I loved everything about the first few issues of Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman. When Chiang was briefly rotated off the title, my love dimmed, even though Akins is a more than capable artist. Chiang returned to the series for the seventh issue, but I fear that it’s too late. My love has faded.
Let’s start with the good things.
Chiang and Akins’ redesign of the Olympian Gods is truly inspired. We’ve become accustomed to versions of the Greek gods who looked like idealized humans exiled from a Botticelli painting. They are noticeably non-human, with a physical appearance that mirrors their specialties/concepts that they embody. One great example of this is Akins’ redesign of Poseidon.
I’m a little surprised that no one’s thought of this before – if Poseidon is the god of the sea, why wouldn’t he look like a mighty sea creature?
I’m particularly enamored by Chiang’s redesigns of Apollo and Hermes. His Apollo (God of Light) absorbs so much light and energy on a constant basis that his skin is as dark as ebony, with the only color coming from his eyes. Hermes, the messenger of the gods and God of travel is a lean slightly inhuman looking god built for speed with slightly avian eyes and the feet of a bird.
Even Chiang’s more traditionally human looking gods are larger than life avatars for ideas and passions common to us all. Hera’s not just a queen betrayed; she’s all queens – hell, all women – who have been betrayed by their spouses. We’ve seen Ares as the perfect warrior, but Chiang gives us an Ares who represents all warmongers – is it just me, or are there echoes of a modern Leopold II in Chiang’s depiction?
Chiang’s Wonder Woman is equally brilliant. There have been many great versions of Wonder Woman, from George Perez to Adam Hughes to Colleen Coover, but I don’t think anyone’s captured her martial qualities quite like Cliff Chiang. She’s lean, powerful and larger-than-life. Diana doesn’t look like she needs super powers to overcome her adversaries.
That said, it is too bad that her costume doesn’t include pants. It’s an implausible element that takes the reader out of the story, particularly since Chiang creates an almost naturalistic world in other respects – all of the characters are proportioned and clothed in ways that feel more authentic than other superhero comics. In a scene at a nightclub in the third issue, it’s striking that the revelers look like actual people at a nightclub.
There’s still some idealization going on – there aren’t many overweight or unattractive or non-standard looking human beings in this book – but there’s something meaningful about the fact that none of the characters have impossible proportions. Chiang’s figures make one realize just how much balloon breasts, impossibly narrow waists and steroid fueled physiques have become the norm in superhero art.
Chiang’s naturalism also helps sustain a sense of wonder that is frequently absent from mainstream superhero books. One of the features of the shared universe model of storytelling in the superhero genre is that the impossible becomes almost ordinary. The heroes in the Marvel and DC universe are operating in a world filled with super science and magic. The skies are clogged with flying men and rocketships. In a world like this, the dramatic stakes are pretty low by default unless there’s a global threat of some kind. Competent creators can get around this by making the stakes meaningful to the characters involved, but there’s still not a sense that you’re reading about something that’s out of the ordinary for anyone involved. That’s one of the great things about superhero narratives in other media, that sense of amazement when you first see Tobey Maguire climb up a wall or Christopher Reeve rise into the sky. Chiang evokes that “you will believe a man can fly” vibe throughout the first four issues. Although this is a series that is firmly set in the DC universe, Chiang makes the reader feel like the book takes place in a world where the Greek gods are the only conceptual entities and Wonder Woman is the only hero.
Chiang’s thoughtfully choreographed action scenes help establish the book’s dramatic stakes by successfully maintaining an illusion of plausibility. The fights in the first four issues are simple and coherent. There are no wasted movements and one gets the sense that the combatants are actually employing some kind of strategy. As a result, the reader has the sense that the battle has consequences and the characters are facing some kind of actual risk in combat. Everything feels meaningful.
II. The Sun of A King
Azzarello’s writing in the first few issues is fantastic. His dialogue is more restrained than usual, notwithstanding a bunch of awful puns. Although his first arc touches on some overly familiar themes, Azzarello’s career long exploration of moral ambiguity and tragedy is still fascinating and repulsive in equal measure. The characters that he introduces in the first few issues (especially the women) are flawed, complex and wonderful. He skirts on the edge of nihilism while maintaining a sense of optimism through the first few issues of the book. He’s also far too willing to tweak the collective noses of those who (rightfully) view Wonder Woman and the Amazons as feminist icons. It’s still early, but the book’s already starting to feel like an endless Shymalanian procession of twists. You thought the Amazons were some kind of single sex utopia? Not only are they a martial, prejudiced society fearful of outsiders, they massacre the fathers of their children after conception and exchange the kids for weapons!
I’ve always imagined that creators working on books featuring classic DC characters must find it difficult to depict them as fully realized characters while respecting their iconic status. Stories about idealized mythic avatars are interesting if they are finite or if the creators focus on the world around them. I like Morrison and Quitely’s All Star Superman as a discrete work, but I have different expectations from an open-ended serial. If you expect me to feel fully engaged in your long form story, the protagonist has to feel like a fully realized character. I appreciate what Wonder Woman stands for, but I’ve always thought that her stories were better when she’s treated as more than a symbol.
Although Azzarello’s Wonder Woman is a recognizable human being, she’s also a bit of a mystery, a sharp contrast from earlier approaches to the character. Since Crisis on Infinite Earths, creators from George Perez to Greg Rucka attracted reader interest by making the character relatable, by letting us inside her head. Whether a diplomat or warrior, the reader felt like they knew Diana. Azzarello and Chiang are determined to force the reader to abandon any preconceived notions about the character in the first issue, so we don’t get any lengthy speeches or exposition about Diana’s mission. We don’t know what she thinks and she says little. We learn about her through her actions.
The first three issues are all about misdirection and delayed gratification. Azzarello and Chiang don’t introduce Diana until about two thirds of the way through the first issue, but once she’s there, Chiang makes it impossible for the reader to focus on anything else.
The reader waits three issues before we see Diana do something that’s truly superhuman (even though she’s in a couple of great fights before that sequence).
After the first issue, I thought that Azzarello was going to use a story about a seemingly ordinary person who is forced to contend with an unfamiliar environment filled with magic and life-threatening danger to reintroduce the reader to the Amazons and the Greek gods. It’s not only a classic story model, but an elegant way of highlighting the differences between the pre and post relaunch versions of the title without the use of excess exposition. Having Zola as the point of view character would also complement Chiang’s efforts to set these adventures in a believable setting. But Zola is not our Dorothy or our Alice. She’s not even our Dane. By the end of the third issue, I realized that the first arc’s not about what happens when you’re pregnant with the child of a god and his other children want to come after you, but what happens when you are that child and that god’s wife has targeted you with her righteous rage.
These issues are great because the creators were simply telling honest stories that lack contrivance with fully realized characters while recognizing that, yes, this is a superhero fantasy -melodrama taking place in a heightened reality. It’s hard to balance the two, but the few creators who get it right remind me why I still read superhero books. Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang came close in the first few issues of Wonder Woman.
So how did they get it so wrong in the last few issues?
The first problem was that when Cliff Chiang went away for a few issues, all of the flaws and tics in Brian Azzarello’s writing became magnified. All the puns started to seem louder and more preposterous. Atkins was a capable fill-in, but as I briefly noted in the last piece, it just wasn’t the same. I liked Akins’ character designs and he had some beautiful layouts (particularly in the confrontation between Poseidon and Wonder Woman in issue 5), but his figures were a little less fluid, the action scenes just a tad more ordinary.
Then Chiang came back. Wonder Woman got better, but it’s not quite the same. It’s still entertaining, but I’m more aware of the potential problems. After seven issues, I think that Azzarello’s done a nice job of depicting the contradictions, myths and fissures that lie at the core of the Amazon society. But he’s playing a dangerous game. Wonder Woman and her society are more than symbols, but it’s impossible to ignore her legacy or what she means to generations of women who may have never even read the comic. You can’t remove the book from its historical context. Wonder Woman is a feminist role-model. So the scrutiny of Azzarello’s revisions to Wonder Woman’s mythos and backstory is completely justifiable. I’ve always thought that comic book creators should be given a lot more leeway to interpret characters as they see fit as long as the story is compelling. I try (with mixed success) to not impose my particular preferences about individual characters on a story. We all have ideas about what comprises the core or the essential nature of these iconic characters, but it’s important to allow the creators to tell their story. I might prefer to read stories about the versions of Captain America that appeared in stories by Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Mark Gruenwald and Ed Brubaker, but I’m not opposed in principle to a depiction of Captain America as an Ugly American if the story is well executed. The problem with Millar and Loeb’s “Ultimate” Captain America is that their satire of the American conservative movement and the military industrial complex lacked subtlety and wit, not that their version is not the ‘real’ Captain America. Warren Ellis’ depiction of a Captain America who authorized torture in his Secret Avengers arc would have been interesting if he gave the reader insight into how an ostensibly honorable man became ethically compromised.
But Wonder Woman is different. I understand why some will view Azzarello’s provocative transformation of the Amazons as some kind of reactionary shot at their feminist legacy. I’m not sure those people are wrong, but I also think Azzarello’s made the Amazons more human. Many of us have had parents who’ve told us comforting lies about our pasts. We all live in nations that have troubling origin myths. We lose an idealized fantasy of a utopian single-sex society, but we gain something that’s more interesting, more honest. Maybe Azzarello and Chiang are trying to tell us a story about a broad range of complicated women (Wonder Woman, Hera, Hippolyta, Zola) with a diverse set of experiences and emotions. On the other hand, there’s also a substantial risk that Azzarello and Chiang will repeat the mistakes of creators in the ‘90’s who confused cynicism with realism. A story that confounds the reader’s expectations by reinterpreting accepted views on a character’s motivations or history can be an interesting way of reminding the audience that the world is complex and exists through multiple perspectives (Moore/Gibbons’ Watchmen, Miller/Sienkewicz’ Elektra: Assasin, Moore/Campbell’s From Hell). It can also be a cheap short cut designed to convince people that the YA fantasy book that they’re reading is actually “mature” or “adult” (Straczynski’s Amazing Spider Man run, Brubaker/Hairsine’s X-Men Deadly Genesis).
After eight issues, we’re at a major inflection point for the series. Azzarello, Chiang and Akins may tell us a story of a noble woman struggling with the complicated legacy of her family and her people. Or we’ll get a series of revisionist cynical ‘twists’. This is the part where I’d usually make an ambivalent commitment to continue reading the book. I want to write that we’ll just have to see if Azzarello can live up to the potential of the first four issues or if Akins’ arcs will start to better complement Chiang’s brilliant work.
Even though I’d recommend the book with some reservations to others, I can’t do that. I don’t want to punish Azzarello, Chiang and Akins for the sins of their employer, but the baggage associated with an ongoing superhero book published by DC is a bit too heavy. Wonder Woman has potential, and I’m interested in seeing how it evolves, but if a book’s not special (or features work from a great creator working exclusively with the Big Two), it’s just easier for me to turn to books that lack that baggage. I still haven’t finished Habibi. I need to finish re-reading Alec: The Years Have Pants. I’m still making my way through BPRD (which is just gobsmackingly brilliant so far) and plan to explore the other parts of the Mignola-verse. I still have to pick up all those volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub. Wonder Woman might be a great book someday. It’s just not enough of one right now.