Oct 29 2013 11:30am

Wonder Woman and the Truly New

Wonder WomanIn 2011, when DC Comics announced they were going to relaunch their entire line of superhero comics, I expressed cautious optimism that their books would be aimed at expanding their audience to the millions of people who love Superman and Batman in movies, cartoons, and video games, but who do not read comics. Freed from 70+ years of continuity, writers and artists could stretch both the characters and the genre in new directions, really experiment with what a superhero story could be. I was disappointed, to say the least.

The “New 52” relaunch has undeniably been a financial success. According to Marc-Oliver Frisch at The Beat: “September 2013 is, by quite a margin, the most successful month ever for DC Comics since Diamond started providing data on actual comic-book sales to retailers in March 2003.” However, DC Comics didn’t reach many new readers at all. Instead, they achieved their success by simply selling more comics to the already existing readership. Additionally, odd numbering tricks (zero issues, .1 issues), an emphasis on crossover driven storytelling, substandard writing and art, and problematic representations of women seemed almost designed to drive away new readers.

There are exceptions, books that managed to be great almost in spite of the DC relaunch. And the series that best exemplifies what I had hoped the New 52 would be, new reader friendly, forward thinking, and exceptionally executed, is Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s ongoing run on Wonder Woman.

For one thing, Wonder Woman is entirely self-contained. Except for a vague understanding that Wonder Woman is a superhero from an island of mythical Amazons, a reader needs to know nothing before diving in with issue 1. The storyline never crosses over with any other series, or really acknowledges that other superheroes even exist. In fact, other than nods to stunt months like “Zero Month” and “Villains Month,” Azzarello writes Wonder Woman as if the rest of the DC Universe books don’t exist at all.

Which is great, because it means no one else’s crappy writing gets in the way of the fantastic story he’s telling. The basic plot is that Zeus has vanished, leading to a power struggle on Olympus centered around the birth of Zeus’s latest and possibly last child, prophesied to destroy the world. Wonder Woman swears to protect the mother and child from all comers, jealous Hera, ambitious Apollo, an assortment of angry gods both old and new, and other children of Zeus, including his monstrous First Born. The book is a combination of superheroes and myths, and also horror comics and crime fiction. Anyone who’s read Azzarello’s 100 Bullets will recognize the central theme: when one family rules the world, domestic squabbles have traumatic, apocalyptic results.

The real attraction, however, is Cliff Chiang’s art. Chiang has an elegant, clean style which allows his characters' actions and emotions to pop-off the page. His Wonder Woman, based on Jim Lee’s redesign, is muscular and active, a warrior quick to bloody her blade. The gods are not anthropomorphic figures in togas, but actual incarnations of their domain. Demeter is made of plants, Hephaestus resembles an active volcano, Aphrodite is too beautiful to ever be captured on the page. The fight scenes sing—brutal, wild affairs in which Wonder Woman faces down gods, but the action is still easy to follow and understand. It’s only a shame that Chiang physically can’t draw every issue. Back up artists Tony Atkins and Goran Sudzuka are competent draftsmen who can ape Chiang’s designs, but they can’t bring the same humor and life to the page.

The book’s not perfect. One problem is that Wonder Woman is the least interesting character in her cast. Wonder Woman is sort of generically heroic. She has all the virtues of a hero (courage, intelligence, compassion, and strength) but not much that’s unique to her. And the story, so far, hasn’t really been about her. It’s really been about Zola, the mother of Zeus’s last child, and her struggle to protect her son.

Wonder WomanHowever, the latest issue, #24, makes a good jumping on point, because it sets up the new status quo that refocuses the story on Wonder Woman. In defeating the First Born, Wonder Woman’s sometimes mentor Ares dies and Wonder Woman becomes the new God of War, a change neither she nor the other Olympians particularly welcome. The new story arc gives Azzarello and Chiang a chance to play with the central conflict in Wonder Woman’s character: she’s a born and bred warrior on a mission of peace, a compassionate woman who forgives even Hera of her crimes, and yet someone who solves most of her problems with swords, axes, and bloody battle. I’m curious to see how Azzarello and Chiang will resolve that conflict, now that Wonder Woman has literally become War, the thing she most detests.

Wonder Woman is everything I want a superhero comic book series in the 21st Century to be: new reader friendly, female friendly, innovative, smart, funny, exciting, self-contained, and ambitious. You can’t read an issue without seeing Azzarello and Chiang trying to do something new—taking a 70-year-old character and ancient myths and trying to do something with them that hasn’t been done before. You can pick up the first 18 issues in three trade paperback editions on Comixology or your local comic book store, or just hop on with issue #24. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

Zephyr Stone
1. Zephyr Stone
I'm glad that I decided to pick it up when it first came out. It was my first real exposure to the character as someone distinct and separate from the JLA, which was my first casual exposure to Wonder Woman.

So I totally agree that it's new reader friendly and, beyond that, it's just SO DARN GOOD. I love the way Azzarrello incorporates classic mythology into it, the way that the robust cast behaves as epically and selfishly as their (ignoble) pantheon; I love the art, writing, and exciting direction that they take the book in.

While other DC titles have fallen off my radar, WW remains at the top of my pull-list.
Zephyr Stone
2. DougL
So, they are kind of cribbing from Lady Death or something? Anyway, I am not a fan of the art so I haven't been reading it, I am glad the quality is good. I hope she succeeds, I quite like Wonder Woman.
Peter Tijger
3. Peter-Tijger
"problematic representations of women" And why exactly is Wonderwoman different? I guess by the quoted line you mean how the women are scantily-clad portrayed. Wonderwoman also wears next to nothing. Or hotpants always were the fashion on mythical Greek islands. Then of course it's cultural and ok. I agree with you on all other points by the way. I am of the existing reader group....but have been out of comics for some 6 years or something and recently begun reading again. Eventhough I am a seasoned comic book reader I decided this time around to avoid the big 2 shared universes. I'm fed up with all that and the reboots, the retcons, the I want (have) to read everything to see the big picture. I want things to have a beginning, middle and end, so no DC and Marvel (mostly) and we're off. Single issues bye bye, trades all the way. And of course loads of European comics. And I love and have loved the so-called "wrong" portrayal of women comics......Shi, Lady death, the Zenescope stuff and loads of others. That stuff is so tamed compared to what people can and do make over here, it's laughable Americans get the jeebies because of that. I don't view women any other way by reading these comics. Because comics are not real. Not all women have DD breasts (or larger) and dress like hookers, or are perfectly built...which is an opinion...in real life I like some more meat on a woman so to speak, not the model types you see in all media.....I know that, it's fantasy, fun, that's why I read comics. I like all the "wrong" portrayals of men and women in the funnybooks.
Zephyr Stone
4. Tasha Turner
Haven't seen the comic book myself but based on the few images you post I won't be checking it out. She is skimpily clad and you state "the least interesting character in her cast". Kinda hard to get excited about that as a woman looking for good comics representing strong women - ones not dressed for the male gaze who actually have character. Your review does not encourage me on that front.
Peter Tijger
5. Peter-Tijger
Too bad, Wonderwoman can be a fun title and has that strong female lead that goes beyond her dressed for the male gaze (thankfully she looks that way instead of a strong female ugly character.....it's fantasy, not real) appearance.
Fashion magazines are aimed at women in general, but there's not a general looking woman to be found in those pages, but only skin and bones....not my preference, not my ideal looking woman (same goes for the female so-called bad girls) but I can understand the fantasy aspect and women seem to gobble up that stuff and lots of them strive to have that look.......talk to some real men as to what they like in a woman as far as appearance goes...the majority doesn't like the skin and bones look I can tell you that. Regard it as fantasy. And these fashion models are real as opposed to comic book characters, so that's really a step further....but I don't take that seriously, as I don't take advertisements seriously.....this is the best, this is beautiful, always the happy families in commercials with goodlooking mom and caring dad giving his son a nice rub on the head, their lives even better because of product x, blablabla.
So when you have a shallow view that doesn't go further than the surface I guess you skip this. By that you can skip loads of movies too. On the other hand I'm maybe shallow because I'd rather look at skimpy clothed women in comics with bulging DD breasts instead of demanding them drawn like real women. But almost all of us, be it man or woman, would rather look at beauty than at ugliness (as subjective as that may be).......just be sure you don't forget it's all fantasy. And comics are just that, fantasy, larger than life, exaggerated. Thankfully they are, they are my escapism out of reality. And in them I do want the women to look the way they look, because it's part of the fun and I guess it's part of the fun for the artist too. The men in comics are also muscled, portrayed as not real. I don't look like that! I'm big and do have muscle, but it's also somewhat hidden behind a slightly too good life. Ah well, my curvy girlfriend likes me and the other way around, guess we're just regular folk.
Maybe some or a lot of comics aren't for women, same as fashion magazines are not aimed at men, or those candlelight novels or chicklits (let's not talk about the portrayal of men and women there.....again, it's fantasy). Nothing wrong with it all, just don't take it for real.

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