"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
After three years, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang are wrapping up their Wonder Woman run. Starting with November’s Issue 36, the new creative team will be writer Meredith Finch and her husband, artist David Finch.
While it would be silly to pass judgment completely on the Finches four months before their debut, I have to say my initial reaction wasn’t entirely positive. Consider the creative teams on the four main books of Diana’s Trinitarian brothers. Although detoured by the “Doomed” crossover, Action Comics’ team of writer Greg Pak and artist Aaron Kuder has been well-received. Superman just kicked off the Geoff Johns/John Romita Jr. era. Detective Comics picked up Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato after their stylish success on The Flash; and Batman features the unstoppable Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. For that matter, Azzarello/Chiang was one of several distinct creative teams that debuted as part of the initial New 52 relaunch and set itself apart instantly from any DC house style. Besides Snyder/Capullo on Batman and Manapul/Buccellato on Flash, there were Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman on Animal Man, J.H. Williams and W. Haden Blackman on Batwoman, Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino on I Vampire, Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen on OMAC, and Snyder and Yanick Paquette on Swamp Thing. Accordingly, Azzarello and Chiang have seemed right at home helming Wonder Woman.
By contrast, as a writing/drawing team the Finches are an unknown quantity. Meredith Finch has written a few one-shots; and since coming to DC from Marvel, David Finch’s projects have been plagued by delays.
Now, these may all turn out to be moot points. The Finches may have the perfect take on Wonder Woman. They are certainly very enthusiastic, even if he has been a bit tone-deaf. We won’t know for sure how their Wonder Woman will read until this fall — but I can still offer some historical perspective, and maybe a little advice.
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Contrary to conventional wisdom, Wonder Woman isn’t a difficult character to “get.” She’s an ambassador on a mission to spread the ideals of her home culture and thereby make the world a better place. She believes as firmly in those ideals (which sometimes contradict the Amazons’ actions) as Superman and Batman do in theirs. Her culture also taught her to fight unflinchingly for those beliefs, using the language of Ares to back up the principles of Aphrodite.
That said, she’s the product of creator William Moulton Marston’s unconventional ideas about women, and the roles they might play in society. Leaving aside the particularly unconventional elements of Marston’s philosophy, for our purposes it’s enough to say that he and artist Harry G. Peter guided Wonder Woman from her 1941 debut (in All Star Comics #8, her only solo story in that title) through Marston’s death in 1947. Those were the formative years of the Golden Age, when Superman and Batman were being adapted for — and consequently shaped by — radio shows, cartoons and movie serials. Wonder Woman’s own multimedia adaptations wouldn’t come until decades later, but she was popular enough to sustain her own series while scores of other titles were being canceled (including Sensation Comics, her first home, in 1951). Of course, that run of continuous publication was enough to earn her spot in what DC would come to call its “Trinity.”
Still, where Superman and Batman each starred in multiple comics and other venues from the ‘40s through the ‘60s, Wonder Woman tended only to be found in her own series and in Sensation (and occasionally with the Justice Society in All Star Comics, which also ended in 1951). Accordingly, while we can name a number of writers and artists who worked on the World’s Finest Heroes during this period, Wonder Woman went generally from one long-running creative team to the next. Bob Kanigher followed Marston as writer, working with Peter until 1958. Penciler Ross Andru and inker Mike Esposito then drew Kanigher’s scripts until 1967, when the “Diana Prince” phase (1968-72) — associated most closely with writer Denny O’Neil, writer/artist Mike Sekowsky and artist Dick Giordano — was just around the corner.
It’s tempting to skip straight from the end of “Diana Prince” to the 1986 debut of George Pérez and company, but that leaves out about 14 years’ worth of comics. The Wonder Woman of the early ‘70s to mid-‘80s is worth exploring because it saw a number of creative teams. This started with Kanigher, penciler Don Heck and inker Vince Colletta bringing back the costume and powers in January-February 1973’s Wonder Woman #204. Kanigher then wrote, and Ric Estrada penciled, most of the next several issues. After that, the guest star-heavy “Twelve Trials of Wonder Woman” arc — where she asked the Justice League to let her earn her way back in — was the product of rotating creative teams, and by the end of it (Issue 222, February-March 1976) the 1970s were half over.
With that issue, José Delbo became the regular penciler. He drew a total of 65 issues (through December 1981’s Issue 286), but it was mostly eight issues here and nine issues there from a host of writers including Martin Pasko, Gerry Conway, Jack C. Harris, Paul Levitz, and Conway again. The book also changed format for several issues, telling wartime stories set on Earth-Two (but not so much in the Marston/Peter vein) in order to capitalize on the Wonder Woman TV show’s World War II setting. When the action returned to Earth-One, various other tweaks followed: Steve Trevor was brought back to life a second time (he’d been killed at the start of the “Diana Prince” period, then brought back and killed again); Diana began astronaut training but quit to work for the United Nations; and for a couple of issues Wonder Woman was replaced by a redhead Amazon named Onara.
Actually, Conway’s second stint was fairly long, from Issue 259 (September 1979) through Issue 285 (November 1981), with the occasional break. Conway and Delbo were succeeded (as of February 1982’s Issue 288) by another notable creative team, writer Roy Thomas and penciler Gene Colan, who started by introducing the costume’s “double-W” design. Dan Miskin took over for Thomas with Issue 297 (although Roy and Dann Thomas co-wrote Issue 300), and Don Heck became regular penciler with Issue 306. Mindy Newell wrote Issues 326-28 before Conway returned for the volume’s final issue, February 1986’s Issue 329.
That’s a lot of detail, I know; but eight regular writers in 14 years (counting Conway twice) underscores the turnover on the title during the Bronze Age. Compare Conway’s long tenure writing Justice League of America (mostly with pencller Dick Dillin), or Cary Bates’ many years writing The Flash. It also contrasts well with Wonder Woman’s stability over the past 28 years. Since 1986, the Wonder Woman creative teams have been characterized largely by distinct visions and long tenures.
Most of those teams got plenty of time to explore their own takes on Wonder Woman, and those which didn’t — i.e., the Heinberg/Dodsons and Picoult et al., who produced a total of nine issues and an annual — still kept the series moving forward.
It all comes back to the idea that Wonder Woman is one of the more creator-driven characters. DC can’t just put any old team on Wonder Woman; it must be the right team. Again, consciously or not, I think some of this thinking goes back to the singular Marston/Peter years; and some of it is the notion that Wonder Woman must be “done right” in order to make sure DC doesn’t screw up its most prominent — maybe the most prominent — female superhero.
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Make no mistake, though — this doesn’t mean that a distinct creative vision and an extended tenure automatically come out to “done right.” Readers complained about a number of the aforementioned creative teams, from the thongs on Mike Deodato Jr.’s Amazons and the execution of Max Lord to Picoult’s “innocent abroad” approach, the bleakness of the JMS-plotted “Odyssey” storyline, and Azzarello and Chiang’s bloody Amazonian backstory.
That last bit illustrates the more modern risk of emphasizing the Amazons’ combat skills in order to make them scary and/or cool. It cropped up in 2007’s Amazons Attack!, it was a big part of the dark Flashpoint timeline and it underscores Azzarello and Chiang’s revisions. It’s also a handy way to distinguish Wonder Woman from quite a few of her colleagues. When Wonder Woman snapped Max Lord’s neck in 2005, it was to show she was the only one of the Trinity who could realistically do so. There is an “other-ness” to Wonder Woman that doesn’t quite line up with her gender — although I’m sure that doesn’t hurt — but rather with her having been isolated in her own book for so many years. It gives creative teams the ability to take her places that the other A-listers can’t really go. (Messner-Loebs had her work fast food for a while, although that may not be a comparable example.) Such freedom isn’t necessarily bad, because it helps keep her from going stale, but it’s not always easy to pull off.
Nevertheless, I think it’s eminently appropriate to remember that Wonder Woman comes from Somewhere Else; and more particularly, from a place that still exists and still wants (at least on occasion) to interact with the rest of the world. Her moral code wasn’t formed by her parents being murdered, and it’s not an idealized version of the American Dream. It’s the collective expression of a separate, centuries-old culture, founded as a (mostly benign) response to the oppression visited upon its citizens. As such, Wonder Woman has arguably more in common with other agents of ancient civilizations, like Aquaman and the Green Lanterns, than she does with Supes or Bats. Unlike the king of Atlantis or the Guardians’ representatives, however, she’s on a distinct mission to spread the Amazons’ ideals. This gives her a definite point of view, and keeps her from being just another superhero.
Indeed, if there’s one thing that typifies the creative-team turnover of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, it may well be the “just another superhero” approach. Sure, Wonder Woman fought evil gods and some of her classic foes, but there wasn’t much more than that. When Pérez and company arrived, they brought along a distinct point of view, and many of their successors did the same. Even the Luke/Paquette/Clark years (which tend to be forgotten between Byrne and Jimenez) were a good synthesis of what had come before. Among other things, they gave Diana an airborne Wonderdome headquarters, created a new mythology-based villain named Devastation, and presented a two-part story called “Trinity ‘98,” guest-starring Superman and Batman. (I’m not sure it was the first instance of DC’s big three heroes appearing under that name, but Matt Wagner’s Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman: Trinity miniseries didn’t appear until 2003.) Overall, we might see the Luke/Paquette/Clark run as a good transition between Byrne’s retro-Kanigher/Andru approach and Jimenez’ retro-Pérez (with some Marston/Peter) style — but again, it was its own thing, thanks to the series’ relative isolation.
Ironically, these days Wonder Woman’s increasing visibility is giving her home series some competition. From the beginning of the New 52, Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman has existed alongside not just her portrayal in Justice League (written by Geoff Johns and penciled by Jim Lee, Ivan Reis, et al.), but more recently in Superman/Wonder Woman (written by Charles Soule and penciled by Tony Daniel). Soon, the revived digital-first Sensation Comics will offer any number of interpretations, and Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette’s Wonder Woman: Earth One will no doubt present another.
Those are all great reasons for the Finches to stake out their own territory, and establish their own distinct style, rather firmly. The character of Wonder Woman has been resilient enough to handle many interpretations, but the Wonder Woman series cannot afford to be a clearinghouse for everyone else’s. If it were, it would be just another superhero comic, and that’s something Wonder Woman has spent decades avoiding.
And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 9.
NOTES: I think this is the first appearance of the New 52 Rampage. A hulked-out version of STAR Labs scientist/administrator Karen Faulkner, she was created by John Byrne early in his Superman tenure, and she popped up here and there throughout the next 20-odd years. However, a Google search for “Ethan Boyer” didn’t turn up anything.
Patrick Zircher is a reliably good artist, although I was fairly confused by the initial Rampage fight choreography. Was that the non-super Rampage sitting next to Madison in the baseball cap? Otherwise, did Rampage just bust in and start smashing? And the fact that the Masked Superman knows who Ethan Boyer is, but the reader apparently doesn’t, isn’t quite enough to establish his villainous bona fides — considering that we don’t know much about the Masked Superman’s history at this point either.
I spotted a couple of apparent old-school callbacks in this issue. One was the traditional Atom/Hawkman pairing (since The Atom and Hawkman series brought the two together in the late ‘60s). The other was the Wounded Duck sign, which looks like the Red Robin “R” symbol if you make the background black and the duck a yellow silhouette. Subtle — or does Tim really want to be found …?
Also, as an avid hate-reader of Funky Winkerbean, I can’t help but think that Madison’s dad looks like FW “star” Les Moore. Don’t let him smirk at you, Madison! Jail’s too good for him!
Seriously, I know there’s a well-thought-out explanation on the way, but that double-page spread of all the Earth-2 characters really does not sell the idea that these characters are securely imprisoned. I mean, Mister Miracle, Power Girl and Doctor Fate are just standing there? Are they on the honor system?
I suppose we can add 2001 to the Terminator homages in the “cyborg from the future” sequence. ALFRED is worried that Brother Eye will be reactivated, but this looks a lot like that’s already happened.
Generally I thought this issue ended abruptly, not so much on a cliffhanger but as a result of sketchy pacing. It seemed to be a list of strung-together plot points, which made it feel like all setup; and that seems to be all we’ve gotten out of the series recently. (Meanwhile, Batman Eternal’s individual issues have been focusing on particular characters and telling fairly self-contained stories about them, while still managing to advance the overall plot.) Granted, some things have started to pay off (even underwhelmingly), so perhaps the plot will start to pick up.
NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Blown up in just his pants! Stalked at the cafeteria! Everybody shoots at Masked Superman! And … plans come together (one hopes) at the Wounded Duck!