Friday, July 31, 2009

Review: Wonder Woman #34

Wonder Woman #34

Writer: Gail Simone
Penciller: Aaron Lopresti
Inker: Matt Ryan
DC
Released: July 29, 2009





I have often heaped mad amounts of praise upon Gail Simone for her brilliant work on the title Secret Six, all while feeling somewhat perplexed as to why I was not able to duplicate that praise for her work on the far more marquee title Wonder Woman. For the past seven (or eight?) issues the eponymous book of the star-spangled heroine has been enmeshed in the story line entitled "Rise of the Olympian", a story line I would be very hard-pressed to recount here, as I honestly barely understood it. It wasn't particularly complicated, though I feel it was perhaps made more convoluted than needed. It just merely did not excite me as a reader. I could recognize the hallmarks of solid craftsmanship; see the lines and curves of solid storytelling and characterization. There is never doubt with a Simone-penned book that one is reading the work of a writer with chops. However, like a Shaker cabinet, just because the construction is without reproach, this alone is not enough to elicit true awe-inspiring levels of excitement. For this reader, it did not. I never wrote about any of the issues in that series for the simple fact that while I did not dislike any issue, I was left without much of anything special to say about them. I was truly inspired to nothing.

Again, I bring up what a contrast this posed with my feelings towards Simone's other title Secret Six, a book that causes me to wear out the spine on my Thesaurus searching for new affirmative adjectives. I could speak from now until death on how much I simply love this book and would never truly express it adequately. My admiration for it verges on severe hyperbole, the fact of its truth keeping me grounded. What, then, to make of all this? Is it simply the fact that in Secret Six, Simone has a cast of ne'er-do-well, also-ran, multi-hyphenate has-beens with which to play with in a second-tier level of the DCU not seemingly directly affected by the greater shifts of event continuity? (I notice no Blackest Night: Secret Six on the solicitations) Does all of this circumstance provide for Simone the perfect storm of creative freedom so suited for her particular strengths as a writer? The short sweet answer is, of course, yes. Simone has demonstrated she is in possession of a powerful imaginative spirit, a deep understanding of character psychology, a deft and biting humor, and a sharp intelligence that steers her to put all these elements together in exactly the right way. She is a musician and there have been issues of Secret Six that have rung out as great melodies from beginning to end, never missing a beat nor striking an ill chord. Secret Six is Simone's book and should cease to exist when she is no longer writing it.

Wonder Woman, on the other hand, in a true understatement, comes with a massive amount of baggage. When she knocks on the door for the first date, she brings with her decades of stories, confusing continuity, contradictory interpretations, the hopes of generations of readers, and the mantle of feminist identity. She shares the marquee with Superman and Batman for like them she sparks vitriolic debate, and like them, for every fan and reader there is a correct iteration. Unlike Superman and Batman, however, Wonder Woman seems to prove far more difficult to build consensus around. Both Superman and Batman have been retooled in the past, and generally, it has been to shed confusing continuity and to pare the character down to a simpler form. When Wonder Woman has been rebooted, it has been more of a complete relaunch. It would seem that the Amazonian princess is a puzzle that cannot be pieced together to everyones liking, and so it is shaken apart every few years and something new is tried. Case in point, the character of Wonder Woman has been in continuous publication since 1941 and yet her current book stands at issue number 34. Superman is at issue 690. Batman at 688. This track record would seem to be the fault of all that aforementioned baggage she comes saddled with. All that history and all of the social and sexual politics embedded in that history, as well as the expectations and emotional needs of fans, are an awful lot for writers and editors to reconcile in 22 pages a month.

Whether it is fair or not, Wonder Woman is most likely the most difficult of the major three Superheroes to write. Just ask Grant Morrison, who in interviews following the release of his event book Final Crisis, defended his use of the character thusly, "When I dug into the roots of the character I found an uneasy melange of girl power, bondage and disturbed sexuality that has never been adequately dealt with or fully processed out to my mind. I've always felt there was something oddly artificial about Wonder Woman, something not like a woman at all." (Newsarama.com, Grant Morrison: Final Crisis Exit Interview, Part 1; 28 January 2009) Morrison, however, more recently stated in an interview with Clive Barker in Los Angeles that, "Wonder Woman remains a really bizarre, untouchable character. She should represent women in the same way Superman represents men." (comicbookresources.com, Grant Morrison & Clive Barker Meltdown Hollywood; 2 July 2009) What does this mean, for Wonder Woman to rep the ladies as Supes reps the bros? One would have to examine the masculine ideal represented by the concept of Superman as originally conceived by creators Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, and in actuality, much has been written on this topic by comics critics and culture essayists. What this ultimately shows is the difficulty of tackling characters that are archetypes, that are stand-ins for our very personal ideas of gender identity. Superman, however, seems to have reached a point where he can comfortably be written as just an adventuring costumed hero battling to preserve truth and justice, whereas Wonder Woman, in addition to being a Superhero, still needs to address the gender politics. She can never just be a comic book hero. She needs to be more than that because she is a woman, and again, whether fair or not, a woman will always have to be twice as good and achieve double the results of any similar male. Consequently, any writer tackling her stories will also need to be twice as good. Morrison was raked over the coals for not giving Wonder Woman enough of a hero moment in Final Crisis, never mind his strong portrayals of Black Canary, Supergirl, and The Question, all heavily featured and important figures in the story. Also, never mind the fact that in a major event book encompassing the entire universe of a comics publisher in business for 70 years, many characters, both male and female, are bound to receive only cameo appearances. These are not factors when it comes to the third point on the DC Trinity triangle. Wonder Woman gets heated attention when it is perceived she is getting short shrift.

Consider then it may not be so surprising that Simone's run so far on Wonder Woman has felt oddly labored, burdened as it is with the unrealistic need of exceeding incomprehensible expectations. The real problem with the "Rise of the Olympian" story line is that it seems to be straining to be too epic. Ancient Gods return on ornately decorated spacecraft, mythical sea-creatures arise from the ocean depths, a genocidal supervillain - named Genocide, natch - wreaks large-scale destruction on the nations capital, and our heroine does some serious damage whilst donning the battle armor of the most tricked-out gladiator. Pages fly by filled with explosions, blood-drenched battle, and even torture. It's Cecil B. DeMille style swords-and-sandals grandeur, and, as I stated earlier, it strikes an underwhelming chord. It all feels forced, self-conscious, as though Simone is aware this story must out-epic Superman and Batman. It must be twice as big, twice the spectacle. One reads it seeing the stress of the crowbar that is lifting it all into place. It is all working too hard.

Upon reading Wonder Woman #34, Morrison's quote I use above, concerning the underlying issues of the character of Wonder Woman not being truly dealt with to his satisfaction, resonated even stronger for this is the first issue of Simone's run on the book that I have truly loved and deem to be truly successful, and it ties into Morrison's complaint. There are no epic battle scenes in this issue, no ancient armies amassed ready to unleash the dogs of war. Instead, we get Diana dealing with the pieces of her personal life in calm reflective moments. We see her personal relationship with Dinah Lance/Black Canary fleshed out in real-world down-to-Earth human terms. It is through this interaction of two friends and superhero colleagues that the character of Wonder Woman is explored and done so with a frank matter-of-factness and easy nonchalance missing from the book to this point. It is remarkably sincere and genuinely hilarious and the points made about being a female superhero in the greater DCU and comics in general are spot on, done with clever tongue not heavy hand. This is the first Wonder Woman comic I have read where I have truly felt I have seen the character as a real being, not the feminist idol or Goddess archetype. Simone, finally, puts flesh on the bones by showing us the bones.

In the scene, wherein Black Canary is giving a makeover to Wonder Woman so they may go undercover to infiltrate an underground meta-human fight club in Japan, we are allowed to see Wonder Woman as just another superhero teaming up with another superhero to attempt to solve a case. We see her confronted with her own naïveté regarding her status as a sex symbol in the DCU, and through this Simone shows us readers that these characters - at least Dinah Lance - in this world have a complete awareness of how they are perceived by the greater populace. Black Canary is fully aware of how their sexuality as perceived through their costumes and iconography is dissected, debated, and drooled over. The implied picture of Dinah hunched over a computer surfing the web, reading fan sites, is both hilarious and telling. She is not breaking the fourth wall in any direct way, and yet, that is exactly what is happening, because with these statements, she and Simone, are looking right at us, the readers. This left me laughing and in awe of, once again, how deft Simone is as a writer of the human condition, how extremely well she uses these larger than life characters to show us the common ground we all share.

There are other moments, as when Wonder Woman returns home and is greeted by her faithful gorilla guards - who have apparently been spending their brief time as ronin watching daytime soaps - and she admits to needing a shower and some sleep, that we are afforded a view into the daily life of a battling warrior, one who sweats, who bleeds, who suffers (invisible) jet-lag. And most satisfying of all, for this reader, was the subtle yet key explanation for a part of the mythos that has long been debated: why, if Wonder Woman can fly, would she also need an invisible jet? Well, how about because it may just be more comfortable, especially if she is working with a partner who does not possess the power of flight. Canary lets us know that being carried by Superman, while convenient, may not be the most comfortable form of travel. It's moments such as these that allow us to peer behind the bracelets, tiaras, and fishnets and see the practical aspects of what being a superhero entails. Simone's true gift is her ability to make the DCU feel like a living, breathing, fully functioning world, and doing so without putting on an artificial reality. She is dealing with what is in front of her, asking questions of her characters and then giving them the space to answer.

This is all what Simone does so well in Secret Six, a book that flows so effortlessly I don't even notice I am turning the pages, they feel as though they are all passing in front of me without noticeable seams. Finally, she has applied that same style to Wonder Woman and it works perfectly. Perhaps the inclusion of Black Canary allowed Simone to loosen her white-knuckled grip and stop reaching for some illusory perfection with each dotted i and crossed t? Black Canary does not arrive with anywhere near the same amount of recognition, status, nor unrealistic expectations as Wonder Woman, so perhaps Dinah allowed Simone to relax? To use a sports metaphor, Simone stepped into the batter's box without thinking she needed to hit a home run, and therefore, she did. Instead of treating the history and social politics as burdens, this issue finds her addressing them as story points to be dealt with through her characters, who in turn, deal with the greater themes in their lives the way we all hope to, by just living each day as best as possible. Stripped of all the Amazonian and Goddess trappings, of the misplaced ambitions of epic dominance, the character of Wonder Woman in issue #34 becomes a costumed hero whose greatest powers are loyalty, compassion, fierce determination, accountability, and, most importantly, individuality. She becomes someone who does not need to be measured against Superman or Batman to validate her status. We see she is already in their league, always has been, and stands head and shoulders with them in her ability to be a tool with which to tell great stories, stories not limited by the kid gloves of fear. It's time to tell those stories.
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