple violent deaths, quickly established just how high the stakes are.  Wonder Woman is a being with the strength and majesty of Superman and the ruthlessly efficient tactical sense of Batman.  And if nothing else makes you want to read this book, that last sentence absolutely should.  It’s too simplistic to say that up until this point the character has been poorly received because she is a woman.  While that is certainly a variable in the equation, the problem was less one of reader reception and more a systemic disrespect and disregard for the character on the production end.  Thankfully, all that seems to be changing.  The New 52′s Wonder Woman has a top-tier creative team that’s doing incredible work.  At no point in this first issue did I feel like Wonder Woman was being mocked, and that’s a really good thing.  Respect starts with self-respect, and it looks like DC has finally given Wonder Woman some.

  • http://www.nerdnewsandreviews.com Third

    So I tried going back and taking a look at the time of day in different scenes, hoping that might explain Zola’s attire. In Virginia, it is clearly either sunrise or sunset – the former would excuse the undies, as she’d just be waking up. But then, when she teleports to London, which should be about 6 hours ahead of Virginia, it’s night-time. This makes no sense if it’s sunrise, so then it would have to be sunset in Virginia, making Zola a person who arbitrarily wears no pants. Sad.
    I had thought upon first reading it that the point Azzarello and Chiang are making is that this is a person who was caught completely unaware, and all the action happens so fast she has no time to put on clothes. But that doesn’t really make sense if she should already be wearing clothes in the middle of the day. I mean, maybe they didn’t do their math right and wrote that it should be sunrise in Virginia while it’s the dead of night in London, but it’s sad when you’re not sure if you think creators flubbing something silly like that might actually be better than them intentionally having a female character in underwear for no reason.