Saturday, May 11, 2013

Forget DC and listen to me: Here are the essential Wonder Woman stories

While I only linked to one Robot 6 post Thursday night (mine), it was hardly the post of greatest interest that the blog had that day. Personally, I was kinda partial to Tom Bondurant's Grumpy Old Fan column, in which he examined the DC Entertainment Essential Graphic Novels and Chronology 2013, a sort of massive user's guide to the DC Comics backlist, from a specific angle.

Such a thing, which is apparently oriented toward librarians and retailers, is a pretty good idea, but it's probably worth noting that its existence is in direct opposition to the publisher's ongoing "New 52" initiative, which was sold as We Were Doing It Wrong, So We're Starting Over From Scratch (The implication was even stronger than the times DC executives said something similar to that; you don't reset a video game when you're doing well at it, just as you don't delete your term paper or pitch a cake you just baked in order to start over when you think everything's going swell).

So while DC's backlist is pretty large, and full of a lot of great comics, DC has de-emphasized the value of it with their regular, week-to-week publishing strategy of the past 20 months or so. As far as the New 52 goes, there isn't really more than two trades or so of continuing import and value informing the monthly publications for each of their titles.

Everything DC published prior to September 2011 is now an "Imaginary Story," an out-of-continuity comic meant to be enjoyed on its own, with no bearing on the DC Universe or the "real" history of the characters. That doesn't mean they can't or shouldn't be read and enjoyed, of course, it just means there's a sort of wall erected between those books and the vital, ongoing concerns of the characters, the universe and the comics now.

Well, there's that, and, of course, that DC Comics is the wrong entity to be championing that backlist, given the amount of time and energy they've expended telling the world that's the old, lame stuff: The good stuff is all these shitty comics that look like bowdlerized videogame designs drawn by artists from 1993, the ones where the writers change every arc or so and everything's so ill-considered we're retconning stuff by the time we collect it in trade.


Anyway, the angle Bondurant explored was how the guide seemed to serve DC's major superheroine characters (spoiler alert: poorly), with Wonder Woman sharing her spread with Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman and The Huntress (The women of the DC Universe are thus Wonder Woman, and four supporting Batman characters, apparently). And as for the specific Wonder Woman stories suggested? They number five, and they are not even a very good five.

They are:

1.) The Greatest Wonder Woman Stories Ever Told: A 2007 collection in a format that Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel and a few other character enoyed. That is, "greatest" is defined as single-issue, done-in-ones that will fit into a single trade, generally chosen to include best-known creators and to serve as something representative of the character's entire history, with Alex Ross' portrait poster of the character re-purposed as a cover. They generally make for decent sampler platters of the characters' incarnations, a not-bad starting point from which you can determine which writers, artists or directions of the character you enjoy, and then go from there.

2.) Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors: This just-rencently-ish published trade paperback collects a mid-seventies run of Wonder Woman comics that covered Wondy's transition back into straight, costumed super-heroics after the experiment with her as a de-powered, costume-less crime-fighter. She's essentially trying out for her spot on the Justice League again, with the various Satellite Era Leaguers taking turns secretly observing her in the field. It was written by Len Wein, Cary Bates, Elliot S. Maggin and Martin Pasko, and drawn by Curt Swan, Dick Dillin, Kurt Schaffenberger, Irv Novic, Vince Colletta and others. It's not very good and, it's perhaps worth noting, is a good three continuity reboots ago

3.) Wonder Woman: Odyssey Vol. 1: This is the J. Micheal Straczynski's companion to his awful Superman: Grounded story, a one-year story arc he embarked upon with much fanfare and a great deal of real-world media attention (here it was focused on Wonder Woman's new costume, which included pants and a jacket) and then almost immediately abandoned, leaving it to another writer to salvage his direction and plot while he went on to write a shitty Superman graphic novel, some Watchmen spin-offs and to publicly say some of the most ignorant, spiteful shit any comics professional has ever said about Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and Alan Moore. Don Kramer was the artist, while artist-turned-writer Phil Hester was the pinch-scripter. This story was also booted out-of-continuity by the New 52boot, but is sort of in a weird place anyway, as it dealt with an altered time-line independent of the any of the universal-wide, Crisis-driven continuity reboots.

4.) Wonder Woman: Odyssey Vol. 2: See above.

5.) Wonder Woman Vol. 1: Blood: The sole in-continuity recommendation is the first volume of the Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins New 52 Wonder Woman, which is among the higher-quality of the New 52 books (Vol. 2, Guts was just released in January; not sure why that wouldn't be in here too). I've been reading it monthly since the reboot, and it will be the only New 52 book I've read in serial format since, once Green Lantern gets a new creative team. It's good, but it's well worth noting it's not a particularly Wonder Woman-specific story, as she's the protagonist-by-default dealing with Azzarello and Chiang's reimagined Olympian gods, who are all squabbling over a half-divine child of Zeus prophesied to cause all sorts of trouble for the Olympians. It's got great art and a lot of neat designs, but can get pretty repetitive. Azzarello's take on the character is essentially the same bad-ass warrior version that's been predominant since Kingdom Come, and his main innovations have been to alter her origin for the worse (she's now the daughter of Zeus, the Amazons aren't immortal but replenished their race by raping sailors and then selling their male progeny into slavery in exchange for weapons, and Wonder Woman has less of a personality than ever before).

Can this list be improved upon? Of course it can. (It would be hard to make it worse, without maybe taking out the Greatest entry and replacing it with Amazons Attack or something). Bondurant offered up some suggestions (One important point he makes is how relatively stable Wonder Woman's post-Crisis publishing history is, and how very easy it would be for DC to collect its entirety into a few runs of a half-dozen trades or so, focusing on the work of George Perez, John Byrne, Phil Jimenez and writers Greg Rucka and Gail Simone; of those, I think Simone's was probably the weakest, but given that she still has a decent-ish relationship with the publisher, I imagine if nothing else hers should remain collected and in print. Rucka's should too, even if there's now bad blood between he and DC, if for no other reason than that his is the most television ready take, and the one most likely to inform any future live-action adaptations).

I'm going to offer up some of my own, but since I don't work for DC Entertainment and am not writing an article for their DC Entertainment Essential Graphic Novels and Chronology 2013, I'm not going to concern myself with what's currently in print and whether DC is the primary publisher or if they've merely licensed the character to another publisher.

These, though, are some of the best Wonder Woman graphic novels/distinct book-reading experiences available for librarians, retailers or readers who want to learn more about this wonderful Wonder Woman character, and what makes the Amazing Amazon so Amazon.

Wonder Woman: The Story of the Amazon Princess by Ralph Cosentino: This picture book is the third in a series of DC superhero picture books that Cosentino did for Penguin, following ones feature Batman and Superman. (I wrote about it at some length here.)

While not published by DC Comics Entertainment and not technically a graphic novel, it is an excellent, all-ages introduction to the character, one that streamlines and simplifies her into about as perfect a take as I've seen, outside her original Golden Age iteration (And if you read full-page illustrations as panels, it actually kinda is a comic book).

Wonder Woman Chronicles Vols. 1-3 by William Moulton Marston, H.G. Peter and others: The very best Wonder Woman stories ever told are without a doubt the original ones, by her creators Marston and his artist collaborators, most prominently Peter. They have something of a bad and unfair reputation for all the perceived pervy aspects of the story, with all of the tying up and talk of girl-on-girl love, but in context (that is, if you read the stories straight through), I was awfully surprised by how non-existent an sexual deviance is, aside from sub-text which, let's be honest, isn't any gayer or weirder or pervier than your average Batman story from the same era—or any era since.

In her original adventures, the "problems" of Wonder Woman's that would appear in later years, the ones that occurred when she was de-coupled form her World War II origins and attempts were made to update her to a more modern setting just aren't there (Batman, for example, fought crime, which is always with us; Wonder Woman fought the Axis Powers, which aren't).

Additionally, she had a big, colorful supporting cast including Etta Candy (who likewise doesn't always translate outside of Golden Age comics well...although I'd love to see what Ross Campbell could do with her), The Holiday Girls, Steve Trevor, The Amazons of Paradise Island, and a pretty incredible Rogue's Gallery, several members of which Wonder Woman is able to convert to the side of good.

For a long time, these stories only existed in DC's lovely but expensive Archives editions, but the Chronicles program put these comics in cheaper, easy-to-afford (for libraries and readers) trade paperbacks. Additionally, they are edited so as to include every story featuring the characters in chronological order, regardless of what title they might appear in. As far as I can tell, DC's only published three volumes of Wonder Woman Chronicles, though Batman and Superman also have Chronicles collections, as do The Flash and Green Lantern (but, oddly, the latter two are the Silver Age iterations, not the Golden Age iterations, whose adventures are even harder to find).

I sincerely hope DC continues to collect and publish Wonder Woman in this format up until they get to the point where the Showcase Presents volumes take over. I also hope they eventually publish The Plastic Man Chronicles and The Captain Marvel Shazam Chronicles. I wouldn't mind Red Bee and Uncle Sam Chronicles collections, either, to be honest, but Captain Marvel and Plastic Man are far more important Golden Age characters.

Showcase Presents: Wonder Woman Vols. 1-4 by Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru and others: I'm only halfway through DC's collection of Wonder Woman #98-#177, which goes right up until 1968's Denny O'Neil-driven "New Wonder Woman." Like all of the publisher's Showcase Presents volumes, these are huge black-and-white reprints with page-counts hovering around 500-pages a piece, and they are insanely good values. This era of Wonder Woman history saw the character losing a great deal of her Golden Age wildness, and the quirks and style of her original adventures were gradually being shed as she gravitated toward something closer to your standard superhero (a lot of these read like watered down, distaff Superman stories). That said, most of them are still DC Silver Age insane and, if you're going to read out-of-continuity Wonder Woman like, say, the JMS-started Odyssey, why not read about Wonder Woman fighting dinosaurs, marrying monsters, saving Steve Trevor's sorry ass (it got much sorrier here, as he entered his male Lois Lane phase, than it was during the war) and other Kanigher kraziness?

The DC Comics Presents: Wonder Woman Adventures by Steve Vance, John Delaney and others: DC's short-lived DC Comics Presents format was one I really dug; devoted mostly to 1990s comics, they were slim, almost-trade collections, featuring spines and a couple issue's worth of reprinted material, but also ads. Most of them were stories of some note or importance to ongoing DC Universe concerns or adventures, but were perhaps too short to carry their own trade paperback.

This one featured all-ages Wonder Woman stories, something so rare I'm really surprised DC hasn't commissioned at least a couple of original ones so they can put together a kid-friendly Wonder Woman trade to sell to little girls or stock in libraries.

The comics in here are all from the excellent (but short-lived) Adventures in the DC Universe series by Steve Vance and John Delaney, which really ought to have a complete collection (although, come to think of it, a lot of those stories were pretty era specific, so their Aquaman stories, for example, might seem weird now that he's not a long-haired, bearded grump with a harpoon hand).

I wrote about it a little bit here, but this 2012, 96-page, $8 hybrid of a trade paperback and a regular floppy comic book includes four Wonder Woman stories from AitDCU: A battle with the Cheetah, a Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) team-up, a Catwoman fight-and-then-team-up and a Big Seven JLA story.

These are drawn in the Bruce Timm style of the Batman and Superman Animated Series shows, but pre-dated the Timm-produced Justice League cartoon, which starred Wonder Woman, so this was essentially the DC Universe of the late-nineties filtered through an all-ages, Timm-inspired prism.

This collection is one of the relatively few Wonder Woman comics you could give a little girl to read that was produced after the Silver Age (and thus doesn't seem horribly dated and hard to read), so it's well worth seeking out.

Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth by Paul Dini and Alex Ross: This over-sized, 2001 graphic novel was the third in a series Alex Ross created, following ones featuring Superman and Batman. As with the others, it is specifically created to serve as an introduction to the character, or at least a no-threshold, complete in-and-of-itself experience that could be enjoyed by anyone reading it, even if it was there first (and last) Wonder Woman story.

Also like the other ones, it features a sort of day-in-the-life Wonder Woman story that leads the character to a sort of crisis of faith in herself, in which she decides who she is and how should she be, for the benefit of the reader as much as herself.

Those particularly enamored of Ross' Wonder Woman can also find her in his JLA: Secret Origins, which collects the origin sequence from the above trade along with those culled from his Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel volumes, plus the origins of nine other individual heroes, and the origin of the original Justice League of America, and JLA: Liberty and Justice, a full-length Justice League Adventure in the same format as the others.

Oh, and his 2005 maxi-series Justice, a sort of serious take on the Challenge of The Superfriends, prominently features Wonder Woman, and ain't half bad. For that, Ross plotted with writer Jim Krueger and painted over artist Dougie Braithwaite's pencils. The other books mentioned here were all scripted by Paul Dini.

Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia by Greg Rucka, J.G. Jones and others: Here's one that Bondurant mentioned, counting it as part of Greg Rucka's run on the character. It was a 2002 original graphic novel nominally starring Wonder Woman but, well, you can see whose face they decided to put on the cover. It was written at a time when Rucka was working on Batman comics and before he started a well-received run on Wonder Woman (which I found to be occasionally dull read serially, as its premised a bit like a TV show, specifically a West Wing set in the Amazons' embassy instead of the White House, but is actually pretty good in trade—at least up until Infinite Crisis intrudes and sinks the whole endeavor under nonsensical, editorially mandated nonsense).

It's a pretty good introduction to post-Crisis, pre-New 52 Wonder Woman, as it uses the more popular and more familiar Batman as a point-of-view character to define Wondy through contrast. In a lot of ways, it's like they more typical Batman/Superman sort of story, where they're differing methods and outlooks on life lead to a great deal of conflict that draws them both into sharper focus then solo stories can, while they attempt to work through their differences to reach their common goal of justice. Only instead of Superman, Rucka used Wonder Woman.

Another decent graphic novel from around that same general time period that uses similar approach is Christopher Moeller's 2000 JLA: A League of One, in which the League must face a powerful, fire-breathing dragon of myth. Wonder Woman learns that she's the only one who can stop it, and if her teammates in the then-JLA (The Morrison/Porter "Big 7" iteration) face it in combat, they'll be killed. So naturally she fights each of her teammates one by one, temporarily taking them down so she can fight the dragon herself.

I wouldn't call it a great graphic novel or anything, but it's one of the most Wonder Woman-specific JLA stories, and it's of interest for the way Moeller shows her bouncing off each of her teammates (figuratively and literally, given the plot). It's also not a bad starter Wonder Woman story since, like The Hiketeia, it's not strictly a Wonder Woman story, but another franchise story that happens to star Wonder Woman.

It's also easier to spell and pronounce than The Hiketeia.

Wednesday Comics by Various: I assume this is listed in that DC Entertainment Essential Graphic Novels and Chronology 2013 somewhere, even if it wasn't listed as an essential Wonder Woman comic. But the Wonder Woman strip featured in Wednesday Comics is a pretty essential one, as it features an accessible and broadly appealing take on the character that weaves the trappings of her own mythology with characters and tropes from world mythology into an episodic quest adventure that also reinvents supporting characters Etta Candy, The Cheetah and Doctor Poison.

It was by Ben Caldwell. None of the Wednesday Comics have been collected individually, or outside of this collection (at least, I don't think so, but I suspect that Batman one is going to be at some point, unless I dreamt that), but if you're a fan of DC's characters or the superhero comics in general, you're going to want to read Wednesday Comics (and if you waited for the trade, you'll get to see the awesome one-installment Plastic Man strip!).


The only Wonder Woman comics I have in my apartment at the moment—the bulk of my comics are in my comics midden in another city, and will soon be moved to the bowels of a giant pyramid I'm constructing, where I hope to be buried with them all some day—are the aforementioned Twelve Labors trade and the single issues of the New 52 series. No images from any of them lent themselves particularly well to illustrating this post, so I used a scan of that literacy-promoting bookmark. I like it because while I assume the kanga to the right of Wondy in the image is simply napping next to her while she reads, the way a cat or dog might curl up and fall asleep next to you while you read, it also looks a bit like she's readign a book to a dead kangaroo, and that's fantastic.


Diabolu Frank said...

You're way too hard on JLA: A League of One. I loved that book to pieces when it came out, and think it's a far more interesting and entertaining gateway to Wonder Woman than Dini & Ross' fourth trip into dull as dishwater political handwringing "Spirit of Truth." Seriously, read any one of those pretentious turds, and you've read them all, (except for the decent JLA one.) That series was the nail in the coffin of my ever diminishing consideration of anything Alex Ross was involved with. I'd also take the Archives over the Chronicles, based on the superior reproduction and hardcovers holding up better in the library system. I'm not a huge fan of Perez's ill-considered alterations to the mythology, but his volumes are pretty to look at and very accessible to new readers. I'm very fond of the Diana Prince material, and DC collected that entire period across four volumes, so it might rate a mention. I do wish DC would pull together the first half of William Messner-Loebs' run, since that's some of my favorite stuff, and only the later, lesser issues with Mike Deodato Jr. ever got bound together.

Aki Alaraatikka said...


Anonymous said...

I love Perez' take on Wondy; big fan of the work and the man. I'm not sure what Diabolu Frank means when he refers to his "alterations to mythology" - especially compared to the current WW run, which I gave up on after trying to read it for a year. I really disliked John Byrne's run on Wonder Woman though; generic art, messing with the character and her story, trying to fit in and rejig bits of her history etc etc. And he killed her too.

Diabolu Frank said...

Poor choice of words in context. I meant Diana's Pre-Crisis mythology, not the Greek ones.

I also disliked Byrne... and Luke... and Rucka... and Heinberg, Picoult, Simone, etc. etc. etc...

Unknown said...

Thank you, Caleb, for your intake in Wonder Woman. I always loved the character, but often found myself missing something in the stories. You listed some of my favorites stories of her ever: League of One, Hiketeia. I’m Brazilian, and in here Wonder Woman is, unfortunate, a least than loved character. People know of her, of course, but that’s it. Always hard to find her collections, and they are never cheap. You text gave me something to think about, and for that I’m grateful.