Chad Reads Things: Azzarello & Chiang’s New 52 Wonder Woman Review
So, today we’re going to be talking ‘bout Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman is a rare bird as far as I’m concerned. I like the character, I respect the idea of the character and what she stands for (as best as I understand her), but I can’t think of any great Wonder Woman stories. I can point to great stories for most of DC’s other main players tucked away in my collection, times when I’ve liked their books enough to follow them for more than an issue or two, except Wonder Woman. Batman and Superman both have a metric ton of great stories, the Flash has solid runs by Mark Waid and Geoff Johns, Green Lantern has flashes of greatness (and really terrible Parallax stories), Green Arrow has the Longbow Hunter period and the Phil Hester run, even Firestorm–they all have something that I’ve been able to sink my teeth into–except Wonder Woman. I’ve tried reading the George Perez and John Byrne works, but they’ve never really captured my attention. That’s not to say they’re bad, they’re just not for me. When the movie came out a few years back, if you would have asked me for solo Wonder Woman recommendations, I would have pointed you to the 70’s tv show, as that was a fun, relatable woman with a cool theme song.
It’s not my fault, entirely.
Diana is a character whose exact powers and origin I’m fuzzy on, but I feel like they’re constantly being changed and tweaked with each reboot. That’s frustrating. Sometimes she’s the embodiment of love, sometimes she’s snapping Max Lord’s neck because Dan Didio hates JLI. Also frustrating. Sometimes she dresses in chic 70’s clothing instead of a super-hero costume, just because. That one’s more bewildering than frustrating. Regardless, she lacks the clear definition that the Batman and Superman origins have that keep them from being messed with. As a result, I usually keep my distance. Wonder Woman is in a lot of stories I have loved, but they’re not really about Wonder Woman, usually. They’re Justice League, Super Friends, or the greater DCU in general. Wonder Woman is traditionally a role-filler rather than the lead character, even when she’s acting in a leadership role. She’s always more symbolically important than interesting.
When the new 52 happened, I jumped off the DC ship almost entirely, but I kept hearing really good things about the rebooted Wonder Woman book. Still, given my history with the character, I thought it better to hold off and let the story play out before I bit and got invested into something that would be rebooted and retconned away shortly thereafter.
So, here I am, seven years after it started, and I finally found access to the New 52 run by Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, and a handful of others along the way. I stumbled across a handful of trades at a discount store and that put the idea into my head. A quick google told me the Azzarello storyline went through the first six trades, and also eventually it was retconned away with the next big reboot. Sigh. Still, that portion that existed was critically acclaimed so I set out to find the story as cheaply as possible.
I looked to the DC Universe subscription service. The first 19 issues were found on the DC Universe streaming service, so I started there to see if it was for me before I paid anything extra.
The rest of the series I was able to cobble together thanks to Ollie’s recent DC graphic novel buyout. When each graphic novel is only the cost of an issue or two, it helps motivate me to finally try some new stuff that might or might not be my style; plus, at that point, I was invested in the story and really wanted to see how it played out. Not being able to piece together the whole story from Ollie’s, a discount store, is totally understandable. Discount chain stores are like that BTO song; you take what you can get.
Only getting half of the story from the DC subscription service drives me crazy though. If you’re running a pay subscription service with a “curated” list of stories, then curate the whole darn story. At least follow a story to its logical conclusion before a creative team changeover or change in direction or whatever. Don’t give me trades 1-3 and leave me to find 4-6 somewhere else if you want to keep me as a subscriber beyond the free trial period (or subscriber info borrower if we’re being honest). I’m not interested in reading half of a story.
Continuity-light: Because this story takes place at the beginning of the New 52, I felt like knowledge of Wonder Woman’s backstory wasn’t a huge prerequisite. Most of Paradise Island is actually dispatched fairly early in the series in order to set up the new status quo, so any relationships there weren’t really a factor. Apparently, Wonder Woman doesn’t have significant enough supporting characters to matter outside of the island and she sets up a new “family” of ratag misfits along the way composed of either new characters or characters with new designs. There’s not even mention of the other goings-on in the New 52, so there’s no Superman-Wonder Woman smooching in this story, which did happen elsewhere if I recall. Superman and Wonderwoman shared a book in the New 52, but here, they don’t even share a panel. It’s all fairly self contained in the world of mythology.
Azzarello’s mythological-based story:
I remember back in my school days, one of the benefits of reading comics came to play when it was time to study Greek and Roman mythology. It was nice to know the answers to a lot of questions before I ever bothered to read the assignments thanks to the frequent appearances of mythological gods and goddesses in comics. Here those gods are directly in play. The basic gist of the story is that Zeus has disappeared, and some gods are on the hunt both to succeed Zeus’s throne and some (including Wonder Woman) are out to protect his final heir. Zeus’s first-born ends up becoming the big bad to beat, but there are plenty of other mythological comings and goings throughout the story. Here we get reimaginings of Dionysus, Hades, minotaurs, and all sorts of fun and curmudgeonly gods permeating the pages. Gone though are many of the visual trappings of traditional mythological stories, though. From Hades as a capricious child with candles atop his face or the grouchy old Ares with his pantlegs dripping in blood, to the weird bird creature design of Hermes–each of the gods gets their own unique visual imagining that’s more modern and relatable than the classic Roman-Armored versions of Ares and his fellow gods that readers are used to seeing. Even characters like Hera, the wife of Zeus, become relatable throughout the story. While the character actions may run afoul of the traditional stories by mixing in with the DCU, the characterizations really don’t. That makes this story a nice one for those with a hankerin’ for mythological explorations, and maybe one day, a kid who’s read this story before diving into mythology might be able to answer a few questions ahead of time.
Cliff Chiang art:
It’s so beautiful, and powerful, and kinetic, and everything you want out of good comic book art. There’s an understated simplicity to the line-art and backgrounds that stands out the most when it’s not there–otherwise it feels and flows so effortlessly off the page. Wonder Woman has a power and grace and beauty that few artists can capture without tilting too far on any one side of the carefully balanced scales. When Chiang is taking a breather, the art quality drops dramatically. I feel bad faulting the backups because they’re not Cliff Chiang, but they lack whatever it is that gives Chiang’s work its power and expressiveness.
Back-up art: At this point, I don’t know what the shipping schedule for Wonder Woman was like, but I do know it’s a darn shame that DC wouldn’t wait for Cliff Chiang to draw the entire story. Tony Akins starts filling in as early as issues 5 and 6, and as I alluded to earlier, his art is a step down. His linework isn’t as smooth, his facial expressions are more exaggerated, and the backgrounds lack a certain crispness. Eventually Goran Sudzuka takes on the backup role, and his art feels closer to Chiang’s, but it’s still slightly lacking. The fill-in issues hit like speed bumps after the smooth experience of the regular artist. Had Chiang and Azzarello been given the time to tell this 35, (well 37 if you count 0 and .1 issues) issue story, it could be held in a much higher regard. As of now, I feel like the backup art knocks this down from a must-read prestige epic to a story with really great potential that stumbles due to inconsistency.
As fun as I found the inclusion of the modernized Greek gods, I felt like the inclusion of Orion and Highfather bogged this book back down into the jumbled New-52 universe in a negative way. I can appreciate what Azzarello was going for, incorporating New Gods with these classical gods, but I felt like the characters occupied two different universes that didn’t fit together. The trips to New Genesis felt superfluous and like they were dragging out the story instead of generating any sort of excitement. Orion’s sexist flirtation with Wonder Woman felt like a role that could have been better filled by some other mythological character. I was really enjoying diving into the modernized vision of classic mythology and Orion dragged me out of that and reminded me that I wasn’t much of a fan of what was going on in the rest of the New 52.
The Final Verdict:
The DC Streaming Service: I’m not a big tv guy, so that’s not much of a draw for me. The comic selection and the fact they only had the first half of this story was frustrating. C grade for the streaming service. Potential is there. Execution is not.
New 52 Wonder Woman: Ultimately, I don’t really care if this story was retconned out of continuity, it was finally a solid Wonder Woman story that I enjoyed from start to stop. Mostly. If I had my druthers, I would have shortened the story by a number of issues and given the original creative team the time to finish them properly. What could have been a great series of comics ends up being pretty good as a result. As it stands, I’m happy that I finally have a Wonder Woman story that I can recommend. Final grade: B +