Review: Wonder Woman: Greatest Stories Ever Told trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, March 26, 2012

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

Now that Superman and Batman have flown off, let's give the ladies a chance and have a look at what's been collected as Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told.

I'll be honest: Wonder Woman is probably the first-string JLA member about whom I've read the least (a handful of Perez and Simone volumes [you've gotta read the Rucka books! -- ed.]).  With her New 52 incarnation hitting it out of the park courtesy of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, however, I realize that the problem has been creators not knowing what to do with the character. After reading the "Greatest Stories," I see that it's been a problem for years; the stories here don't all give a sense of who Wonder Woman is, nor are all of the stories particularly great.

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this series, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"The Origin of Wonder Woman" (Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth, November 2001): Surprisingly this is the first "Greatest Stories" that doesn't collect the original origin story, but throw Paul Dini and Alex Ross my way and I'm game for anything. While I'm a little disappointed that the very first Wonder Woman appearance isn't collected here, I appreciate their successful distillation of Wonder Woman's origin. I fondly remember the oversized graphic novels Dini and Ross did, and the inclusion of this origin over the "first story" approach for Superman and Batman makes me wish each volume had some beautiful Alex Ross art beyond the cover.

"Wonder Woman Comes to America" (Sensation Comics #1, January 1942): This story is essentially "Part Two" of Wonder Woman's origin, her first encounters in America after rescuing Steve Trevor from Paradise Island. The Wonder Woman presented here by William Moulton Marston is fun and a bit flighty, but with a strong moral compass and a slightly hyperbolic desire to do good. I love the art by Harry G. Peter; it's slightly uglier and more blocky than what I'm used to, but his Diana is gorgeous and youthful. This story does a good job introducing a Wonder Woman who is confident but fish-out-of-water, but its last-minute inclusion of a romantic triangle between Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor, and Diana Prince is a bit hackneyed.

"Villainy Incorporated!" (Wonder Woman #28, March/April 1948): I've never thought of Wonder Woman as being defined by her rogues, but this story certainly makes the case. It's essentially the Amazonian version of Knightfall, with all of Wonder Woman's enemies (with the unsubtly-named Eviless standing in for Bane) escaping Transformation Island to wreak havoc on their captor. While this story is considerably longer than anything else in the "Greatest Stories" series (I can't help but feel this would be a year-long event by today's standards), the story is somewhat empty. It's a nice primer on the rogues gallery, but Wonder Woman doesn't do much except fight and get tied up. And oh, does she get tied up; at no point can one forget that Marston had a proclivity for bondage, because the number of times characters are bound is extremely distracting.

"Top Secret" (Wonder Woman #99, July 1958): Writer Robert Kanigher retcons the invention of Wonder Woman's dual identity as a way for the princess to avoid marrying the over-romantic Steve Trevor. Huh? And here I was thinking the "adopting the identity of a nurse who's leaving for South America" plotline was overwrought, but this story simply can't be among the greatest. An absurd wager and an obvious plot device pervade this story, and in the end we're left with Wonder Woman as menaced by the prospect of proposing. The best thing I can say about this story is that it looks like Darwyn Cooke drew it (but alas, he didn't).

"Wanted -- Wonder Woman" (Wonder Woman #108, August 1959): Wonder Woman battles alien psychic possession in this second of four Kanigher stories, and it's slightly better but still by no means "great." The idea of resisting alien possession is a compelling one and should yield a sense of who Diana really is by what she's fighting against, but the story doesn't give us that sense of internal conflict. What's more, the art by Ross Andru is much less consistent than in "Top Secret," resulting in panels like the one where an anguished Diana looks like a constipated giraffe. I'd pondered why it is that Wonder Woman never got a series of collections by decade (as Superman and Batman did), but based on what this volume gives us of the '50s, maybe it's not too difficult to fathom.

"Giganta -- The Gorilla Girl" (Wonder Woman #163, July 1966): Kanigher and Andru redeem themselves (kind of) with this story, a reintroduction of Golden Age foe Giganta as a gorilla turned woman by Dr. Psycho (more grotesque than he looked in Infinite Crisis, if one can believe it). While Wonder Woman is mostly absent from this story, we get a good sense of how Wonder Woman's villains operate and were introduced. And there's that omnipresent fascination with gorillas that comics just can't seem to shake. If there's a complaint, it's that here Kanigher again defines Wonder Woman by her devotion to Steve Trevor -- a staple of the Golden Age origin, true, but an unfortunate stereotyping.

"Wonder Woman's Rival" (Wonder Woman #178, September/October 1968): Ah, Denny O'Neil. Now this is a great story. Wonder Woman has to acquit Steve Trevor of murder, even though it's her testimony which is the most damning. Although the '70s vibe is more than a little dated (Mike Sekowsky's art, though, is not), the emotional and dramatic power of the story still lingers. I like the way O'Neil doesn't stop short with Wonder Woman's devotion to Steve Trevor, instead showing how she's devoted to justice and truth (even if the truth condemns Steve). This is one of the better stories in the volume, memorable with a good sense of who Wonder Woman is and why she's a hero. One complaint, though: the end of the story teases a new look for Wonder Woman, but it's not reprinted here; I would have liked to have seen at least a pin-up or something [what's known as the "mod" look, right? -- ed].

"Wish Upon a Star" (Wonder Woman #214, September/October 1974): Elliot S! Maggin wrote one of the best Superman stories in Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol. 1, but here his entry is less compelling, in part because it's almost more of a Green Lantern story than a Wonder Woman story. With Hal Jordan's ring acting wonky, he goes to New York to ask Wonder Woman if there's a crisis (typical Hal, assuming a crisis must happen when he's powerless), but he's quickly embroiled in a scenario that's equal parts Fail-Safe and Twilight Zone's "Time Enough at Last."

Of course Wonder Woman ends up the undisputed savior of this story, but Green Lantern's narration and attempts at intervention continually raise the question of whose story this is. Additionally, the story makes several points about Wonder Woman being removed from JLA membership, but I can't fathom why [left when she lost her powers with the "mod" look, I think. -- ed]; this continuity conundrum is something the introductions have handled, but Lynda Carter's opener talks more about the TV show than the stories within. With Wonder Woman as a character and not the protagonist, I can't say this is a "greatest" story.

"Be Wonder Woman... and Die!" (Wonder Woman #286, December 1981): The last Kanigher story in the book is indisputably the best. Here we see the ways in which Wonder Woman has inspired a dying woman -- inspiration and legacy being two of the chief guarantees of inclusion in a "Greatest Stories" volume. Wonder Woman's selfless nature is invoked here, but even though she isn't quite the star of the story Diana still gets in some "bullets and bracelets" time to satisfy action fans. Although the story opens with a promised tease that's more of a feint, the rest of the tale is as quintessential as they get.

"Who Killed Myndi Mayer?" (Wonder Woman #20, September 1988): George Perez's historic revival of Wonder Woman is represented by this prose-heavy murder mystery, in which Diana's would-be agent is found dead. While this story is pretty famous and the twist at the end likely familiar to comics readers, this story is remarkable for the same reason Perez's entire run is flagged as iconic: Perez's take on the character is fresh yet familiar, restoring the vivacious and earnest nature of the character as seen back in "Wonder Woman Comes to America!" Additionally, Perez doing double-duty on art is a major credit, since his Wonder Woman is one of the most beautiful (a lot of artists, I've noted, tend to err on the side of "maternal" and not "goddess"). While I'd have to go back to my Perez to see if this was the best of his run, it's certainly one of the most classic.

"She's a Wonder!" (Wonder Woman #170, July 2001): Rounding out the volume, it's Phil Jimenez writing and drawing this one-off in which Lois Lane spends a day in the life of Wonder Woman. This is a great look at what it really means to be Wonder Woman and hangs several important lanterns about the character (How can we relate to her? Is she American? What's her relationship with Superman really like?). While the story is transparent, it's also more than a bit preachy -- a flaw which could be overlooked had Wonder Woman not explicitly said she wants to avoid "a forum where I proselytize and bore you to death." Not that the story is boring; it shifts settings and incidents quickly [and that Wonder Woman/Lex Luthor scene! -- ed again.]. Its artwork is great, but the prose-heavy nature suggests that Jimenez's greater strengths are as an artist (see my Incredibles review for my admittedly excessive fawning over his skills). Nitty-gritty complaint: Diana doesn't appear in her tiara in this story, and while there's an in-continuity reason for it she looks a little without it.

As a single volume, Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told is hit or miss, with enough for devotees to appreciate but without much for new fans to latch onto. Only some of the stories give definitive portraits of the character, and only a handful count as memorable. I would have liked to get a better sense of who Wonder Woman's principal rogues are, and I would have liked to see her interact more with her heritage and her family; as it is, we only see her in relation to her adopted home, America.

I'm actually kind of surprised that we didn't get the story where Wonder Woman breaks Max Lord's neck, only because it was collected in almost every other trade DC printed. I think this volume certainly could have benefited from a clear thematic focus as in the first Batman volume, but what we do get a clear sense of, though, is someone who wants to do right in a world where she recognizes that much wrong already exists.

In my next review, we'll see if there's anything to fear in Green Lantern: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Stay tuned!
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