Wonder Woman: Mission's End trade paperback review and retrospective (DC Comics)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

In 2004, writer Greg Rucka made headlines as one of the few writers to write DC Comic's Big Three-Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman--all in the same month, writing the former two in their own individual series. Regarding the three, Rucka told Comic Book Resources, he found Diana the most difficult to write, in part because of the many different ways she's been written over the years through many different writers. To that end, the interview says, Rucka's initial graphic novel Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia was less about Diana herself, "but rather how she was perceived."

From the beginning of Rucka's Wonder Woman run--as one of Diana's staff deals with a legal challenge regarding whether Diana's Lasso of Truth violates a criminal's Miranda rights--Rucka examined the idea of truth as it related to Diana, and moreover, the difference between truth and perception. Indeed, one of the precipitating actions of the first of five trade paperbacks collecting Rucka's Wonder Woman run, Down to Earth, is Diana's publishing a book of essays--a book of her opinions, her perceptions, meant to evoke debate between her ideas and the ideas of others. However, one difficulty Diana encounters, almost immediately, is the confusion of truth versus perception--a conservative group wants to censor Diana because they believe their her truth threatens their own, a confusion of truth versus opinion.

This tension is found throughout Rucka's Wonder Woman stories, culminating most severely in Diana's killing of rogue Justice League liaison Maxwell Lord in Mission's End. Max specifically tells Diana that the only way to stop him from mind-controlling Superman is to kill him, and yet Superman still maintains to Diana that there had to be another way. When Diana asks Max a question, with her lasso wrapped around him, is this the truth? Or is it only Max's perception of the truth, and if so, does this point to a failing in Diana's powers? Can Diana compel a person to speak a truth beyond their own knowledge? Rucka suggests the answer over Diana's two televised battles; her aide Jonah McCarthy suggests that, even though Diana killed both Maxwell Lord and, earlier, the fearsome Medousa in the public eye, it is Max's death that will end Diana's mission because Medousa looks like a monster, and Max doesn't. In the end, it seems, Diana is defeated as perception wins out.

That the two major battles that bookend Rucka's Wonder Woman run--Medousa and Maxwell Lord--are televised speaks to the issue of perception. Television is of course the very essence of perception--someone else's visual ideas being fed into one's living room, whether a fictional TV drama or the daily news filtered through the TV channel's own politics. Perception appears in opposition to Diana's mission of truth, and this is no more clear than when the newly-blinded Diana, fresh from rescuing a room full of kidnapped children in Land of the Dead, is instead questioned by a TV reporter as to how she'll style her hair now that she's blind. It's notable that Diana never appears on television in the trades except when the villains Circe and Brother Eye, respectively, film her secretly; the one time Diana is supposed to take part in a debate on TV, one of her staff substitutes at the last minute. Rucka reinforces the struggle for truth that Diana undertakes by creating this spectrum, with television on one end and, perhaps, open debate on the other; witness how quickly Doctor Leslie Anderson, once an opponent of Wonder Woman, joins Diana's cause once they sit down and talk. That Diana's tool for debate is a book, rather than an impassioned televised speech, is also important.

Indeed, the issues of perception versus truth can also be viewed as issues of violence versus debate, or war versus peace, that are interrelated throughout the stories. In the end of Down to Earth, reflecting on her book, Diana notes that "you do not change the world with the stroke of a pen or the sweep of a sword." Later, regarding the murder of the head of the conservative group, Diana mentions to Batman in Bitter Rivals that "no one has the right to silence a debate with a bullet." Here, the peaceful, debate-centered aspects of Diana's personality rule out. We even see Diana side with Athena against Zeus in a war of the gods only when it's revealed that Zeus no longer believes in mercy, and Athena does.

However, when Diana learns that Medousa has returned, she resolves nearly immediately to kill the Gorgon, influenced heavily by the recent deaths of her mother Hippolyta, sister Donna Troy, and friend Trevor Barnes. This fight results in Diana's blinding in Eyes of the Gorgon, and indeed, it seems that throughout the stories, when Diana's more violent, warrior instincts emerge, there's a bad outcome. Killing Maxwell Lord has consequences not only for Diana herself, but for her mission, her embassy employees, and for the Amazons; it's only after the Amazon Io sees that Diana has killed Max in Mission's End that she resolves to build the Purple Death Ray to kill the swarming cybernetic OMACs. Diana's mission isn't technically ruined by killing Max, any more than it was ruined by killing Medousa, but the perception of Diana's mission is ruined; the actions of Maxwell Lord and Brother Eye have made her appear violent. Though Mission's End finishes on a high note, with some of the public still supporting Diana, her violent actions have given the overall perception of failure.

Over five trades, Greg Rucka explores the contradictions inherit in Diana and her mission, and through these contradictions, suggests a Diana who is very much human. Indeed, if we judge by the gods alone in these stories, changed from lofty ancient specters to modern-looking contemporaries, Rucka's may be the most human Wonder Woman run of all. Over a number of artists--including Drew Johnson, whose clean art in Down to Earth defines the run, and Rags Morales, fresh from Identity Crisis, who adds star power to the run's end--there's a constant emphasis on Diana's battle scars, which often last for a number of issues. From the beginning, Rucka lets us know that Diana is grieving over Donna Troy's death, and this seems to inform some of the violence that follows; certainly, it makes Diana work all the harder when Diana's friend Vanessa is returned to her after having been kidnapped. Both Jonah and the Flash suggest that Diana's comportment make her seem less than human, but through these many aspects, Rucka suggests the opposite. It's fitting that the story finishes with the sense that Diana has lost everything, but gained, in a way, herself, with a new secret identity and a new life to be explored in her newly restarted series.
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5 comments:

  1. Wow. Well done.

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  2. Hey, thanks. Come back and visit!

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  3. Very good look at the Rucka series. I was inspired to take these out from my local library when I read this, and I think you're spot on. The combination of a West Wing-style setting and a focus on her public perception made the run really interesting and enjoyable. I haven't read much Wonder Woman outside of this, but her character has seemed very inconsistent, as I think most writers don't seem to have a good handle on her. For someone who's one of the "Big Three" of DC, she seemed clumsily handled over the years.

    I'm sure this isn't a new criticism, but I was really annoyed by "Down to Earth". While I definitely appreciated the Max vs. Medousa/televised killing angle, most of the book came crashing down in the wake of Infinite Crisis, dropping a lot of the angles that were going on, and making so much of the drama seem insignificant. While a lot of it did seem in fact planned for IC's resolution, many of the characters were somewhat forgotten (Veronica Cale? Circe?). When my library gets the OYL books in, I'll be reading them, but from what I've heard I'm not optimistic about the new writers picking up these threads well. (And why on Earth is Heinberg's run being reprinted 5 months AFTER the following run and Amazons Attack? Bizarre!)

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  4. nehxima -- Thank you for your comments. Much as I enjoyed Greg Rucka's run on Wonder Woman, I agree that Misson's End (and for some part, Land of the Dead) seems a little distracted by Infinite Crisis. Witness the run-through of subplots on the second-to-last page of Eyes of the Gorgon--not only Cale and Circe, but Etta Candy, too. Well, such is the drawback of crossovers.

    Separately, have you heard about the viral marketing Rucka/DC are doing for Crime Bible? I can't wait to read that when it comes out in trade. Looks like good stuff!

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  5. I don't know if many have noted but Rucka is the first writer before trades were a given- to get a full Wonder woman run in trades. for the rest we have
    George Perez-less than half his run in 4 trades, that too recently
    Messner Loebs & John Byrne-small parts in 2 trades each, all of which are out of print now

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