Amid all the recent kerfuffles at DC Comics—the Batwoman lesbian wedding that wasn’t, the brooding big screen reinvention of Superman, Ben Affleck’s controversial casting as Batman—it would be easy to overlook the most exciting reinvention in recent comic book history: Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman. Her epic two-year inaugural story arc wrapped last September, and War, the final graphic novel collecting that arc, came out yesterday.
It’s been a decade in the wilderness for Wonder Woman. She’s the only one of DC’s iconic three without a recent film franchise (though Joss Whedon wrote a script in 2007). In 2011, David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal) attempted a new TV series starring Adrianne Palicki, but it died in the pilot phase. And earlier this year, the CW finally killed Amazon, a Smallville-esque origin show that had been in development since 2012.
On the page, she hasn’t fared much better. Allan Heinberg briefly wrote Wonder Woman for four poorly reviewed issues in 2006. DC temporarily replaced him with bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult, whose brief run fared even worse. In 2008, super-fan-feminist turned comic book writer Gail Simone took the reins, and for a time, Wonder Woman flourished. While not the most brilliant run of all time, Simone’s arc was interesting, smart, and consistent—in fact, with 30 issues under her belt, Simone is the longest-running female writer in Wonder Woman’s history.
But eventually Simone moved on. Though she continued writing two WW related titles (Birds of Prey and The Secret Six), the main comic passed to J. Michael Straczynski, of Babylon 5 fame. The new run featured Wonder Woman’s first major costume redesign in decades (created by Jim Lee), and debuted in 2010 to fantastic sales … only to collapse amid a morass of missed deadlines and mediocre reviews. Straczynski left with six months to go on his contract. After that, the Princess of the Amazons spent months bouncing back and forth between various writers and artists.
Then came the major event in the DC Universe: The New 52. Starting in September 2011, DC cancelled all of its existing titles, and debuted 52 revamped versions—Wonder Woman included. WW’s new writer, Brian Azzarello, had spent time at the helm of both Batman and Superman, and he was also the co-creator of the hardboiled detective comic 100 Bullets. Illustrator Cliff Chiang, however, was a relative newcomer, having moved to the art side of DC after being an editor for years (Tony Akins, another lesser-known talent in DC’s illustration stable, also provides some artwork for the comic).
From the beginning, the New 52 was plagued with concerns about the representation of women and the fact that the new Wonder Woman was the work of two men. But Azzarello and Chiang’s excellent work defused most of the criticism. By turns gorgeous and grotesque, issue number one featured intelligent modernizations of the Greek and Roman myths that make up Wonder Woman’s baggage. Unlike Superman and Batman, prototypical sons of the 20th century, Wonder Woman has always struggled to stay relevant to a young audience that often cares little and knows less about her storied mythological history. She has so much past, it’s sometimes hard to see her future.
In that regard, Azzarello and Chiang are visionaries. In the first few issues, Wonder Woman’s old origin story literally crumbles before our eyes, as she learns that she was not made from clay by Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Instead, she is the natural daughter of Queen Hippolyta’s brief but passionate dalliance with Zeus, the king of Olympus. This instantly humanizes Wonder Woman, while also making her divine. She learns her true history at the same time we do, allowing readers to experience her all-too-human feelings of betrayal upon discovering that everything she believed about her life is a lie.
This seamless melding of modern humanity with epic divinity is realized on the page in Chiang’s beautiful representations of the Olympiads. Whether portraying withered, root-like Demeter or drunken colonialist Aries, his artwork brilliantly captures the essence of what a god among modern mortals might look like. Thus, the story and style work in delicious harmony.
From this simple new back-story, the rest of the two-year arc flows naturally. Wonder Woman becomes enmeshed in the ultimate family feud, as the gods of Olympus vie to replace Zeus as king, and she seeks to protect her numerous half-god siblings—one of whom is prophesied to kill an Olympian and claim their throne. In this final installment, Wonder Woman ends up somewhere completely unexpected, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out in forthcoming issues.
And yet, for all the superpowers and divine beings that flit across the pages of Wonder Woman, the arc is most successful because of its humanity. She slams out her aggression in a London punk club when she’s upset. The Gods of Mt. Olympus squabble like eternal children. If this arc has a central theme, it is about love, family, and betrayal—profoundly human emotions that make Wonder Woman sympathetic in a way that Justice, Peace, and Divine Creation never could.