We’ll be looking at and discussing the various influences and archetypal antecedents that underlie the Wonder Legend, the power of the conceits it upholds, the politics of the whole enterprise, the terrifying nature of myths and narratives, and how the character and property have changed, evolved, or even regressed. What is this curious little experiment that began under a polyamorous polymath psychologist that became an icon of the feminist movement and a vital corporate symbol? Let’s dig in.
Previously On Historia!
So…what do I do? – Wonder Woman #189
The above quote was picked out for this entry long ago. Little did I know it would be so appropriate, in ways I didn’t even imagine or expect when the choice was made. This is, as you can already see and understand, going to be a rather different entry than the rest. It’s taken much longer to write, for starters, despite it being about one of my all-time favorite stretches on the character. I had to step away from it and the series itself numerous times, as I watched so many women come forward with their stories about comics men in the recent months. It was heartbreaking and incredibly brave, but more than anything, it became hard to write about Wonder Woman. She’s not just a character, but an icon, a figure symbolic of women, their stories, struggles, triumphs and dreams within the space. To write about Wonder Woman and not address or deal with the fact that the likes of Warren Ellis, and many comics men, did what they did? To be a dude writing about Wonder Woman? It felt deeply wrong. It felt irresponsible.
At the same time, I didn’t know that I could or would be able to for the longest time, if only because I myself needed time to process it all and come to a place where I could reasonably write about it, and thus, Diana herself.
It’s been a difficult year, and more than anything, I find myself asking ‘Should I be writing this? Is my voice here really necessary?’ And I keep coming to the answer ‘No’. To write about Diana was ever a delight, because the character had meant a lot to me. She still does, and going over her entire history is nothing short of ridiculously exciting. But it’s also something I don’t think I should be doing, it’s not where my voice is needed. Nevertheless responsibilities need to be fulfilled and honored. Promises need to be kept. We’ve done eight installments, and only a final 4 remain. While I feel inadequate about me of all people writing about The Amazing Amazon, and I do not quite know if any of this has been in any way useful or valuable (even as lovely folks charitably tell me it is), it’s time to get it done, and do it to the best of my ability, as ever.
And as such, these final entries will also act as criticism of my own criticism thus far, because it’s the only fair and decent way about doing this. All that I have held dear up to this point is open for questioning and interrogation. And we’ll be getting to the likes of men like Ellis in future entries as the end approaches, and we hit the modern era.
Thank you for reading thus far, if you have at all. Let’s finish this journey, so better, more appropriate voices can take the stage after me, and blow the ceiling off this thing in ways I never could.
#189-194 – The Simonson Saga
The Phil Jimenez era is over. Eddie Berganza is gone. A new era of Wonder Woman is set to begin. But before that can occur, the book needs time. Greg Rucka needs the time. So in that space, you’ve got this short fill-in arc. Not a run, not some maxi-series, just a 6 issue tenure on the title, while Greg Rucka gets going.
But who do you get to do such a thing? Is there any writer in comics who can do mythological heroes and compressed storytelling quite so well? Why yes there is! The one individual to call is Walt Simonson, the legendary creator behind almost everything you love about Thor as a character, who had a notable run with Orion, Thor’s successor, and does indie-work about never-ending mythic cycles such as Ragnarok. Simonson is, of course, an obvious choice for this sort of thing, and the kind you envision and imagine doing the character in an alternate world. ‘What if Walt Simonson had tackled Wonder Woman in the ’80s? What would that have been like?’ And this one-volume run gives you a good sense.
Teaming with Jerry Ordway, as classical as DC artists get, P. Craig Russell, as good as it gets for fantastical tales, Simonson brought forth his go-to lettering collaborator to the title as well, as is to be expected. The legendary hand-letterer John Workman boarded the title, and the table was set. And just in case you ever forgot this was the team that did the legendary Thor run (joined by Ordway), the book immediately reminds you in its opener:
The Way Of Thunder
Now, the approach is typically Simonson, which is to say, strip away the iconic parts of the character, their most notable features, take it away from them, to ask ‘Well, what is it that makes this thing tick?’. He did it most famously, and most successfully, on Thor, wherein he introduced Beta Ray Bill in the very first issue, which concluded with the Odinson screaming into the skies about his very nature and purpose. Bill was worthy, he can use the hammer, he can triumph over Thor, and so Thor sulks in bed, weary, wondering who he even is anymore, if he’s not the lone legendary warrior who can wield his mighty Mjolnir. And that becomes the starting point for an examination of Thor, what Thor even is, has been, and can be. That method of interrogating the character by taking away what’s most precious to them is something Simonson adores, and it certainly works here.
Though there’s a bit of specificity to note here as it returns to the aforementioned and much-discussed White Suit Era of Wonder Woman, from the O’Neil/Sekowsky period. There’s a greater pattern and repetition in WW comics of these sort of ‘Who IS Wonder Woman?’ plots, given a lot of the writers themselves struggle to crack that, in ways they rarely do with other key flagships. It’s not quite the first of its kind here, and certainly not the last of its kind, but it is perhaps the finest, in a way. It is a rock solid arc that plays to all the strengths of Simonson’s interests in myth.
Ordway meanwhile, alongside P. Craig Russell’s inking, operates as the conduit, the sort of membrane bridging Simonson’s metal ideas of cosmic divinities with that of traditional DC imagery and iconography, rooting it tightly in that world, which gives the work a unique flavor. This is the artist who revamped Captain Marvel, and so his brand of the fantastical is at a fitting crossroads that makes this click. And when you have P. Craig Russell, another creative legend who’s worked on everything from Sandman to epics like The Ring Of Nibelung, inking Ordway? It’s certainly gonna look good. And then there’s Workman, who is not only one of the finest hand-letterers in all of comicdom, but also maybe the LOUDEST. Every BOOM! and KRAKATHOOM! is as heavy and full of weight as you would expect, and his text is instantly recognizable, whether you’ve read his Thor or his Doom Patrol.
Maybe the most notable, striking thing about the Simonson/Workman duo is how much trust there really is between them. Simonson, as the writer and artist, always drew with consideration for where the letters might go, and there’s a quite symbiotic relationship between the imagery and the text, which is what makes for so many iconic moments in Thor. And, of course, given Simonson isn’t drawing here, that isn’t quite what you get, but what you do get is still very much the next best thing, as it’s a tight comic of an immediately recognizable style. These guys are masters, and they click, and there’s no sense in the slightest that you’re reading anything else. One look and you know, it’s impossibly them. The idiosyncrasy is hard to miss. Take a look:
The one thing this run had, which is still perhaps the ideal for Wonder Woman comics is a rock-solid all-star team across the board, on every level of the craft, and it’s one that STAYED consistent. It was only 6 issues, but it was a cohesive endeavor, wherein a group of creatives came in, told a story, and went on their way. In a sense, it’s a platonic ideal for the book, as it’s a consistent vision by a team of note (although we’ll get into its own predicaments in a bit).
As Simonson himself put it:
“My goal is simple. Tell a good story. And when I’m done, that’s exactly where I hope I’ve taken both Diana and her fans – through a good story.”
Now, for the big high concept itself, which I haven’t detailed. Again, a fairly standard pick from the Simonson stable of stories: The Gods are all gone, as The Oldest, One True God, is coming. The Shattered God, a cosmic being who reduces even the divine beings of myth to mere children by sheer comparison. And Diana’s lost her memories amidst all of that, and attempts to re-discover who she is. Although, the roots of influence should be of interest to folks as well:
“There are two intertwined concepts behind the Wonder Woman story I’m doing. The first is taken from the Aesop’s fable about a brass jar and an earthenware jar caught in a flood; the second a lesson taken from C.S.Lewis’ book, Till We Have Faces, in which Lewis suggests that we are fortunate indeed that the gods do not in fact dispense justice to mortals. I’ve gone from there and built a story around Diana, several mortals, and an interestingly random selection of gods! We’re taking a closer look at the question – how hard do you have to fight when everything you’ve known, believed in, or loved is being taken away from you?” – Walt Simonson
It’s a saga that spawns the continents, higher-dimensions, and it does essentially pick-up the baton from Phil Jimenez, being firmly set in the world he established. If Jimenez laid out a whole world for Diana, Simonson and his collaborators arrive by bringing the first real challenge to it, the threat of catastrophic danger, as it might all burn down.
And as part of his exploration and examination of what ‘Wonder Woman’ even is, Simonson’s tenure has her slowly discovering and re-acquiring key parts of herself, so in a lot of ways it becomes a mythic quest, wherein she slowly finds her tiara, her bracelets, her costume, and each moment is given room, as the respective elements of WW are focused on. But as that occurs, so does the constant contrast, as Ordway and Russell conjure up dastardly monsters, and along with it, the roman goddess of the hunt: Diana.
Funny how that works, eh? Marston’s world was built with Greek myth as its background wall-paper, and yet for its lead character and lead antagonist, he chose roman names. Not Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and the hunt, no. And not Ares, the Greek god of war, either. He chose Diana and he chose Mars, the Roman counterparts instead. That’s a deliberate choice, but one that’s mostly been ignored (due to the Ares shift) and hasn’t been engaged with.
But regardless, Simonson brings in Diana, the namesake of our Wonder Woman, and pits the two against one another, so that we may see who Diana is, at her essence.
The New Style
Beyond that however, the run is known for two things above all. The first is the above short-haired Wonder Woman look, from this iconic Adam Hughes cover, which is done when Diana wants to get into disguise and hide from her enemies. At the time, it ruffled a few feathers, as folks freaked out, but it was a reasonable move that looked pretty dang good, as it’s bound to when Ordway and Russell are your art-team.
And while doing it, much like Jimenez introduced Bobby Barnes, the team introduced Becca Doherty, a Wonder Woman super-fan who can be seen on the cover above. While she, much like Bobby, never really gets used in any meaningful way ever again after the departure of the creators, within the context of the story, she’s the avid WW expert, who’s familiar with her narratives and history, and helps her rediscover who she is. As for how Diana meets Becca? Well, Simonson and co. aren’t afraid or shy of Diana’s delightful set of powers like most, so it goes like this:
Diana talking to animals, a terribly underutilized aspect of the character, but one this team rightfully remembers as integral and genuinely cool, no less cool than being able to strike down armies.
However the biggest legacy of the run is none of the above. It’s Trevor Barnes’ fate.
Just in case you forgot it was the Thor gang making this comic
Trevor Barnes is, of course, as we’ve discussed prior, the love interest introduced by Phil Jimenez’s run. He was the first notable black supporting character in WW that wasn’t Kanigher’s offensive mess with Nubia. More importantly, he was the first Black/PoC love interest the character ever had, which sparked major racist vitriol. Now, Trevor is effectively the co-lead of this whole Simonson arc, which is fantastic, because he’s written well enough, and it’s a solid arc, but it’s also one that basically buries this one black man for good.
It should be noted that this was no editorial mandate, as Simonson more or less had a free slate. He knew what characters Rucka was and wasn’t using, and he knew Trevor wasn’t among them, so he decided he’d focus on him.
I didn’t have any chats with Greg–never have as far as I know–but I did know, going into my story arc, that Greg was not going to be using Trevor. The character simply wasn’t going to be around after WW #194 one way or another. Neither Greg nor anyone else asked me to see to the character’s death.
But I think most good stories are about sex, death, and betrayal. And by the time I was done, I’d gotten to work all those things into my Wonder Woman story. Having Trevor die wasn’t done simply to add ‘punch to my ending’; it was an essential part of the story from the beginning, foreshadowed by Trevor’s relating the Aesop’s fable.
However, knowing that Greg wasn’t going to be using the character suggested story possibilities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available.
Trevor Barnes’ fall and conclusion is heroic, it’s altruistic, it’s one where even divine beings cry at the heart of a mortal man. It’s touching, it’s painful, it’s heartbreaking. He fell the way he stood: for others. But none of that changes the fact that he was gone. What should have been a lasting, meaningful addition and representation within the book became a death in a fill-in arc of 6 issues, never to be seen again. It is depressing, to say the least, especially given the only other real semblance of representation would arrive only in 2016, when Etta Candy would be revamped as a black woman. Trevor Barnes was a character that deserved better, and his demise and eternal exclusion to this day has only served to sate the racists who were enraged at his very presence in the title.
All that said, Simonson’s tenure is one of those ‘I need a good WW stories in one volume’ recommendations you could comfortably hand to anyone, even if it is a wee bit retro here and there. It oozes a bit of charm that feels appropriate for the character. And it is a fun ride, wherein Simonson/Ordway/Russell/Workman even pull in and design pastiches of Kirby’s Thor and Asgardians, because it’s a big, grand god story to span all the pantheons. Simonson brought a level of scope to the title that is wont to do, a school of epic, that is rarely seen now, and was rarely seen then, as only Perez ever came close.
For a fill-in era, one just meant to buy time for Greg Rucka, it was one that had no right to be as solid as it was, even if it broke hearts along the way. But an epic has a habit of doing that. Besides, Thor with a dumb T on his helm, and a super-skinny hammer, as well as a metallic eye-patch/cover to avoid a lawsuit is worth the price of admission, as Ordway and Simonson are just having a blast, like any good band riffing together.
Next: The Rucka Rises!
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