Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Occasionally I find myself on a Monday or a Tuesday wondering what Thursday’s topic will be. Such was the case this week —
— and then the hand of Providence offered up J. Michael Straczynski’s radical take on Wonder Woman.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for what was actually a very enjoyable Wonder Woman #600….
Right from the engaging George Pérez cover and the heartfelt Lynda Carter introduction, WW #600 reads like a love letter to superhero comics’ most prominent female character. In fact, I would have bought this issue just for the pitch-perfect seven-page lead story (written by gone-too-soon Gail Simone, pencilled by Pérez, and inked by Scott Koblish) in which Diana leads a team of distaff all-stars into battle against Professor Ivo’s male-dominating androids. She can’t stick around to receive the thanks of a grateful President, though, because she’s got an important graduation to attend. Longtime readers can surely deduce who’s under the cap and gown, and if you’re like me, you’re just a little misty-eyed at the thought. “Valedictorian” is a story which drives home the point that People Think Diana Is Awesome (which, come on, if you’re reading the issue you’re probably inclined to agree); and it’s corny as heck — but Simone and Pérez make it work, by skillfully showing Diana with the people she loves.
Much of the issue is similarly light-hearted and relationship-centered. Diana’s diplomatic talents are needed in the second story, Amanda Conner’s amusing “Fuzzy Logic,” when Power Girl asks Diana for advice regarding a member of her household. Later, Louise Simonson writes, and Eduardo Pansica and Bob Wiacek draw, a team-up with Superman against a mythologically-powered foe. Even the pinups, by high-profile folks like Adam Hughes, Nicola Scott, Greg Horn, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jiminez, are appropriately reverent. (Yes, even the Greg Horn pinup.) Were I to nitpick, I would bemoan the lack of more female creators, and I might even want some retro-styled stories representing the stranger aspects of the Golden and Silver Ages. (However, a Kanigher-style “Wonder Girl” — or someone who looks an awful lot like her — does share space with Diana at one point.)
Finally, Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins provide a prologue to what has become the issue’s main attraction, the ten-page tease of JMS’ already-controversial storyline. It’s not a poorly-executed sequence by any means. Penciller Don Kramer is a fine storyteller, and inker Michael Babinski and colorist Alex Sinclair make everything clear, if appropriately grim. I’ve liked the Kramer/Babinski team since their JSA Vs. Kobra miniseries, and they look just as good here.
As for the script … well, if you can accept a Diana who says “[d]on’t even go there,” you might not think it’s too bad.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair to a brief taste of what will probably be several issues’ worth of story. Much of it is a fight sequence between Diana and a group of well-dressed goons. The rest is inscrutable setup, as Diana consults a blind Oracle who dresses like a cross between Black Canary and Death of the Endless. If you can get past that, you might not even mind Diana’s new duds. Honestly, I learned more from the Internet than I did from these pages. What the prologue to “Odyssey” does tell me is that this story is temporary. Not only does the Oracle inform Diana that the timeline has been altered, background graffiti says so as well; and we all know the predictive value of background graffiti.
I wondered why DC would devote so much space to Diana’s traditional trappings if it were going to chuck them out the window. WW #600 seems to answer that by framing “Odyssey” as yet another “you’ll miss me when I’m gone” situation — where the utility of a star-spangled swimsuit (for example) will eventually be revealed by first heading exactly in the opposite direction. Indeed, “Odyssey” strikes me (unintentionally, I’m sure) as a mashup of all the other “what’s wrong with Wonder Woman?” premises, from the Mod period to the mid-‘90s “Artemis” storyline (also featuring Diana in a kicky black number) and even to 2003’s Walt Simonson/Jerry Ordway “Game of the Gods” arc. Every so often, Diana’s world is turned inside-out, but it always gets put back — at least until someone else wonders what’s wrong with Wonder Woman….
Of course, if you read this issue, you get the feeling there’s nothing wrong with Wonder Woman. She’s an inspirational figure. Strong, smart, and caring. Warm and loving one moment, crushing bad guys the next. Nurturer, soulmate, princess, ambassador, warrior, companion. The best of womanhood in one super-powered figure.
How boring that must be, right? How uncommercial! I mean, why else would we have these periodic revamps?
Well, as JMS’ Oracle puts it, “[w]hy do the gods do anything? They do it for their own purposes — their own interests — their own amusement.” I don’t think Straczynski sees anything wrong with Diana — certainly nothing that (snicker) pockets will fix — but I do think he wants some way to goose sales and get people invested in the character again; and “traditional” Wonder Woman stories don’t seem to be the answer.
Indeed, I’m hard-pressed to think of a “traditional” Wonder Woman story. Sure, there’s the mythology and the social consciousness, but within those confines is still a pretty wide range. One significant difficulty is the loss of William Moulton Marston’s unique viewpoint, which (for good and ill) defined the character for a decade. Ever since, writers and artists have struggled to justify and/or explain away the cleavage, the bracelets, the lasso, and yes, the bondage; and ever since, there’s always been something a little “off” about the character. Superman and Batman (for good and ill) were each refined early through their adaptations in other media. Wonder Woman’s adaptations came much later, most notably when she could be lumped in with the similarly-endowed women of “Charlie’s Angels.” Lynda Carter’s heart might have been in the right place, but the show still came across as campy, leaving its mark on Wonder Woman as indelibly as Adam West’s on Batman.
While the comics moved on, they still subjected Diana to different interpretations. The 1987 Pérez revamp emphasized her unfamiliarity with Patriarch’s World. Writer Bill Messner-Loebs tried to balance superheroics with street-level slices of life. John Byrne doubled down on the superheroics, throwing in a Silver Age tribute for good measure. Phil Jiminez’ run sought to fuse the Pérez interpretation with the more wholesome parts of the Golden Age. Greg Rucka saw Diana’s world through diplomatic and political eyes, Allan Heinberg brought back the secret-agent aspects, and Gail Simone showed us Diana the compassionate warrior. I’ve followed Wonder Woman faithfully since Pérez, and it’s been a fascinating evolution. I can’t say that anyone’s gotten her exactly right, though, because I’m just not sure what “exactly right” is.
Therefore, if Wonder Woman #600 is that hypothetical new reader’s first issue, I hope it’s a good introduction to what the rest of us happy few WW readers have come to love about the Amazing Amazon. Furthermore, I hope JMS’ run makes the case successfully for Diana’s familiar status quo. I mean, that must be where this is all headed. Surely such an overly-edgy setup, complete with “functional” ‘90s-style costume, isn’t meant to be permanent….
The bottom line is that after all those interpretations and all those what-if? revamps, Diana remains the symbol of hope, justice, and peace that Dr. Marston created almost seventy years ago. What’s more, at least in the twenty-three years I’ve been a faithful reader, she’s grown into an eminently approachable, even relatable character — not exactly the boring paragon some might imagine. “[C]ircumstances change, but the love endures,” she says at the end of the lead story. That’s not just a good summary of Wonder Woman #600, it’s a nice way to view Diana herself. Here’s to 600 more.