How does a city like Rome avoid being apprehended, at the very first time you apprehend it, archaeologically? Rome’s layers, and sediments and the strata built up over history, laid out over time. But Firenze? How in the popular imagination do we reconcile a city built into the built, rolling hills of Tuscany? Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang, the regular creative team for Wonder Woman explore exactly the ways in which to approach the seemingly polarized reality of a fallen-down metropolis, in the heart of some of the most beautiful, unspoiled countryside on the planet.
Florence (by its English name) is a special city. Not only renowned for its fine artisanal work and wealth, not only the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance (where vulgate Latin evolved to become Italian, where the idea of popculture first manifested in Europe), but a crucial metaphor in the evolving story of Wonder Woman discovering dark truths about her father’s side of the family.
It’s been a long strange trip for Wonder Woman in Brian’s capable hands. Rather than Wonder Woman the superhero (which is the Wonder Woman seen in Geoff Johns’ and Jim Lee’s Justice League), Brian has offered a unique focus on Princess Diana as wastrel of the mythic world, washed up on the shores of our own. While the power of the mythic world has been eclipsed, its movers and shakers have not been dissolved away. We see these elder Roman gods haunt our everyday world; Apollo lives as a king, in a penthouse in Singapore where he can greet the first rays of the sun, Ares stalks Africa, sowing war in his wake. But the biggest of all secrets have been those Wonder Woman has discovered about her self. She’s not been conceived of as Divine breath breathed into beach-sand.
The usual story of Diana’s birth, that in frustration and despair, Hippolyta traced the form of a baby girl into the beach sand one night, only to discover a real baby emerged from that tracing the next morning, has simply been blasted away. Hippolyta was alone on the beach one night, however many years ago, there was even a storm, but that was the night that Zeus appeared, and that was their night of their tryst. And by strange and deeply engaging plot twists and revelations, Brian has kept us deeply involved in the story of Princess Diana’s Wonder Woman uncovering her secret heritage as demigod, and at the same time, protecting her aunt Zola (another of Zeus’s “indiscretions”) from the wrath of Hera, Zeus’s wife. With Zeus having abandoned the heavens, Hera alone sits on Mount Olympus, visiting her vengeance upon Zeus’s indiscretions.
It’s artful, these stories of the personal. And artful how these stories of indiscretions and survival and uncovering of long hidden truths, become sweeping in a political sense. With other players realizing that Zeus is now well and truly gone (realizing this primarily because of Wonder Woman’s actions), these players move to fill the power vacuum. But in an even broader sense, this political story arising from the personal reads as metaphor for of the wide-scale shift in the powerscape that first saw Rome fall to Renaissance Italy, Renaissance Italy to Medieval Europe, and eventually Medieval Europe to the New World. It seems, Brian Azzarello never really left the un-surrendered tale he was crafting so carefully in 100 Bullets; the tale (told in the magnificent eighth volume 100 Bullets: the Hard Way) of how Renaissance European robber-barons seized control of the New World from the established royal powers of the day.
But the scope of New 52 Wonder Woman is to translate this “power-thieving” even further back in time, to given us a broader scope of how “power” has been snatched from the mythic, to establish aristocracy, and from the aristocratic to establish the entrepreneurial. And of course, to tell the stories not so much of the holding on to the vestiges of power when threatened by the interests of justice (the scope of the tale in 100 Bullets, where Agent Graves threatens The Trust), but of the former holders of power who’ve fallen through the cracks.
Which world is more real? The world of former glory, now fallen on harder times, or the current world of wealth and property? This story is beautifully spun out by the fastidiously scribed first few pages of “il Gangster dell’Amore”, the seventh issue of Wonder Woman. At first glance we see Eros, god of love escape from a club that bears his name. Eros is everything we’ve come to expect from modern Italy, the postwar, media-sexy Italy we’ve come to know from filmmakers like Federico Fellini. Eros is exactly that “gangster of love” that the title suggests him as. He’s got the right kind of tight, white t-shirt, muted red jeans that ride low, barefooted, a single scarf more a fashion statement, and carrying gold, a watch, a wrist-chain and twin gold 45’s in unconcealed shoulder holsters.
But, after stepping into single dark alleyway and encountering Diana, Hermes and Lennox, he conducts them and readers both to the real Firenze, the artisanal Firenze of fine jewelry. And just one page after that, he conducts us even further into mythic Firenze, where crippled Hephaestus forges weapons for the gods.
But as stirring as this journey actually is, it detracts from the true brilliance of this issue, easily the most powerful single issue to date in the New 52 Wonder Woman. Rather than uncover dark secrets about the ongoing rivalries of her newly-discovered father’s side of the family, the encounter with the Smith leaves Diana discovering some unsavory truths about the Amazons. This is the issue where any pretensions towards resolving this tangle of rivalries in the way a superhero would is permanently set aside by Diana.
As longtime Wonder Woman actor Lynda Carter notes in her poignant introductory essay to Wonder Woman #600, “Wonder Woman Can Save the World”, the emotional core of Diana has always been her capacity to wonder at, and reach for the world beyond the familiar. How strange that the world familiar to her was a world mythic to the rest of us. But with “il Gangster dell’Amore”, the character arc is as dark as any neonoir Brian has written. The truths about the Amazons Diana discovers here, and her consequent reaction of superhero-ing her way through Hephaestus’ workshop (only to fail) are things and powers that threaten that very sense of Wonder.
What if…the question Brian seems to pose is…what if Wonder Woman in the act of Wonder that is so definitive of her character, discovers something which she both cannot bear, and cannot retract from? Would the Wonder last? Would the superhero inside her endure?
As beautiful as the tale of Eros conducting us through postwar postmodernism, down to artisanal under-Firenze, down to mythic under-under-Firenze is, this is simply set dressing. The real story here in this issue is the body-blow after body-blow that Diana’s personal outlook takes. The real story is the skill and the genius, and the courage with which Brian is able to craft a character as psychologically “secure” as Wonder Woman into a greater arc of neonoir. The real story isn’t even the truth she learns–it’s the truth she learns about herself, about her refusal to accept the gift of a whip from the Smith, and about what her lasso really means, and how its power is effected in her arsenal and in herself.
There are almost too many questions here. But they begin to fade when you start thinking about the future. It was Vivaldi playing just an hour before I began reading Wonder Woman #7. But closing the book, it’s growing increasingly harder to resist reaching for Tom Waits’ album Real Gone. Particularly that second track, “Hoist that Rag”. That’s the pirate song, the war song, the Gangs of New York song (ironically Scorsese’s epic was also filmed in Italy) that many have speculated is a meditation on how the same themes from those image-traditions, in a classical Waitsian turn, are also evoked by the then current war in Iraq. But the real heart of “Hoist” is that weird wonderhell that arcs between a lyric near the beginning “God used me as a hammer, boys…” and a lyric near the end “Smoke is blacking out the Sun/At night I pray and clean my gun…”. What happens between those two lines, the nature of a soul grown darker, is exactly the psychically dark path Diana now walks. And unlike the classic 80s story the Cult which delved into the psyche of the Batman, and the 90s classic, Exile in Space which delved into Superman’s inner psychology, Brian got to this point with Wonder Woman by entrenching her definitive character aspect of Wonder, rather than disavowing it.