Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Review: Wonder Woman – The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, 187 pages of strip, DC Comics, 2007, US$19.99
Features: “The Origin of Wonder Woman” by Paul Dini (writer) and Alex Ross (artist)
“Wonder Woman Comes to America” by William Moulton Marston (writer) and Harry G Peter (artist)
“Villainy Incorporated” by William Moulton Marston (writer) and Harry G Peter (artist)
“Top Secret” by Robert Kanigher (writer), Ross Andru (penciller) and Mike Esposito (inker)
“Wanted – Wonder Woman” by Robert Kanigher (writer), Ross Andru (penciller) and Mike Esposito (inker)
“Giganta the Gorilla Girl” by Robert Kanigher (writer), Ross Andru (penciller) and Mike Esposito (inker)
“Wonder Woman’s Rival” by Denny O’Neil (writer), Mike Sekowsky (penciller) and Dick Giordano (inker)
“Wish Upon a Star” by Elliot Maggin (writer), Curt Swan (penciller) and Phil Zupa (inker)
“Be Wonder Woman … and Die!” by Robert Kanigher (writer), Jose Delbo (penciller) and Dave Hunt (inker)
“Who Killed Myndi Mayer?” by George Pérez (writer and penciller) and Bob McLeod (inker)
“She’s a Wonder!” by Phil Jimenez (writer and penciller) and Andy Lanning (inker)
Cover by Alex Ross

DC’s post-Infinite Crisis relaunch of Wonder Woman has been faltering badly. In such circumstances, creators often try to reconnect with some earlier, definitive version of the character in question. Want to get the Fantastic Four right? Go and read some Stan and Jack. For Batman, the basic vision created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson can be filtered through lenses provided by O’Neil and Adams, Englehart and Rogers or Miller and Mazzuchelli, but it remains consistent. For Superman, the version of choice at present is the one overseen by Mort Weisinger, rather than Siegel and Shuster’s original, but the principle is much the same.

So what do past versions of Wonder Woman have to offer the present? The latest volume in DC’s presumptuously titled Greatest Stories Ever Told series might hold some clues.

Under the deeply boring cover by Alex Ross (a particular disappointment after two decades of fine and often iconic covers by the likes of Brian Bolland and Adam Hughes) lies a rather erratic selection of stories. We get almost 50 pages by the character’s creators, William Moulton Marston and Harry G Peter, but there is way too much Robert Kanigher. True, he was a very long-serving writer, but the inclusion of four of his stories means that there is no room for anything by, for example, Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, who provided the last remotely successful version of Wonder Woman before the 1980s reboot. The O’Neil/Sekowsky story features a conventionally super-powered version of the character, rather than the depowered Emmapeeled Diana Prince who followed shortly after. There are only two stories from the last twenty years, with nothing by Greg Rucka, who seems to be the best-regarded writer the series has had in recent times.

The eccentricity goes beyond the choice of creators to the choice of specific stories. For example, we get two versions of how Wonder Woman came to adopt her Diana Prince identity, but the rest of her origin is treated only in a few panels by Dini and Ross culled from a much longer story.

The earliest stories, by Marston and Peter, are, of course, quite batty, with a fairy tale logic and Marston’s strange belief in improving society through bondage and “loving submission” to authority. It is hard to see how they could be used as the basis of a mainstream DC superhero comic book nowadays. But they are more purely entertaining than anything else in this book, and, stripped of their BDSM elements, might form the basis of an all-ages read of similar tone to Jeff Smith’s Shazam!, or alternatively something akin to “magical princess” manga.

Kanigher and Andru’s stories are at the dull end of typical silver age superhero fodder. They are also marked by an increased sexism. Marston had written Wonder Woman in the days when Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell were playing witty independent women on screen and Rosie the Riveter was heading to the factories. Kanigher was working in the age of Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe and happy homemakers. Little wonder that he assumes that, if Diana were to marry Steve Trevor, she’d have to give up her super-hero career. After all, she’d be too busy cooking his meals and ironing his shirts.

Mind you, it is almost tempting to envisage Wonder Woman in a comics version of Bewitched, trying to keep Steve and the neighbours from learning that she has been using her powers surreptitiously to defeat those pesky super-villains. With Agnes Moorhead as Queen Hippolyta.

The O’Neil/Sekowsky story is worse. Steve Trevor is tried for murder. Here’s what happens in court.

From here on, Steve’s conviction for the crime is blamed on Wonder Woman: it’s her fault because she’s so emasculating and had the presumption to tell the truth under oath. This isn’t just the view of the prosecutor, it’s the view given throughout by Steve Trevor and even by Wonder Woman herself, so it was presumably Denny O’Neil’s opinion at the time too. Wonder Woman makes no criticism of Steve’s neanderthal behaviour, or even of the reason his alibi is so flimsy – at the time of the killing, with Wonder Woman off fighting criminals, he was busy chatting up the first available blonde, whose name he didn’t bother to get. Perhaps O’Neil thought that was Wonder Woman’s fault, too, for not being on 24-hour call for sex. Vile stuff, and definitely an approach to be avoided by modern creators.

The Maggin/Swan story is so forgettable that, even though I looked it up before starting this sentence, I can remember nothing about it now that I reach the end.

Wonder Woman was completely restarted after Crisis on Infinite Earths. The two post-reboot stories here are decent enough, and “Who Killed Myndi Mayer?” is quite a good little single-issue mystery story. But both Pérez and Jimenez make the mistake of trying to convince us that Wonder Woman is a paragon by having their narrators – Detective Indelicato and Lois Lane respectively – tell us so. The result is that their lead character is remote and uninvolving. Virtue need not be boring, but we need to understand and internalise the difficult decisions and choices that a virtuous character has to take. That is missing here. But, to be fair, with modern soap-operatic superhero comics it is hard to find stand-alone stories, so these two might not be representative.

All in all, this book suggests the rather bleak conclusion that there are no prior versions of Wonder Woman that could provide a solid grounding for a new one. Alternatively, before Gail Simone takes over Wonder Woman and Adam Hughes launches All-Star Wonder Woman, they might need to take inspiration from a completely different set of stories from those presented here.

Wonder Woman “Villainy Incorporated” by William Moulton Marston (writer) and Harry G Peter (artist), Wonder Woman issue 28, March/April 1948
Wonder Woman “Top Secret” by Robert Kanigher (writer), Ross Andru (penciller) and Mike Esposito (inker), Wonder Woman issue 99, July 1958
Wonder Woman “Wonder Woman’s Rival” by Denny O’Neil (writer), Mike Sekowsky (penciller) and Dick Giordano (inker), Wonder Woman issue 178, September/October 1968
Wonder Woman “She’s a Wonder!” by Phil Jimenez (writer and penciller) and Andy Lanning (inker), Wonder Woman (second series) issue 170, July 2001

All reprinted in the volume under review


Siskoid said...

I've never watched the TV series, but that's obviously Lynda Carter on the cover... and in a way, that may be your answer.

A reboot of Wonder Woman may have to be filtered through the tv show because that's what the public knows about Wonder Woman.

I've said this before somewhere, somewhen, but while I've never been hooked on Wonder Woman in the comics, she was my favorite character in the Justice League cartoon.

Bruce Timm and co. were great at distilling what made a character cool and interesting from all the various available versions. Can't we use that as a definitive Wonder Woman? Just push the cartoon Diana a few years ahead to make her more of a veteran.

Steve Flanagan said...

I remain rather fond of the old TV series - possibly because I was just hitting my teens when it started, so Lynda Carter made quite an impression. I assume it was because of the TV show that Allen Heinberg had Diana Prince take a job with an intelligence agency, as well as using a "twirl into costume" sequence in the last issue he bothered to finish.

I've only seen the odd episode of the animated JLA or JLU, and none of the ones I've caught have featured Wonder Woman heavily. Next time I've got money for DVDs I might look out a season box set.