[8 July 2010]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Unexpectedly, there is a strange history of Wonder Woman’s publication that emerges with the magnificent, fully formed Wonder Woman #600. Not a chronology mind you, a genealogy of the character in print. The landmark issue runs its course over five short stories, the final of which being prologue to the new creative direction taken by series regular, J. Michael Straczynski. These stories are themselves interspersed with posters drawn by an array of artists, specifically commissioned for this anniversary issue. And the entire issue is introduced by a brief essay written by Lynda Carter, the actor who played the character in the groundbreaking TV show.
But between the short stories and the posters a clear story emerges—the history of Wonder Woman’s treatment at the hands of her creatives. For openers, Gail Simone pens a George Perez-illustrated short called ‘Valedictorian’. Perez is a veteran artist with a longstanding connection to the character. Another DC veteran is Louise Simonson, who later in the book, in ‘Firepower’, unfolds a tale of civil disaster (planes being forced to crash) at the hands of mythical horse-thief. Closing off the book is incoming series regular writer J Michael Straczynski’s ‘Couture Shock’, with artist Don Kramer showcasing Jim Lee’s redesign of the Wonder Woman costume.
Surprisingly, two Wonder Women begin to emerge from these stories and these single page commissioned artworks. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the two Wonder Women at odds with each other seem to emerge as the result of a generational shift. The generation gap may not be as clear as twentieth century writers versus twenty-first. Recent Wonder Woman scribe, Gail Simone echoes the sentiment and style of a George Perez Wonder Woman story, while 70s icon, Lynda Carter seems to find more of an intellectual home with twenty-first century creatives like Amanda Connor and Geoff Johns.
The schism, the defining differences in approach to the character however, is stark. In the George Perez-inspired story ‘Valedictorian’, Wonder Woman seems to juggle superheroics as an extraneous career. During the story’s first act, she defeats an intellect-dumbing threat (male intellect) by forming an all-female coalition of superheroes. In ‘Firepower’, Wonder Woman finds herself ably assisted by none other than Superman. Wonder Woman never appears alone. Her superheroism seems somehow extraneous to her existence, more a career than a calling.
And as a result perhaps, no major villain appears in these twentieth century stories. Professor Ivo’s fembots are soundly trounced in a few pages. Ivo himself is nothing more than a B-Grade Justice League villain, he warrants no more creative attention than that. But, why use Ivo at all? In Simonson’s story, the mythical Aegeus who has stolen a winged steed and one of Zeus’ lightning bolts is more an annoyance than a threat. Surely Wonder Woman herself should prove sufficient to stem the tide.
This politics of representation extends to the commissioned artists also. Artists like Nicola Scott and Jock stand out in not producing mere pinups with slight birds-eye views, forcing readers to look down on the character. Uncomfortably then, this tendency to undermine Wonder Woman forces the question—is Wonder Woman in some senses her own worse enemy? Does her mythic stature in the DCU and her fictive presence as a powerful female lead character intimidate Wonder Woman’s own creative teams?
Fortunately the answer is no.
Lynda Carter, already in her introduction, glimpsed at the true depth of the Wonder Woman character, and its real capacity for human drama. In ‘Wonder Woman Can Save The World’, Carter draws an easy and unbroken connection between the character’s values and her capacity to wonder. Princess Diana’s curiosity about the world outside leads directly to her fierce compassion. Reading Amanda Connor’s ‘Fuzzy Logic’ after this powerful sentiment then, a story wherein Wonder Woman is treated as a fresh-faced immigrant feels like a breakthrough. And reading the Geoff Johns-penned, Scott Kolins-drawn ‘The Sensational Wonder Woman’, where Johns fights for defining the core values of the character, feels like having turned a corner.
And all of this sets up the perfect springboard for J. Michael Straczynski’s new creative direction. Remember in Back To The Future II when Biff from the future stole the time machine and gave his 50s-self a sports almanac valid until the year 2000? Remember when Marty and the Doc came back to 1985 and found that Biff had turned Hill Valley into a hell-on-earth with his gambling empire?
JMS’s new direction feels a little like this. History is broken, Paradise Island has been destroyed and the Amazons are exiles in an urban jungle. Try imagining watching Rent right after watching La Boheme. JMS offers a masterclass in dramatic irony, where the audience knows what has been lost, but Diana herself is only just beginning to develop the capacity to imagine what has been lost.
There are no temples here, none that have not been blasted. There’re now worldwide Amazonian embassies, no global peace initiatives. JMS has skillfully traded in a story of Wonder Woman as Beyoncé, someone using masses of cultural wealth to inspire an incomplete world, for Wonder Woman as Afeni Shakur, a woman arising from a broken world using cultural bonds as a means to mend it.
For crafting so complete and compelling a vision of the Wonder Woman of yesteryear, the Wonder Woman of today, and the Wonder Woman of tomorrow, Wonder Woman #600 stands as an achievement. It deserves to be read, deserves to be owned.