Review: Wonder Woman: Odyssey Vol. 1 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How do we read J. Michael Straczynski's Wonder Woman: Odyssey? If it's meant to be the origin story of a new character, do the story beats on which Odyssey turns remain resonant, like Princess Diana's receipt of a certain golden lasso or her discovering the action figures of a familiar star-spangled heroine? Or if this is "simply" a time-bended tale involving our iconic Wonder Woman ultimately restoring the status quo, what is there for a long-time reader to gain from exploring this alternate Diana and her supporting cast? What, if anything, can we take away from Wonder Woman: Odyssey?

Odyssey, when we separate ourselves from some of the sartorial hysteria with which this story was imbued largely by the non-comics media, is not the train-wreck it's been made out to be. The story and art do not always run on all cylinders and at times each lets the other down, but in the midst of it all is something quite interesting.

If we were going to posit the story of an Amazon princess in man's world, but remove some of the continuity, trappings, and experience that, I do believe, makes the Wonder Woman character somewhat imposing for both writers and new readers, what would it look like? What would a Wonder Woman movie look like, or TV pilot, or if Straczynski tried his hand at Wonder Woman: Earth One? Chances are a little bit like Wonder Woman: Odyssey.

[Contains spoilers]

Odyssey begins in medias res with young Diana on the run from soldiers hunting Amazons; when the soldiers leave to exterminate an enclave of Amazons in Turkey, Diana -- who can't fly -- stows away on the wing of their plane to follow. The action is swift, once the story finishes with a bit of lead-up, and Don Kramer's artwork in this volume is at its best in the action sequences with Diana leaping and flipping and jumping past her enemies. It evokes the Birds of Prey television series, or maybe Alias -- lots of sneaking and spy versus spy action, and that much I liked a lot -- there's an aesthetic to the first few chapters of this book that I very much enjoyed.

Diana here is markedly rebellious, slipping her Amazon chaperones at every turn -- scenes of her childhood evince her personality better than the present action. She communes with the gods, but doesn't quite believe in them; can't fly and has no connection to her Lasso of Truth; pawns Amazon treasures for cash and slaughters her enemies without a second thought. Her fellow Amazons are a little suspect of Diana's leadership. I have certainly been a fan of Wonder Woman's "traditional" adventures (see Greg Rucka and Gail Simone) but the lack of "Great Heras" here is refreshing, This Diana is powerful, still, but wears the weight of the world on her shoulders less, and lacks the imposing distance that I believe both writer and reader feel in approaching Wonder Woman's adventures.

What would it be like, I found myself wondering, if this Princess Diana (never Wonder Woman in Odyssey, despite the twin Ws on her armbands), neither diplomat nor superhero, joined the Justice League? What would her conflicts be with Superman and Batman when she's no longer one of the League's elder statesmen? How would her dynamic change, being closer in age to Firestorm than Aquaman? That these questions have no easy answers is part of the fun -- that this Diana is more of a cypher than our current Wonder Woman suddenly seems the exact shot in the arm that "our" Wonder Woman needs.

And I recognize, entirely, that the argument I'm making here is one we're very often hearing in favor of the DC relaunch. Quite amazingly, in all the hubbub about the DC relaunch, the one title I believe we know the least about is Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang's Wonder Woman (at point of this writing), up to and including how much of Wonder Woman's history stays intact and how much changes. I would not be disappointed if some elements of Straczynski's Diana do indeed carry over; if this is an example of what can be done with Wonder Woman if the character carries a little less baggage, I'm all for it.

Odyssey does have some difficulties, though, and at least one is the transition from Straczynski to second writer Phil Hester. The transition would be obvious even without credits beginning each chapter, as its at this point that the faceless Amazons who raised Diana inexplicably fall away, replaced by a cadre of modern-looking Amazons much like Diana, and Diana's talking cat (yes, talking cat). That Diana suddenly becomes no longer the rebellious daughter of mysterious clerics -- but rather one among many Amazons in our midst -- immediately made her less special to this reader. I adored the purposefully-controversial scene where Diana (dressed not-unlike Brett Booth's new Wonder Girl in Teen Titans) hocks an Amazon treasure to help a single mother start a new life, but in all the characters in the second half resembled too much the "traditional" Amazons and that didn't hold my interest as well.

The transition, five chapters into a seven-issue collection, also marks the climax of one storyline and the beginning of another, leading to a rather anti-climactic end of the book. Diana confronts and defeats her mother's killer in the fifth chapter, and what follows is mostly scene-setting by Straczynski and Hester -- snippets to convince the reader of two new bad guys's evil and such. Volume one ends with Diana imperiled, but the danger hardly seems as great as what she just faced. Odyssey has contributor credits at the beginning of each chapter -- unnecessary for a collection and I think rather sloppy on DC's part -- such to remind the reader that this is really just a collection of issues and not a graphic novel, and the lackluster conclusion does the same. There doesn't seem much planning in the break between Odyssey's two parts, and readers may rather pick up both volumes together than get an obviously incomplete story in one.

As well, even as I've liked both Don Kramer's writing and artwork on team book JSA, it's hit and miss when he's focused singularly on Diana. His Diana is attractive, and I even like Kramer's depiction of Jim Lee's jacketed look, including the ribbing on the torso; as I mentioned, I also thought Kramer made Diana's fighting and twirling look fairly believable. At the same time, there's just as many too-stylized poses, as in the over-emphasized crouch in which Diana lands after jumping off a plane. Kramer's proportions for Diana's bust are ridiculously too large throughout the book, and he continually draws Diana from the same perspective with the reader looking down at her over-emphasized cleavage; it's enough that the reader could play a drinking game spotting all the times Kramer does it. That said, Kramer's depiction remains the definitive one of this new Diana; Odyssey sees a number of fill-in artists who don't nearly achieve the levels that Kramer does in this volume.

Wonder Woman: Odyssey won't please every fan, and those perhaps already ready to dismiss it will find plenty of reasons to do so. It is not, however, terrible, nor do I find much fault with Straczynski's portrayal of Diana specifically; I will be curious to read how Hester brings it all to a close in volume two and see how volume two stacks up to volume one. What Odyssey does is give me hope that revisions and rejuvenations of the Wonder Woman character are possible and can work, and that itself makes me all the more eager to see what Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang have planned in the new iteration that follows after this.

[Contains original and variant covers.]

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