Review by Joe Palmer
I avoid Wonder Woman. That isn’t true. I try to avoid reading comments about Wonder Woman from fanboys because there’s a good chance they include something about “the true Wonder Woman”, complaints, snark, why isn’t she with Steve Trevor, or plain outrage over almost anything you can imagine. When I want to experience people being upset, however much I believe a person is entitled to opinions as any reviewer is to hers or his thoughts, like those expressed in Michael “Lethally Blonde” Troy’s review here, I can visit my mother in her retirement complex across town and get a big dose from the women in her building. I understand life is short. Your dog puked on your favorite shoes. Your man done you wrong. You can’t get up or get it up like you used to (or you dread the prospect of this in your future). Your mother doesn’t like your boyfriend and she snipes about him every chance she gets because she just wants you to be happy, which means she wants you to move back home. Someone done effed up your Wonder Woman. Again. “Horrors!” as my high school art teacher, the eccentric and talented Mrs. Wyneken used to say.
Except Wonder Woman isn’t just yours alone.
In a roundabout way that brings me to the TV series with Lynda Carter. Many Wonder Woman readers watched the show when they were younger. I certainly did, and liked it when it originally aired, but being about 15 at the time I didn’t twirl. A gay boy in hiding could get beat up for that back then. The boxed sets may be prized possessions, a holy book in digitized motion. For all the enjoyment and inspiration that may have come from watching the series, I often wonder if what sometimes seems to me a slavish devotion to Carter’s portrayal of Wonder Woman isn’t a hurdle for contemporary comic book writers to overcome, unknowingly put in their paths. Carter’s Wonder Woman is so shiny, smart, perfect, and perky! Plus she can flirt with Steve Trevor and beat the villain in under an hour! Perfect distillation of an Americanized ideal.
So that’s why the relaunch of Wonder Woman set my nerves on edge. Something always seems to be done wrong, unless it’s involves someone’s favorite phase of Diana. Depowered and sporting a white jump suit complete with token mysterious Asian sidekick? Check! The Twelve Labors of Wonder Woman to be readmitted in the JLA with Ric Estrada’s barely tolerable art? Check! Diana’s days at Taco Whiz? Check! George Perez’s reinterpretation? I’ll give you that because it was damn good, but let’s not overlook the fact that Karen Berger was his editor.
Not that writers, editors, and publishers haven’t failed in small and large ways in portraying the character either. They have and I could list incidents where I think this is true and compare lists for days with other fans. That said, I think Azzarello and Chiang are off to a damned fine start with this issue. Let me clarify that I use “fine” in its original meaning indicating something of high quality, not the slang sense of dismissiveness.
From the first page Azzarello throws the reader into a story filled with mystery, danger, action, and an ominous sense of things about to occur. Gods walk the earth, and unlike previous depictions in Wonder Woman’s history, they are not, for the most part so far, benevolent by nature. Humans and animals are playthings and tools. For Apollo a trio of young and beautiful women become a means of oracular divination, their lives to be discarded at sunrise. Hera beheads a pair of horses in order to create centaurs to do her bidding. In one very particular case in which Azzarello’s story hinges on for now, a woman named Zola is a sexual diversion and vessel for an unborn demi-god. If the baby name sites I checked are correct, “Zola” means lump or mound of earth in Italian. I don’t know if the name any significance though Azzarello could just as easily named her Beth or Jill. Is it any wonder Hera is angry at Zeus for yet another glaring incident of infidelity? She hated Hercules from the moment she discovered the lie about Zeus’s story while breastfeeding the infant. In her eyes she’s perfectly justified in wanting to hunt down and kill this mortal woman and her fetus. And just where is Zeus while all of this goes down? According to the oracles he doesn’t exist yet. But how could he have impregnated Zola in the recent past if he doesn’t exist at the end of the issue? Could he be planning to incarnate as Zola’s child? Or will this child, perhaps springing forth fully grown as some gods did, become a rival to Diana?
Speaking of Diana, there’s a fair amount of discussion (not as much as there has been about Starfire and Catwoman though) about whether showing her sleeping in the nude was for cheap titilation. My take on it is that Diana is an Amazon, a people who, in past iterations, were largely cut off by choice from the rest of the world and other customs and beliefs. The ancient Greeks were a lot more comfortable with the nude body than many cultures are today. Hello! Wrestling in the nude! Sleeping in the nude doesn’t stretch my imagination considering that, even if the idea of Lynda Carter’s version doing so is inconceivable. But that’s conjecture on my part. Chiang could just as easily have drawn Diana tantalizingly in the panel at bottom left on page 11 instead of having her wrap the sheet around her body after getting out of bed. Unless future scenes prove otherwise, this seems like a non-controversy to me.
On to another topic that seems to get a faction of fans going: the costume. It doesn’t thrill me and at the same time I don’t hate it. If a character is supposed to be an Amazonian warrior then she might wear something more practical instead of a Vogue couture piece as Michael wants to see Diana in. Just my opinion. In the past I’ve been figuratively slapped down over my opinion of functional costumes, so slap away again if you like. At least these Amazons haven’t cut off a breast as legend has it. Kudos to Chiang and everyone else involved in the decision to cover up Diana compared to how revealing her last costume was often drawn. You don’t want to lose focus trading blows with Giganta by getting a thong wedgie.
Back to the depictions of the gods here. As mentioned above, these beings aren’t benevolent toward humans. Neither are they depicted as shiny, nicely coiffed, and wearing spotless white and gold chiton’s and eating grapes and figs while looking down from Mount Olympus. The change in direction with the gods reminded me of Karen Armstrong’s book “The Great Transformation” and how people adapted their specific religions over time and because of circumstances. For example, she writes on page 61 of the Greeks:
“But the thirteenth century crisis had shattered the old faith. The Greeks had watched their world collapse, and the trauma had changed them. The Minoan frescoes had been confident and luminous; the men, women, and animals depicted had been expectant and hopeful. There were apparitions of goddesses in flowery meadows, dancing, and joy. But by the ninth century, Greek religion was pessimistic and uncanny, its gods dangerous, cruel and arbitrary.
Or consider this passage about Hera on page 65: “The Greeks were haunted by images of violence and disaster. The Olympians were not merely cruel to human beings; they could also persecute and maim one another. Hera, wife of Zeus, for example, was so disgusted by her crippled son, Hephaestus, when he was born that she flung him down to earth. A savage, angry deity, she relentlessly hounded the children born of her husband’s illicit amours. She plotted with the Titans to kill Dionysus, son of Zeus by the mortal woman Semele, and eventually made him insane…In Greece it was a lethal battleground, and Hera, goddess of marriage, showed that the most basic relationship could inspire murderous, cruel emotions. Her cult was pervaded by guilt, terror, and profound anxiety.”
They aren’t the deities we’ve seen for the longest time in Wonder Woman, are they? Not that I think Armstrong’s book is mandatory reading for Wonder Woman. I only wanted to show that there is indeed historical precedence for Azzarello’s take on the Greek Pantheon. Chiang captures their brutality and other-worldliness perfectly.
Perez made Diana seem fresh and she’s been assertive and confident ever since in a way that she didn’t seem pre-Crisis. Azzarello does so again in his own way. When his Diana speaks, it’s to the point which makes her seem almost like a talking head in the hands of some previous writers. Not that I didn’t enjoy many of those stories (excluding John Byrne, king of exposition). Likewise, Chiang visually conveys Diana’s decisiveness, beauty, and physicality. His fight scene with the centaurs has a real, rapid fire sense of motion and danger with Diana hanging by her legs from the neck of one of Hera’s mad horse-men.
True, only one issue is out, but if Azzarello and Chiang keep up this level of excitement and intrigue I think we’ll have a winner.