Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wonder Woman 101: Where to Start and What to Read


via Comic Book Resources

Wonder Woman turns 75 this year. Over the course of her existence, she's had all manner of multimedia success, but DC Comics' premiere female superhero has a reputation for being hard to understand. Throughout her history, and particularly in recent years, various creative teams have tried changing her costume, altering her origin, and generally tinkering with the things which make her tick.

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Therefore, in the interests of introducing casual readers to the Amazing Amazon, here are some notes on Wonder Woman's basic setup, as well as suggestions for which creative teams have portrayed her best. It seems a little strange to say that such a familiar character could have such a significant learning curve, but Wonder Woman has a fascinating, unique background in both the real world and the realm of fiction.

THE BASICS

75-odd years ago, psychologist William Moulton Marston wanted a female superhero to show women and men how a more compassionate philosophy could basically save the world -- so he fashioned a new legend out of classical mythology and elements of utopian feminism. Wonder Woman, a/k/a Princess Diana and/or Diana Prince, was formed from Paradise Island clay and brought to life by a mother's love and the powers of various Greek goddesses. Her origin story first appeared in two parts, 1941's "All Star Comics" #8 (where we learn about the Amazons and why Diana leaves her hidden home) and "Sensation Comics" #1 (in which she arrives in America and gets a secret identity). Wonder Woman appeared in "Sensation" for the vast majority of its run, until shortly before the title folded in 1951. "Sensation" was recently and briefly revived in a digital-first format, and there's an out-of-continuity digital-first "Legend Of Wonder Woman" offering an extended version of the origin; as well as the team-up book "Superman/Wonder Woman" and the upcoming "Trinity." Nevertheless, to keep things simple, for the most part I'll be discussing the main "Wonder Woman" title.

While the major developments in the tone of Wonder Woman's adventures conform generally to the Golden, Silver, Bronze and Modern Ages, the Amazon Princess has also been blessed with distinct creative visions within those stretches. First, of course, are the Golden Age stories from Marston and artist H.G. Peter, which ran from 1941 until Marston's death in 1947. When writer Bob Kanigher took over from Marston, he steered the feature's focus away from societal issues in favor of straight-up fantasy and superheroics. In the late '60s and early '70s, an infamous secret-agent makeover was an even bigger departure; and when the traditional costume and powers returned, the book's various writers and artists cast about for a new-yet-old approach, with varying degrees of success.

That all changed in the fall of 1986. Facilitated by the DC Universe's continuity reset in "Crisis On Infinite Earths," writer/artist George Pérez, working with scripters Greg Potter and Len Wein and editor Karen Berger, rebooted Wonder Woman literally from the ground up. (I mean literally: "Crisis" cast her back through the timestream and reverted her to clay.) Without losing sight of any mythological underpinnings, Pérez and company rooted the character's social-justice background in her new mission to Patriarch's World. This proved to be a solid foundation for 25 years' worth of future creative teams -- including writer/artist John Byrne; writer Greg Rucka; and writer Gail Simone. The New 52 relaunch by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang did away with a lot of the old details (while adding some controversial new ones) but on the whole it was also well-received.

The current creative team of writer Meredith Finch and artist David Finch just finished up its with the relleae of "Wonder Woman" #52. Starting in June with the "Rebirth" event, "Wonder Woman" will be written once again by Rucka, with artist Liam Sharp alternating issues with the also-returning Nicola Scott.

THE PHILOSOPHY

One of Wonder Woman's most distinctive elements is her mission to Man's (or, since 1986, "Patriarch's") World. It stands out especially in contrast to the other members of DC's Trinity. Batman's morality was shaped irrevocably by the Wayne murders, which not only intruded on his childhood but deprived him of his parents. Likewise, Superman's ethics come from some combination of the Kents' influence and (the dead) Kryptonian culture. However, Wonder Woman is an ambassador from a millennia-old society which nevertheless still thrives. Instead of trying to honor memories, she's charged with building bridges.

Seen in that light, both Wonder Woman's compassion and her powers are just different kinds of tools. Over the years, various creative teams have emphasized one or the other, with her fighting skills currently more prominent. Originally, though, Marston sought to show them in perfect balance. He envisioned a world of "loving submission," where -- to put it simply -- people would recognize that their selfish desires needed to be subordinated to more peaceful ones. Accordingly, Wonder Woman's lasso didn't just compel its targets to tell the truth, it also made them do whatever their captor wanted; and the Amazons were perfect physical and mental specimens precisely because their civilization was devoted to positive societal principles. In fact, until the 1986 revamp, Wonder Woman's bracelets also kept her negative emotions in check, such that if they were broken or otherwise removed, she'd go into an uncontrollable fit of rage. These not-entirely-subtle details are just part of what makes Marston and the Golden Age Wonder Woman so fascinating (and, if you hadn't already guessed, a little beyond the scope of this feature).

By the same token, though, they don't exactly make Wonder Woman any more accessible; especially because decades of running away from Marston have made those Golden Age stories even more distinct. Therefore, when looking at stories to recommend to casual fans, we should keep in mind which creative team(s) have been able to entertain while translating Marston's intentions most accurately. I'm not going to say Marston's influence was absent from "Wonder Woman" from 1947 through 1986, but it was certainly at a low ebb for much of that time, as subsequent creative teams tried to figure out what to do with the character. In any event, the '86 revamp brought the mission back front and center.

FIRST READS?

Accordingly, my picks for where to start all come from the 1986-2011 period, which the Pérez-led reboot kicked off. New readers could start with any of these runs, each of which showcases a different aspect to the character.

First, the original Pérez run ("Wonder Woman" vol. 2 #s 1-24, plus Annuals 1-2; 1986-88) is one of the best distillations of the character in a monthly-series format. Steve Trevor's still around, but he's an older-brother figure, not a love interest; and Diana is a relative innocent in her mid-twenties who has yet to learn how nasty Patriarch's World can be. The supporting cast is almost all female: besides Etta Candy, Queen Hippolyta and the other Amazons, Pérez et al. introduce Harvard professor Julia Kapatelis and her teenage daughter Vanessa, pragmatic publicist Myndi Mayer and Boston cop Ed Indelicato. Most of Pérez's run involves mythological villains like the war-god Ares and the sorceress Circe, but there are new takes on super-baddies like the Cheetah and the Silver Swan; and running through it all is a strong sense of cultural identity. Pérez and company never let the reader forget that Diana is an outsider struggling not really to assimilate, but to make herself understood even as she seeks to understand her new home. Pérez stayed on in various capacities through issue #62 (and the just-collected "War of the Gods" crossover), but those first two years of his plots and pencils really set the tone for a long time to come.

Sample story: "Gods and Mortals" (collected-edition title), volume 2 issues #1-7; plotted and pencilled by Pérez, scripted by Greg Potter and Len Wein, and inked by Bruce Patterson.

Flashing-forward 20 years, Greg Rucka's first stint as writer (vol. 2 #s 195-226, 2003-06), is perhaps best-described as a double double-W: "Wonder Woman meets 'West Wing.'" Together with artists Drew Johnson, Cliff Richards and Rags Morales, its more-seasoned Diana acts equally as both a diplomat and a superhero. State dinners and Olympian politics share space with superheroics; and in the middle of everything, Diana fights both the snake-headed Medousa and the mind-warping Maxwell Lord. Rucka and artist J.G. Jones also collaborated on "Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia," a standalone graphic novel which pitted guest-star Batman against the technicalities of Amazon law. While Rucka's run really established Diana's place in DC's world, it had the misfortune of bumping up against the publisher's big crossover event of the time, "Infinite Crisis," where the Max Lord fight crossed over with the Superman books and the Rucka-written "IC" tie-in "The OMAC Project." This brought Volume 2 to a rather downbeat end; but in a lot of ways the Rucka-written run set a new standard for the feature.

Sample story: "The Mission" (volume 2 issue #195) and "Down to Earth" (issues #196-200); written by Rucka, pencilled by Johnson, and inked by Ray Snyder. DC will offer expanded paperback collections of Rucka's run starting in July.

Volume 3's fall 2006 relaunch was plagued by delays and yet another crossover (the not-fondly-remembered "Amazons Attack"); not to mention continuing fallout over Diana's role in Max Lord's death. Thankfully, once all that was sorted out, the deck was clear for writer Gail Simone to blend Amazonian ideals and mythology with the larger DC Universe. Simone debuted as "Wonder Woman" writer with 2007's issue #14; and stayed through what would have been issue #45 (renumbered #600) in 2010. Her tenure included team-ups with Power Girl, Black Canary, and a handful of Green Lanterns, and concluded with an all-star salute to the Pérez era with art from the man himself. Simone and artist Aaron Lopresti's eight-issue "Rise of the Olympian" (issues #26-33), an evil-opposite story patterned after "Doomsday" and "Knightfall," came a little past the midpoint, and put Diana through the wringer against a couple of mythologically-inspired foes. Simone also wrote Wonder Woman's memorable guest-starring arc in "Secret Six" (issues #10-14, 2009) and the inaugural story of the digital-first "Sensation Comics" (pitting Diana against all of Batman's rogues' gallery). Under Simone, Wonder Woman balanced physicality with emotional intelligence and a fine tactical mind, and with art from the likes of Lopresti, Terry & Rachel Dodson, Nicola Scott, and Bernard Chang, it was consistently entertaining and enthralling.

Sample story: "Birds of Paradise," volume 3 issues #34-35; written by Simone, pencilled by Lopresti, and inked by Matt Ryan.

INTERMEDIATE STUDIES

As mentioned above, from the '50s through the late '60s, writer Bob Kanigher and artist Ross Andru turned the book into a more fantasy-oriented title, bringing in weird, quasi-imaginary stories which teamed up Wonder Woman with her younger selves Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot. (This is where "Teen Titans" got the whole other can of continuity worms which turned into Donna Troy.) Those stories are collected in four "Showcase Presents Wonder Woman" volumes, and they're regarded about as well as the 1950s "Sci-Fi Batman" stories have been. In other words, they don't take themselves seriously, so you probably shouldn't either.

Sample story: "The Eagle Of Space," volume 1 issue #105; written by Kanigher, pencilled by Andru, and inked by Mike Esposito.

Speaking of which, while I can't quite articulate it, I always felt writer/artist John Byrne's run on volume 2 (issues #101-136, 1996-98) was something of an homage to the Kanigher/Andru days. It was certainly more superhero-heavy, starting with Darkseid and Doomsday stories and introducing a new Wonder Girl and Invisible Jet. Because it was the '90s, "Wonder Woman" also featured a "death and replacement" storyline, in which a deceased Diana ascended to Olympus to become the Goddess of Truth, with her mother Hippolyta taking her place as Wonder Woman.

Sample story: "The Men Who Moved The World," volume 2 issues #115-17; written and drawn by Byrne.

The problem was, "Wonder Woman" had already done a similar storyline just a few years before, with the Amazon Artemis taking Diana's place. That occurred during the 1992-95 tenure of writer William Messner-Loebs (starting with 1992's "Wonder Woman Special" and spanning vol. 2 issues #63-100). Messner-Loebs succeeded Pérez and collaborated with artists like Paris Cullins, Lee Moder and Mike Deodato Jr. His run kicked off with a memorable space opera which found Diana leading an all-female band of interstellar brigands; it continued with her extended struggle against the mysterious White Magician; and it concluded with the aforementioned Artemis arc. All were quirky and enjoyable, but not exactly what readers might have expected. As with Messner-Loebs' contemporaneous work on "Flash" and "Doctor Fate," Wonder Woman soon adopted a more grounded perspective on superheroics, even taking a fast-food job at the local Taco Whiz. If nothing else, that gives you an idea of the stories' variety.

Sample story: the space-pirates arc from volume 2 issues #66-71; written by Messner-Loebs, pencilled by Cullins, and inked by Robert Campanella, Frank McLaughlin and Romeo Tanghal.

ADVANCED WORK

In 1968, under the direction of writer Denny O'Neil and writer/artist Mike Sekowsky, Diana relinquished her costume and powers to become an Emma Peel-style martial artist, traveling the world and righting various topical wrongs. Since this ranged pretty far afield from the classic Wonder Woman setup, I'm not inclined to recommend it to casual readers. It doesn't even have much in common thematically with departures like the Jim Gordon Batman or Electric Superman. Instead, it's more like the Superman books' recent "Truth" mega-arc, and it remains an outlier in Diana's publishing history.

Between the end of the Gail Simone era and the start of the New 52, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Don Kramer started a not-quite-alternate history of Wonder Woman called "Odyssey" (issues #601-#612). It operated from the premise that the timeline had been changed, the Amazons had been almost wiped out, and Diana was their only survivor who was just now learning about her birthright and powers. Like JMS' contemporaneous Superman arc, it was left to another writer (Phil Hester) to finish; and like the white-suit stories, it may be best appreciated as a contrast to the traditional setup.

THE FIRST AND THE LAST

So where does that leave the original Marston/Peter stories, or the New 52's Azzarello/Chiang makeover? Obviously, the Marston/Peter stories are designed to introduce the character and should be good jumping-on points for anyone, but I honestly don't know how the average new reader might receive them. I will say unequivocally that anyone seeking to learn about Wonder Woman should read them, whether on Comixology, in the "Wonder Woman Chronicles" series (3 volumes so far), or in IDW's excellent hardcover reprint of the "Wonder Woman" newspaper strip. Personally, I recommend that last very highly: the strips were by Marston and Peter and include a lot of elements from the comics, especially an extended version of the Cheetah's origin. Again, the unfortunate thing about the Golden Age stories is that because the series got away from Marston's philosophy for so long, they now risk seeming like curiosities -- which is a shame both for their foundational place in Wonder Woman history and for their own critical and cultural evaluation.

That said, Phil Jiminez's two years as writer/artist (vol. 2 issues #164-88, 2001-03) included a number of Marston/Peter homages -- specifically, an extended storyline in issues #179-85 guest-starring a number of Golden Age villains -- as well as issue #170's fan-favorite standalone story guest-starring Lois Lane. It was clearly a labor of love from start to finish, and Jiminez's affection for Wonder Woman couldn't have been more apparent; I recommend it to anyone interested in the character. Even so, I think those who are aware of the character's history will enjoy it that much more.

The same goes for the just-released "Wonder Woman: Earth One" Book One, from writer Grant Morrison and artist Yanick Paquette (who drew the monthly title in the early '00s). It too takes a lot of inspiration from Marston and Peter, leaning heavily on the idea of loving submission and emphasizing the philosophical gulf separating the Amazons from the rest of the world. Certainly "WW:E1" is meant to be new-reader friendly, but it practically demands comparisons with the Golden Age stories.

As for the Azzarello/Chiang issues (vol. 4, issues #0-35), while they are fine on their own terms, they are enough of a departure that I'm reluctant to advise any new readers to start with them. For one thing, I feel like the changes to Wonder Woman's backstory may be most effective to those who are used to the original account. That goes generally for the thrust of Azzarello and Chiang's work -- not so much that it's jarring like the white-suit stories or even "Odyssey," and certainly not that Diana is unrecognizable as a character, but you get the sense they want you to know how much they've shaken things up.

OTHER VOICES

Readers wanting a good cross-section of Wonder Woman stories by a wide range of creative teams should check out the recent "Sensation Comics" revival. "Wonder Woman '77" is another digital-first series which takes its cue from the old Lynda Carter TV show. In the alt-Silver Age of "DC: The New Frontier," writer/artist Darwyn Cooke gave readers a no-nonsense Wonder Woman who dismissed a certain Man of Steel with a curt "There's the door, spaceman." Finally, perhaps one of the biggest influences on Wonder Woman outside of her own series came in Mark Waid and Alex Ross's "Kingdom Come" miniseries, which portrayed Diana as a pragmatic warrior ostensibly allied with Superman but really putting him in the middle of her ideological dispute with Batman.

WHERE TO FIND THEM

While Volume 1 of "Wonder Woman" (1942-86) isn't collected in its entirety, a good selection of issues across its publishing history can be found on Comixology. In print, its early years are represented in the "Wonder Woman Chronicles" set of paperbacks, while the Kanigher Silver Age can be found in "Showcase Presents Wonder Woman." The white-suit stories are in the four-volume "Diana Prince: Wonder Woman" paperbacks, and the storyline which returned the superheroic Wonder Woman to the Justice League is collected in "Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors."

All the monthly issues of Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4 are on comiXology; as are the "OMAC Project" and "Amazons Attack" miniseries and the digital-first "Sensation Comics" and "Wonder Woman '77." A "War of the Gods" collection is set to come out later this month.

I should mention that if you're really interested in a Golden and Silver Age overview, and don't mind a lot of dry prose, Michael Fleisher's "Encyclopedia Of Comic Book Heroes Volume 2" covers everything from 1941 through the very start of the white-suit stories in 1968. It shouldn't be hard to find, especially since DC reprinted it a few years ago. Around the same time as that reprint, Phil Jiminez and John Wells offered their own updated "Wonder Woman Encyclopedia," but obviously that's not as focused on the older stuff. Naturally, Jill Lepore's "Secret History Of Wonder Woman" offers lots of insight into Marston and his family; Tim Hanley's "Wonder Woman Unbound" is a deep dive into the comics' hidden meanings; and Les Daniels' "Wonder Woman: A Complete History" presents a more coffee table-esque account of the character's publishing history.

ONE LAST THING

No list, especially a recommended-reading sort of list, is perfect; and I'm sure someone's favorite story and/or creative team has gone unmentioned. (Let that not be the case for Eric Luke and Yanick Paquette's issues!) However, the point of this article is to get you into, and excited about, Wonder Woman. She might not have been the first superheroine, but she's certainly the most recognizable, and the most enduring. She comes from a unique place not just in American history but the history of American women specifically; so there's a strong temptation to treat her delicately -- maybe even by taking a conservative "butt-kicking" approach to guarantee she draws a significant male audience.

Regardless, the thing I like about Wonder Woman is that I don't ever feel like I've figured her out. Over the years DC has, for the most part, known what to do with its A-listers: Batman is cool and spooky, Superman is forthright and upstanding, the Flash is light and breezy and Green Lantern is a swashbuckling space-cop. After a while, though, that threatens to descend into formula -- or worse, into misguided fix-it attempts. Although Wonder Woman has seen her share of the latter, even the misfires seem to be instructive in their own ways. A good Wonder Woman story is its own reward; but a bad one might just encourage the next team to do better -- or even to keep striving towards depicting the ideals the character embodies.

When I first started thinking about this article, I wanted to identify the stories which might best explain Wonder Woman to more casual readers. However, the deeper I got the more I realized that I still don't know as much as I'd like about the character or her history. For me, that's a feature, not a bug -- because the more I do learn, the more I realize that the factors which shaped the character and her series often go beyond the mechanics of making comics. Yes, there is a lot to Wonder Woman; and I hope I don't get to the bottom of it anytime soon. Until then, there are plenty of good comics to explore.

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